Space Hulk: Deathwing
Games Workshop and the games they lend their IP to tend to be a varied bunch in their universes. The 40K universe in particular, and the lack of consistency found within it, can directly be attributed to the death of THQ. With their death came the end of any exclusivity license. Since then, we’ve seen poor games like Storm of Vengeance and Eisenhorn: Xenos. Run of the mill titles like Space Hulk, Armageddon and Space Wolf fill the pack for better games like Battlefleet Gothic: Armada and Legacy of Dorn to round it off nicely.
Space Hulk: Deathwing is a completely different game than the aforementioned Space Hulk. Now a horde based shooter compared to the previous turn-based strategy. Developed by Streum On Studio, whose previous title was the surprisingly good and incredibly atmospheric E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy. Can they recreate that atmosphere and bring it to the Warhammer 40K universe? They certainly can. However, there are a few problems too.
I was torn with the heading to give this review. Left 4 Space, Killing Space, Space Hulk: Verminspace, pretty much any horde game but with space added into the name. Space Hulk: Deathwing is just that, a 40K horde shooter. Tyranids coming at you from every side, crawling down the walls, swarming and filling every square inch of your view. Space Hulk: Deathwing gets that part right. The sense of overwhelming odds and the feeling of being a space marine as good as any before it.
There’s a sense of weight that comes with combat. Your melee attack can crush a Tyranid in one lethal blow or smash through a metal door. Your footsteps reverberate through the claustrophobic corridors. You hear the wail of the monsters, haunting the same corridors as you and your team mow them down in a hail of bullets, fire and electricity.
In addition to these, you unlock points that can then be used to enhance your character. The three trees are Command, Devotion and Psychic, offering a variety of unlocks. From a simple boost in defense, giving you an immunity to critical hits, to unlocking further abilities like a wave of fire that turns any enemy it contacts into ash. It’s a light sense of progression and offers you something to drive towards. Each level, nine in total, has a number of missions that unlock extra weapons for you to use. Ranging from chain-guns that rapidly fire, mowing down hordes of enemies, to melee weapons like lightning claws or a devastating mace to crush in an alien’s skull.
What’s strange is that the combat both works and doesn’t work at the same time. Acting like a basic shooter, mowing down the monsters and just fighting for survival, it’s a great ride. It’s incredibly tense at points and death can come from any angle, particularly when you take into account the more specialised monsters. The Tyranids that cloak, the way they scramble your radar being the only way to indicate one being nearby. Maybe even the huge ones that take enough damage to make a panzer tank red with envy.
The game also has the trappings of a more tactical shooter. You give commands to your two AI companions in the single player campaign, having them hold position, heal one of the team, seal doors in Killing Floor fashion to remove a route of access for the monsters. Of course sealing the door also cuts off a route of egress, which can then only be reopened by simply destroying it.
Although this is an option, it doesn’t exactly make it a tactical shooter, or even tactical in any sense of the word. The AI has a very loose interpretation of following your commands; I can hardly count the number of times I’ve told one of the characters to defend, directly after having told them to stand right in the middle of a doorway, only for them to decide to move a few metres out of the doorway, behind a fallen brick in the attempt of giving their big toe a bit of cover.
I understand the reason and, to be fair, the AI isn’t bad. It’s following its last order and making sense of it, moving into a position of safety (behind cover). The problem is that the AI of the enemy is much better, and the way the aliens move means that cover is pointless. That tends to be the problem with Space Hulk: Deathwing, its old world thinking inside a new world game. Everything is just too run of the mill, too normal, inside a game that could have worked well with trying something that little different. Possibly going down the route of Painkiller, Doom, or a game like that.
What really helps matters is that the game has a true sense of being part of the 40K franchise. The titular Space Hulk is a collection of ships, expansive and huge, spectacular in both size and the impressive gothic architecture that only adds to the atmosphere. Working with this is a strong sound design, the music working with the rest of the game, but the ambient sounds making the mood. Hearing the creek of the long-derelict ship, the sound of distant monsters moving and searching, the echo of your actions. If Space Hulk: Deathwing is anything, it’s atmospheric.
Of course, the sheer size of the space marines and their bulky armour means despite how large and expansive some of the areas in the game are, there’s a real limitation to the space available to you. It’s nothing short of impressive to come out of one of the many tight, narrow, corridors into a huge open area, to see giant stained glass windows, light shining pass giant stone columns, highlighting the dusty scene, the rubble and the myriad of aliens crawling down the walls, ready to tear you apart.
It’s annoying then that the level designs don’t even take advantage of this. Huge sprawling maps have been designed, covering huge swathes of the ships that make up the space hulk. As such, it’s perplexing that the missions have you covering the same ground over and over again. Huge sections of each map will go unused, left for you to explore at your own discretion. There is a reason to, leaving you to collect the artefacts spread across each level, but it’s not really the best reason considering how it adds no excitement.
It works best in multiplayer, particularly when you don’t have all the unlocks available. That’s when Space Hulk: Deathwing is at its best. You have a real sense of the last stand. Fighting against overwhelming odds with a few other people, working together, positioning and acting in a way that AI can never really recreate. This is when the grand areas swarming with aliens, the claustrophobic corridors and even the fact that everything features the same monotone colours works to their strengths. You need to feel hopelessly lost, fighting against the odds.
The multiplayer isn’t without its downsides. A mass of menus that you have to trawl through and long loading times while waiting for a game to set itself up. Once you’re in the game it’s mostly fine, so long as you’re one of the few lucky people not to suffer from the performance issues. Framerate dips, the game stuttering or freezing, the rare crashes or disconnects in the case of multiplayer. Space Hulk: Deathwing isn’t the worst offender out there, it’s likely not even in the top half, but it’s certainly not in the shape it needs to be.
Inevitably the whole of Space Hulk: Deathwing comes down to one key issue: it’s boring. It doesn’t matter how good any one part is (the multiplayer), the crux of the matter is that you’re likely not going to have a good time in the long run. There’s no way that any game should have a campaign the length that this has, somehow featuring near complete stagnation with no ups, downs, variety or intrigue beyond one question: When’s the next indistinct horde of aliens coming for me?
Were it not for the fact that the combat feels meaty and the game genuinely looks and sounds great, this would be an instant dismissal to the rubbish pile. Should the co-op be improved and the connection issues be fixed, I can see it gaining at least a small audience for that, but there’s no saving that will, sadly, always be a mediocre-at-best title.
PC version reviewed. Copy provided by publisher
Space Hulk: Deathwing is a sadly boring and uninspiring shooter. A repetitive single player that could have been saved by a strong multiplayer is just lost due to technical issues and the sad fact is that the game simply isn't good enough.
- A very atmospheric game with strong visual and sound design
- Great monsters that will swarm from every direction, using all of the terrain to their advantage
- Strong multiplayer when set to having no unlocks, putting you and others under real pressure
- Monotonous and boring gameplay that has you do the same thing, constantly, from start to finish
- Level design is terrible, huge sprawling levels that send you tracking the same ground over and over again
- A number of bugs and performance issues mar any enjoyment the game could have had