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May 2024

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide

Platform(s): PC, Xbox Series X
Genre: Online Multiplayer
Publisher: Level Infinite
Developer: Fatshark
Release Date: Nov. 30, 2022

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PC Review - 'Warhammer 40K: Darktide'

by Andreas Salmen on Dec. 22, 2022 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is a four-player co-op game set in the 41st Millennium, taking you deep into the hive city and facing hordes of enemies you have only seen in your nightmares.

I'll admit that I'm not a huge Warhammer fan. Apart from the occasional video game, I don't know much about its lore and tabletop origins, but I know many people who love Warhammer in all its forms and manifestations, and that's how I got pulled into their love of playing Warhammer: Vermintide 2. Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is Fatshark's next spin on a four-player co-op slasher, but this is set in a dark and gritty sci-fi setting in the Warhammer 40K Universe — and there's the addition of firearms. I spent 14 days with Darktide on the PC, and there is already a lot of fun to be had in the universe at launch, as long as you can look past some very rough edges.

Darktide is quite similar to previous Fatshark titles: You and three buddies face off against overwhelming hordes of enemies while completing objectives. The two biggest changes over Vermintide are the setting and the focus on more gunplay. If you're unsure of what that means but you've played Left 4 Dead, you have the general idea. Hordes of infested heretics frequently attack your squad from all angles, and elite enemies or minibosses appear sporadically for an extra challenge. You try to stay alive and complete your mission, whether it's killing a special boss, getting some machinery going, uploading data, or purging mutated growths. The 13 missions available at launch may appear to cover a swath of activities, but they come down to simple button presses or fetch scenarios. Darktide can get challenging depending on the chosen difficulty level. Once you reach difficulty stages four or five, the game is going to destroy you and your team if your equipment or level is lacking.

The narrative is kept relatively simple. After a prison escape, your character gets a second chance in the emperor's service. You join a squad of convicts to do the Inquisition's bidding in the Hive City of Tertium. Story bits and pieces are drip-fed as your character levels up and your ship, the Mourningstar, opens up new shops to explore. Darktide is a live service game, so we expect the story to progress with special events and seasons. For now, it does a decent job of framing the game with lore and context. Characters and environments have a far bigger impact.

Darktide is an incredibly gorgeous game, with dark sci-fi environments painting the Hive City in the worst possible light — mostly none, to be exact. The game plays with light and shadows and creates a dense atmosphere that includes dark corridors and open environments that are reminiscent of Mad Max in the best possible way. The random chatter among your squad doesn't provide  a full and cohesive story, but the dialogue adds some context and tone to the dark and hopeless world filled with monsters.

It's a beautifully depressive and stunning world to traverse. At launch, you don't get to see much of that world. The 13 missions take place in five zones, and depending on the mission, you'll see a slightly different area of the zone. I ‌like that approach, but the variety isn't there. No matter how well designed and beautiful the zones are, many of them look rather similar. This will surely change over time, but we don't have an idea of how quickly we can expect new content — and whether it will have a separate price tag. For now, the amount of content feels adequate but not excessive. Darktide‌ switches up things between matches with random interruptions, such as blackouts that switch off all of the lights in a level or random boss encounters that can seriously derail your mission.

Darktide was initially pitched with a fluid class and character system but has since simplified its progression systems to a more familiar approach. There are four character classes available at launch, with additional content slated to roll out at regular intervals, including new character classes. Coming from Vermintide 2, the spiritual predecessor that had a multitude of character classes and careers to choose from, the selection in Darktide can feel limited.

Players can freely customize their character's  appearance in Darktide. There is a decent but not overwhelming selection of options to change the physical attributes of your character and their background. Of course, there's an in-game economy for cosmetic skins powered by microtransactions.

Darktide largely follows what Fatshark has established with previous entries. The available classes at launch are distinct, and each has a role to play in your squad. I started playing with the Veteran, which is the dedicated rifle class that's focused on ranged combat but is decent with a shovel in melee combat. His ability to mark elite enemies and deal damage from a distance makes the Veteran a brilliant choice for those who prefer more traditional shooter gameplay. The Zealot is a hybrid class, leaning more into close-quarters fighting with a weapon, but they're equally viable at medium range and possess abilities that increase toughness. The Psyker‌ is the magic class, equipped with a staff and proficient at popping enemy heads. The Ogryn‌ is a tank, a monstrosity of flesh that is ideal to take a lot of damage and deal it right back. You don't need one of each in your party to succeed, but you'll want a decent selection. That's a challenge at the moment. Matchmaking frequently grouped me with similar character classes, possibly due to a lack of class variety among the current player base.

The gameplay is fun, with a good mix of slashing and shooting. Darktide does a good job of mixing both without neglecting either. Some enemies have weapons and look for cover in the vertical and claustrophobic corridors of Tertium to snipe you from a distance. Others rush in immediately and overwhelm you with pure strength and numbers. Level design is intricate and vertical, creating gigantic spaces that look incredible and offer several avenues for enemies to surprise you and your team.

I do mean surprise.

If there's one critique about Darktide's design decisions, it's that enemies are often super difficult to discern from the background. They often blindside you, and you have no chance of catching the attack before it lands. Enemy snipers are brutal to deal with, since you'll only notice them when it's far too late. Otherwise, it's satisfying to shoot hefty guns and slice through a horde of enemies with a chainsaw ax.

Darktide nails the look and feel of the world, and gameplay feels like a proper extension of that thick atmosphere. Sadly, playing with strangers is not a great experience, so playing with a few friends is mandatory if you want to succeed. Darktide requires squads to stay together at all times, represented with "toughness" that recharges only when you're near your team. It's essentially a second health bar and vital for survival through never-ending hordes of enemies. That proved to be quite a challenge when playing with random players. You'll sit through a lot of games with random online comrades who abandon the team, bringing your gaming session to an end and adversely affecting your enjoyment.

Progression happens by leveling up your character until the level 30 cap. Every five levels, a new perk slot gets unlocked, and you have the choice of three perks. The player can swap and change these any time aboard the Mourningstar, so once you're done leveling up a character class, you can redistribute skills for your build. The Mourningstar hub offers the bare minimum: combat challenges, a combat training arena, merchants, mission boards, and blessings for your weapons. The issue with Darktide is how long that takes. Admittedly, drop rates for currency and resources have somewhat improved upon launch compared to the beta, but it's still a grind.

Loot and experience are not shared among your created characters, so if you want to play them all, be prepared to sink 20+ hours into each of them to be halfway decent. With matches taking 20-30 minutes even on lower difficulties and considering you may need two to three matches to level up, there's a lot to play with minimal returns. That  also neglects the slow grind of buying and improving weapons from a slowly rotating marketplace — and the even slower pace of obtaining crafting materials. It's not uncharacteristic, but it's too much for my taste. Darktide wasn't made for casual gamers; you need to sink your life into it if you want to get anywhere, or you won't even scratch the outer layer of content.

Darktide is perhaps the best Left 4 Dead clone I've played on a fundamental level. I enjoy the aesthetics, the atmosphere, and the gameplay a lot, but the reliance on excessive grinding spoils that enjoyment. Your mileage may differ, but I think future content will be a huge deciding factor in whether I'll still be playing in a month or two. If you're a fan of Vermintide or Warhammer,‌ this may be the game you've always wanted, and there is little reason to not recommend Darktide.

Well, there's one reason:  the horrendous performance issues.

We played Darktide on the PC (Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080, 5600x) and the game still struggles heavily. There are DLSS and RT options available if you'd like to use them, but RT seems overkill if you're not an owner of a 4000 series card or have a very strong CPU. The trade-off in performance with DLSS enabled is simply not worth it. Even without it, the game can reach high frame rates, but you'll see constant dips that halve the frame rate or worse. Future patches should help to optimize the experience because the current state is unacceptable.

It's also not bug-free by any stretch. Assets didn't load correctly, enemies clip weirdly through environments or appear out of nowhere, and then there's the excessive crashing. Unlike other players, I have yet to experience server issues, but I suffered crashes at least once a day that threw me out of matches and back to my desktop. Thankfully, Darktide allows you to rejoin a running match, but the technical state of the game is not at the appropriate level for a retail release. It looks amazing, but it doesn't run nearly as well.

Ending on a more positive note, one thing I did not expect to enjoy as much as I did was the soundtrack. It sets in at the tensest moments and sounds incredible, thumping along in the background as you decimate hordes of heretics. When everything comes together and you play with a great team in these imposingly huge environments and the music sinks in, Darktide can feel amazing — until the inevitable crashes.

In its current state, Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is a very fun and beautiful co-op shooter that's probably one of the best of its kind. It's the rough foundation of a great game, but it hasn't achieved greatness yet. There's a limited selection of maps and character classes, a lot of grinding, and very pronounced technical issues that hold back the title significantly. If you can tolerate that, Darktide is fun to play with a group of friends. Otherwise, I'd advise you to wait for future updates or test the waters with the PC Game Pass.

Score: 7.0/10

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