The Warhammer 40K universe represents a ripe source of inspiration for video games. With its galaxy spanning conflicts, rammed full of fascinating factions, it's mind boggling that there’s only been a small number of great games that’ve made good use of its expansive lore.
With a steady stream of Warhammer 40K titles coming out in recent years – mainly on smart phones – Space Hulk: Deathwing is the latest to make its way onto PlayStation 4. Based on Games Workshop’s board game of the same name, this new release doesn’t stick to its turn-based roots, instead choosing to shift the action into the first-person, putting the player directly in the shoes – or power armour – of a team of Space Marines on a mission to purge a genestealer infested space hulk.
Entering these massive clusters of derelict spaceships is extremely dangerous work, and as a result, those teams sent to explore their superstructures are often equipped in Tactical Dreadnought Armour – more commonly referred to as Terminator Armour. Handed down over millennia, these power suits are rare and extremely powerful – they’re essentially walking tanks – and as a result, only veteran members of an Adeptus Astartes chapter are allowed to wear these legendary sets of gear.
With a campaign spanning nine missions, you’ll guide a squad from the Dark Angels Deathwing Company as they explore the mysteries of one particular space hulk, all the while assailed by wave after wave of alien attackers. Packed full of Warhammer 40k terminology – that’ll only make sense to those with more than a passing familiarity with the setting – the story isn’t particularly engaging, failing (despite some personal stakes for the Deathwing themselves) to make you care one iota how it’s going to play out.
The opening missions of the campaign at least capture the dark and dingy atmosphere of a space hulk well, and as you plod through a mix of tight corridors and vast rooms, complete with high vaulted ceilings draped in shadows, it can feel quite unsettling, mainly due to the signature Warhammer 40K architecture that mixes the futuristic and gothic. While it certainly ticks the boxes in terms of ambience, you’ll soon realise that just like meeting someone in a dimly lit bar, the heavy shadows make for a much more flattering first impression of the unimpressive graphical fidelity, and alien character models that’re on display.
At least you won’t be spending very much time looking at the cannon fodder enemies since you’ll be splattering them all over the walls. The rank and file genestealers can be gunned down satisfyingly easily, and as your arsenal of devastating weaponry expands the further through the campaign you get, you’ll enjoy taking each new weapons out for a spin – whether it’s the heavy flamer or a force axe. With the range of engagements kept short due to the level layouts, most weapons are focused on inaccurate but sustained firepower, and you’ll find there’s a primal enjoyment to hosing down an advancing column of aliens with explosive tipped rounds, or setting them alight with a flamethrower.
In addition to weapons of both the ballistic and melee variety, the player character – who happens to be a Space Marine Librarian – has psychic powers that give them access to certain attacks that, even though they have disappointingly wimpy animations and sound effects, provide high damage, area effect attacks.
While there is certainly enjoyment to be had from the combat when playing the campaign solo, the problem is that it wears out its welcome pretty fast. The deeper you get into the story, the more numerous and relentless your attackers will be, and as more resilient enemy types are introduced, it increasingly becomes a battle of attrition. Eventually, you’ll find that despite your attempts to be tactical in your approach, you’ll all too frequently be face-to-face with certain enemies who, on top of having the ability to weather the sustained fire from your three-man team, aren’t fun to fight in the slightest.
On the upside, your two AI teammates carry their weight most of the time; a rudimentary system that lets you issue a few basic commands ends up being far too fiddly, and much more hassle than it’s worth. At least there are plenty of auto save points to stop you losing too much progress should you team get wiped out – though annoyingly it has a habit of saving just before you die causing you to have to roll back to another save.
As your enjoyment of the combat begins to inevitably wane, the busy work endemic in the mission design will start to become more and more apparent. With each mission taking place in their own separate area, there’s always multiple objectives to complete which are guaranteed to take you on a tour of the entire map by the most circuitous route possible. Finding that your next objective couldn’t possibly be any further from where you are becomes such a common occurrence that you’ll begin to predict exactly where the next objective will be by asking: “Where’s the furthest location from here that I haven’t been to yet?”
This padding makes the later missions a real slog, and when the campaign starts sending you back to maps from early levels – just with different objectives – you’ll realise you’ve spent most of the five hours it takes to finish the campaign crisscrossing the same areas over and over again. In the end you just won’t be able to shake the feeling that there was supposed to be more to Space Hulk: Deathwing. There are signs of other gameplay elements – such as sealing doors to stop alien movement, or hacking turrets – but they have so little impact during your time playing that it seems like the basic combat loop was the only part that was actually fully formed.
On a more positive note you can play through any of the campaign missions, or the randomly generated special missions – that unfortunately still use the familiar campaign maps – in online multiplayer. Coordinating with three other players to fight the alien horde is a definite improvement over playing solo in the campaign, and with different character classes all with varying abilities available, only some of which appear in the single player, there’s a bit more going on.
Playing missions online awards renown based on how well you did, and this currency can be used to unlock cosmetic upgrades for each class’ weapons and armour. In addition to this, playing a class will level them up, which offers a range of other ability unlocks and weapons for you to try out when you use them next.
While the suite of classes offer the opportunity for a variety of team compositions and tactics, the viability of each one varies quite a bit. This leads to teams pretty much requiring certain classes if they have any hope of success. For example, not having an apothecary, which happens to not only be the one class that can heal other players but the only way to heal yourself in combat, means that without one it’s a recipe for disaster.
While Space Hulk: Deathwing is certainly more fun in multiplayer, it does still rely on the basic gameplay you’ll be all too familiar with to hold everything up. Even with the addition of the additional character classes and unlocks, it’s unlikely they’ll provide enough variety or incentive to engage many players long term, and while this close to launch there’s a modest pool of players to team up with, you’ll find it hard to picture a vibrant community growing around the game in its current state.
With a dearth of decent games based in the Warhammer 40k universe, Space Hulk: Deathwing seems at first glance to be heading in the right direction. With a reverence for the source material that’ll appeal to Warhammer 40K aficionados, it successfully evokes the space hulk setting and the relentless battles at its heart. While the basic building blocks of a decent experience seem to be here, the undeveloped gameplay, and repetitive structure – that degenerates into tiresome battles of attrition – mean that even transplanting it into the co-op multiplayer mode and adding more unlocks and rewards won’t be enough to keep your finger on the trigger for long.