Turn-based tactics games have been cursed with comparisons to Firaxis's indomitable XCOM for almost a decade, which the Grey Knights of Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters are about to learn. Sorry, lads, but Warhammer 40,000: XCOM is just easier to remember.
The Grey Knights, if you're not au fait with 40k's many Space Marine chapters, get their rocks off by hunting daemons, which they also happen to be very good at. These special boys were engineered from the gene-seed of the Emperor, and while they're designed to be the ultimate weapon against the forces of Chaos, most people don't know they exist. So they're black-ops super soldiers with an important daddy.
Like XCOM, you'll be putting together squads of these Grey Knights, customising them with equipment suited to the task at hand, depending on their class, and then dropping them into maps full of enemies and cover. The Grey Knights also have an HQ from which they can plan their next move, exploring a holographic representation of the space sector. But while the foundations cry XCOM, everything has been reconfigured for a universe of infinite war, where humanity faces down dark gods and cosmic plagues.
This specific set of Grey Knights have just finished a campaign, and with their resources low and their ship worse for wear, they're about to head home. Nobody gets time off in the grimdark future, though, so of course an Inquisitor appears and tasks them with investigating a new plague conjured up by the pestilent god Nurgle: the Bloom.
Worlds are being consumed by this blight, in turn empowering Nurgle and his horrible minions, and even walking tanks like Grey Knights need to prepare before they drop in and start carving up Plague Marines and Hellbrutes. Your massive space cathedral houses a Libris Malleus, where you can research the Bloom, develop tools to support your troops and select one-shot psychic abilities; a Strategium containing the barracks, as well as an armoury that allows you to get your hands on better gear and more experienced knights; and the Manufactorum, where you can fix up and upgrade your ship, along with buffing up your knights. There's a lot to look at before the bolters start firing.
There are four different classes of Grey Knight, filling basic roles like tank and support, and four more advanced classes that are yet to be shown off. Between the weapons, armour, wargear, psychic abilities and cosmetic customisation, there are a lot of ways to build a Grey Knight even within a single class, and that level of investment will probably make it sting all the more when they die.
It's impossible to look at the list of practical gear and cosmetic flourishes and not have flashbacks to days spent hunched over my desk, building armies and kitbashing models. Much of what's contained within Games Workshop's Grey Knights Codex is present here, from their grenades to their Servo-skulls, along with fancy and unique master crafted weapons that you won't find elsewhere. You won't have access to everything straight away, of course, so you'll need to disrupt the plans of Chaos a bit before you start building your perfect squad.
Daemonhunters makes it easier to to plan for dust-ups with Nurgle's nightmarish horde by doling out intel before you make landfall. The holographic star map shows you the level of corruption on specific worlds, which informs what types of enemies you'll encounter, the likelihood of unwelcome random events and what your mission objectives will be. Maps are transformed by the Bloom, with higher levels of corruption changing the layout and introducing new hazards. You can also see what the mission rewards are, allowing you to prioritise based on what catches your eye the most. Orbiting a world reveals even more information, like what strain of Bloom is affecting it, which determines what enemy mutations and negative effects you'll have to worry about.
These Grey Knights might like to fly under the radar, but they're still eager to earn a bit of glory and renown. Challenges, known as Glorious Deeds, can be accepted before a mission, introducing another objective and potentially netting you extra rewards, if you're up to the task, like additional requisition points that you can spend on beefing up your arsenal.
I had to watch a developer beat up Nurgle's minions instead of getting to slay them myself, but even hands-off it really looks like Complex Games has nailed the feel of its Space Marines. These are hefty badasses that move with menacing deliberateness but are still capable of surprising agility—and they are masters of extreme, grisly violence, dismantling maps as deftly as they dismantle their foes.
Nurgle, meanwhile, is shaping up to be a fun opponent. His worshippers are the most gruesome of all the Chaos abominations, and there are few things as unappealing as being grabbed by one of his plague-ridden Hellbrutes, all tentacles and boils. They must smell terrible. No wonder the Grey Knights are trying to rid the galaxy of them. Hopefully they'll bring enough Febreze with them.
The prevalence of cover means you can play defensively, but it's destructible, and these daemon-slaying super soldiers are much more comfortable charging into the fray. This is really emphasised by the precision targeting system. At range, this means positioning affects damage, so you're more efficient depending on where you're standing relative to the enemy, but it's in melee where the system really seems to open up.
If you get in close to a stunned enemy and select a melee attack, you'll be able to select specific weak points. Targeting one spot might inflict bleeding damage, while breaking their weapon could lock them out of crucial abilities. Once they've taken a beating, you can execute them, putting them out of their misery with a flashy, cinematic coup de grace that's evocative of a Mortal Kombat fatality. This also gets the Grey Knights all fired up, giving everyone in the squad an extra action point.
Daemonhunters' relationship with RNG is one of the most notable deviations from the XCOM formula. The Grey Knights are the elite of the elite, so you know they're going to hit their targets. And you can see how much damage you'll be able to do from your position. When RNG does rear its head, it's to your benefit, as it gives you the chance to score a critical attack. This not only increases the damage of the strike, it's also another way to access precision targeting in melee.
Warp surge events also introduce a bit of randomness in combat. You're warned about the likelihood of their appearance before you select the mission, but you won't know when they'll appear or what shape they'll take—maybe your troops will become afflicted with the plague, or enemies might develop new mutations, or a whole bunch of new enemies could be summoned. But when your back's against the wall, you've always got your psychic abilities to fall back on, giving your squad some extra pep or assaulting the enemy with psychic violence.
The environment can be used to your advantage, too, with Daemonhunters allowing you to demolish cover or even knock statues onto some unsuspecting, soon-to-be-squashed Plague Marines. And there are a lot of statues. Humanity in the far-flung future just can't stop carving them. Pretty much everything can be destroyed, and it's not always about harming your foes—you can also break through walls to create new paths through the map.
At the end of the demo, the Grey Knights have to tackle one of the massive aforementioned Hellbrutes. It serves as the map's ultimate challenge, but there will also be proper bosses connected to the campaign narrative. Complex Games isn't giving much away, but they'll apparently be massive in both scale and capability, requiring a lot more work and coordination to take down, like drawing them into terrain where you get an advantage.
Despite the prevalence of tactics romps that evoke XCOM, Daemonhunters seems to embrace Warhammer with such gusto, tweaking and adding things to fit its distinct setting, that it didn't feel like I was watching a repeat. The looming threat of the Bloom, the lack of RNG and the hyper-violence all promise to set it apart, and we'll find out if it follows through when it appears on May 5.