See the name Games Workshop and your mind will likely conjure up images of stoic space marines clad in power armour or frenzied orcs charging into battle with their guttural war chants.
However, between their work on Warhammer Fantasy and its 40K sci-fi counterpart, the beloved British company have spawned a series of interesting spin-offs over the years, from the D&D-like Warhammer Quest to Blood Bowl and obscurities such as Digganob. Yes, Digganob.
Two tabletop classics which have garnered a cult following over the past couple of decades are Mordheim and Necromunda, both of which have been adapted into video games thanks to developer Rogue Factor. What’s immediately clear is that Necromunda: Underhive Wars is very much an evolution of Rogue Factor’s third person, turn-based strategy template which debuted with the intriguing yet rough-edged Mordheim: City of the Damned.
Necromunda fans should know that Underhive Wars is based on GW’s recent reboot of the skirmishing tabletop game and not the original 90s edition. The character models and overall visual stylings aren’t quite as deliberately garish, though there’s still a gritty, desperate vibe that feels different enough from your vanilla Warhammer 40,000 setting.
The Underhive is a filth-ridden metropolis overrun with crime and corruption as houses wage endless wars upon one another. Gangs run amok and when they’re not spilling blood, they’re delving far beneath the dying city in search of salvage and rumoured ancient treasures.
Developer Rogue Factor have done a great job in translating the core rules of the tabletop experience into something more video game-y. Instead of moving painted miniatures around a board, rolling dice, and flicking through source books, Necromunda: Underhive Wars goes for more of an XCOM approach instead. Well, it’s really more of a Valkyria Chronicles approach for those familiar with Sega’s under-appreciated PlayStation classic.
Two or more gangs will face off as they navigate dense battlefields packed with all kinds of hazards. Each map is multi-layered, allowing you to grapple, zipline, jump, climb, and vault terrain, perhaps to secure a vantage point or break the line of sight from a pursuing enemy. Your objectives will vary from battle to battle though often involve reaching a specified area of the map, taking down marked targets, and hauling precious salvage to an extraction zone.
Movement, as well as your available actions, are limited by two separate gauges. Typically, you can travel a fair distance while also being able to attack and perform a secondary action – reloading, using items, or looting chests, just to new a few. Players will take it in turns, activating one character at a time until all characters have been used and the end of a round restores all movement and action points.
Necromunda uses a third person camera, helping players to feel more immersed in the action instead of watching from above via a birdseye view. Going for the more traditional XCOM top-down camera wouldn’t work here anyway due to the verticality of Necromunda’s maps. Each is its own maze-like obstacle course which can be daunting at first, but encourages strategic positioning.
Unlike Mordheim before it, Underhive Wars features a story-driven campaign which fleshes out Necromunda lore with narrative missions, cinematic cutscenes, and a recurring cast of characters. This mode helps ease you into the Necromunda experience but is far from being a highlight. While there’s some nice variety in terms of level design, characters poorly voiced and not at all likeable. This is made worse by technical hitches with the game’s cutscenes in which the audio is a good few seconds behind the on-screen visuals.
The main appeal of Necromunda is being able to create your own gang from the ground up. Selecting one of the three available houses (there’s an easy opportunity for Rogue Factor to add more post-launch) you spend credits and experience to craft a ragtag warband. The Goliath, Escher, and Orlock factions all come tagged with unique abilities with a decent spread of character classes, from snipers and brawlers to saboteurs, engineers, and leaders.
Assigning skills and attribute points, outfitting each member of your gang, the scope for customisation is pretty overwhelming at first. However, this is also where Necromunda comes into its own. You can lead your gang through various operations and skirmishes, as well as online showdowns, watching them grow over dozens of hours of gameplay. Or not – there’s also a chance they’ll incur injuries or be killed outright, adding a layer of lethality to each encounter.
In terms of visuals, Necromunda: Underhive Wars is a marked improvement over Rogue Factor’s previous work. Character models are superbly detailed and offer a surprising level of customisation to swap out body parts and colour schemes as if you were assembling a collection of Games Workshop miniatures.
The biggest downer here is pacing. Much like Mordheim, matches in Necromunda are often reduced to a crawl as you wait for the enemy AI to take their turn. They put up a fair fight, capitalising on your mistakes and tactically positioning themselves, but this eats up precious time. Having some kind of fast forward or skip function would be ideal here and it’s a baffling omission considering how present pacing issues were in Mordheim.