Back in 2011, French indie studio Streum On released E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy, an atmospheric shooter/RPG that took a fair bit of inspiration from Warhammer 40,000 and collected a cult following in spite of its bugginess and oddity. When Streum On announced they were doing a legit 40K game it seemed like a perfect follow-up—they were obviously fans of the setting, and this time they might make something a little more polished.
They sort of did. Space Hulk: Deathwing took a board game that had been the inspiration for four other videogames and did something different with it, turning it into a first-person shooter whose main strength was atmosphere. The space hulks of the title are ships lost between dimensions that drift back into realspace merged together, engine rooms connecting to gothic cathedral interiors full of aliens called Genestealers with the wrong number of arms. Leading a squad of Space Marines into a hulk in Deathwing was eerie. Inhuman cries echoed down the corridors and mechanical servo-skulls hovered around scanning everything.
Although Deathwing turned out OK, it felt a bit confused about what it wanted to be, with a co-op mode that required you either start earning abilities from scratch every session or play in the "codex mode" that gave you all of them, with nothing in between. It also had a framerate that dropped whenever swarms of enemies were on the screen—and for a game all about clearing swarms of enemies, that was a problem.
But Streum On have been tweaking and patching away and now are unveiling their Enhanced Edition of Deathwing. It's been optimized hugely, and I only encountered one framerate drop in hours of play. The multiplayer's been revamped, with a system for leveling up and a suite of persistent customization options. There are new enemies and weapons. It's almost but not quite a whole new game.
The customization's worth elaborating on. One of the things about Deathwing that pleased 40K fans was how it got the look of the Space Marines right, their bulky terminator armor covered in chapter insignia and other ornate cruft. There's now even more variety to it, including hyper-detailed banners. There's an extra class too, the Chaplain, who wears a skull-mask, carries an electric sceptre, and looks like the Archbishop of Badass. Some of the equipment and perks you can buy has minor effects like reducing cooldowns by 10%, but they're unlikely to be game-changing and you remain pretty fearsome from level one.
In the story mode you don't get to see this because you're stuck playing the protagonist, but each level you finish gets added to the list of replayable Special Missions. These you can jump into with a custom Marine whether solo or co-op, returning to maps with a huge number of randomized objectives—repetition is one of the things the original was criticized for and this is obviously a way of dealing with that.
No matter which mode you play you'll also get to face new enemies, like the bio-blast strain who detonate when they die and brutish hybrid aberrants who look like ogres carrying mining equipment. But while the Marines look exactly like they should, the Genestealers have a lumpiness that makes them a bit less threatening than they should be, like they're bubbly from spending too long in the oven.
Shooting remains a bit off too, with the guns having lots of muzzle-flash and recoil (a surprising amount given they're in the hands of walking tanks), but little impact. Melee weapons are whiffy too, and make me miss the meaty hand-to-hand of Vermintide. These are issues that seem too deeply embedded to be entirely remedied by the other enhancements. Similarly, the squad AI still feels dopey—part of the problem there is that their barks trigger at daft times, and they'll do things like warn you about "the claws of xenos approaching" even while surrounded by a mob of the things.
Deathwing remains a game for the 40K hardcore, who will lap up the environments and spend hours earning renown points to buy the sweet Guardian of the Covenant outfits. The improved framerate and some fresh blood in the multiplayer will give fans an excuse to jump back in and shout about PURGING FOR THE EMPEROR once again, but it's still tough to recommend to anyone else. Still, within its niche it does the job, and it's an entirely free upgrade for those who own the original. Which is nice.