‘Warhammer 40,000: Darktide’ review: grim, dark, violence

Do you want to live forever?

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide feels half-finished. Rest assured, the fun stuff is in place. As lasguns crack and whine overhead, Chaos-tainted heretics barrel out of gutters and proceed to come apart in clouds of blood and maggots, as your Ogryn mate wades in twirling a huge knife.

Darktide is a game about facing off against the tide of chaos cultists, four of you against the grimdark world of Warhammer 40,000. It’s a science fiction spin-off of developer Fatshark’s own Vermintide series, but retrofits that game’s Warhammer Fantasy setting for the grimdark industrial world of Warhammer 40,000. It’s easy to write the whole game off as a sewer level, but suddenly you’ll load into a level and find devastatingly beautiful churches sprouting out of the ceiling.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide. Credit: Fatshark.
Warhammer 40,000: Darktide. Credit: Fatshark.

Fatshark nails the jump to sci-fi. Warhammer 40,000 has a wide range of different weaponry: autorifles, bolters, lasguns and even ripper guns are some of the most iconic sci-fi weapons out there, and they’re recreated perfectly. Chainswords – a sword that works like a chainsaw – and even the Thunder Hammer are also brilliant, meaning you’re perfectly tooled up to face anything that is thrown your way.

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You want skulls? Warhammer 40,000 is all about skulls and that’s recreated here. At one point I saw a simple radio adorned with a giant skull, while one level had a giant pile of electronics decorated with skulls. Everything in Darktide is pointy, but if it isn’t pointy, it’s probably a skull.

Combat is an urgent, unpleasant thing. You’ll enjoy yourself, but there’s something very raw about the combat and the unrelenting pace. Darktide has a pacing issue, but as long as you’re okay with the dial being turned up to 11 and left that way for the entire 30 minute mission, you’ll be fine. You’ll shred your nerves and get that thready type of adrenaline that makes your nerves ache. As you progress through the different difficulty levels, your chance of survival diminishes, but even the easy fights feel nearly overwhelming, full of little moments of heroism that should mean making it to the end of a mission feels like a relief.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide. Credit: Fatshark.
Warhammer 40,000: Darktide. Credit: Fatshark.

Outside of the pacing, Fatshark does very little wrong while you’re on a mission. Enemies can be difficult to identify in the crowd, and every player character barring the hulking Ogryn look nearly identical. I don’t know the difference between a Psyker and a Zealot, despite playing both, and it feels like Darktide is missing the strong visual identity of Vermintide, which is partially the fault of nearly every enemy and hero in the game being involved with Warhammer 40,000’s imperial guard.

These classes all play very differently and are tooled up with different weapons. Combat is a frenetic mix of melee and gun-based combat – at its bloody heart Darktide is a game about violence, and it’s handled very well.

Of the four classes, Ogryn is the easiest to spot, twice the size of the other classes. However, if you’re playing the Veteran Sharpshooter, as I do, you’re all about getting sight lines to shoot approaching enemies. Ogryn’s block your bullets, and playing in a match with three separate Ogryns makes it nearly impossible to actually play the game. My role was reduced to stabbing away with a bayonet, and grumping passive-aggressively as I was guarded by so many big meaty boys.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide. Credit: Fatshark.
Warhammer 40,000: Darktide. Credit: Fatshark.

Look away from the four-player raids that make up most of the game and things start wobbling significantly. That pacing issue that takes place during the missions persists outside of the game and I constantly feel like I’m waiting to unlock something without a compelling reason to actually progress.

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The hub world you visit between missions is poorly built and the menus are flawed. Customisation options feel limited – even the paid store is light on options right now, and it’s not uncommon to load into the map and see three characters dressed the same. Elements are slowly layered in on the grind to level 30, but getting anywhere feels like a real chore. Unlocking new weapons still requires players to buy them from the in-game shop, but that shop only refreshes once an hour, which is why I had to wait an hour to actually buy a chainsword and use it after unlocking the damn thing.

However, a real treat is the game’s music. Danish composer Jesper Kyd absolutely slays with a soundtrack that mixes orchestral with electronic beats and it is an absolute joy whenever it kicks in. The game uses this score sparingly, but it’s often a silver lining just as things start to look so dire.

The voice lines and sound design is also great. The slow chattering roar that usually heralds a horde runs right down your spine, and then there are the in-character voice lines, which are fun even if they’re nonsensical. How do you know if the Imperial Guardsman standing next to you is from Cadia? They’ll tell you at every opportunity.

That’s the main thing I took away from my time in Darktide. That and a deep and abiding love for many, many different types of lasguns. Darktide isn’t quite there yet. There are too few missions, the story is non-existent and the progression system in-game feels like it’s going to get a rework. Extra character elements like feats, new weapon choices and perk-adding trinks are slowly offered up. The game needs that complexity earlier, and you feel the absence until it gets there. Likewise, you won’t unlock weekly missions until 10 hours into the game, and they feel essential.

It’s being built like a live game, but it’s currently missing an important connective tissue that would have made Darktide sing now. That it still has a shiny star score says a lot about how good the gunfights feel, and how much fun it is to get stuck into this portrayal of Warhammer 40,000.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is available now on PC, with an Xbox Series X|S launch planned for a later date. We played on PC.

Verdict

Darktide’s pulse-pounding action will win it a lot of fans, but it feels like in the rush to get this out the door, developers Fatshark didn’t include enough content. Darktide could be the best horde shooter out there, but it needs more to do and progression needs to feel a little more meaningful.

Pros

  • Jesper Kyd’s score is amazing
  • White-knuckle combat

Cons

  • Progression is sluggish
  • Very little content
  • Visual identity is big on skulls but low on interesting
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