When I was a wee whippersnapper, tabletop board-games were totally my thing. HeroQuest and Space Hulk were my favourites, though the mainline Warhammer 40,000 board games always used to catch my envious eye in the Games Workshop stores (remember them?). Sadly, I never actually got round to playing the official Warhammer 40,000 games — sad times — however, I did play a ton of Space Hulk, which is a sort of off-shoot, streamlined board-game set in the Warhammer universe. Boy, that board-game ruled and I can safely say that I was hooked from the very first die roll.
Few setups are as easy to pick up and follow as big, burly space marines versus a swarm of bug-like aliens — it may not be Shakespeare, but at least it’s an easy narrative conceit to buy into. You are the ultramarines (often lovingly referred to as the Angels of Death or the titular Deathwatch) and the xenomorph threat are the tyranids (or genestealers) who have come from the vacuous darkness to swarm and devour the worlds of mankind. As the ultramarines, you are humankind’s last line of defence against the bug-like menace that endangers our worlds — it’s them or us, dammit!
Warhammer 40,000 Deathwatch is a turn-based, tactical strategy sim that replicates its board-game roots rigidly. You move your quintet of beefy space marines around the map and complete easy-to-understand objectives. These range from surviving five rounds whilst under assault, making it to a particular extraction point in time or poisoning specific biopod pools to quash the tyranid threat, just to name but a few.
An Action Points system is pretty self-explanatory and dictates how many actions each of your marines have before the end of a turn. There isn’t a huge amount of choice here; you can either move, attack or place units into overwatch mode, though, it’s still pretty fun watching the battles unfold.
What really helps elevate the game is its welcome upgrade system. At the end of each mission, players are given the option to spend each of the individual ultramarine’s XP. HP, Critical hit rates and accuracy can all be upgraded, which is a great little hook to keep players invested. There are also a selection of unique abilities that can be unlocked such as the ability to fire at everything in range every two turns, increased damage for certain weapons or a buff that increases the accuracy of all your team-mates for a round. Furthermore, there are lots of weapons to unlock that have their own specific stats and bonuses. It’s customisation options and choices of upgrades are undoubtedly where the title shines best. It really is a surprisingly decent strategy game, however, there are some major hoops that you’ll have to jump through to get to the fun.
First and foremost, I’d just like to point out a glaring problem with the game: the introductory tutorial is bloody awful. It gives you few tips as to how to control your burly meat-heads and throws you head-first into the deep-end with little explanation of how the mechanics work. As far as I could tell, the game literally doesn’t explicitly tell you one of the most fundamental of tasks: how to shoot the enemies. It took me more time than I care to admit of systematically pressing buttons and using trial-and-error to work out what the game wanted me to do. This is not only poor design, but is simply an unacceptable misstep in a tactical strategy game shipping in 2017.
The only other aspect of the game that comes close to being as dreadful as the opening tutorial are the game’s controls, which very much accentuates both of the initial problems I had with Warhammer 40,000: Deathwatch. The controls are floaty, obtuse and really lack player feedback. Controls often feel like the game was designed for a mouse and keyboard primarily and retro-fitted to work on a controller; they are often floaty and lack audio and visual cues that could potentially help communicate information to the player. Basically, pressing R2 switches between an attack mode and a movement mode, while the Square button places the chosen marine into overwatch mode (similar to the XCOM series) which attacks any cheeky critter that is daft enough to wander into the marine’s line of fire.
Fortunately, these issues do begin to dissipate once you’ve gotten to grips with the awkward control scheme. The controls do remain a rough spot no matter how much time you spend with the game, but the more hours you invest, the more the initial problems begin to slowly diminish.
In regards to presentation, Warhammer 40,000: Deathwatch is cheap looking with flat textures and basic environments. It’s by no means a looker, but it does get the job done mainly because the game’s art-style is cribbed directly from its board-game source material. At least it looks authentic, despite its lack of razzle dazzle in the graphics department. Audio is also pretty basic, though, it’s lack thereof helps imbue the game with some B-movie style atmospheric charm. Essentially, it looks and sounds a lot like a decent early access Steam game.
First impressions aren’t always right and Warhammer 40,000: Deathwatch is very much proof of this. The opening hour is an absolute slog, and it’s easy to be put off by its unwelcome tutorial and awkward controls. However, stick with it and persevere and there is a fun, no-frills tactical strategy sim hidden beneath to get your hungry tyranid claws into.
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