Over the years, the Space Hulk video games have stuck with the tactical slant. The perspective may have changed from first-person back on DOS to overhead in the last few mobile and PC incarnations, but the premise has been the same: Terminators from the Warhammer 40,000 universe are hunting down Genestealers, and hardly any other life is present. It's sci-fi with heavy doses of grimdark, and the formula has worked for decades and amassed a following beyond its board game roots. Space Hulk: Deathwing is the latest game to continue with that legacy, and although it gets some things right, other things are terribly wrong.
The story is simple for such a rich universe. A Space Hulk has appeared and is dubbed Olethros by your superior. There's an order to destroy it, but first, an expedition team needs to see if more knowledge can be gleaned from it. You and your squad are sent in to retrieve artifacts and relics while eliminating Genestealers.
You have to be a fan of the Warhammer 40,000 universe to get the most out of the story. The logs you find in computer terminals and artifacts become more meaningful to fans, even though non-fans and casual ones will gain some understanding. The same goes for the dialogue, which can be cringe-inducing when paired with the world's oppressive aesthetic. For those people, the story won't take away from the excellent handling of the game world.
Compared to the older games, Deathwing is a more action-oriented take on the tactical shooter. It has the hallmarks of past Space Hulk games, namely the narrow metal corridors that provide little breathing room when a fight goes down. You can dole out a basic set of commands to each of your teammates, whether it's having the Apothecary heal other party members or telling your squad to stay and defend an area. This time around, the action more closely resembles a modern first-person shooter, and there's the ability to melee if you're carrying the right weapons. You have an infinite ammo cache no matter which weapon you choose, but you still have to reload your clip. You have access to a few psychic powers, including a push, lightning attack, and the ability to make your enemies burn. You also have a few hacking abilities, though those are limited to jamming and unjamming doors and taking over turrets remotely.
Should things get too heated, you can create warp gates so you can change your loadout or replenish everyone's health before going back into the fray; you'll want to use them sparingly, though, since they have limited uses per mission. That loadout is expanded greatly any time you level up, and you can upgrade your stats between missions. What you can't do is change your class in the single-player mode.
Give Deathwing a little time, and you'll see that the developers completely understand how to convey the power of a Terminator. They have heavy footfalls, large guns have intense fire power, they move slowly, and their melee attacks feel forceful. There aren't too many ways to further convey that you're a menace to be reckoned with, but it all feels good once you start playing.
While the developers got that part right, everything else feels half-hearted. Missions are straightforward fare, where you make it to a marker, destroy something, and make it to another marker to do the same thing. There are a few spots where you might be asked to hold down a tactical point and endure waves of Genestealers. It would be fine if the pacing weren't off. The first level alone has you spending a half-hour wandering corridors and discovering multiple dead ends before you finally reach your first objective. From there, you'll get multiple bursts of attacking enemies, and you won't have time to even take a breather before another set comes rushing in. It can be both exhilarating and annoying, depending on your task.
The AI certainly gives you some respite, as they can handle enemies just fine. They won't go through the trouble of healing one another on their own, but they can lay down enough fire to take care of Genestealers who might try to get you from behind. However, they seem to only be good if they have targets in front of them. You'll often see comrades who have their backs to the enemy take damage for a while before they realize they need to fight back. It also doesn't help that in the more open areas of the ship, they love to stand in your way during a fight. While there's no such thing as friendly fire, you will be annoyed that you wasted an attack and have nothing to show for it.
Playing solo is fine, though it's too basic for more than running and gunning, so you get the sense that Deathwing was made for multiplayer. Unfortunately, the multiplayer comes off a little worse than the solo experience. The good news is that there is increased tension in multiplayer. Since the AI is no longer aware about enemies beforehand, you'll depend on each other to call out possible foes, and that can lead to a few jump scares since some hordes can pop out of nowhere. Multiplayer also means the ability to change your class, so even though you're running the same missions as the single-player campaign, you have the chance to play them differently from before.
However, multiplayer is treated differently enough from the single-player game that progress isn't carried over from one mode to the other. If you're in the middle of your single-player campaign and want to help someone in multiplayer, you'll start with a level 1 character no matter which stage you entered. A level 1 character isn't significantly weaker than a more powered-up one, but it hurts to remove any of the bonuses. Even if you're fine with that character reset, your character keeps resetting in the same session, so progress is practically useless. Fortunately, you can jump into a game where everything is unlocked from the start, so that mitigates any lost progress, but overall, it still makes the multiplayer campaign feel weaker.
If you're still interested in the multiplayer experience after that, you'll be further disappointed to learn that you'll need to depend on friends. There have been some recent patches to help with the disconnection issues, but they came late enough after launch that, combined with the game's other issues, people are no longer giving it a shot. As a result, the online population is pretty much gone, and there's no hope of recovery down the line.
There are other issues that plague Deathwing. The game auto-saves at checkpoints that are unevenly placed, but it doesn't allow you to save on your own. You basically only have one shot at every stage in a run, so if you miss something in a previous level, you have to start a new game to get it. Even after all of the patches, the game still experiences crashes at unexpected times, with some of them being severe enough that you need to hard-reboot your PC to get things functioning again.
The game absolutely nails the graphics. From the dirty metallic hallways to the Gothic cathedrals, the environments look exactly as expected in the universe. Though limited in number, the enemies looks grotesque, and the details cement the proper use of the license. From the overtly religious iconography on the Terminator armor to the presence of candles, there's no doubt that this is the best-looking Space Hulk game to date.
Appearances are one thing, but performance is another, and this is where the game is crippled. No matter which settings you choose, the title has a big issue with stuttering. You can experience fine frame rates one minute and the game starts chugging before running smoothly again. It happens quite often and for no apparent reason, so the game feels choppy no matter what kind of rig you're running.
On the other hand, the audio is mostly done right. As mentioned earlier, the effects like heavy footfalls and gunfire are excellent. Dialogue aside, the voice acting is good enough, but you will be annoyed by teammates who repeat the same phrases even if nothing is happening. Music is also fine, but you'll forget it exists since your speakers are filled with gunfire and Genestealer screams. One thing you'll notice is that the game doesn't seem to produce anything beyond stereo sound. It would've been nice to hear the omnidirectional emergence of Genestealers so you feel more immersed, but as it stands now, you only hear the bellowing screams.
Space Hulk: Deathwing can't seem to win on either front. As a solo experience, the gameplay is mediocre, the AI is rather inconsistent, and the objectives lack imagination. As a multiplayer game, it is pretty much dead. There's stuff in here for a dedicated Warhammer 40,000 fan to be excited about, especially how the game looks, but it certainly isn't the best outing for the license.
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