Being hunted through a creaking deathtrap by a horde of slavering monsters is actually one of the more relaxing jobs in the 40K universe
When last I saw Streum On Studio’s 40K shooter Space Hulk: Deathwing, there frankly wasn’t that much to get excited about. The preview consisted of a single space marine terminator lumbering about in the dark, a chunky but rather rough-looking bolter to fire, and a genestealer model that sat there oblivious as you pumped round after round into its drooling face. It was a proof of concept presentation rather than a full demo, and therefore pretty damned hard to analyse in any great detail.
Almost a year on, and things look rather more interesting. I saw a sample mission from the main storyline in action, a relatively straightforward search and recover task made slightly more complicated by the hordes of tyranids out to eat our unfortunate hero’s face. Luckily, he happens to be a space marine, a physic warrior known as a Librarian, and a member of the grumpy yet effective Dark Angels chapter, and therefore has access to the latest in horrifically unethical anti-alien weaponry with which to purge the filthy xenos. PETA would not approve.
Streum On are clearly big 40K nuts, and they’ve mustered an impressive arsenal of weapons to take into battle. For support types there’s the assault cannon or the heavy flamer, both of which lay down a withering hail of death – the flamer’s particularly useful, as you can cover vulnerable areas with sheets of flame that stick to the floors and walls, roasting unfortunate genestealers as they come pouring through. Plus there’s some pretty tasty flame effects. Then there’s the usual array of bolters, plasma guns and pistols for medium-range work, all of which seem like they’ll be weighty and fun to use, and a bunch of melee weapons if you prefer your violence up close and personal. Unfortunately I didn’t get hands on time with Deathwing, so I can’t make a judgement on the all important weapon feel that makes or breaks a shooter, but the gunplay at the very least seems solid.
Genestealers burst apart in clouds of ichor, cultists are thrown across the room by a swing from a thunder hammer, electric-blue plasma bursts ripple down corridors - fans of 40K’s particular brand of gleeful violence won’t be disappointed. The Unreal Engine 4 is doing some fine work with lighting and textures, and though animations are perhaps a little rough around the edges (I’m not sure the animators have quite captured the lumbering power of a suit of Terminator armour – things seem a tiny bit jerky and quick), the combat seems to come together nicely. Some nice tactical elements from the boardgame have also been adapted for Deathwing’s brand of hectic action, such as the ability to block off certain routes with impenetrable bulkheads, or hack your way through structural weak points. Providing a bit of extra depth is a levelling system that lets you nudge your hero in several different directions, and unlock new psychic powers and gear.
There’s a range of options depending on how you want to focus your character, and co-op - though it wasn’t demoed - apparently makes full use of the squad class structure. Medics will carry life-saving ‘narthecium’ kits, heavy troopers will pack the big guns, and assault leaders will fend off the enemy with power swords and storm shields if they get too close. You can’t summon the psychic powers of a librarian (cooler than they sound) in multiplayer, unfortunately. That’s reserved for the main character in the story campaign, due to both balance issues and presumably the fact that everyone would want to play one. I imagine that co-op will be the main draw with Deathwing – the game’s got a very distinct Left 4 Dead vibe going on, as the hordes of genestealers become ever more aggressive and numerous the further you head into the bowels of the ship.
My main concern at this point isn’t the moment to moment action, but the game’s underlying structure. Streum On says there’s plenty of variety on offer as you plough further onwards into the heart of the space hulk, but so far all I’ve seen are lots of grey-brown corridors and a tonne of tyranid pest control. The genestealers and their human cultist allies are the only enemy, at least the only ones revealed so far, and I’m a little worried that after ten hours of blasting them to pieces things might start to feel a little repetitive. On the plus side, Streum On say there are multiple different enemy types to keep things fresh, and they’ve also been talking up the game’s enemy AI, which they claim makes genestealers unpredictable and deadly, and more likely to go searching for a flanking route than charge straight into your hallowed Mace of Obliteration.
We also don’t really know what missions and objectives the developers have in store for players. The preview session focused on a largely unremarkable fetch mission, but 40K’s a setting rife with possibilities. There’s really no excuse not to give players a tonne of interesting things to do and see. Dank, grey gun-metal bulkheads and looming Gothic architecture are both fine in moderation, I just hope Streum On remember that there’s a lot of colour and spectacle in the 41st millenium as well. Essentially you want to avoid a situation similar to Relic’s Space Marine, which spoiled an interesting story campaign by staging it in a series of brown warehouses.
It’s still far too early to tell if Deathwing will be the 40K shooter the fans are waiting for, but the core gunplay looks to be coming along nicely. There’s plenty of familiar weapons to try out, a moody and atmospheric location to explore, and some gratifyingly gribbly enemies to pulp. If Streum On can keep the action feeling fresh and not rely on too much repetition, either in terms of mission structure or visuals, then we could have a genuinely good 40K FPS on our hands. Space Hulk: Deathwing is due out this year for PC and consoles.
Most Anticipated Feature: I’m looking forward to seeing if Streum On can come up with some more visually interesting, diverse locations to explore. Space hulks are essentially floating planets with their own warped ecosystems and bizarre inhabitants after all.