I knew the hulking Ogryn would be my class in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide as soon as I shot his starting gun: a shotgun which holds a single shell the size of a can of beans. Sounds excessive, but that’s the kind of firepower you need when four outcasts face thousands of cultists, mutants, and demons. The follow-up to Vermintide is once again a Left 4 Dead-style cooperative first-person shooter with a fair whack of melee and, having played a lot of the beta and a little after launch, it’s a joyously grubby brawl with a great cast of weirdos.
Where Vermintide took L4D’s co-op horde-slaying into the world of Warhammer Fantasy, Darktide leaps forward into the grim dark future of humanity. A vast industrial hive city is overrun by a cult of Nurgle (the Chaos god of disease and decay), and the needs of the eternal war demand its liberation. We’re not going to clean up Tertium Hive as Space Marines, those fancy augmented boys equipped with humanity’s finest weapons and armour. We’re not even the Imperial Guard, the regular human armies thrown into the meat grinder against aliens and demons. We’re convicts, spared execution because we might prove briefly useful. My current melee weapon is a latrine shovel.
Each round of Darktide is a 20-minute-ish mission: kill this boss; restart that factory; steal that ammo cache; and so on. Levels are linear-ish with plenty of side paths to plunder for ammo and resources. So pick a mission from a terminal in your spaceship hub, land in Tertium as a squad of four, and go shoot, stab, bludgeon, zap, fry, and burst hundreds upon hundreds of baddies. Along the way, you’ll complete mini objectives: hold this position while a process completes; find objects and carry them somewhere; use an Aliens-esque scanner to find and study doodads; turn on these switches; find and burst these demonic meatnodes to cleanse a machine; kill; kill; kill.
It’s great fun, that violence. We might not be Spice Maureens but we’re damn sturdy and can deliver a solid kicking. We’re armed with thumping great weapons, a variety of swords and axes and chainswords and some dead chunky guns which clank and thud and jump and rattle in a most satisfying way. I adore the physical presence of these guns. Like in Vermintide, limited ammo supplies and great swarms of enemies mean melee combat is a big part of the action. It’s pretty involved, with blocking, dodging, light and heavy attacks, and chains of different moves. It’s among the better melee combat in first-person shooters.
One welcome addition since Vermintide is a layer of regenerating shields (Toughness, the game calls it) on top of your non-regenerating health. Toughness regenerates when you’re near teamies (faster near more) as well as on melee hits. This often encourages you to lean in and fight back when in trouble, like nuDoom does with finisher moves. I’ve had great desperate flailing fights for survival and heroic moments of going back-to-back to face down a horde.
The most basic enemies (poor saps crawling with unholy parasites) go down in a hit or two but can be real trouble when dozens swarm in. These hordes will get in your way, chip at your health, and soak up attention while enemies with guns take larger bites of health from a distance and the real bad’uns run unchecked. Many of the special enemies are, again, basically Left 4 Dead baddies. They’ll variously try to pull you away from the group, pin you down, shove you around, coat areas in flame to constrict your movement, or just murder you with armour and violence. It’s a careful and enjoyable balancing act, to avoid being chipped down by hordes or sniped by gunners while also dealing with the special baddies who can claim a life far more quickly and dramatically. Those big fights are elevated by a cracking soundtrack which blends industrial rock with military marches and orchestral strings and apocalyptic choirs, loud and unholy as I spew bullets with a gun which looks ripped from the wings of a World War 2 dogfighter.
This violence is directed by an AI which controls enemy spawns, pick-ups, item locations, timings and locations for some objective challenges (and bonus objectives), minibosses, and more. I find it creates a fun rhythm, with short sharp shocks interrupting quiet moments and dramatic escalation into all-out murder. And nothing keeps a squad together better than the threat of a dog spawning to catch a straggler and pin them down far from aid. Some missions also have bonus hazardous conditions, like power outages forcing you to fight in the dark. Replaying missions always feels a little different and unpredictable.
It’s quite different playing as different classes too. Each has different passive perks, active abilities, and a few class-specific weapons (or for one class, a whole separate arsenal because everyone else is too small and puny to hold them). Darktide has four: an Imperial Guard sharpshooter, just great with guns; a wizard (or Psyker, if we must use branded terms), who risks bursting their own head if they cast too many magic spells; a Zealot, charging in with steel and flame then growing stronger as they draw close to death; and a giant tanky Ogryn who’s so eager to batter baddies that half his chunky guns are built to be swung as melee weapons too.
Darktide is the 40K I crave: weird, grubby, loud, and full of staggering spectacle. I often lag behind my squad because I get distracted by vast Gothic vaulted ceilings, intricate industrial infrastructure, towering statues, or vast chasms. A great game for gazing upwards. The little details are delightful too, and I’m so glad to experience the grimdark world up close. The mundanities of barracks and shower rooms, sprinkled with shrines. Skulls repurposed as casings for everything from typewriters to hacking gadgets. Chunky screens alongside scrolls and tomes. The game’s healing machines have the top half of a lobotomised human embedded as a meat CPU controlling its intricate hydraulic stabby brass arms. It’s not a pleasant world but it wholly commits to being itself, and Fatshark portray that wonderfully.
Our characters really add to that, all of them loudly and exuberantly performing 40K with great voice lines as they react to events and chat during quiet moments. Each class has a choice of personalities with different accents and attitudes, all of which are delightful. My personal favourite is my boy, my main character, my Yorkshire Ogryn who’s come to enjoy a good fight and hopes to earn extra rations for a big dinner. My backup character is a female Scottish Zealot who is so very enthusiastic about purging with fire in the name of the Emperor. And I do always enjoy being on a squad with the German wizard who sounds like a TF2 medic and protests the many, many injustices of the Imperium of Man. You can customise your appearance too, with options including male and female bodies (except Ogryns: lads only), faces, haircuts, tattoos, and such. It also has a fun little sequence of picking key backstory moments to tell their own grimdark tale.
Here’s the bit I suspect will eventually make me grow sick of Darktide: equipment. No weapon is just a weapon. They’re all random rolls. Each comes with random perks and random stat rolls, which range from obvious functions like Damage and Ammo to more esoteric attributes like Collateral. You might think that the weapon’s Rating, a big number presented prominently on its card, would indicate whether this one is better than another, but nope. That high-Rating weapon might score better in some stats but feel worse overall. I often can’t tell if I like a new weapon or not until I buy it, take it into a mission, and actually feel what those numbers mean.
You’ll get most of your weapons by spending cash (earned by playing) at a vendor whose limited stock of random gear refreshes every real-world hour. No guarantee you’ll want any of it. Another vendor has a tiny stock sold for tokens earned by completing weekly contracts for him (e.g. “kill X baddies with ranged weapons”, “finish 15 missions”). These tend to be decent-ish but you can only get enough tokens for one or two each week. And if you’re very, very lucky, at the end of a mission you might be rewarded with a weapon whose roll is so bad that you instantly scrap it to get a handful of coins. Gear drops steadily improve as you level up but weapons you already have are static, not scaling, so you’re endlessly chasing fresh rolls.
At no point in my 25 hours of play have I felt random gear added anything enjoyable to the game. It has created no interesting decisions for me. I have derived no satisfaction from making numbers bigger. After finally quitting Destiny 2, a great FPS ruined by rubbish MMO-y elements, I am not excited to see all this in Left 40K Dead. And like in Destiny, you’ll want to engage with number-embiggening and gear up to tackle the satisfying challenges of higher difficulty levels.
Darktide also has crafting, which uses resources found scattered around levels. Most crafting systems aren’t in the game yet, but Fatshark’s description makes it sound less loathsome than Vermintide crafting, at least? We’ll get to upgrade weapons as well as build a collection of perks we can swap onto gear. But it sounds like the best-case scenario for crafting is mitigating some of the faff of random rolls and numbers, farming resources to make an undesireable part of the game be slightly less bad.
The game has other progression systems too. You gain XP from missions to level up, with a choice of three new passive perks coming every 5 levels until you hit the cap at level 30 (you can change these perks any time in the hub). You also unlock new weapon types as you level up. Honestly, this would be plenty progression for me: as I master my class, introduce new perks and weapons to open a wider range of tactical possibilities. Let me futz with weapon perks if you think it’s interesting—which it could be!—but please don’t tie it to four separate currencies, the real-world passage of time, and just plain luck.
Darktide was technically ropey in the beta, suffering problems with crashes and performance. The launch patch notes say they’re still working on performance and crashes and yup, both are still issues for me. Fingers crossed for future patches. A couple of us in the RPS treehouse are planning to play together and gab about it for your enjoyment, so we’ll have more to say about its current state soon.
Fatshark kept adding to Vermintide for years with free content updates and paid expansions, and Darktide obviously is built as a live service game. Their Darktide plans include “new classes, missions, enemies & allies, and much more!” across months and years to come.
Darktide could become the new game my pals and I use as our virtual chatroom. It offers fun cooperative ultraviolence in a lurid and interesting setting with an AI director shaking things up, and the option for fiendish challenge on higher difficulty levels. I could see myself playing Darktide for a long time, unless I grow sick of it trying to railroad me into embiggening numbers. I’m already tired of that, and the game only launched yesterday.