Warhammer 40,000 Darktide Hands-on Preview: Shoot And Smash

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Warhammer 40,000 Darktide Hands-on Preview: Shoot And Smash

At first blush, Warhammer 40,000: Darktide appears to be very similar to previous games created by its developer, Fatshark. The gists of Darktide, Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide, and Warhammer: Vermintide 2 are pretty much the same. All three games are cooperative multiplayer titles in which teams of four players take on Left 4 Dead-style objective-based missions and crush their way through hordes of enemies. And like its predecessors, Darktide makes great use of Fatshark’s approach to first-person melee combat, giving you ample opportunities to smash skulls with giant hammers and huge knives.

Where Darktide steps away from the Vermintide games is with the more sci-fi-oriented Warhammer 40k setting, which adds a few spins–most prominently, a greater prevalence of guns. Coming into Fatshark’s Warhammer games for the first time with a hands-on preview of about 30 minutes of Darktide, it was immediately clear how the game stands out from other cooperative multiplayer offerings like it. Mixing guns and melee play creates a variety of new and interesting combat scenarios for Darktide, where you have to simultaneously think about clearing out enemies, controlling the battlefield, and covering your teammates from sneaky, approaching threats.

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In Darktide, you carry both a big melee weapon and a gun, and having the two types of weapons creates a distinct feel in the gameplay–you’re facing both hordes of zombie-like enemies wielding melee weapons, and soldiers with guns of their own. The mix of the two kinds of enemies means you need a mix of long-range and close-range tactics to deal with them, and the teamwork to match.

As Victor Magnuson, head of design at Fatshark, and lead level designer Joakim Setterberg explained in an interview with GameSpot, the studio knew it had melee combat under control. To fit the expectation of Warhammer 40k, though, it would have to up its ranged game.

“In Vermintide, we had ranged [combat], but it’s a medieval setting, so they were very basic weapons,” Magnuson said. “So we didn’t have to go as deep as readouts, all that stuff.”

“The opposition was melee-based as well, so that didn’t give you the full range of encounters and tactics,” Setterberg added. “But now you have a different balance that you have to adhere to.”

Mixing the two kinds of combat together meant that Fatshark had to think about how to add ranged enemies to scenarios without them feeling tacked on or unbalanced in various encounters. That meant creating a cover system that enemies could adhere to so, Magnuson said, so soldiers aren’t just standing around waiting for you to shoot them. Enemy soldiers are also designed to try to group together to create a unified front, he said, whereas melee enemies are likely to come from all over the place. That means that soldiers feel like they’re fighting you intelligently while helping prevent the mix of melee and ranged combat from becoming so chaotic that it’s confusing and unfun.

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That approach to ranged enemies also means that savvy players have the opportunity to use tactics against them, like by sending a member of their team to flank soldiers behind cover. Other little additions add nuances to the shooter combat, Magnuson said, like the ability to run and slide under enemy fire while lining up a shot of your own. Each character also gets a recharging shield that Magnuson said helped bridge the gap between melee combat and ranged combat.

“We knew we wanted ranged combat, and to be able to get into melee combat from ranged, you have to not be afraid of running up to the enemy,” he said. “So we implemented this shield system so you can take two or three shots, to encourage people to still engage in the melee.”

Level design was also a major part of making Darktide’s fights fun without being unbalanced. Like the Vermintide games, Darktide uses an AI director behind the scenes, which dictates where and when enemies show up to fight players, and what types of enemies those forces include. But that means, as Magnuson explained, the developers never know exactly what will happen in a given battle.

“We have to design the spaces for our players as well as the enemies–the enemy is its own team, properly,” Setterberg said.

“We just have to make sure that, throughout the missions, there are all these possibilities that could happen, if the AI director system decides to adhere to it,” Magnuson added.

The mission we played had us working through a portion of the ravaged Hive city of Tertium, starting at the surface in what seemed like it might have been a residential district, before opening the way down into tighter maintenance tunnels below. Hordes of enemies occasionally would appear along the way, until we hit locations where we’d have to defend a computer console opening a way forward or complete a similar objective.

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In addition to big groups of zombie-like melee enemies and gun-toting soldiers, there are plenty of opportunities to fight elite units that change up the battle. Trackers like to slip behind your group and hit players with net guns, disabling them and leaving them vulnerable until a teammate shows up to free them. Bombers try to dash toward your group and blow themselves up for huge damage, while Gunners wield large miniguns and sport extra armor so they’re tougher to take down. As we descended into maintenance tunnels beneath a subway, the AI director threw a huge Plague Ogryn miniboss at us. The narrow hallways were far less than ideal for taking on the huge enemy at first, but eventually our team managed to use the maze-like halls to surround and overwhelm it while it struggled with its attention divided.

Darktide differs from the Vermintide games in more than just setting and combat feel, as well. Where the Vermintide games let you choose from a handful of characters when creating a team, Darktide allows you to create your own characters, who fit in a series of classes. We saw four classes in our preview–the veteran, zealot, outsider, and ogryn–and each has their own stat differences and special abilities. For our mission, we tried the damage-focused zealot, whose role is generally to close distances quickly with the enemy and lay into them with melee strikes. The zealot’s special ability is a dash that seems to leave you temporarily invulnerable as you travel, making it possible to get in close without getting shot up along the way. The fast-paced approach was great for getting into the action quickly, although the zealot often has to rely on their teammates to avoid getting too overwhelmed, as it’s easy to dash your way into trouble if you’re not paying attention.

Magnuson said that classes differ from one another somewhat in their stats, and primarily in their special abilities and combat approaches. The ogryn, for instance, is about twice as big as the other characters, making it great for tanking damage, but also an enormous target. You can further customize your playstyle through a leveling system that opens up different perks. Every time you level up, you unlock a choice of one of three upgrades, Magnuson said. We didn’t see the system in action, but Magnuson said that choosing how you want to level your character is a big part of developing them over time as you play through Darktide’s missions.

The class and customization systems mean that, where two players on a team couldn’t both choose the same character in the Vermintide games, players have more freedom with how they create their teams in Darktide. You can have four veterans on a team if you want, Magnuson said, making team composition a part of your tactical planning when taking on a tough mission.

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In fact, having two or more characters of the same class might create an interesting situation from a story standpoint. As with Vermintide, a lot of the story experience in Darktide is in the banter between the characters as you’re playing, and part of your customization options for creating your characters is determining their personalities. Two characters on a team might both be veterans, but with different personality options in play, they’ll have different conversations in missions, Setterberg said; an all-ogryn conversation would be different from a conversation between an ogryn, veteran, and zealot.

Not all the character customization options will have such a notable impact on your character–the home planet you choose or your character’s childhood, for instance, might not alter conversations, although some will offer different cosmetic options. But the breadth of options offer Warhammer 40k fans who like to roleplay more ways to define who they want their particular Darktide character to be. You can also create multiple characters, giving you opportunities to decide who you bring to a team, or even to spec different characters of the same class with different gameplay specializations or personalities.

Where you’ll control your particular playstyle most is with your weapons. An accurate, laser-firing lasgun plays differently from the faster firing auto gun, while a chainsword gives you some different options from a big, electrically charged hammer. Our damage-focused zealot used the auto gun alongside the hammer, gunning down waves of melee enemies quickly at a distance to create breathing room, and then dealing massive damage by charging up the hammer for a big, satisfying electrified strike. Alternatively, with a lasgun in hand, you might hang back and try to go for headshots, clearing out soldiers with guns and letting other players handle more of the melee fighting.

Magnuson said that Darktide is also taking a different tack on its loot and weapon system from the Vermintide games and going a bit deeper on those systems.

“In Vermintide, a sword was always a sword,” he explained. “Swords always had the same stats, the sort of same speed and so on. But here you can get a sword that has higher damage or a higher speed, and depending on the rarity of the weapon, there are more of those stats that are allowed to get a higher roll, so to speak. And if you find a weapon with the perfect roll that you want, you can then go to a crafting station and change the traits on it. If you find a weapon that you don’t like, you can salvage that trait, take it out and put it on the weapon that you actually want to use.”

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You’ll mostly get random loot at the ends of missions, but Fatshark realized in Vermintide that randomness can be a pain for players who take on a mission over and over again and can’t seem to get the certain type of weapon they want to drop. To help combat that, Darktide’s hub area–which includes characters to talk to and a station to launch missions–includes vendors where you can purchase specific types of weapons, if that chainsword is just refusing to drop at the end of missions. You can also take on long-term “contracts” to earn yourself better weapons, fulfilling objectives to gather currency that you can then pay toward a piece of gear to eventually unlock it.

As for the missions you’ll face, Fatshark intends for Darktide to offer players as much replayability as possible, with the AI director’s variations on encounters and the deep loot system coupling with other possibilities that might change how missions play out over time. You’ll see those possible variations on the mission board, a location in Darktide’s hub area where you can jump into matches with other players.

“The mission board is used for matchmaking purposes mainly, and it also allows us to tell sort of what’s going on in the Hive right now, like what missions are they sending us on right now,” Magnuson said. “So there’s a bit of a narrative component. It will also allow us to have, like, weekends when we have something going on in the Hive, so maybe this mission is more prevalent or it keeps coming back. Let’s say the story is that this week there’s a blackout in the Hive. A lot of missions have what we call a ‘circumstance,’ like a mutator. So we could put a circumstance on a mission and have something like a blackout where it’s much darker than previously and you have to really rely on your flashlight to be able to play and stuff like that. So we can have those little sort of narrative things happening every once in a while when we want to do it.

“We know that our players play this game for a really long time, right? So we want it to feel fresh again and again and again,” he said.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is set to release on September 13 on PC and Xbox Series X|S.