There's something very cathartic about playing Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters, an upcoming turn-based tactics game with Space Marines tackling a devastating cosmic plague by beating the shit out of it. Bolters, flamethrowers and heavy boots are very effective remedies, it turns out.
Here's the setup: You're in command of the Grey Knights, a Space Marine chapter full of Chaos-crushing zealots with a penchant for psychic assaults. They're called into action because a plague is spreading across the galaxy, the Bloom, courtesy of the Chaos god Nurgle and his grotesque minions. Thus begins a planet-hopping campaign where you'll determine the fate of worlds.
For this demo, though, the focus is the missions themselves: three of them, each with different objectives and some premade squads. I can still root around my ship, the Baleful Edict, however, chatting to my crew, exploring the armoury, checking out our research projects and browsing the enhancements for my mobile base. The conversations aren't exactly scintillating, but what I can actually do on the ship is more appealing.
In the barracks, each Space Marine has a substantial ability tree full of core abilities, upgrades and augments, and there's a ridiculously huge list of weapons, armour and accessories that can be stuck on them, from holy guns to indomitable terminator armour, which can in turn be enhanced with upgrades unlocked through research. Your options here can be improved by investing in the armoury, where requisition upgrades will increase your chances of getting higher tier mission rewards or give you access to new wargear.
Thanks to the tech priests, the Baleful Edict itself can be upgraded, allowing you to make improvements to the plasma reactor, warp drive and other systems. That opens the door to things like more advanced ship facilities, as well as making it faster, tougher and better armed. They're a reminder that this is more than a simple HQ—that the ship is another tool in your expansive arsenal.
The Baleful Edict also contains a library, the libris malleus, where all the research is conducted. From here, your inquisitor studies the Bloom, trying to uncover its secrets in an effort to protect the Grey Knights from its effects, and eventually to stop it. Research offers plenty of rewards, but the most notable ones are probably the stratagems, which can be selected before a fight to give you some very handy bonus abilities like healing your troops, purifying them of negative effects or giving them more action points.
While there's plenty to gawk at, the developers have already selected everything I need, and my squad is waiting for me. There's my beefy Justicar with his intimidating doom lance, and my relentless Interceptor who can teleport around the battlefield, getting right in the enemy's face with his big ol' sword. When my lads take too much of a beating, I've got an Apothecary who can summon his servitor to flit off and mend his broken pals. And in the final battle I get my hands on a bloke with a flamethrower, purging the toxic battlefields with waves of fire.
The lack of RNG means that I can be more sure of my tactics than I would be in XCOM, Daemonhunters' closest relative. My choice of weapon, range and position all inform how much damage I'm going to do, and there's plenty to consider, but I always know how effective my attack will be before I commit. That doesn't mean it's absent surprises, mind you. The more plague-ridden a world is, the higher the chance of encountering mutating foes, which can give even the weakest enemies an edge. On a couple of occasions, all it took was hitting some goons to kick start their transformation, making them stronger, but not so strong that my Grey Knights didn't make mincemeat out of them.
If your attack isn't quite strong enough to end a foe, you can always call on the powers of the warp, buffing the attack with your force of will. Sometimes this just means more damage, but it can also introduce new status effects. It's handy, but there's a big cost, increasing the likelihood of a Chaos event, potentially forcing you to deal with buffed enemies or more reinforcements. This, along with mutations, offers a kind of randomness that's much more welcome than chance-to-hit bollocks.
Despite making some mistakes in the rush to see everything before the end of the demo—like picking the absolute worst moment to split the squad—I manage to get through the first couple of missions without too much trouble. Though arguably I leave the worlds in a worse state than I found them.
I'm a big fan of how much both players and the AI can manipulate and morph the battlefield, bringing down pillars on top of unfortunate troops, leaving smoking craters everywhere, bathing the ground in poison and fire. Cover is important, but it's fleeting—you always need to keep moving as the map transforms around you. This is especially true when you're facing a Plague Marine with a weapon capable of belching out toxic gunk, and even more so if you're trying to take down a Blight Hauler—a nasty mechanised artillery unit that can strike multiple areas with a single attack.
Things go south when I jump into the final demo mission: a boss fight against a massive Great Unclean One. This fella lumbers across the battlefield, smashing anything in his way, and can batter even a tough Grey Knight within an inch of their life with one strike. The real enemy here, though, is inconsistency, which makes the fight a bit of an ordeal.
Small streams of green toxic goo criss-cross the map, and while my Grey Knights are more than capable of jumping around and climbing up and over things, for some inexplicable reason they can't just hop over a dirty puddle. They can go through the goo, but it's harmful stuff, so it's safer to go around. Between this and all the toxic AoE attacks, the map's a pain in the arse to navigate, and petulant child that I am, I refuse to let my Space Marines take any detours. I order them to go across the goo and take the hit.
The Great Unclean One's Nurglings also outsmart me, embarrassingly enough. Unlike other enemies, they can't be directly targeted, and while some dialogue implies you can maybe just stomp on the wee arseholes, that also proves ineffective. Meanwhile, they can not only attack, they can also soak up damage directed at the boss. Fire proves to be the answer, but as this wasn't established elsewhere, it takes me far too long to realise.
I didn't have time to finish the fight and, frankly, I was happy to have an out. The other missions made me want to play more, but the boss fight's high points were buried under the annoyances. Hopefully it's the result of playing a few select missions (with a strict time limit) instead of going through it naturally, and some of these inconsistencies might feel less inconsistent if they crop up before a tricky boss battle.
The real measure of Daemonhunters won't be apparent until we see how it all comes together—the cosmic campaign, the development of your squad, the big decisions about what crises to prioritise. I wasn't able to see how planets evolve depending on how quickly you decide to liberate them from the Bloom; bring in new recruits and build them up from scratch, experimenting with different loadouts; or use the valour deed system, where you can accept challenges—like completing the mission without using willpower—for extra requisition, which seems like a smart way to spice up the fights, especially as you grow in confidence.
So there's still plenty more to see. What I played, though, seems built on solid ground—boss fight quibbles aside—and is absolutely drenched in 40k character and cinematic flourishes. Despite the perpetual barrage of adaptations, I'm not even close to being sick of this distant, grimdark future.
Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters is scheduled to release on May 5.