Darktide review-in-progress: Praise the combat, progression less so

NEED TO KNOW

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

I can’t imagine a worse future than living in a hive. Warhammer 40K’s spired mega-cities may be humanity’s last bulwark against a galaxy that very much wants them dead, but I can’t help feeling like they make the job that much easier. Millions of souls huddled together in the dark, hoping that a Tyrannid hive fleet isn’t about to pop into orbit, that there aren’t Necrons snoozing in the basement, or that some Nurgle-worshipping cultists aren’t cooking up a plague. In Darktide, it’s that last one.

Turns out that disease spreads pretty quick when you pack humans together like farm animals, and for Hive Tertium, the setting of Warhammer 40K: Darktide, things take a nasty turn. But that’s just life in the Imperium: here one day, a Poxwalker the next. At least it’s better than getting turned into corpse-starch… probably.

Speaking of corpse-starch, that’s where you come in. As a prisoner of the Inquisition you and thousands of other ‘rejects’ are co-opted into the thankless task of liberating Hive Tertium from the blighted blasphemers. Just like Vermintide before it, Darktide is not a game about the most powerful characters in the setting. You’re not dropping into Tertium as a Ceramite-clad Space Marine to deliver fire and fury to the heretics: all you’ve got is a jumpsuit and some hand-me-down lasgun.

Darktide is really just a game about how much it sucks to be a human⁠—or an Ogryn⁠—in Warhammer 40K, and after endless Space Marine power fantasies, it’s something that I can’t help but love it for. That’s not to say Darktide doesn’t make you feel powerful, but it’s a kind of measured power. A handful of Space Marines could probably liberate Tertium by lunchtime, but alas, the hive’s fate rests firmly in the hands of you and your band of misfits

(Image credit: Fatshark)

Long story short

Darktide has been in pre-order beta since November 17, which means the full game wasn’t available before I wrote this. In playing a character to max rank I had concerns in terms of progression, and that there isn’t really an endgame right now as long as the crafting system isn’t fully implemented. With that in mind, I’m also going to max level a character when the game releases from November 30 in order to see how the experience has changed.

It’s important to acknowledge how Darktide is different to Vermintide, though. 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.

Your reject is never far beyond the realms of suspicion (Image credit: Fatshark)

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 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 Manufactorum. Though it makes me sad that there aren’t any hive-based characters, like a planetary governor or some guild bureaucrat, since Tertium is still inhabited.

One thing Darktide is sorely lacking right now is a tangible antagonist or even some inkling about what the heretics are planning on 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.

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 with a resounding crunch 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 formula 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.

The pre-order beta has left a lot of unknowns hanging in the balance in terms of progression and endgame, but the quality of Darktide’s combat is one thing I can say I’m already sure of. I stuck with Vermintide 2 all these years because of how good the fighting felt and Darktide feels the same. If, like me, that was enough of a reason to play, then Darktide will surely scratch that itch.

Criminal cahoots 

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. The lack of cosmetics also doesn’t help with establishing player identity.

Honestly, it feels like Fatshark is still puzzling out where Darktide stands in regards to its live service elements. The Inquisitor’s ship, for example, may look stunning, but it’s woefully lacking as a social hub for players. I know no one spent much time running around Taal’s Horn Keep in Vermintide 2 after their initial explorations, but the Mourningstar is crying out for some kind of Imperial Guard bar or mess. What I think Darktide really needs right now, considering the absence of an endgame, are more reasons for players to stick around after they’ve hit rank 30.

New additions like the live ‘Condition’ events are a perfect example. Whether it’s the lights going out across the hive, or the ventilation system failing and fogging up the level, these modifiers are a fantastic way of adding variation to missions you’ll play again and again. The fact that Darktide has been built as a platform for future content in terms of classes and narrative is a massive advantage it has going forward and is one of the reasons I’m not too worried about the future of the game.

The only concern I have right now is how unstable Darktide has proven to be in the pre-order beta in terms of crashes and performance. Even across the PC Gamer team we’ve experienced an extremely mixed bag in terms of instability and performance, with high-end setups causing issues where there was no reason they should. I was personally playing with an RTX 2060 and had very few crashes overall. When I did crash, mostly in a boss arena for some reason, I was almost always able to rejoin the mission, so didn’t miss out on rewards.

Will Fatshark be able to establish stability with the post-launch patch? Or is it going to potentially delay the introduction of other much-needed features? Darktide is every bit the successor to Vermintide 2 that I wanted in the quality of its combat and gameplay, but having hit level 30, I know I’m struggling to find many reasons to keep going beyond the odd mission. Hopefully the launch will add even more.

PCGamer.com