After more than a decade, Warhammer 40K returns to the first-person shooter genre. Space Hulk: Deathwing represents the first FPS title since 2003’s Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior on PC and PlayStation 2. I had the chance to sit down and see a live demo in action.
Over the course of a 15-hour campaign, players will venture into the Space Hulk, a mass of asteroids and abandoned spacecraft. The campaign teams players up with up to three friends or AI companions to explore the dangerous bowels of the Space Hulk known as Olethros. Deathwing puts players in the colossal frame of a Librarian, a space marine uniquely gifted with psychic abilities. On their journey through the various ships and asteroids that compose the hulk, players will discover new weapons and unlock new abilities to use in combat, like a 360-degree force push or the ability to discharge chain lightning.
As our Librarian and his crew of AI teammates began exploring a black templar warship inside the Space Hulk, a screech echoed through the halls. “That scream indicates that we're probably about to have our first encounter with the alien Genestealers,” Focus Home Interactive’s representative explained, “You'll notice right away that these alien Genestealers fall pretty quickly under a hail of Storm Bolter fire. Instead of defense, they specialize in swarming in huge groups; surrounding your squad; and attacking with powerful melee attacks. If you catch them alone or force them into a choke point they shouldn't be too difficult to deal with.” As players progress through their encounters with Genestealers, they will begin to notice that the AI that governs their behavior leads to unpredictable behavior. If a Genestealer notices players in the distance it may run to alert its companions or, if it is close enough, it will alert the swarm and attack. Additionally, if players encounter a huge group directly, the swarm might break off into two groups and attempt to pincer the players from various directions.
Space Hulk: Deathwing obviously derives its series name from the popular Warhammer 40K Space Hulk board game. Streum On Studio has tried to take the spirit of the board game and translate it into video game form. “We've incorporated gameplay elements that made the board game unique,” said the studio’s reps, “The most useful of these is the idea that you have to try and control the flow of the swarm of Genestealers. This is an enemy that's almost unlimited in number. You'll never going to be able to defeat them all. Instead, this is a game of controlling risks. So one of the ways you can do this is sealing entrances. This helps to stop the Genestealer tide.” Occasionally, players might discover shortcuts to their objective locations, but those shortcuts might come with the price of a harder final confrontation as Genestealers swarm through additional openings.
Each mission takes place aboard a different ship and will require players to carefully consider their options while they have the opportunity between skirmishes. Exploring off of the main objective path can reveal new items, paths, and secrets, but also proves to be a very dangerous endeavor. The ships the Librarians explore were lost to both time and space for an unfathomably long time, but some ship defense systems might remain online. These can be hazardous to players, but can also prove to be useful if they are preserved and hacked. If reprogrammed to target Genestealers, they could turn the tide in battle at a key moment. Between missions, players will have to properly equip and prepare their team of Dark Angel Terminators to face the hordes of Olethros and solve the mysteries it holds.
“The important thing to note in battle,” explained the demonstrator as Genestealers swarmed around, “is that you're going to take damage which is localized to wherever you get hit on your body. Different parts of your power armor have their own hit box. What this means is if you get attacked too much on the right arm, say, you won't be able to effectively use whatever weapon you have equipped there. Another way is if you get attacked too much by a swarm of Genestealers attacking at your legs, you may not be able to move as quickly or sprint.”
Genestealers tend to be melee opponents, though there are ranged varieties as well. The larger Genestealers are also heavily armored. To that end, melee combat is important in prolonged battles against their kind. Players will have access to weapons like force swords or axes that can more easily penetrate armor and can be used to parry incoming melee attacks.
Overall, I quite enjoyed the tactical, measured aspects of Deathwing’s FPS action. The more deliberate approach and pace seems well suited to hulking, armored space marines. The AI lends an aspect of enjoyable unpredictability to combat that I can only imagine increases with the fun chaos of human companions. Many Warhammer 40K games seem to be a bit off-putting to those who aren’t already invested in the franchise, but Deathwing might be the most accessible the franchise has been in a long while.
Space Hulk: Deathwing releases later in 2016 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.