Wot I Think – Space Hulk: Deathwing

SPACE HULK SPACE HU.. no, sorry, best not do that again, eh? This latest pixel-flashing rendition of the revered Games Workshop tabletop game is no boardgame adaptation, but rather a squad-based swarm-shooter in the vein of Left 4 Dead.

I played Space Hulk: Deathwing [official site] alone and had a lousy time. Then I played it with others and ALL GLORY TO THE EMPEROR OF MANKIND! Oops, I did it again.

Deathwing’s been presented as though it’s a singleplayer shooter at least as much as it is a co-op one, and that’s not untrue as such, but its heart just isn’t in solo play. Played alone, it’s an often tedious stomp back and forth across the same set of corridors and antechambers, with the scripts that trigger each new wave of enemies as blindingly obvious as the fact that the guy with the streaming nose and hacking cough is going to choose you to sit next to on the bus.

Played co-op, it’s a backs-against-the-wall, teeth-gritted survival affair, knee-deep in the dead, totally dependent on each other, not caring where you are, what you have and haven’t seen already or where you have to get to – just that you have to stay alive. There is a bleak trade-off, however, and I don’t mean that seeing a Space Marine in Terminator armour who calls himself ‘ShagNasty’ rather ruins the grimdark mood. I’ll get into the critique shortly, but first let me talk about how this thing actually works.

A Space Hulk is an ancient, ruined, enormous ship/floating cathedral left, ladies and gentlemen, floating in space. At some point in the 41st Millenium, some of these great carcasses are discovered by the Adeptus Astartes of the Imperium of Man. You may know these as Space Marines. Some of the Hulks have gained new inhabitants during their long period of abandonment. They are not friendly.

They’re generally referred to as just a type of Tyranid now, but back in the late 80s/early 90s we called ’em Genestealers. They’re Aliens from Aliens, let’s be honest, but with Warhammer 40,000’s typical excess – more spines, claws that can tear through steel, four arms, infinite numbers. I love a Genestealer, me, although I’m disappointed that Deathwing’s are shades of grey, rather than the rich blues and purples of yore.

The most recent Space Hulk videogame was a broadly faithful if divisive recreate of the turn-based boardgame, but years before that we had a pair of EA games which I suppose should still be called first-person shooters, but are very, very different to what we now take that term to mean. Slower, a huge emphasis on vulnerability, and highly tactical – all about how you positioned your small squad of Space Marine Terminators, not really how well you could aim.

Deathwing is somewhere between that and yer Halos. It is about correctly waving a targeting reticule over legions of monsters, but it’s also about working with a squad to make sure all the exits are covered, doling out healing, area of effect psyker magic and hacking doors and turrets.

There are some feints towards the tactical – follow, wait, defend, heal orders, which are followed by your AI chums in singleplayer and may or may not be heeded by human chums in co-op. In either case, you will nonetheless be spending the vast majority of your time either stomping, shooting or stabbing.

The flow of a Deathwing mission is long periods of walking fearfully around dark, maze-like corridors, punctuated by remarkably long and vicious firefights against what can feel like an infinite swarm of beclawed horrors.

It doesn’t always feel quite right – as I mentioned above, often you can see its working, whether it’s because enemies are obviously spawning from fixed places or because it makes you repeatedly criss-cross an area in order to make an environment feel larger than it is. This is essentially a small game wearing big clothes, but what clothes they are.

There is such a thing as Space Hulkiness, and that’s arguably even more important than how well the action or the tactics are realised. Space Hulkiness is science-fiction horror, set in long and twisty corridors which occasionally yield rooms populated by either gruesome or titanic sights – viscera and giant altars, that sort of thing.

Space Hulkiness is Warhammer 40,000’s In The Grim Darkness Of The Far Future There Is Only War mantra distilled to a claustrophobic, paranoid essence – the religious-fascist fervour of the Space Marines, the indefatigable alien horde, the gothic excess of an environment that is both unspeakably huge and oppressively sealed-in.

Deathwing looks like Space Hulk box art come to life. The environments and most especially the lighting is absolutely spectacular. This is not really the sort of game where you can pause to admire the scenery, but I often did. The size, the splendour, the light, the shadow, the dark beauty of it all. Good work, Unreal engine (and artists, obviously). And it sounds like Space Hulk should too – all those sounds of metal, as the monstrously heavy Terminator armour stomps about and Genestealers sneer and snarl from the distance. The constant noise of unseen but almighty engines. The machine spirit, all around.

The downside of this is that my framerate more than halves whenever more than a couple of enemies appear – dramatically, jarringly and often to the point of unplayability, unless I drop settings to minimum even for the copious enemy-free scenes in which it’s running at a happy 60 frames on max settings.

Which sadly means that concept-art-made-flesh aspect rather loses its edge – matters become rather sludgy at lowest settings. Many players report similar framerate problems, many others say it’s absolutely fine, so I guess all we can do is hope that it turns out to be fixable bugs on certain configurations.

This issue aside, in co-op – be it with randoms or chums – the Space Hulkiness is all present and correct. It’s all about staying alive, not about finding out what happens or unlocking new weapons and abilities. The latter is there as option, by turning off Codex Rules in a match, but I much prefer having them on – no progression, everything unlocked, pick your poison. Yes, it removes a certain amount of purpose, but we didn’t need it in Left 4 Dead, did we? Sometimes it’s so much better to enjoy the ride, not get hung up on rewards.

Whatever you choose, you’ll still feel profoundly vulnerable even in your foot-thick armour and with your Lightning Claws and Bolt Guns and Plasma Cannons and Heavy Flamers and the rest of Deathwing’s small but wildly powerful-feeling arsenal.

The shooting and the stabbing or punching or chopping is breathless and intense, battles often lasting long past the point you feel is fair, and then eventually occupying a place which is appropriately Space Hulk. Sudden, punishing death is at least as important to the tone of the game as is victory. Which is not to say that it’s super-hard – unless you pick the hardest difficulty – but that it wants to feel a certain doomy way, not be unqualified slaughter.

The great downsides of multiplayer is that it removes many of the trappings of singleplayer – the cutscenes are lost, even if you have experience points and unlocks on it all gets reset come every new map, a couple of weapons are excised, as is the hacking of turrets and doors. More flesh is cut from the bones of an already lean game.

In grim contrast to that, multiplayer especially is a mess of menus and countdowns and loading screens – so much time is wasted, and even if it’s to mask necessary under-the-hood machinations, it’s done clumsily and frustrating. Once you’re in, OK, fine, but either side of it brace yourself for a whole lot of waiting for things to happen.

Unfortunately, right now Deathwing multiplayer is also prey to random crashes and disconnects, which means you often have to dance the whole dance all over again even in the space of the same play session. Given the framerate problems too, I can’t say that Deathwing is in the rude health it should be.

As for singleplayer, it is b.o.r.i.n.g. Fair play, they’ve stuck cutscenes and VO in there and it’s serviceable if unexceptional – so many 40K videogame struggle with story, as they’re not allowed to screw with the lore or adjust the essential dynamics of the endless war. You also get permanent character upgrades and weapon unlocks to pursue, so there’s a certain push to keep going.

Thing is, I think this compulsion towards progress overrides what the game is actually good at, which is shutting you inside a derelict spaceship and making you fight for your life. That itch to win things interferes with enjoying the moment. When you’ve got a thirst on for some new toy, frustration mounts at constantly retreading the same ground or being interrupted by yet another mammoth wave of ‘Stealers when you’re inches from your destination.

The squad stuff is banal and almost needless too, other than requesting healing – Deathwing can’t really be called a tactical shooter. Singleplayer felt so mechanical, so repetitive – whereas with humans and no unlocks to pursue in multiplayer, it felt tense and organic.

It does, however, effectively do just the one thing, and unless big updates are coming I suspect it’s going to wear thin. Part of me feels as though this is a brilliant, beautiful Space Hulk tech demo blown up and looped, and I’m not sure how long that can hold my interest. It’s a good time for a while, but for a long life its many rough edges need smoothing and more flesh needs adding to its bones.

Space Hulk: Deathwing is out now for Windows, via Steam, for £29.99/$39.99 (discounted to £25.49/$33.99 until Jan 2).

24 Comments

  1. FuriKuri says:

    Is the co-op workable with 2 players or is it like Left 4 Dead where you’re pretty much boned if you’re not playing with a full team?

    I tend to play with a family member, we’re both very skilled and L4D hit that perfect imbalance shit spot where everything but the most difficult setting was too easy, and the most difficult setting was impossible due to the stupidity of your AI companions…

    • NetharSpinos says:

      You can play with fewer numbers, but you will struggle with the hardest difficulty setting; we (myself & two comrades) were playing last night and could only make it to the second room on the first level before being overwhelmed.

  2. KDR_11k says:

    My impression from a short bit of playing was that shooting feels bad because the low accuracy, low rate of fire and relatively low damage (at least of the storm bolter) make it feel like you’re pointing an ineffective hose at a swarm and occasionally some of them fall over. Doesn’t help that the ragdolling doesn’t make deaths terribly obvious when they happen.

    Reminds me of dealing with the first gun in Pay Day 2, that was equally bad and made it feel like you’re shooting balls of tissue paper (because most shots missed). With a better gun you start ripping through enemies and Pay Day at least points out headshot kills (makes the enemy’s helmet fly off) immediately. Of course then there’s EDF which points out kills with giant blood explosions that can be spotted easily within milliseconds of the kill actually happening even if you’re many city blocks away.

    Do later Space Hulk weapons give more of a “kill what you aim at” feel than the storm bolter and assault cannon’s “point in the vague direction and sometimes something may die, dunno”?

    • Kamikaze-X says:

      I think its the animations, as you said. I noticed that the enemies, when you kill them zoomed in, go ‘unlit’ long before their animation/movement stops. At that point they stop causing you damage, but the animation continues for about half a second.

    • Walsh says:

      What difficulty are you playing on? I’m on the default and they go down in two or three hits from the storm bolter.

      • KDR_11k says:

        Default too but 2-3 hits with a weapon that seems to miss more often than hit at average ranges and such a low ROF still feel impotent. I’m kinda used to 2-3 hitters being a bit more accurate or faster firing (but then again I prefer 1200 RPM guns in PD2 that basically fire the 3 deadly shots in one click).

      • dirtrobot says:

        Yeah I don’t get that issue, storm bolter is quite powerful, even at long ranges.

    • Metr13 says:

      Totally agree here, the spread on the weapons is pretty horrid.

      Not to mention that a rocket-propelled grenade launcher designed to destroy armour can’t take out a flimsy genestealer hybrid in one shot.

  3. Walsh says:

    I feel like every review by Alec starts with some kind of framerate or other issue. Maybe it’s time for a new PC?

  4. suramoto says:

    Thank you for the review. I was thrilled to try this, but I think I will wait a little more before buying it, to see if the developers can sort out the problems… I really hope so…

  5. KastaRules says:

    “[…] the religious-fascist fervour of the Space Marines, the indefatigable alien horde, the gothic excess of an environment that is both unspeakably huge and oppressively sealed-in.”

    I really DIG your writing style.

    When I was a kid I used to play Space Hulk on my Amiga, it was a dreadful and terrifying experience and I loved it. You really had to plan your moves wisely because failure and defeat were waiting for you behind each corner. I also enjoyed Space Hulk: Vengeance of the Blood Angels on the PSX which was actually quite good.

    I didn’t have high expectations for Deathwing but I decided to grab it anyway, for old times sake. The atmosphere is amazing and it really sucked me in but, as I thought, gameplay-wise it is rather simplistic and repetitive. I am *not* a multiplayer kind of guy but I did try it online and had a fun time with other human players. With other people though the sense of horror and despair tends to go out the window, especially when someone finds it funny to keep shooting at a huge holy bell to make it ring, which is pretty much all the time.

    I could only sum it up like this:
    Deathwing is to the original Space Hulk as Aliens is to Alien.

    Great in its own “Hollywoodian” way but definitely *not* the masterpiece that the original one was.

  6. Wololooo says:

    *ctrl-F “Spiritualized”* – phrase not found. Ah, at least one of us got the reference.

    • smokingkipper says:

      *ctr-F “Spiritualized”* – 1 of 1 found. Ah, there is hope for humanity yet.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      So this is a Cop Shoot Cop kind of situation, right?

  7. malkav11 says:

    “we didn’t need it in Left 4 Dead, did we?”
    Yes we bloody well did. Or at least, I did.

    Progression, mechanical asymmetry between characters, -something- beyond minor remixes of the same basic “shoot a bunch of zombies” formula. Left 4 Dead offered none of the above, and so I have never understood why it was so lauded. Left 4 Dead 2 did mix things up a fair bit more so I played it probably 4 or 5 times as much (which is saying little, since I didn’t even experience all the maps in the first game, having become terminally bored maybe 3 maps in). But still. It was something that was fun once or twice per map and then there was no incentive to go back, but nowhere near enough content to be worthwhile as a one-and-done affair.

    I may not have gotten into Payday 2 or Vermintide either, but in their case it’s because of Left 4 Dead’s other failing – bots being useless, and playing with random internet folk not being a great experience by and large. I definitely -want- to play more, I just don’t have the team to do it with.

    • Meatpopsicle says:

      The thing that made L4D work, at least for me, was that multiplayer put the unique infected under player control. Co-op was boring as bat shit after you’d played a few levels. Having people control the special infected created a whole new aspect to the game.

      • malkav11 says:

        Yeah, the adversarial multiplayer seemed to be how most people that stuck with it played it, and I assume that was fun for people that enjoy adversarial multiplayer (i.e., not me), but whenever L4D gets -discussed-, it gets lauded as this amazing coop game. And I don’t see it.

  8. loganjamesalex says:

    There is so much misinformation in this article it hurts to read.

    1. the spawn points of enemies are literally on the map/minimap so yeah you are supposed to be able to tell where they are and if you stand in one place doing nothing near one of these points enemies will come out again, you don’t earn a unlimited respite just by clearing a room
    2. a Space hulk is not an abandonded space cathedral. it is a conglomeration of many many space ships that have crashed into each other/docked with the space hulk over tens of thousands of years and is an ever growing mass of ships. (the reason why every level or “chapter” takes place on a different ship) seriously they tell you this in the cinematic trailer.
    3. So many left for dead comparisons, if you want a warhammer game that is similar to left4dead look at vermintide. this game is so much different than vermintide, and I think viewing it through that lense amplifies the differences from left 4 dead even more. a good start is the fact that you always have unlimited ammo. you have magic spells (basically). you have a targeting computer in your crosshair that shows you where you are actually aiming (ex if something is right in front of the gun barrel) the only time you can change your weapons is on your ship? thing but you can teleport there a set amount of times in a chapter (which revies dead teammates and refills your healer’s heals) not to mention the way damage and health works in this game. if any piece of your terminator armor breaks, you die. the game keeps track of damage of your head, each arm, your legs as a group and the torso. Enemies attacks are reflected as to what part of your body they hit. a very rare sight in an FPS all in all very different from left 4 dead besides that you are a squad vs a horde FPS
    4. Struggle with story?? Anyone versed in 40k lore will be giddy. (Minor Chapter 1 spoilers) you start in a tecnhopriest ship that docked with the space hulk on purpose to try and increase their knowledge and therefore become closer to the machine god. there are hidden data logs, hidden artifacts, all in such a well crafted environment that literally also tells a part of the story with the crewmembers corpses scattered around each ship or even occasionally other space marine squads and so many things on the walls/shelves/floors it almost seems cluttered.

    there is more but this comment is too long already

  9. Sevarrius says:

    The game really does look the part, I’ll happily say that much, visually it really is ‘Space Hulk’ but goddamn the shooting killed the immersion for me, only because I am such a big 40k nerd. Simple fact is a space marine in tactical dreadnought armour shouldn’t really experience any sort of recoil from their weapons, that’s the whole point of the tactical dreadnought armour aside from it’s much higher durability.

    Seems like such a small niggle but the recoil on some of those weapons is so wild that it’s a complete deal-breaker for me and some 40k nerds like me. I really hope it’s something they address.

  10. tonicer says:

    As someone with only one friend who doesn’t play any of the games i play i refunded it.

    Why? The AI is really dumb and annoying and playing COOP with randoms isn’t much better.

    It’s a pretty game and i always dreamed of a WH40K first person shooter but this is to much like a first person roguelike imo.

  11. bill says:

    Vengeance of the Blood Angels was sooo close to being an amazing game. I think it just came out a bit too early and the tech wasn’t quite there yet.

    I’ve always wanted to get a modern remake… but I think the problem now is that the tech has advanced too far. the old 2D maps and grid-based levels meant that you could use squad tactics pretty well… but modern full 3d maps with all the fancy design and layout would be much harder to handle in terms of sending AI squadmates around.

    • Phil Culliton says:

      This is pretty much exactly what I’ve been thinking. Also (damn my eyes!) I returned Vengeance back when I first bought it because it required a CD drive, and mine was broken, and I didn’t want to wait to convince my parents to replace it. Now I think longingly of that box. Can’t remember what I bought in exchange. I’ve since bought a few copies but it’s hard as heck to get running in Windows 7+.

      All that said – yes, the old grid-based systems were great for tactical control. I understand why they went with the L4D huddle, and it works fairly well (I like that your teammates will walk backwards to cover you, etc.) but it doesn’t really fit with the enormity of stopping a tide of these things. For that you need positions and directions covered, thinking tactically. Right now your tools are “run around with me and maybe shoot stuff” or “stay here and probably get murdered, you sad clown AI”. So.

  12. haldolium says:

    I found it sadly to get repetitive and very boring way too fast.

    I haven’t had actual fun shooting, due to weapon feedback, design (even beyond the bolter) and the general layout of the gameplay.

    Also with every 40k game, I will *always* miss the intense sound design Relic gave their games, which fitted that universe perfect and added much depth to the feedback, even for Space Marine.

    It looks quite nice at least and I personally had no technical issues.

  13. Thankmar says:

    I wanted to comment about how my younger brother got the german version of Space Hulk without us having any knowledge of Warhammer whatsoever. But it turns out, Star Quest, english version Space Quest, is yet another 40k board game, similar, but, as I read, simpler.
    Anyway, in Germany, cause it was the time when you freed countries in Risk rather than conquer them, the weapons were non-lethal. They would work exactly like grenade launchers or big railguns or what, but the enemies would be sucked into another dimension, or be frozen in time or sth., so they could live happily ever after. My young, already videogametrained mind instantly translated it into violence anyway, and I did not care a bit, because here was a boardgame of men in giant armor shooting hordes of bad aliens, which was something so different to any other boardgame I played. I was so intrigued by the miniatures, the asymmetrical gameplay and the grimdark, but it turned out I was the only one of my peers to feel like that. Warhammer was never a big thing in Germany, Star Quest a very niche game, so it took me many years to find out about the meaning of the ominous 40.000 which was mentioned somewhere in the manual. I remember just one game played like it should be with a bunch of other fellow students many years later.
    Its strange, when I see the pictures of the game material on the Star Quest museum website, I get a massive pang of nostalgia and sentiment, because it reminds me of having something in the hand I felt was a part of a much greater thing without knowing exactly what, and having something great in front of me I could not exactly pinpoint why I found it that great.
    Turns out, I’m not very good at tactical boardgames or turnbased strategy. But that enigmatic big box, rattling with miniatures? Just awesome.