Thursday, 15 December 2016

Whiskey Reviews: Space Hulk Deathwing

Info:
Platform: PC
Release Date: 14 December, 2016
Developer: Streum On Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Where to get it: Steam
Price: £25.49 (Steam)

Space Hulk Deathwing is the latest entry into the long and varied Warhammer 40k videogame franchise. A group of games where quality and content varies wildly from developer to developer and the indifference of Games Workshop continues uninterrupted so long as those sweet royalty cheques keep rolling in. But where on the spectrum does Deathwing fall? Hit the link to find out.

First, a little background information for those not familiar with the Warhammer 40k universe. In the Forty-second millennium everything is war and the absolute definition of grimdark. Humans of the Imperium Of Man have spread across the galaxy and their devotion to the god emperor drives them to shoot xenos and heretics alike in the face with exploding rocket bullets from guns the size of a large motorcycle.

The universe is split between two layers of reality – the material reality that we all live on and the Warp (also called the Empyrian or Immaterium) which is a chaotic maelstrom of gods, demons, and the means of interstellar travel for the Imperial fleets. Navigating the Warp is difficult and ships regularly disappear into it, lost to the currents for centuries, or even millennia.

That brings us neatly to the beginning of Space Hulk Deathwing. Some of these lost ships, all mashed together in what's called a Space Hulk, have emerged from the Warp back into material space and as a loyal member of the First Legion Dark Angels Deathwing squad – genetically modified soldiers wearing powered armour called Tactical Dreadnought Armour (or Terminator, if you want to use the common parlance) are sent in to the Space Hulk to search for lost relics, information, and to simply purge the xenos threat within.
Why yes, my tentacles have glitched into a hardened parallel mass while fart gas wafts from my head.
Wait? Aliens, where did they come into it? Well, Space Hulk is based off the board game of the same name in which Terminators face off against Tyrannid Genestealers aboard the titular ships. Oh shit, we're getting dragged back into the lore – Tyrannids are a highly mutatable species of alien that travel in huge fleets across the galaxy consuming everything in their path and absorbing genetic material to further their mutations and development. Hence their interest in a Space Hulk – there's often a lot of dead Space Marines onboard them, making them an easy place for the Tyrannids to gather their genetic material.

All caught up now? To sum up you're playing a bunch of walking tanks onboard ancient space ships constantly under assault from horrifying alien monsters who want to crack open your shiny armour and suck out the gooey bits for shits and giggles. Awesome, now we can finally start talking about aspects of the game beyond the surprisingly complicated setting.

We're going to start with the single player portion of the game, for reasons that I'll explain at the end. In the campaign you play as a Librarian, a psychic (called a psyker – fuck, more lore) badass who leads two other Terminators into the ancient infested ships on the orders of your commanding officer, Chapter Master Belial. Being the Librarian affords you more than just a gun and big stick for protection, being a psyker allows you to channel several powerful abilities like shooting lightning, a wave of fire or even tearing the fabric of reality in a localised singularity that simultaneously draws in and mulches enemies into a swirling ball of gore. These abilities don't have a cost but they do have a cooldown so using them wisely is required.

In addition to three psychic powers you also bring a primary and secondary weapon. These range from the standard storm bolter (a double barrel machine pistol) to assault cannons (huge miniguns) and even plasma cannons. All wielded one handed like a true badass. Your secondary weapons are a choice between a power fist, sword, mace, or axe and some of them reduce the cooldown times on your psychic powers. Also on offer are relic weapons, legendary pieces of kit with names like Vengeance and offer variants on the other weapons such as turning the storm bolter semi-auto in exchange for it firing ricocheting shotgun blasts or rounds filled with deadly incendiary chemicals. There's a flamethrower, lightning claws, and a storm hammer too but who cares about those right? Okay, they're good too.
Surprisingly it's not an orgy at H R Giger's house.

Unfortunately, that aforementioned cooldown reduction to your abilties is only available if you take the default storm bolter and either the sword or axe. Lets do some rough math to illustrate why this reduction is so important: Your singularity ability takes about 2 minutes to refresh normally. With the axe equipped you have a 66% reduction, further reduced if you replace one of your psychic abilities with a passive buff which can bring the time down to about 40 seconds. Lets say you give up the buff for a bigger gun, a plasma rifle for example, you've got to worry about it jamming and it fires one shot every 4-5 seconds that might kill 2-3 xenos at most. Sounds fairly balanced right? Lets apply that cooldown to the rolling wave of fire skill that cooks anything smaller than a house instantly and goes until it hits a solid wall or obstacle – about 8-10 seconds when buffed. So do you kill 2-3 enemies every 5 seconds or do you kill everything infront of you every 10 seconds?

This imbalance doesn't just apply to the psychic powers, the weapons suffer from the same issues. The default storm bolter is weak but has a large magazine, quick reload, and never once jammed on me in the whole campaign. The plasma rifle doesn't need to reload but fires slowly and only gets a couple of enemies per shot. The flamer applies constant weak damage but has severely limited range. The assault cannon has a huge magazine but is lucky to hit the broad side of a barn at 10 paces.

The relic weapons suffer similarly. Vengeance for example is an assault cannon that sacrifices fire rate and magazine capacity for armour penetration and increased damage. It however suffers from the same accuracy issues and constant jamming of its faster firing counterpart. At least with the faster fire rate a round will find its target eventually and wasting 300 out of every 400 round belt makes you feel like an 90's action movie hero. Vengeance meanwhile makes you feel like a prat as you watch a slavering beast bear down on you while your cannon spits out rounds at the walls and floor seemingly doing everything it can to make sure your face gets eaten.

The melee weapons fare far better than their ranged counterparts. Each swing slices through xenos flesh and sends corpses flying as the force and lightning generators in your gear discharge lethal energies into your unlucky targets. Even so, there's surprisingly little impact to each blow and melee combat is just a matter of finding a narrow enough place you can hold and then spastically flailing until you're the only thing left standing. The hammer/shield combo weapon makes you feel like an absolute badass as you can hold the shield up and advance on ranged enemies with impunity until you can bonk them on the noggin with a weapon so powerful it only leaves a cloud of red mist and gibs from the slightest tap.

Weapons are also a point of contention for the AI. While the two AI companions are adept at following basic orders like “follow” or “go there” their performance in combat varies wildly depending on what you have them equipped with. Your Assault Terminator companion will happily wade into hordes of enemies with a hammer and shield while making short work of them. Give him a plasma cannon however and he seems to become oblivious to anything within 25 meters of him, blithely standing still like the xenos attacks are a tailor measuring him for a suit despite him having a perfectly serviceable melee option. Even his default role of carrying the assault cannon sees him firing the weapon in sporadic bursts that are largely ineffective.
Give Barachiel a hammer and he'll kill more than the player if left alone.

Meanwhile, your other companion the Apothecary (a healer basically) can only heal if he's carrying his default loadout. So if you want him to be useful in a fight you have to forgo your ability to heal. Not that he's much more use with a better weapon either. At least he follows your heal orders well enough and will make a solid effort to get to friendlies who you mark for healing even as they're doing their best to scramble away from him like he's a peasant with leprosy in the dark ages.

The AI also suffers from some serious issues outside of the obvious (shortest) route to your objectives. There are several corridors off the beaten path (often leading to hidden relics) that the AI will simply get stuck in or refuse to follow orders in. Even on the main path to your objective the AI will often turn traversing a door into a chore. It's not that they have trouble getting through them, it's that they willfully refuse to go through them from time to time, usually when you're in a desperate retreat situation and need to seal that door shut to buy a valuable few seconds of breathing room.

You have two methods of commanding your team; a radial menu and a set of basic quick keys to issue orders. The keys however are completely borked and sometimes hitting the “follow me” key will result in the Apothecary sprinting up and wasting a healing item on you, often getting stuck in the healing order and wasting two or three more if you're not paying attention. The “move to” command is similarly temperamental, seemingly just not working on a whim despite the radial menu function still working perfectly. The defend order, which you'd expect to result in your team staying put to defend wherever they're situated doesn't do that at all – they'll happily wander dozens of meters away so long as there's an enemy in sight to draw them off like they're gullible children faced with a paedophile in an ice-cream truck.
Specifically, this guy.

All we've done so far is point out the lore and flaws. Even the most terrible games have some redeeming features or moments. Deathwing certainly doesn't disappoint in a few very specific fields and situations. Streum On have absolutely nailed the atmosphere of the Space Hulks, it's like jumping into your darkest, most desperate imagination of a giant space cathedral. There's rocks and gore, servitors and servo-skulls, glimpses outside and inside these incredible city dwarfing ships huge hangars and machinery filled rooms literally go on as far as the eye can see. The dingy atmosphere, punctuated by creaking hulls and stomping footsteps, is tense and the radar (itself an adaptation of a mechanic from the board game) provides you with false leads and occasionally glitches out leaving you in the dark while it reboots. Psychic interference from nearby powerful xenos will cause the radar to ripple, but you're often still caught off guard as a house sized Scythe Strain or Brood Lord comes out of the dark and tears into your squad.

Despite their imbalance the weapons also add to the atmosphere. Bullet impacts are huge and sparks shower from every bolter round impact as the shell explodes and disintegrates. Bullets strike explosive barrels and batteries, pipes spray fire if hit by an errant bullet and in turn will incinerate the approaching monstrosities. Sound and light play a huge part too; muzzle flash and Prometheum fire are blindingly bright in the dimly lit wrecks and each burst from your weapon is an assault of light and sound that blinds and deafens you to the movements of your enemies even as you're slaughtering them, necessitating letting up on the trigger to see what's happening and thus letting the enemies gain a few feet on you in that brief lull.

Heavy combat can wash away the other misgivings of the game. It's so easy to become lost in the moment as your squad is backed into a corner – a door you thought would be an escape turns out to be reinforced and unbreakable – Genestealers pour from the vents, pipes, pits and dark corners and you whisper a brief prayer to the emperor on his golden throne and hope you've satisfied the machine spirit of your weapon during last maintenance. Then everything is claws and gore glimpsed through strobing muzzle flash: a xeno tumbles as its leg is blown off and it still scrambles forwards, heads and torsos explode, sheer weight of fire from an assault cannon up close launches corpses backwards and rolling waves of fire ignite everything living or dead in psychic conflagration. When the dust settles you're often literally up to your eyes in mangled corpses. You move forwards down the hallway, kicking and pushing the bodies out of the way to see what's happening and find a giant Brood Lord entering the fight, turning it into a desperate struggle for survival against seriously long odds.

It's in these moments that Deathwing shines and you can see past the cracks into what could be an incredible game with more polish and care. Sadly these moments don't come often enough and fights are often frustrating affairs where AI teammates insist on getting in your line of fire or standing around like lobotomised sloths. Mission design is also bland, an odd disservice when the level of detail and authenticity in the map design is so high. Missions will see you returning to the same rooms under the pretext of you having a new goal but will have you literally repeat the same action on the same switch as you did last time you were there. Collectible relics are also lazily placed, returning to an area in a later chapter will allow you to find relics in exactly the same places as you had previously. On a lore side the collectible relics are simultaneously cool and stupid – pieces related to Lion El'Jonson (Primarch and founder of the Dark Angels) and STC (Standard Template Construct) blueprints are laying around like they're the Space Hulk's version of gum stuck under a school desk.
What doctors actually see when performing a colonoscopy.

Persistent progression was also touted as a big feature of the single player experience but unfortunately you can't go back to earlier chapters and retain your progress. You can't go back to earlier chapters at all – you have to start a new campaign and lose all your progress and unlocked upgrades if you want to play earlier parts of the game again. Unspent upgrade points are permanently lost if you don't spend them at chapter end, making an accidental click a reason to say “fuck it” and start over, or more likely to stop playing.

The story doesn't do itself any favours either. One mission sees you rescuing a CAT (a skull on tank tracks that takes scientific readings) but for the rest of the game the xenos have shown zero interest in inorganic targets, which means that it could've driven out of there on its own and would've been ignored if the Terminators hadn't parked their stupid organic arses next to it the whole way back to base. Unresolved plot threads are also left hanging – I won't give spoilers but there's something found that is of immeasurable value to the Dark Angels and after making a big fuss about it in a bit of dialogue it's retrieval is promptly forgotten despite it being the whole point of your continued presence on the Space Hulk.

So that's single player tackled which leaves us with the other half of the game, the multiplayer. Well, it's more of the same. Literally, it's the exact same missions and maps except now you play with your friends and don't have all the features. Allow me to explain.

In Deathwing multiplayer you can play with up to 3 friends as you go through the same maps and missions as the campaign. However, there's no story, persistent progression, flamer, collectible relics, or psygate (an ability that lets you go back to a safe room and heal/replenish supplies in single player) usage. Only the host of the session gets updates on objectives and dialogue so unless you enjoy roleplaying an Astartes addicted to dutifully repeating everything said to him then everyone else has to wander around like confused puppies playing follow the leader.
Follow the leader is how the Ordo Hereticus had to investigate the Space Marines production of Swan Lake.

Your level progression is wiped at the end of every chapter, so approximately every 30 minutes, and you lose all unlocked weapons and abilities. There's no loot drops, no customization, and no room for a squad to improvise their loadout by having, for example, 4 guys with assault cannons, because the abilities of the Apothecary and Librarian are of utmost importance to actually surviving encounters and making progress.

Replayability is further hurt by spawn points being static and enemy AI being predictable. By that I don't mean them being dumb and just running at you (they're Genestealers, they're meant to just run at you) but they'll take the same path time and time again, allowing you to funnel them into easily defended kill zones. Sealing a door will cause them to just give up instead of breaking through and a quick melee lover can stand at the top of a ladder, ledge or other spawn point and just play whack-a-mole with them as they attempt to crawl out.

All that is of course assuming you can even get into a match. The game has been released in a frankly appalling state with critical bugs and fatal errors occurring more often than Tyrannid attacks. If the host crashes everyone else is left to stand around and wonder why everything but them stopped moving for several minutes. Multiplayer also suffers from a lack of feedback about special units appearing, in single player an NPC will call out a psyker or missile launcher (not marking them but at least giving you warning they're there somewhere) but in multiplayer there's no such warning until you've eaten a rocket to the face or been burned to a crisp by Warp Lightning.

Other bugs abounds such as the game hijacking control of your microphone away from Steam, necessitating a third party chat program because the game doesn't have in-game voice in a game where you need to be a tightly focused communicative group. The options screen doesn't seem to have any impact on performance even if you drop everything to low either, my machine is no slouch when it comes to high end gaming and I can't get Deathwing to give me more than 40 frames per second, even then regularly dipping to sub-20 when the action gets hectic.
Oh good, we're dying. Go towards the light so this torment can end.

Developer promises prior to release were wildly inaccurate, I'd go so far as to call them egregious lies. A promise of a dozen hour long campaign is in reality less than 4 hours long. Multiple missions per chapter actually means multiple bland objectives per chapter. Permanent progression translated into “permanent so long as you don't ever want to replay the game.” At least one weapon, relics, and story are missing from the multiplayer portion. There were seemingly no improvements over the atrocious beta despite a delay to release too.

Overall Deathwing is a mixed bag. On one hand the developers are obviously huge fans and their artists, modellers, and map makers are excellent at their craft. The level of detail in the world from readable purity seals and markings on the inside of your armour to gigantic machines is a great achievement. The atmosphere and rare moments when the gratuitous slaughter of Xenos overrides your better judgement reveal a game that could be so so much more but sadly the neglect is very real. Deathwing needed another year of development at least and will remain a frustrating disappointment for casual and hardcore fans alike unless a large amount of the game is drastically overhauled. Sadly, the damage is already done thanks to a disastrous launch. In the interests of fairness, and comedy, I'm going to give the game two scores.

The Disappointed Fan Score: 4 synonyms for terrible out of 10 – disastrous, shocking, odious, and unwelcome.

The Critical Reviewer Score: Deathwing gets 2 visits from the Ordo Hereticus out of 10.

Lastly, a note about the screenshots used here - they're all from one level of the game because I really didn't have the will to play this piece of shit all the way through for varied shots.