What is it? A 40K-based spiritual sequel to Fatshark’s co-op action series Vermintide.
Expect to pay: $39.99 (Steam), $9.99 (Xbox PC Game Pass)
Developer: Fatshark Games
Publisher: Fatshark Games
Reviewed on: Windows 10, i5-12400F, 16GB DDR4 Ram, RTX 2060
Multiplayer: Up to four players
Warhammer 40K eats people. I don't mean that it will consume your life, or that your home will be taken over by the countless models that you don't have time to paint—though both of these things are true. No, I mean the setting itself is fueled on corpses—whether it's the soldiers of the Astra Militarum dying in endless crusade, the Administratum clerks toiling their lives away over ancient documents, or even the criminals encased in machinery and forced into permanent sentence.
It's a truth that Warhammer 40K: Darktide understands; whether it's you or the Poxwalker you're about to cleave in half, you're both just meat in some god's army. In a not-so-different life, that medicae servitor, tending to the wounded while permanently encased in machinery, might have had your face instead. Plainly stated, it sucks to be a human—or an ogryn—in 40K. You probably told some sergeant you were tired of eating corpse starch, and now you're here, a prisoner of the Inquisition, sent to liberate Hive Tertium with a shovel and some old lasgun; to burn your life at the altar of a mute god.
It's easy to understand why playing as a Space Marine makes for a far better power fantasy, but just like Vermintide before it, Darktide is not about the most powerful characters in the setting. That's not to say it doesn't make you feel powerful, but it's a kind of measured power. A handful of Space Marines could probably free Tertium by lunchtime, but alas, it's up to you and your band of misfits to save the hive; or what little's left to be saved anyway.
Long story short
First off, it's important to acknowledge how Darktide is different from Vermintide. The game represents a shift in Fatshark's storytelling—where Vermintide 2 depicted the past exploits of the Ubersreik five, in Darktide you are part of a developing narrative. This is Fatshark's first game with a live-service-style story at launch, and it'll change as the situation in Hive Tertium unfolds. Black Library author Dan Abnett, who helped Fatshark create Tertium and Atoma Prime, describes them as "a venue for interesting things." The setting is built to support an ongoing story, so if you're optimistic about the possibility of new classes and enemies, I think there's a high likelihood we'll see them.
As it stands, Darktide feels more like a prologue or a first chapter right now, introducing you to the hive and the not-so-friendly faces of Rannick's Inquisitorial band. I love Hive Tertium itself—how claustrophobic corridors open into vast gothic halls, or how each zone has its own sense of identity and backstory, from the waterlogged Torrent, to the fiery forges of the Metalfab, to the shanty towns of the Hourglass. It does make me sad that there aren't any hive-based characters, like a planetary governor or some guild bureaucrat, since Tertium is still inhabited. There are some signs of life in the hive; places where fugitives have obviously slept rough, or hidden from the heretic invaders, but the hive doesn't feel properly lived in at the moment. In a game centred around 40K's human perspective, I'd like to speak to some regular 40K humans please.
One thing Darktide is sorely lacking is a tangible antagonist or even some inkling about what the heretics are planning for Atoma Prime. But I guess information is about trust, and the game makes it plain that no one trusts you no matter what you do. It really is a rags-to-rags story in typical 40K fashion, but I hope Fatshark finds a way to add more narrative elements to its missions in the future.
Walk softly and carry a big gun
For those familiar with Vermintide 2’s skull-splitting melee antics, Darktide will feel like chatting with an old friend, until that friend pulls out a lasgun and vaporises your face. As you happily slaughter your way through Tertium’s cramped corridors and gloomy halls with an array of 40K weapons, you’ll eventually come face-to-face with a squad of heretic troopers armed with guns. They’ll be just beyond your smacking range, and as you try to close the distance and get shot up, you’ll understand Darktide's challenge.
Dealing with distance and ranged enemies is the game's most significant hurdle, but there are multiple ways to approach it. A Veteran Sharpshooter might pick off ranged units from a distance, or the Ogryn may use their riot shield to tank incoming shots for the squad. My personal favourite is the Zealot, dashing at enemies in-between volleys to bring them into melee.
You can also suppress ranged enemies by firing at them, though in-practice this does feel a little pointless when you can usually just shoot them instead. What is death if not the ultimate form of suppression? Not that ammo is in short supply: there are so many bullets now, maybe even too many. After Vermintide 2’s stingy ammo economy, I don’t feel right leaving ammo behind, but sometimes my gun is just plain full. It is nice to be able to use a ranged weapon for something other than picking off special enemies, though.
I genuinely expected the full introduction of hybrid combat to feel broken at first, but Fatshark has done an amazing job. The core is certainly there in terms of how good its chaotic combat and weapons feel—revving my chainsword to bisect an enemy champion is exactly the kind of 40K experience I was craving. The ranged weapons are great, too: planting a lasbolt in the head of a sniper or clocking them in the head with an Ogryn grenade is extremely satisfying.
With so many more variables in terms of ranged threats, special enemies, and the tools you have to deal with them, Darktide is Fatshark's most comprehensive iteration of their co-op combat yet: fast and fluid as you move point-to-point, threat-to-threat. Classes also feel like they have defined strengths, and the introduction of the buffs and shield regen that you get in close proximity to your squad are a welcome incentive for team-based play in matchmade missions.
While the combat is certainly better, the lack of a full crafting system on release is a step back from Vermintide. You can currently upgrade weapons, so buildcrafting isn't entirely out of the question, but it hasn't been the best way to showcase Darktide's amazing arsenal. However, the UI has been significantly tweaked since the pre-order beta, making it a lot easier to understand how weapons actually work and what they're good for. If you loved Vermintide's combat, and are happy waiting a little longer for certain mechanics to be implemented, Darktide will scratch that itch.
Another significant departure is that Darktide lets you piece together your own character, crafting a backstory of betrayal and heartbreak, and fashioning their fearsome countenance from a wonderful selection of tattoos, scars, and grizzled faces. You get to pick their personality and voice, which is what stands as a substitute for Vermintide's much-loved banter. The Psyker who believes that everything happening is just a terrible dream is wildly relatable, but I personally picked the posh Zealot who's such an off-hand bastard you can't help but laugh.
In-between firefights and skirmishes I'll occasionally catch some screamed voiceline that causes me to crack up, but on the whole I don't feel much of a connection to Darktide's rejects. Where Fatshark's previous games had established characters with distinctive backstories, the quality of Darktide's banter feels massively reliant on the random party combo you end up with. Four Zealots for example, just seem to basically agree that racism is good the whole time, whereas contention and rivalry are often at the heart of the best banter. The introduction of premium cosmetics does help a bit in terms of personality, but I'm not a big fan of their current implementation.
The main thing that rankles me is that the no-spend cosmetics all currently appear to be reskins of those you get in the main game through penances, while there's no way to work towards earning the fancier, premium ones. Most live service games have some kind of no-spend currency, such as bright dust in Destiny 2, that lets players earn the odd premium item, and I think Darktide needs that, especially as a game that isn't even free-to-play. I understand that the premium cosmetics help fund Darktide's further development, but them appearing before we have a full crafting system equivalent to Vermintide, or proper social features for the player hub, isn't the best.
That said, Darktide does seem to be set up far better than Vermintide 2 in terms of allowing Fatshark to add and play with stuff. New additions like the live 'Condition' events or the random Daemonhost boss encounters are a perfect example. Whether it's the lights going out across the hive, or bumping into a Poxwalker who transforms into a demonic nightmare, these modifiers are a fantastic way of adding variation to missions you'll play again and again. While things are still not wholly ideal in terms of crashes and stability, Fatshark has clearly been working hard and listening to player feedback in terms of optimising and getting things back on track.
It's hard to understate how much of a wholly negative experience this has been for some players. My setup isn't high-end by any stretch of the phrase, and yet my time with Darktide was smooth, while others with far better rigs are suffering from terrible performance and crashes that make the game nigh-on unplayable. It's had players experimenting with all sorts of settings, and even creating mods to help make things smoother, but so far there isn't a comprehensive solution.
Darktide also suffers from its lack of an endgame, mostly due to the fact that the crafting system hasn't been fully implemented. Sure, you can upgrade weapons, but when that's all you can do it really limits your buildcrafting potential, and so too your ability to push into the highest difficulty content. For some, difficulty is a progression in itself as they strive to get better at the game, but buildcrafting belongs hand-in-hand with that progression, and without needing to strive for your own specific upgrade goals or materials, once you get to trust level 30, you quickly run out of stuff to do.
But despite all of that, I think Darktide's combat is better than Vermintide 2, and strong enough that it holds the game together. I also think Fatshark has nailed the feel of Warhammer 40K. The very fact that I get to play as some tattooed hive ganger or a loveable ogryn instead of a Space Marine brings me so much joy, especially since the human perspective of 40K is so rarely aired beyond Black Library novels. Does it need a lot more work? Yes, but Darktide is a solid foundation. Just like Vermintide 2 before it, I think it will blossom into a truly excellent game, even if it does need a little work right now.