I have spent a full half of my adult life waiting to play a Warhammer 40,000 MMO. In 2007, in the full flush of a WoW obsession, it was pretty much the best thing I could imagine. By 2009, and fatigued of MMOs, it seemed like the most profound disservice imaginable to Games Workshops’ maximalist, tongue-forever-in-cheek sci-fi setting. Experience points and hotbars? No sir, that is not how a Space Marine space marines. Give me death without mandate, killing without restriction, sacrifice without regret.
It is 2016 now, and Dark Millenium, THQ’s long-planned 40K MMO appears to have died with its publisher. But we are in a new age, one where Warhammer 40,000 games appear to be anyone’s for the taking. I can be a Space Marine in two dozen different ways. The concept of Space Marining on a monitor is less exciting now. But still no MMO; no persistent Space Marine having indefinitely ongoing Space Marine adventures. So here’s Eternal Crusade [official site], a whole new project from a different team entirely, but the closest thing yet to the 40K MMO. And I think that, once again, I do want a 40K MMO: even though I barely know what “MMO” really means anymore.
An alpha has been available to Eternal Crusade “founders” (i.e. those willing to give the project money long before anything had been released, with the promise of in-game rewards once it was out; not entirely dissimilar to the Star Citizen model) since last September, but it’s only now that the bulk of us get to see what manner of beastie it is. While PVE dungeons and assorted gear is planned for further down the line, right now what we have is a team-based multiplayer game with barely a hint of any persistent world potential.
That’s fine and I’m not going to judge it on the ground of what it isn’t at this very early stage: I just wanted to warn you that, if you put down money today, what you’re getting is an online shooter that’s a bit like earlier Battlefields. But with jump-packs and power swords. That is very important. Later, hopefully, if all goes well, you’ll be slaying NPC Tyranids and sticking skull designs upon your shoes, but right now Eternal Crusade is about capturing command points and trying not to get run over by a Rhino in the process.
It’s fairly basic, and the technical performance is abysmal (more on which shortly), but I think it’s working. Even if it did become nothing more than a team shooter, there’s enough that works here already that they can probably pull it off.
Eternal Crusade uses the well-worn dark cartoon take on 40K, familiar from the Dawn of War games, rather than the elaborate gothic murderfests seen on the front of Games Workshop books, so please don’t turn up expecting to experience the insurmountable daily misery of life in a universe locked in perpetual warfare. It’s big-shoulder-men shooting and bashing each other. Only Space Marines and Chaos Space Marines are in the mix for the time being, and bar some horns here and some axes there, they’re pretty much mirrors of each other in their current forms – which means neither of them fall too far from the man-with-a-gun tree. Eldar, Orks and non-playable Tyranids are due further down the line, and the balancing act there will be fascinating to see.
As for the current guys, Eternal Crusade doesn’t do a huge amount with the fact they’re wearing multi-tonne battlesuits, while the classes on offer (which can be switched between every spawn, as in Battlefield) don’t go into any of the wilder stuff like Dreadnoughts or Terminators, but there’s a decent crunchiness to the game. The melee-focused Assault classes are the standout as far as I’m concerned, one of which pairs a chainsword and pistol with a short-range jump pack, and the other of which has a powersword and a shield.
The guns don’t feel particular exciting, although the madcap framerate badly gets in the way of enjoying them, but all the right clanging sounds happen when metal hits metal. That said, there’s an odd stunlock system in melee combat that I haven’t entirely figured out: I kept ending up blurred and immobile even when I was sure I’d struck first.
That’ll sort itself out with practice, and in the meantime I’m just really, really enjoying the slam-attack of the jump pack-equipped Assault Marines. Burst into the air, hover above a target until perfectly placed, then hit right-click to thump right down onto an enemy or enemies’ heads. There’s a knack to the timing and more experienced enemies can see it coming a high-mile off, but it’s a delight when it works.
A couple of vehicles are in the mix too – Rhino troop carriers and Predator tanks. The maps aren’t small, but they’ve been designed with strategically-placed blockers so that a guy in a tank can’t make everyone’s lives hell indefinitely, while capture points are usually indoors, so you’ll have to get out of your padded seat and go get your hands dirty if you want to actually win a match. There’s a neat sub-strategy involving Rhinos though, which is that your squad can use one as a spawn point for as long as it remains unexploded.
I managed to wedge one inside a little-used doorway near the next point my guys had to grab, and for a time we were able to spawn en masse right where we needed to be, the enemy unsure where we were coming from. This meant they had to divert men from protecting the capture point in order to go blow up the Rhino and stem the tide of reinforcements, and this in turn weakened their defences long enough for us to grab the point. Clearly, this is going to happen rarely once people know the game, but I like that strategies other than ‘kill anything which moves’ are emerging.
There’s not too much to Eternal Crusade otherwise, but it feels pretty good for what it is, and there’s not too much in the way of insta-death, so you can feel like you’ve had a fight rather than just been ganked. There’s not even the slightest hint in what we have now that it’ll ever become more than team arena battles though, and I’m not sure those alone will hold my interest for long. Possibly a more fleshed-out character creator would make all the difference if the Planetsideish persistent war aspect doesn’t come to pass, but maybe that’s not the wisest idea anyway. As it is, the purist in me is grumbling that the Space Marines field a mixed team of Blood Angels, Ultramarines and Dark Angels rather than co-ordinated Chapters.
This is an Early Access game, with all the usual risks and caveats that implies, but it is worth saying that performance is particularly ropey at the moment, and unless you just really, really want to support the project you’re going to be best off holding back for a while until they’ve got the performance sorted. Even when I dropped down to 720p and low settings I couldn’t escape huge framerate drops, and never mind any high spec FOV-fondlin’ hand-wringing; simply aiming my gun was regularly a nightmare. It’s not an unattractive game, but nothing about its appearance convinces me that it should make my graphics card feel sorry for itself.
Presuming that gets sorted out, I do think Eternal Crusade has plenty of scope to rage on for longer. Even aside from its lack of MMOness, it’s not currently as complex as recent Battlefields, either in a tactical sense or in terms of unlock overload (although it does plan to open an items store at some point), so perhaps it’s more comparable to Star Wars: Battlefront. What it lacks in comparative prettiness, it gains in a sense of a flow: your vehicles are there on the field, to be passed around or demolished, rather than magic icons, weapons feel much more distinct from each other and generally there’s a surer sense of front lines moving back and forth. It’s not my dream Space Marine roleplay, not yet (if ever), but it might just shape up to be satisfying lunchtime heretic-burning.