Let’s get it out of the way: Space Hulk: Deathwing - Enhanced Edition is still a bit of a disappointment. It adds new classes, weapons, and a very comprehensive customisation system, but every single flaw of the original remains untouched. The game is a collection of egregious design decisions, compounded by the fact the game had over a year of post-launch development to address them.
Space Hulk: Deathwing 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. 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. 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 by half a dozen enemies in every play session. Terminator Armour – the one worn by player characters – is supposed to be among 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 that 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 very common, and the co-op sessions are almost unplayable for beginners without a full team regardless of difficulty.
Co-op missions are a senseless stroll through the Space Hulk towards objective, without any sense of flow or pacing. The game constantly throws enemies at you from every direction, turning missions into a meat grinder that quickly becomes grating. The single player campaign has a more structured experience, but it’s far from exciting.
The leveling-up system is one of Deathwing’s biggest issues, as the multiplayer either allows you to temporary level up throughout a level or unlock everything from the start via “Codex Rules”. The former removes any sense of progression, while the latter absolutely murders any possibility of it by wiping out anything you unlocked upon death or mission completion. It is unintuitive, obnoxious, and frankly, I can’t understand how a designer thought that could be a good idea.
On the bright side, the new customization system is quite comprehensive. It offers everything from banners and armour/weapon skins to attachments and emblems, allowing you customise your characters mostly as you see fit. It’s a welcome addition that extends replayability, if anyone could play the game enough to actually enjoy it.
On the technical side, I had a mostly uneventful ride, but that seemed to be the exception. People I’ve played with had resolution and UI issues including overlapping menus and temporary loss of control. The whole game suffers from an overall lack of polish, and I was honestly shocked to find Deathwing at mostly the same way I remembered it being in 2016.
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 mess of a game which gets some of the ideas wonderfully right, yet botches up the execution. I would love to recommend Deathwing as a fun, competent co-op title action game, but some of the most abysmal balance and game design decisions ever seen this side of Evolve means I unfortunately can’t.
SPACE HULK: DEATHWING VERDICT
An admirable, yet failed attempt at fixing the game.