By the Emperor’s Exquisite Holy Nipples! What is this abomination that sits before me, wallowing in its sordid mediocrity? I know that Warhammer 40K video game adaptations are mostly considered to be awful by default, but Space Hulk: Deathwing (SH:D) takes the absolute piss with how terrible it is. Glaring technical issues, terrible visual appearance, a lack of regard for canonical detail, generally poor design and gameplay, and a total lack of polish. Indeed, SH:D has more ways to disappoint players than the Imperium of Man has enemies. In fact, much like Space Hulks themselves, the further I got into the game, the more horrific its details (or lack thereof) became. There’s not a single redeeming factor about this game, as I’ll lament to you now.
And to think that, at one point, I honestly thought this was going to be a great way to end last year.
SH:D takes place upon the Space Hulk Olethros, so dubbed by Grand Master Belial who also dispatches your terminator squad to investigate and purge the vessel. At least in single player, players take the role of a Librarian Epistolary, driving the initial assault upon the Space Hulk, before executing mission directives as they’re dished out by Belial. One of the big selling points for SH:D is that Gavin Thorpe had a hand in the writing of its story, and I’d be interested to see how big a hand that was since what little story to be had is absolute trash. The Dark Angels chapter have an incredibly detailed, and intriguing history, with a lot of source material to draw from, and developers Streum On Studio screwed that up in a very drawn out fashion.
The narrative is so thin that to reveal any detail beyond what I’ve written up there would be to spoil a great deal of the plot. What I can say is that it’s a confused mess at best, telegraphing its “twist” so brightly it could be seen from the other side of the galaxy. At worst, it brings up several plot points that either don’t get explained and are left up to player interpretation in the worst fashion, or are outright ignored and forgotten. This is all beside the smaller transgressive details, such as Belial at one point casually telling the Librarian Epistolary that he can go shove his visions, or Termintators magically coming back to life. There’s also a lot of telling without showing, and this is easily the most lacklustre Space Hulk siege in the Imperium’s history.
And trust me when I say that the ending wasn’t worth anyone’s time, not even the developers’.
SH:D’s design feels like the development team didn’t know whether they wanted to make a Space Hulk game or a Vermintide clone. The result is something that’s a bit of both, while not being entirely either, and a lot of it doesn’t line up with 40K lore, canon, or even basic combat strategy. Single player squads are fixed at three, multiplayer at four, while Deathwing Terminator squads usually start with five, at least. There’s a ridiculous amount of enemies that come piling in, but no real variation in how they act. Genestealers get bigger and stronger, while Hybrids use the same ranged weaponry throughout. The most significant change are the Hybrid psykers’ appearance, and they die laughably fast.
Levels are massive, becoming continually larger throughout the campaign, with a focus on exploration. Exploring leads to relics, with no discernable reward for their collection, and your movement incredibly slow. Sure, the movement speed is canonically accurate (within the context of moving around Space Hulks at least – that they’re limited by a stamina bar is still daffy) but the non-existent benefit of relic collection really isn’t. The result is a big portion of the game that can easily be ignored in favour of the main objectives because that side content isn’t fun, or useful, and the missions aren’t terribly exciting either. Every chapter can be boiled down to, “go to the quest marker, then fight waves of enemies.” As mentioned before, there’s not a lot of strategy involved with the combat, and in practice this idea of making a grandstand every few minutes gets tiresome quickly.
Would you, Streum? Would you like to fix your mistakes?
It should be noted that the Heavy Flamer, which is unlocked fairly early on, is the “win gun;” equip it, never let it go, and you win the game. It’s so broken that the devs removed it from the multiplayer mode. Yes, you do unlock other weapons as you play, but they’re so ineffectual (especially compared to the Flamer) that they’re not worth the frustration that comes with their use. Most firefights will end up with you spewing flames, obscuring your sight of everything, while keeping a weather eye on your squad mates’ health bars while they rub their faces against the onslaught of Xenos. The AI on both sides is completely daft, and on more than one occasion I watched as Genestealer and Terminator alike would stand completely still, allowing themselves to be wailed upon endlessly.
There is the multiplayer, of course, but this a different kettle of fish altogether. The levelling system is different, and unexplained in-game, forcing you to use low-level gear until you level up. At the same time, enemies that you wouldn’t encounter until about half-way to late-game in the single player campaign will storm toward you in waves from the moment you step foot off the shuttle at the start of the first mission. This is also assuming the game doesn’t crash on you, which didn’t happen to me but did to others I played with online with frustrating regularity. God help you if the person who crashes is your party leader, as they’re also the only player in multiplayer matches that receive objective information and can see the waypoints.
If you can see anything besides cleansing fire, you’re doing it wrong.
The game crashing is hardly the only technical issue that’s present. Frame rates go through the floor the moment a horde of any decent size shows up, and the entire game begins to lag. While the game can remember your weapon loadout, it consistently reverted my psyker abilities back to the two default powers at the start of every mission. At one point, my second psyker ability somehow had its hotkey changed to “escape,” stopping me from getting to the game menu. Even when changing it back from the game’s main menu after restarting the game entirely, escape still wouldn’t bring up the menu anymore. Terminators would usually require orders to be given twice before carrying them out, and hotkeys were often unresponsive; the entire thing is just an absolute mess.
Then there’s the level of presentation in the game, which is somewhere around “bloody awful.” Despite going through seven different ships, from different Marine chapters or other factions, everything looks damn near the same. I know the universe of 40K is bleak, but not everything looks exactly the same. The large open areas were definitely where the differences shone through, as few as they were, but these are also the most annoying points in the gameplay. The models and environments aren’t even that well made, with both appearing far beyond “rough around the edges.” Even on high graphical settings, everything looks like you’re playing a game from five years ago, and there’s an obnoxious “film grain” over everything that can’t be disabled.
Also, your character will just decide to randomly block their own vision like this, like, every five minutes.
There’s an attempt to make it seem like you’re fighting a new kind of enemy at a later stage of the game, but they’re very obviously a palette swap of things you’ve already fought. I honestly couldn’t even say if they were stronger than their predecessors or not, there was barely any difference. It’s made even more apparent when their “bestiary” entries are, word for word, the same as those types that came before them. Hilariously, this also highlights the fact that the dev team couldn’t even take the time to grammar check what little fluff text there is about these enemies. In fact, fluff text (arguably a large, significant part of 40K games in general) is either badly written, poorly implemented, or noticeably absent entirely. Relics have no descriptions, which just adds to their uselessness, and subtitles sometimes repeat for no reason, often not even matching up with what’s being said. All of this goes to show how little the dev team cared about the source material from which they were extrapolating, and while I’m on that topic…
I’m just going to rant about the total lack of canonical regard for a couple of paragraphs right here. Feel free to skip to the conclusion if you don’t care about 40K stuff.
WHO THE FRESH HELL WAS MEANT TO BE OVERSEEING CANONICAL CONSISTENCY IN THIS GAME? I know that 40K is widely written in such a way as to allow for the odd contradiction to canon but God damn – this is absolute nonsense! As a Librarian Epistolary, I should have had the entire end-game arsenal as my starting choices. You know what would have been good upgrades? THE RELICS. Not to mention, as an Epistolary – where’s my god damned psychic hood? As a Deathwing Librarian, why was I only getting the kind of decorative armour that I should have already been wearing from the start as final mission rewards? Why, and how, am I learning new powers in the battlefield, instead of honing the ones I already knew? Or gaining powers that are actually badass, if obtaining new ones had to be a gameplay element? I’m a Librarian, sure, but I’m a Deathwing Librarian, so why am I wearing only blue and almost no white?
How do the same two AI units keep magically coming back to life? There’s meant to be a massive force assaulting this Hulk (though despite how often they’re mentioned, you never, ever see them), just replace them with one of those. Or better yet, if there’s enough left of the ones I had still clinging to life, scrape them together into a Dreadnought and send that out to me! WHY DOES MY DEATHWING TERMINATOR SQUAD ONLY HAVE THREE OR FOUR TERMINATORS IN IT!? In what way does it make sense for a Librarian to have a psychic vision in the middle of a Space Hulk operation, and have the Grand Master’s response be, “Shut up, I don’t care?” Why do all the ships look the same, and why does nothing look like it’s been affected by the Warp (except for the odd structural damage)?
Don’t even get me started on the Genestealers. They had the freaking Hybrids in there, and they all look like Imperial Guard rejects – especially when you consider the events of the story. Where are the Aberrants? Where are the Neophytes and Acolytes? Or the Patriarchs? What about the Magi, instead of these piffling psyker things running about the place? Something, anything that poses a significant threat? I could go on for so much longer, but God damn you, Streum, at least pretend that you give some kind of a crap!
There’s a reason that most 40K fans groan at the prospect of the series taking the form of a video game, and it’s because of titles like Space Hulk: Deathwing. Whether technically bad, poorly designed, terribly written, or just flat out no fun to play, there’s almost always something wrong with them, and everything is wrong with SH:D. Despite having Gav Thorpe on hand, the narrative only manages to be interesting in concept, but never in execution. The design is torn between being a traditional Space Hulk game, and wanting to be the 40K Vermintide clone many were hoping for. It’s boring to play, with combat being as uninspired as possible, and the role of the relics being severely under-developed. In many ways, it can’t even get the canon of 40K right, either abandoning it or sticking to it for the sake of design and gameplay in all the wrong places. By Holy Terra, it’s basically heresy! If Space Hulk: Deathwing were a planet, it’d be high time for Exterminatus Extremis because even with the polish that this game is absolutely lacking, it would still be unsalvageable.