Death is in the air. As the hallway lights flicker and sputter, I march forward leading my battle brothers into the unknown for the glory of the Emperor and the safety of billions of lives. Deep in the the dark corridors of a derelict space ship, we discover bodies long thought forgotten resting against walls, their skulls devoid of flesh eternally staring into the cold abyss of death. The constant low hum of the vessel’s engines punctuates the silence around us, always present and never faltering. The ancient hull crackles and moans with the strain of centuries of travels and battle, loudly sending ripples through the ship. Somewhere, distant noises herald the presence of a dangerous threat, and we ready for battle.
A door in front of us opens and a loud screech cuts through the air, as dozens of man-sized clawed creatures burst through the opening and rush towards us, their fangs glistening in the paltry light. They charge, we stand. The brother on my left opens up with his Assault Cannon, battering the mutants with his powerful rotary minigun capable of unleashing thousands of rounds a minute. The brother on my right pumps the unstoppable horde with his Storm Bolter, each loud thump echoing through the corridor as the swarm draws ever near. And me, I unleash the full fury of the Emperor upon them.
Lightning shoots forward from my hand, obliterating multiple creatures in its path. Their peers charge on over the bodies of their fallen brethren, product of our unwavering barrage. Dozens of mutants fall by the second, yet dozens more storm forever on. I draw my sword and start cutting through their ranks, the battle now in close quarters, and my squadron joins the fray. We cut and slice and clobber, Force Sword and Power Fists pummeling the creatures without giving quarter nor losing an inch. A minute later, the dark corridor lays flooded with slain foes; their fight vanquished, their corpses lifeless. We start moving towards the door, when an anguished cry fills the corridor behind us. We turn around, and spot one more ungodly horde viciously rushing down towards us, twice the size of the previous one. We ready our weapons, and we open fire. They charge, we stand.
The story takes place onboard a Space Hulk: ancient derelict ships that once served the Imperium of Man and now fly aimlessly around the galaxy, devoid of any crew. Usually infested by a parasitic race called Tyranids that systematically attacks and consumes all life it comes across to fuel its own rapid evolution and reproduction, these huge ships warp in and out of systems randomly at a moment’s notice, reappearing in real space after centuries thought lost. When one of those shows up near a populated world, the Space Marines are dispatched to clear the Space Hulk of any infestation and recover any technology within, and so the game begins.
Huge vessels, the interiors of Space Hulks tend to look more like cathedrals than Star Wars’ destroyers. Given the nature of the 40K universe and its technology, they are a mix of stone and steel, made with technology that is still based on the High Middle Ages gothic aesthetic -- think “high fantasy” 40 centuries into the future -- Warhammer 40,000. In Deathwing, that unique aesthetic is brought to life through one of the best level designs this side of Bethesda. Featuring multiple varied environments and a scant use of lightening, the dark corridors of the Space Hulk feel oppressive and atmospheric while striking the perfect mix of cathedral and spaceship vibe. The art style is clearly coherent, with the locations, characters and technology all harmonising together to create a creepy and dark view of a bleak, medieval future setting.
The real shiner, though, is the sound design. Footsteps have weight behind them and weapons emit a satisfiable thump with each shot, providing very responsive feedback and selling the immersion of wielding powerful guns and wearing a full suit of battle armour. The Tyranids’ screams are blood-chilling, still making me wince every time a horde approaches; while the dead vessel comes alive with the sounds of distant movement on other decks and the moaning of strained metal in the hull -- functioning machinery, like the ever present low-frequency engine noise constantly humming in the background, is another nice touch. The voice acting -- especially the Librarian -- is remarkably good. In fact, except for the extremely hollow and disappointing sound made when your heavily armoured body drops from height, the sound design is pretty much flawless.
However, the most important aspect of a game is its gameplay, and here is where Deathwing drops the ball. The campaign puts you in the role of the Librarian of the Dark Angels, a Space Marine that can access the Warp to unleash powerful psychic attacks. Commanding a three-man team of Terminators, you are one squadron of many sent to secure the lost Dark Angels Space Hulk that just warped into system in the middle of a Tyranid invasion. When things go wrong, it’s up to you and your squad to make them right.
The single-player features a levelling-up system, where your performance gives you points to spend upon completion of each mission. The level up system is heavily reminiscent of Dawn of War II, but here it is heavily flawed -- with only about 15 skills to choose but over 45 nodes to unlock before those skills can be accessed, the game locks up the interesting stuff until the story is almost over. If each node gave you a small bonus to health, damage, or cooldowns, it would be understandable. But as it is, it just feels like artificial padding.
The missions contain cutscenes and dialogues that point you towards your objective, along with old relics from the Chapter that you can track down as collectibles. Unfortunately, the missions are badly designed, with a lot of backtracking involved and unused areas all around -- the center of each map is usually huge, yet the objectives are always at the borders, forcing you to crisscross the same areas of the map countless times to reach them and complete your mission. I feel they could have made the objectives a bit more focused and well distributed and as a result given the missions a better flow.
The fact that objectives are repetitive and not exciting is not helped by the stonewall dumbness of the AI, which follows you like obsessive puppies and possess the same tactical expertise of one. They constantly let enemies get too close, fail to engage an enemy that has been attacking them for a few seconds, and are more than happy to let themselves be shot to death by turrets in a corridor unless you order them out of harm’s way. I do like the way they turn around and get out of your way when you backtrack, as well as their tendency to engage separate flanks and cover angles when multiple hordes converge on your squad, but those are literally the only good things about them.
The single-player feels lacking and boring due to the way missions stutter and never get anywhere; the AI is simply too dumb and predictable to make things fun, and that’s where the game really drops the ball hard: Space Hulk’s multiplayer has no campaign. It shares all nine levels of the single-player one with none of the plot development, character progression, or story cutscenes -- it is just a series of non-interconnected rounds where you move from one marker to the next along with three other players, shooting enemies that pop up. The objectives are unexplained, the enemy placement is different, and the whole gameplay mechanic is different, with the lack of a permanent level-up system and a different inventory mechanic.
The matchmaking is terrible, and the system is P2P -- meaning if the host quits or crashes, the whole mission along with all its progress is lost -- not that it matters, as multiplayer progress is literally nonexistent. The co-op is incomprehensibly bad; for a game so clearly built on the molds of Left 4 Dead and Vermintide, Deathwing fails at providing even the least amount of functionality to its multiplayer. If Space Hulk’s AI was a work of art, capable of intelligently finding its place across the world and with a huge array of tactical and useful commands, one could argue that the title is mostly a single-player game with a multiplayer mode tacked on. However, given the single-player’s AI is so half-heartedly realised and amazingly restricted, the stripped down and frankly idiotic approach to co-op multiplayer here is downright maddening.
Unfortunately, those misguided design decisions extend further than picking the worst aspects of solo and co-op play and building the respective modes around those terrible concepts -- it also extends to essential gameplay mechanics that end up clipping the game’s wings. Part of the appeal of a Space Marine is being able to don a huge suit of power armour and face unbeatable odds, fighting knee-deep in the bodies of your slain opponents amid a horde of enemies for days on end. Yet in Deathwing, you are as fragile as a jellyfish and more often than not will be instantly killed in one-hit a couple of times every play session. Terminator Armour -- the one worn by the player characters -- is supposed to be the heaviest and most resilient form of power armour in the 40K universe, yet you lose half your health when under attack of a single Tyranid and are killed in seconds in a hail of bullets. The gross failure in grasping one of the essential strengths of the Space Marines and translating that into gameplay turns Space Hulk into an exercise in frustration and constantly kills the mood, as every time you suddenly die makes you feel less like an armoured brute and more like a squishy deep-voiced cow.
That terrible balance drove me to play most of the game on Easy, as the Normal difficulty meant dying every single level and caused such a huge discrepancy between being a big gun-toting, heavily armoured space marine and feeling like one that the game was literally unenjoyable. Even on Easy, mission failures were still somewhat common, and the game’s absurd loading times even on an SSD quickly killed the mood of any retries.
Replayability is also a big issue with Deathwing, since your arsenal is extremely limited. The game lacks a loot system, leading to an utter lack of varieties in weapons upon which to equip you and your squad -- not to mention the absolute lack of any armour variations at all. Even the collectible weapons and armour you find scattered around as Relics of the Chapter can't be equipped, representing a huge missed chance by part of the developers. The fact that the nine missions are always scripted -- and in case of multiplayer, purposeless -- renders the title virtually useless after completion, and I can’t see the multiplayer scene lasting more than a few months. Without a loot and level up system, as well some sort of randomly generated content like levels or at least an AI director, single-player only gives you a meager story while multiplayer has literally nothing to offer.
Lack of polish is also a factor -- the game is unnecessarily obtuse with information, boasting a quite bad UI in addition to its unpolished mechanics. Things like HUD elements and cooldowns are not explained, nor how to resurrect your allies by use of your psygate and teleporting to a safe haven when they invariably die during the single-player campaign. A much better job could be done in conveying information.
On the technical side, I had a mostly uneventful ride. While others have experienced framerate issues and crashes, my fps was always stable -- except for two occasions where it suddenly became unplayable from launch and required a restart. In multiplayer, I once crashed halfway through a match by accessing my inventory and lost all my progress. And another time, I died shortly after joining a game and the respawn timer -- which usually lasts a ludicrous one minute -- took 300 seconds to put me back in action. That’s five minutes waiting for a respawn on a game where missions lasts about 20 minutes.
The 40K universe desperately needs an action-adventure game that brings honour to its spirit and fulfils the promise of its enormous potential. But once more, we are handed a half-hearted, terrible mess of a game which gets some of the ideas wonderfully right, yet botches up the execution with some of the most abysmal game design decisions ever seen this side of Evolve. While I would love to recommend a new co-op action game -- God knows we are awfully short on those -- I can’t recommend this as it is. It can be saved if the developers draw inspiration from successful co-op franchises and listen to what the playerbase wants, but as of now Space Hulk: Deathwing is a game full of potential wasted on terrible creative decisions. It still feels like a beta, and maybe someday it will shine as the gold it claims to be, but today is not that day.
Space Hulk - Deathwing (Reviewed on Windows)
The game is average, with an even mix of positives and negatives.
Space Hulk: Deathwing is a game full of potential, wasted on terrible creative decisions that pitch the game's strengths directly against one another.