The suffocating darkness of Warhammer 40,000’s bleak future isn’t where one would typically seek out a breath of fresh air, but I’ve come away from every session of Warhammer 40,000: Darktide reinvigorated nonetheless. Whether it’s the vicious yet darkly comedic melee brawls or the head-bop-inducing synthwave tracks blasting throughout intense shootouts, this four-player cooperative FPS from developer Fatshark frequently has me grinning like an idiot. While Darktide is still getting updates and new content during its pre-order beta window, sluggish performance issues are the only thing that has tempered my excitement for its full release next week – but even those problems don’t diminish the glory that comes with chain-swording heretics in half.
Darktide opens like many other wonderfully over-embellished Warhammer 40,000 stories before it: with a legion of Chaos-worshipping traitors causing trouble. The massive hive city of Tertium is overflowing with zombie-esque Poxwalker hordes, gun-toting preachers spouting blasphemous gospel, and all sizes of misshapen, rift-powered boss monstrosities that you’ll joyously slaughter by the thousands as a conscripted convict. Only six missions are available in the beta as of this review-in-progress, so I can’t judge the overarching narrative quite yet, but the cheeky squadmate banter is pretty sharp so far, at least.
Of the four playable classes, I’ve come to adore the tank-like Ogryn Skullbreaker — a tall brute that can easily knock down dozens of enemies with one lumbering swipe. That muscly stopping power never goes out of style either, as Darktide’s shockingly in-depth melee combat will consistently test your hand-to-hand martial prowess. Light, heavy, and special attacks are all chainable to brilliant results. It’s endlessly satisfying to slice and dice a dozen Poxwalkers into bits quickly, then block an incoming overhead two-handed hammer swing from one of the more sentient enemies before shoving them away. Better yet, darting into an armored enemy’s range to knock off their shoulder pad, exposing a weak point in the process, then dashing away before they can retaliate will almost certainly make you smile. Heck, I even let out a good belly laugh after lopping off some poor sod’s arm because he examined the bloody stump before falling over as if this were a Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner bit — Darktide isn’t shy about tongue-firmly-in-cheek moments like this. I’m not sure if Ogryn doing the whole “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” routine is intentional, but it’s still hilarious.
Unfortunately, getting into those busy up-close exchanges reveals Darktide’s performance woes. My admittedly aging RTX 2080 isn’t a top-tier graphics card anymore, but it’s not so far out of date that the framerate should slow down to near-slideshow levels when bodies start piling up. Yes, Darktide is pretty at times — I quite enjoy looking up from Tertium’s seedy underbelly to admire the ornately detailed superstructures above. However, it’s not a technical showpiece you would expect to melt most modern PCs while every visual toggle is on low. Fatshark has said it’s well aware of the widespread call for better optimization and patches are already on the way, so fingers crossed that Darktide runs better by the time it leaves beta.
Thankfully, everything tends to stabilize once you’re picking off nasties from afar. Darktide’s firefights may be less frenetic than its melee tussles, but they are no less exhilarating, largely thanks to how its suppression system works. Taking shots at foes who know better than to mindlessly shamble into bullets will typically cause them to hide behind cover. Keeping up that barrage makes their return-fire sloppy, usually resulting in projectiles that miss you by several feet. It’s plenty fair, though, since they can also suppress your team. There’s this fantastic risk-reward element to suppression that forces you to either find cover and regain a steady trigger finger or pull out a melee weapon while blitzing toward the shooter. Goodness, caving in some mutant’s orbital bone after they make it nigh-impossible for you to shoot never gets old — particularly when a John Carpenter-sounding synth track rife with catchy metal clangs commemorates the occasion.
I wouldn’t sink 18 hours into a limited pre-order beta that chugs like this one under normal circumstances, but it’s hard to put Darktide down. The thunderous melee battles, tactful ranged exchanges, and that ever-so-delicate balancing act between those two methods of murder keep pulling me back even when most of the campaign isn’t out yet. I’m hopeful that Darktide will maintain that exciting momentum as all of the content unlocks in the lead-up toward its full launch, and that the worst of its performance problems get addressed as well, but I’ll have my final scored review shortly after release either way.