The Warhammer 40,000 universe is one of the two biggest jewels in Games Workshop’s carefully painted miniature crown. The iconic grim dark science fiction universe centres on the Emperor’s legacy, with humanity strewn amongst the stars, its forces attempting to maintain control in the face of an array of Very Nasty Things. Warhammer 40,000: Darktide tells one such tale amidst this galaxy-wide struggle for survival.
Warhammer 40,000: Darktide sees you joining a team of Inquisitorial Operatives, embarking on a series of missions, attempting to free a city from the clutches of the corrupted forces of Chaos. The twist is that, where you might expect to be a loyal member of the Space Marines in most 40K games, you’re actually a criminal given a chance at redemption after saving the life of an Imperial Guard officer from Chaos worshippers.
Your prize for doing so? Well, you’re put to work by the Inquisition to purge a Chaos infestion on the planet of Atoma Prime – you’ll often wonder how this is preferable to prison. Descending from the Inquisitorial vessel to the hive city of Tertium, you take on missions to cleanse the planet of the depraved rot that has permeated it, mostly by smashing, rending, shoving, shooting and blowing up everything in your path.
Darktide is a first-person co-op multiplayer game, building upon the fantastic foundations of Fatshark’s Warhammer Vermintide games (and Left 4 Dead before it), but there’s now a shift in emphasis to have more gunplay and ranged weaponry. You’re part of a four-person strike team, with different classes of Operative available to suit a variety of different playstyles. There might be no Space Marines, but, like in Halo ODST, it’s more interesting playing as someone who might actually die.
Playing in a gang of four friends is best for this kind of game, but matchmaking is swift and simple, letting you play as a team with friends or lining you up with a batch of other solo players. It’ll fill empty slots with bots, and you might often start a mission with one or two in tow, but these tend to be filled in short order. The bots can at least shoot straight and head for an objective, so they’re as good as you could hope.
Where Vermintide had characters, Darktide has classes that you can customise. The immense Ogryn is the tank character, soaking up damage with glee while being ably handling crowd control duties. The Veteran is a sharpshooter, their former Imperial Guard training seeing them specialise in ranged weapons, while the Zealot is a preacher whose faith carries them through the hive, gaining strength the more damage they receive. The final class is the Psyker, their psychic abilities stretching from addling enemies’ minds to blasting them with stored warp energy. Fatshark has promised more classes to come too, meaning you’ll have even more options to weigh up, but the opening four are excellent, especially the Ogryn.
Each class handles differently, with special abilities and different weaponry letting you specialise further so you can create the exact kind of character you want. The character creation tool offers a similar level of specialisation, with an excellent range of visual customisation options that are followed up by crafting their backstory as well. These multiple levels of depth make them feel as though they’re truly yours.
As you complete missions you gain experience, moving up through the levels of Trust. This is the measure of trust that the Imperial Guard have in you, and as you prove yourself you gain access to improved weaponry and new abilities, giving you yet more options in the battle for the hive.
There are a number of different levels to explore in Tertium, taking in sandy desert outposts on the surface and descending to the decaying underhive where many of the poorest live. The Chaos infestation has turned the populace into mindless zombies, with vast crowds of enemies coming for you at various points. Within the Chaos hordes there’s also a series of tougher foes, some boasting thick armour or explosive grenades, through to bulky mutant Ogryn that will trap you on the ground until your teammates get them off.
If that wasn’t enough, there are much bigger creatures lurking in Tertium that pose an even more serious threat to your survival. These Chaos-empowered boss characters fill the screen, and soak up your team’s gunfire to a worrying degree. Encountering one of these at higher difficulty levels is frankly terrifying and they offer a heart-pounding challenge, your team having to balance reviving one another with unloading your clip.
Darktide is a brutally good-looking game, with the dark gothic sci-fi setting realised with impressive detail, the ornate architecture and decoration reflect the religious zealotry and the intricate mechanisms that the Imperium relies upon. Fatshark has absolutely nailed the feel of the Warhammer 40K universe, and the ship-based hub which you get to explore in third person only cements the setting, and your character’s place within it.
Much has been made of Darktide’s inconsistent performance at release, with a particular focus on ray tracing. The ray tracing options might be alluring, but they have a big impact on the game’s framerate that’s not worth it for the burst of frenetic action. Disabling ray tracing meant I had few issues beyond the game randomly setting itself to a low resolution and some long loading times at launch.
Across my GeForce 3060 GTX-equipped laptop and GeForce 3070 GTX-toting desktop Darktide ran at a smooth 60fps, with minimal tweaking of the visual effects (a mixture of high and medium settings) but it’s clear that the game needs a substantial rig to make the most of it. It is still a stunning game with Medium settings, which bodes will for the future Xbox Series X|S ports.
Darktide’s final coup de grâce is its audio. Alongside 82,000 unique lines of dialogue – many of which will produce a wry smile as you’re fragging cultists – the pumping soundtrack manages to merge canticle vocal harmonies with industrial synth work, and it adds to the drama and the overall tone in fantastic fashion. Fatshark clearly love the world that Games Workshop created, and they’ve forged one of the best digital representations of it so far.