Space Hulk: Deathwing is the Warhammer 40k game I wanted 10 years ago. Its overall design - from the slow, plodding pace of the Terminators to the cramped corridors and distinct 40k architecture - and the emphasis on squad-based encounters against an overwhelming threat are truly outstanding. For every point where it shines, though, it also lacks a few modern gaming conveniences, making it difficult to recommend.
If you’re unfamiliar with the lore of Warhammer 40k, here’s a quick primer on the key terms/ideas. Space Marines are genetically modified soldiers that defend humanity from everything in the universe that isn’t human, like the Tyranids. Several thousand years prior to the events of Deathwing, there was a significant schism within the Space Marine ranks and several of their number were corrupted by Chaos. Many of their ships were sucked into a place outside of known space called “the Immaterium” or “the Warp.” All of that floating wreckage occasionally accumulates within the Immaterium and becomes a “Space Hulk.” Space Hulks appear from, and re-enter, the Warp at random and often contain lost technology from the Space Marines’ past, thereby making them much sought prizes by a variety of races.
With that out of the way, it’s worth noting that having prior knowledge of the vast lore of Warhammer 40k isn’t needed to “get into” Deathwing. The game itself does a fantastic job of drawing you into the world. The environmental and sound design work that Streum On has done is nothing short of impressive. Walking through the empty corridors and hearing the occasional scuttling of claws, a pipe releasing steam, or the metal of the ship creaking and groaning build a tense atmosphere where you never feel entirely at ease. While having a background in Warhammer studies may give you a little more insight into some of the things discussed in the story, there’s plenty to appreciate without it.
In the single-player campaign, you play as a Librarian, the Space Marine version of wizards. You are accompanied by two Terminators (Space Marine walking tanks) and sent aboard the Olethros to see what can be reclaimed. As you progress through the nine story chapters (learning the secrets lurking with the depths of the Olethros), you’ll unlock new gear that you can equip to yourself or your NPC squadmates and earn “Fervour Points” that you can spend on three different skill trees to unlock new abilities. The Fervour Points that are earned at the end of every mission are based on your overall performance, which is measured by how many enemies you kill, how many relics (in-game collectibles) you acquire, and how many times you warp back to base (the fewer, the better). The skill trees are split between Command (buffs for your squadmates), Devotion (buffs for you), and Psychic (new psyker abilities).
This skill tree system is progression of a sort, but it’s very limited. There’s no rarity to the guns/weapons you get and the three skill trees don’t really do much to offer variety in the gameplay. While some of the equipment and skills provide an illusion that you could “spec” yourself into a psyker that utilizes heavy weapons or even melee weapons, the limited intelligence of your A.I. squadmates means that you’ll artificially increase the difficulty by not gearing everyone a certain way. This is different from the actual difficulty level you can set prior to playing, as that only appears to increase enemy health, making them tougher to kill, and increases the damage you take.
As an example of that limited A.I. intelligence, for one mission I decided to use an assault cannon for my ranged weapon (which has a brief spin-up time before it fires and can jam for a few seconds) and geared the Assault NPC squadmate to be more melee focused. I thought he might go in front to act as a shield while I fired at things from behind, even though there’s no command to specify a formation. So, instead, he followed behind me and was perfectly happy to let me just take the hits. Whenever there were ranged enemies, he was completely useless and the Apothecary NPC seemed to busy trying to aim at the Genestealer I was already shooting at instead of the enemies shooting at us.
It’s disappointing when you see that shiny new plasma cannon become available to use, only to realize a few minutes into a mission that the rest of your squad really can’t support you enough to make it work, which is odd considering Deathwing as a whole feels so tactical in nature. True to the board game, you can seal doors behind you in an effort to avoid getting flanked by enemies or attacked from behind. Blocking doors also forces enemies to go to different spawn points, which are easily identified on the mini-map, so you can have some control over the location where you engage the xeno menace. Along with all that, you can issue commands to your NPC squadmates, like “move here” or “defend,” and you therefore you might think you could setup some kind of trap for the Tyranids where you rain bullets down on them from several different angles. However, given the aforementioned limited intelligence of your A.I. companions, this doesn’t work out how you’d hope it would. Without a doubt, the best way to experience the game is by playing it with friends.
In the co-op mode, you and up to three of your buddies (either online or via LAN on PC) can play through all, or some particular selection of the nine story chapters; you pick which chapters/maps you want to play in the lobby and the co-op session will cycle through those choices once a map is finished. While each player can choose their own class in co-op (either the Librarian, Apothecary, Assault, Heavy, or Tactical), and each class has their own equipment and abilities, mechanically, the game plays out the same as it did in the single-player. You’ll work your way around the map to fulfill your objectives, shooting all the xeno scum you encounter along the way and sealing up doors behind you to ensure they never overwhelm you.
There are some party composition considerations to make with playing with friends. For example, it’s definitely recommended to bring an Apothecary along as that is the only class that can heal your team. The Tactical class can revive one fallen teammate using his special ability (which has a long cooldown), which none of the other classes can do.
The nine maps you can play in the co-op mode are the same maps/chapters from the single-player story with the same objectives. There’s no random element tossed in, like a new objective, or a different configuration of the map. The key differences between single-player and co-op mode, then, are being able to play with friends, the placement and number of enemies you face, the progression system, and the removal of all the relics. In the case of the enemies, I never noticed much of a difference in number when playing with just one other person versus three other people, so it seems like the number of foes you face is fixed in co-op. For the progression system, it is entirely optional.
The three skill trees from the single-player are removed in favor of a more straightforward progression system where each class earns experience throughout the course of a mission. The maximum level you can reach is four and each level grants some kind of bonus, like a new ability or a new weapon. The Apothecary, for instance, starts with just a single-target heal but eventually gains access to a mass heal that works on everyone within a certain radius, while the Heavy starts with an assault cannon but can eventually use a plasma cannon. Weapons that are unlocked as you level up can be equipped by bringing up the inventory screen during a mission. The experience and levels you gain, however, are not permanent and reset back to level one between each map.
Alternatively, the host can enable the “Codex Rules” option that unlocks all abilities and weapons prior to the start of a mission, thereby bypassing the progression altogether. This option also lengthens the respawn timer for downed teammates to four minutes, making the Apothecary and Tactical classes even more valuable. Once each player chooses his or her loadout at the start of a mission, they’re locked into it until the mission is over, one way or another.
In my time playing Deathwing, I enjoyed playing with the Codex Rules turned on more frequently than off. In part, this was due to the strategic challenge that being locked into a certain setup added to the game. With your equipment fixed, you have to make do with what you’ve got. Melee classes may find themselves hiding behind teammates when you enter big open rooms with a lot of enemies shooting at you, but then quickly move up front once the melee-focused Genestealers come barreling towards you. If you've never played a particular mission before, you may be surprised by what you face and reconsidering your gear the next time you play it.
The biggest downside to all of this is that those nine chapters is all you get. Once you’ve completed them, roughly about four hours with friends or seven hours going solo and hunting for relics, there’s not much left to do. You could play through them again with a different combination of classes, or on a harder difficulty, but that has only so much replay value. It’s a little amazing that with everything Streum On has done to capture the Warhammer 40k feel, the one thing that’s missing from it all is the randomly generated level and objectives that were a part of the original board game. I want to play more of Deathwing and get lost in the foreboding hallways wondering whether that skittering sound I heard is a lurker sneaking up on me or just some sounds; but there’s little reason to do so as I’ve seen and done everything there is to do at this point.
There is a lot about Deathwing that I really like. The environmental design and sound, the way you work with your squad to push through an unrelenting tide of horrors, sealing up doors behind you to try and direct the flow of enemies to a more advantageous spot, even the fact that some of the guns will occasionally jam on you and stop working for a few seconds; there’s an overall feeling to the whole affair of it being something different within the FPS space these days. Rather than opting for the fast-paced, twitch-based approach you find in Call of Duty or Doom, it seems to look to older titles like Half-Life and System Shock.
While all of that makes Deathwing a stand-out title for today, it also stands-out because of things like the lack of content (and therefore replayability) beyond the story missions, the weak progression system, and the co-op ruining bugs. In some ways, it feels more like a proof of concept for what could be done with a Space Hulk license rather than a full-fledged game. My hope is that all of this serves as a foundation upon which Streum On can build better iterations of the same idea in the future before another 10 years go by.
[Ed. Note: During our review time with the game, we did encounter the game crashing bug that occurred during a co-op session if you opened your inventory. This was addressed by a hotfix yesterday, 12/21, so it is no longer mentioned in our Co-Op Review.]
The Co-Optimus co-op review of Space Hulk: Deathwing is based on the PC version of the game. A code was provided for review purposes.