Space Hulk: Deathwing Review

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Games based on licensed properties can sometimes cover up a multitude of sins by remaining close to their source material. Space Hulk: Deathwing is not one of those games. Although this shooter from French developer Streum On Studio boasts the grim atmosphere and brutal combat that the Warhammer 40,000 universe is known for, there are too many problems here for even the most hardcore fan to endure for long. For every impressive set piece and “wow” moment in combat, there are a dozen befuddling rules or mechanics that make you scratch your head in disbelief.

Of all the issues, tedium is the biggest offender. All nine levels of the campaign are slogs where you trudge down one corridor after another, pausing only to incinerate predictable waves of enemies. Beyond a few minor variations, enemy Genestealers come in two forms: ones that rush at you gnashing teeth and slashing claws, and hybrids that shoot at you from a distance with guns, rocket launchers, and psychic blasts. Bigger and tougher baddies are introduced during the campaign–including some bosses capable of shredding squads with ease–but by and large, the tactics you employ at the start of the game will carry you to the end.

On a positive note, battles are often as brutal as you’d expect from a Space Hulk game. There’s real weight to the thud of your weaponry and power armor as you stomp through dark corridors and chambers. Even the thump-thump-thump of the (relatively) lightweight storm bolter, the whir of an assault cannon, and the whoosh of a flamer are exhilarating because you feel like you’re doing real physical damage. Pounding on enemies with melee weapons is even more ferocious, if a bit chaotic and hard to follow, with the medieval-styled swords and hammers that send flurries of blood and flesh into the air.

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Deathwing thankfully nails the look and atmosphere of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It’s loaded with visual fan service like massive cathedrals, dissected bodies in laboratories, and humans wired into power systems. Everything is just as baroque and bloody as it ought to be, making for one of the most authentic video game interpretations of Warhammer 40,000’s striking aesthetic.

While everything does look great, there’s little room for interactivity. Aside from shooting gas lines into flaming geysers and opening, closing, sealing, and smashing doors, you can’t do much to your surroundings. There are no weapons, no ammo, no health packs, or any other goodies to collect. Objectives never involve anything more than killing lots of Genestealers, taking out a boss alien, blowing something up, or turning something off or on. You just follow the orders leading from one corner of each map to another until you wrap up the final battle.

Unfortunately, squad AI is a major problem. Your allies aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re limited in their abilities when it comes to choosing targets and taking cover.

Both the personality and texture of combat are vaguely reminiscent of the original Space Hulk PC games. You take the fight to the Genestealers in squads of three when playing with others online, or solo with bots filling out the ranks. Unfortunately, squad AI is a major problem. Your allies aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re limited in their abilities when it comes to choosing targets and taking cover. Trying to take out gun turrets is a huge exercise in frustration, as your pals tend to just stand in the open and get blasted until they die.

AI Space Marines are prone to shuffling in place, turning their backs on attacking enemies right in their faces, and standing in the middle of doorways when you’re trying to seal off a room full of aliens. Enemy mobs can easily overwhelm them, and they tend to stand their ground and shoot mindlessly in the face of bosses that destroy them in a matter of seconds. They don’t do anything on their own, either. You have to tell your apothecary marine to patch himself up when his health is low–otherwise he just lets himself die. A radial order menu allows you to give rudimentary commands like Follow, Defend, and Heal, but it’s impossibly clunky to use during combat unless your Deathwing trooper has a deathwish.

Playing co-op is better by far, but it’s currently tough to find a suitable squad. Either hosts are kicking people or there’s something wrong with the online code; it’s far more common to receive a server error message than it is to successfully enter a match.

Some core mechanics are also needlessly quirky. You can’t swap your loadouts on the fly, for example. To swap weapons, revive dead characters, and heal everyone up, you have to activate a Psygate that takes you back to your ship for some TLC. Unfortunately, you only have three of these per level, so it’s easy to exhaust them and find yourself at the end of a scenario with the wrong weapon for the battle at hand. This adds to the intensity of the game by ramping up the consequences every time you trigger a return for some new gear and healing, but it also forces you to start levels from the very beginning at times, which isn’t quite as welcome.

While it captures the look and feel of a bleak sci-fi world, numerous quirks and bugs make Space Hulk: Deathwing a guilty pleasure at best.

The game also crashes to the desktop fairly frequently. One of these crashes actually corrupted a save so that every time it reloaded, the mouse buttons and keyboard wouldn’t work. And when you aren’t forced to replay significant chunks of time, you may end up loading an autosave and begin in the middle of a firefight–an impossible situation and a demotivating outcome.

While it captures the look and feel of a bleak sci-fi world, numerous quirks and bugs make Space Hulk: Deathwing a guilty pleasure at best. Playing cooperatively with a couple of buddies helps smooth over some of these problems, but regardless, combat remains incessantly tedious. The one hope is that the fanatical Games Workshop community grabs hold of the game and starts modding, because the visuals, atmosphere, and ferocity of the combat could be harnessed and turned into something impressive. As is, even the most crazed Warhammer 40,000 or Space Hulk fan will have a tough time appreciating Space Hulk: Deathwing.

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