In its 40-year tenure, the Warhammer series has graced plenty of our favourite video game genres. From strategy titles to forays into American football, there are plenty of developers keen to buddy up with Games Workshop for a shot at capturing the fantasy game’s miserable universe. Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters, created by Complex Games, is the franchise’s latest offering: a gory, turn-based strategy game that looks strikingly similar to XCOM.
Daemonhunters puts players in the hefty pneumatic shoes of the Grey Knights – a Chapter of psychic super-soldiers that fends off the forces of Chaos. Taking place across several of the game’s early missions, the hands-on for Daemonhunters gives players a taste of the responsibility attached to being humanity’s shield. That happens to be quite the day job, when your enemies are four incomprehensibly powerful gods bent on bringing total annihilation to every inch of the universe.
Your introduction to these gods takes place with a pitched battle against followers of the Blood God, Khorne. Despite Daemonhunters‘ isometric presentation, Complex Games’ excellent sound design means that players are quickly dragged down into an immersive, mucky war. Every gunshot smacks of violence – each staccato burst promises a very messy death for whoever’s on the receiving end – and it’s easy to believe that your Space Marines are walking death machines when every clanking footstep sounds genuinely earth-shaking.
Oddly, not all of Daemonhunters‘ audio is created equally. Though the sound design is caked in grit, the voice acting is a little hit-or-miss. The protagonists sound great (even if the dialogue is a little hammy) but most of the human enemies are voiced like Borderlands‘ Psychos, which is a little jarring with their over-the-top delivery and high pitch. Perhaps they’re not meant to sound intimidating since you’re controlling a bunch of vastly superior soldiers, but it doesn’t feel altogether fitting to have servants of the four greatest evils in the universe sound like cartoonish lackeys.
Weird voices aside, it’s these humanoid Chaos worshippers that make up the bulk of your combat experience in Daemonhunters‘ opening mission. Despite the enemy’s numerical advantage, the fight never feels fair: the Grey Knights are some of the universe’s strongest fighters, and these genetically-altered super-soldiers have no trouble dispatching Khorne’s puny henchmen. Whether you order a soldier to carve up a cultist with a melee strike or have them take potshots from the safety of cover, the result is always the same: explosive gore. Along with Warhammer‘s phobia of happy endings, gratuitous violence is one of the franchise’s longest-standing calling cards, and it’s in no short supply here. By the end of the preview’s first level, the war-torn chapel we fight in is covered in a thick layer of gore.
All of this adds up to some very gratifying combat – and as the Grey Knights face off against tougher foes, the thrill of landing a well-placed shot only skyrockets. One of the more interesting sides to Daemonhunters‘ is the ability to aim melee hits at specific body parts. It adds a nice bit of tactical depth – hewing away at different areas can achieve varying results, allowing players to choose between dishing out stuns, disabling someone’s weapon, or going for outright damage.
After tangoing with Khorne, the player moves on to test their mettle against Nurgle – the Chaos god of rot and plague, and the main antagonist of Daemonhunters. If every fight was as simple as the first level, the Grey Knights would be out of a job – so in no time at all, they’re facing off against Warp-wielding shamans, heavily armoured Plague Marines, and all manner of disease-ridden daemons.
As the stakes heighten, the Grey Knights start bringing shinier toys onto the battlefield. An orbiting ship called the Baleful Edict serves as the Grey Knights’ base between missions, and as the player upgrades it, the Chapter gains access to better – and more creative – gear. It isn’t immediately obvious how deep this system will go in the full game – the preview’s weapon choice felt slightly bland within the context of 40K‘s arsenal – but there was a hint of solid development. As the Marines fought across cramped industrial hive worlds and gloomy gothic cities, they utilised new abilities and stronger weapons to stem the tide of Chaos – and by the preview’s final level, one of the Knights even had a flamethrower.
In this last level, players are put up against a Great Unclean One – one of the strongest daemons that Nurgle has to offer. Despite the beast’s grotesque appearance – a gaping stomach wound oozes thick ropes of intestines – the daemon is jovial, chatty, and can’t comprehend why you’re trying to avoid catching the plague. This is the first level that truly puts players on the back foot – the daemon is simply too powerful to tackle with the same tactics that have won the day in past missions. Nearby Nurglings eagerly jump to catch bullets for their foetid dad, which means you need to take out their nests to dish out any damage to the daemon. It’s a desperate, back-pedalling fight – the Great Unclean One eviscerates soldiers that get too close, and gibbering Plaguebearers constantly tear into the flanks.
Unfortunately, an issue with the preview build meant it wasn’t possible to see how this level turned out (the developer says this should be patched out by launch), but it showed a lot of promise. There were a few other bugs – cutscenes were a bit clipped, and sound didn’t always play – but ideally, these are in-development bugs that will be squashed before releazse.
Daemonhunters may invite easy comparisons to XCOM, but behind that first layer of squad-based strategy, it distinguishes itself with a few neat features – yet the game’s real draw is Complex Games’ fantastic, pulpy realisation of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Daemonhunters success will likely come down to how deep its tactical offerings are between battles, how much soldiers can be customised and upgraded, but from this hands-on, it’s already worth keeping an eye on.