Over the years, even before the recent glut, there have been a number of games which used the Warhammer 40k license. There have been some good games, for that matter; I for one played the hell out of the Dawn of War franchise, right up to and including Dawn of War II’s expansion.
But something about Relic’s big-budget offerings nevertheless left me cold on some level. Something about the atmosphere, something about the nature of the world they portrayed didn’t sit right with the world of Warhammer 40k I remembered from my teenage years. Was it the darkness of it? Was Dawn of War simply not “grimdark” enough?
Perhaps. Certainly, it’s true of the vast majority of 40k games that, due to publishers being a little squeamish, they never quite capture the darkness of the setting. When the Orks feature, they’re an almost comedic swarm of green idiots full of Warcraft-esque cute one-liners, rather than genuinely terrifying savages so simultaneously stupid and psychic that a death-machine designed by a 5-year-old would work for them simply because they’re too stupid to realise that it shouldn’t. When Chaos features in a 40k game, we usually see it in one of two flavours: Chaos Undivided – a conveniently bland banner under which all the nuances and details of the nightmarish deities are reduced to vague references and generic black spiky armour – or followers of Tzeentch, whose bird-like demons and abundance of sorcerers is a little more palatable than, for example, the deranged bloodlust of Khorne, god of war, or the pervy tits-and-dicks antics of Slaanesh, gender-ambiguous deity of excess… or Nurgle, for that matter, whose minions are purulent sacks of walking decay.
And when we see the Space Marines in a Warhammer 40k game? They’re brave, heroic supermen clad in stylish power armour, with a seemingly endless supply of tanks and planes and dreadnoughts at their disposal… rather than the inhuman products of genetic and cybernetic augmentation, brainwashed into a state of monk-like purity through a torturous indoctrination process, limited by law to a maximum of 1,000 soldiers per chapter as a result of ancient treachery, and serving an empire so vast it is locked in a state of perpetual stagnation and slow decay.
So, no. Relic, in particular, never quite grasped the true darkness of the Warhammer 40k franchise, though they certainly made good use of it in other regards. They came closest, I’d argue, with the finale to their flawed and simplistic (yet rather enjoyable) “Space Marine” game, which saw its tediously heroic protagonist… carted off by the Inquisition for essentially being just a little too suspiciously heroic.
But darkness isn’t enough. That’s not really what Warhammer 40k is all about. Violence isn’t enough; that isn’t really what Warhammer 40k is about either. Not directly. I would argue, in fact, that Warhammer 40k isn’t actually about war.
It’s about the history of war.
And this is a distinction which suddenly makes sense when you step into the rumbling, rusting, cavernous chambers of Space Hulk: Deathwing.
WARNING: WET PAINT
Let’s deal with the inevitable issues first. Deathwing wasn’t ready for release. It needs a lot of optimization work, suffering from sudden and often inexplicable drops in framerate, coupled with the occasional freeze (and that’s just the singleplayer – I’ve seen plenty of reports of frequent crashes and glitches in its cooperative multiplayer).
But, to be blunt, I was always expecting this. The developer’s previous game (E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy) was a 40k-wannabe spiritual successor to STALKER and the original Deus Ex – it was glitchy, it was very peculiar, but it was intelligent, fascinating and very hardcore. Its scope and complexity rather got the better of its makers in places, but the end product was something unique and memorable, with fantastic weapons and huge, Gothic architecture the likes of which you simply don’t see in this age of detailed yet confined FPS environments.
And architecture is more important than people seem to realise. In Relic’s Space Marine the architecture was largely grey/brown, and while all of it conformed to the established lore, none of it really did anything beyond conforming to the lore in the most basic sense. Many of the maps in the Dawn of War franchise suffered in a similar fashion; with so much focus given to the little soldiers and their violence, very little was given to the world itself, which came across as rather drab and soulless.
Yet when you look at the classically-styled masterpieces that form the vast back-catalogue of Warhammer 40k concept art, once your eyes move beyond the centerpiece of the image, you notice a common theme; that of abundant background detail. A legion of Space Marines on parade? You’ll see swarms of tiny little servo-skulls tending to them, and priests swinging censers. A massive war scene, with a band of heroic (or villainous) characters blasting away in the foreground? You’ll see the shadows of huge war machines in the background, and massive stone spires succumbing to explosions, and the panicked faces of fallen foes, and the dull glimmer of spent ammunition. Meanwhile, the foreground characters themselves are not merely ornate, but ornate with the kind of detail that implies historical significance; the Space Marines themselves not merely clad in the identifying decorations and insignia of their chapter, but in the scars and honours of their unnaturally long military careers – purity seals dangling from them, heavy with inscribed prayers; unique blessings etched into their armour; trophies and religious icons dangling from their belts and weapons.
Because Warhammer is all about history. With its fantasy and science fiction branches combined, it is one great pastiche of all human conflict, and human conflict is born of human culture, and culture is not just about costume. Culture is about decay and change; it’s about law and belief. In Warhammer’s concept art, behind the immediate violence, you see all of these things – you see that which is feared, that which is prayed to, that which is taboo, that which is degenerating. In the decline of old empires, history shows us that craftsmanship deteriorates; old arts and skills, once mastered, are steadily forgotten and social standards begin to slide.
And this is Warhammer 40,000 – the human race is like an old, rotting tree; its roots go deep and permeate all things, and while its underlying structure is beginning to succumb, new and unruly forms of life take up residence across its cracked bark, ensuring that it never actually dies.
Deathwing captures this look flawlessly. Whether it’s the quaint candlelit armoury shrine you teleport to when in need of a resupply, or the actually-legible purity seals and blessings present both in the environment and on your companions, or the various types of servo-skull that hover around you scouting out the map, or the sheer battered, rusted nature of ship interiors that look all at once impossibly vast and yet plausibly mechanical… everything looks just right. Feels just right. This isn’t just a Warhammer 40k skin for a generic science fiction game – this is a glimpse into the actual world and history of Warhammer 40k.
DRUMS IN THE DEEP
“…We cannot get out. We cannot get out. They have taken the bridge and second hall… The end comes soon. We hear drums, drums in the deep…”
Space Hulk itself, for those who are unfamiliar with this particular sub-branch of the Warhammer 40k franchise, is all about a small number of heavily armour-clad chaps stomping around the labyrinthine corridors and dusty halls of ancient warships which were lost in transit through the hellish realms of the Warp, before returning to real space devoid of crew and full of monstrous things. As a tabletop experience, it’s all about moving your little soldier-men across a tightly confined map while aliens try to rip their heads off and plant eggs in their still-warm corpses – a sci-fi dungeon crawl, essentially, with elements of Aliens thrown in for good measure.
As a general setting, and in this latest incarnation… think Moria. With Aliens. And like the original great dungeon crawl that was Tolkien’s Mines of Moria, “doom” is an important word here. As you stomp around the ruined (yet not quite dead) ships that form the greater Space Hulk in question, the sense of doom in Deathwing is almost tangible. Everywhere you go, there are signs of activity frozen in moments of death and disaster; great machines idling, as tech priests lie strewn about the levers that might awaken them; empty casings littering a floor rusty and darkened with blood. Even when you find no corpses, the environmental design is such that you find yourself growing suspicious of that lack of corpses… like you already suspect something truly grisly has been done with them.
It isn’t about being afraid, it’s about feeling dread.
LEAVE IT TO DRY
I could now delve into the actual gameplay, and attempt something more akin to an actual review of Space Hulk: Deathwing, but as I mentioned earlier, the game is broken in its current state, and not at all comfortable to play: During certain heavy combat situations at the end of the first level, the framerate bottomed out to under 10 frames per second regardless of settings, and that was on a new AMD RX 480 – admittedly not the most powerful card on the market, but good enough to keep GTA V up around 60 FPS. Clearly some work has to be done, and you can expect the game to be slammed with negative reviews for a while yet (you’ll find similar comments littering the Steam discussion board at the moment).
But from what little I have experienced thus far (which is to say, the entirety of the first level, and the opening of the second – at which point it crashed a few minutes in) I look forward to the game actually working properly. The weapons are satisfying (and for once, the mighty Storm Bolter is not just a glorified machinegun, but more like a projectile battering ram), the gameplay surprisingly tactical on its higher difficulties, and the narrative’s use of the Dark Angels is a breath of fresh air after years of the rather generic Ultramarines and the Relic-invented “SPESS MEHRENS” Blood Ravens.
I’d say, give it a month or two. The team in question is very small, and they’ll probably have retreated into a concrete bunker to weather the storm of harsh criticism. But if they can bring things together, make those big old rusty gears turn a little more smoothly, then I will recommend Deathwing to any Warhammer fan with great fervour.