The mobile market is becoming flooded with Games Workshop adaptions to the point of excess, but the team at Rodeo Games (who also brought us the fantastic dungeon crawl ‘Warhammer Quest’ and the ‘Hunters’ series) always seem to find a way to make their titles stand out from the pack.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Rodeo’s own IP, ‘Hunters’ was heavily informed by the Warhammer 40,000 setting, in particular games such as ‘Space Hulk’ and ‘Space Crusade’ which both saw you guiding a team of marines through a science fiction setting as they engaged an enemy threat that far outnumbered their own squad. When Games Workshop started to chop up their own IP into smaller pieces and pass them out among developers it was a safe bet that the model used by Rodeo would snag them a game in this genre, and their previous experience working on ‘Warhammer Quest’ certainly showed that they knew how to respect the property.
Visually, Warhammer 40,000: Deathwatch – Tyranid Assault (to give the game its full title) runs using a version of the Unreal Engine and is fully rendered in 3D. The character models are both beautifully realised and accurate to their miniature counterparts in every way, blending the games look and feel into the expansive setting that Games Workshop has developed over the years. The use of atmospheric lighting and detailed environments adds a sense of quality to the production that is missing from many similar titles within the squad-based tactical sub-genre, and attention to detail is at a premium. Menus have a holographic quality to them that renders them in semi-transparent, futuristic white over screens and makes them both easy to read and suited to the games’ tone. Artwork is used on mission screens to depict the squad’s next target or location, and these are usually moody illustrations to match the tone of the 3D artwork. Animations in-game are smooth and well suited to characters moving in suits of powered armour, and the enemy swarms across the screen in a suitably creepy manner. An added touch sees weapons and items visually represented on each character.
The sound in Deathwatch is tonally perfect for the games style, if a little pre-functional, meaning that whilst nothing wows the player there is a wide range of gunshots, enemy skittering and blood splatters to be heard. Menus bleep and click as you confirm decisions in a manner that could be straight out of ‘Star Trek’. It’s grim, serious stuff and it is accompanied by a soundtrack that is largely made up of orchestral pieces that build an air of mystery, with echoing notes. The game uses in-battle voice acting (accompanied by text for those playing on mute) to forward the story or brief the player on mission goals that feels monotone at times, but never trips over the complicated internal jargon that the 40K setting is known for.
The story starts off extremely simply, setting the stage for the Squad’s personality. You are the Deathwatch, an elite group made up out of members of various chapters of Space Marines (who would normally work near-exclusively with their own brethren) and sent on the missions that are deemed too tough or plain suicidal for anyone else. Where other fail, you get the job done. At the games start there’s a brief introduction sequence that serves as a tutorial and sees the team wipe out a hive of Giger-like Tyranids before being sent to destroy an approaching vessel, poisoning its living tissue to kill it before it reaches Imperial space. Broken down into chapters, each containing 4 stages that make up one larger self-contained mission, linked by an on-going narrative, the game does an excellent job of making the squad feel versatile, even when facing the same enemy race throughout. Where it excels is in the inter-mission dialogue between characters, which hints at broader universe politics and plot points that you wouldn’t otherwise experience. Why are they there? Where did these orders come from? Is it acceptable for a member of the Deathwatch to question anything? These are all good questions that deepen the games experience and in the absence of a central character (the squad has a revolving door on who you draft) the unit itself becomes the games narrative focus.
Gameplay mixes together elements of strong Tactical RPGs and some more modern social features that feel a little out of place until you get used to them. You’re given a squad of standard marines at the games outset, each with gear in the form of cards that the player collects after a successful mission and currency that can be acquired by selling off spare gear or marines. This currency can be used to buy ‘booster packs’ that contain a random selection of new equipment and marines. Cards are ranked 1 to 3, with 3 being elite status and 1 being a standard grunt. Obviously you’re looking to keep as many 3s as you can and use the rest as fodder. You can save up slowly a few chits at a time for these booster packs or buy them with real money immediately. That’s the social game feature, and your tolerance of it comes down to how much you enjoy grinding for gear and cash. Characters themselves each have a set of skills and item slots that can be unlocked using experience, these are extremely helpful and since the game doesn’t feature permanent death it drops experience to 0 if a character is killed in action. Skills remain intact, but some of them cost upwards of 8000 points of experience and it’s a painful thing to see it drop to zero just short of that mountain, knowing you’ll need to climb it again. Characters also have their own internal classes, meaning not every character can handle every weapon or item in the game, adding to your careful choice of who to bring on each mission based on what you’ll need to accomplish. Missions can be tackled in easy, medium and hard settings and the challenge can really ramp up. Squad management and item gathering is the smaller part of the game however, because the campaign and its battle scenarios are the real meat. These do not disappoint in any way, using a modified version of the movement and attacking system seen in ‘Warhammer Quest’, coupled with additional trimmings such as the ability to set a character on overwatch. Each character has a set number of action points which can be used to move or attack with, with some skills and perks altering that total slightly. If a character has nothing to do that turn or can’t accomplish what you need then setting them to overwatch allows them the automatically fire in a specific line of sight inside the enemy turn, downing advancing monsters before they close the gap into close combat range. Combat ends when the mission’s various goals are complete, and there’s a broad variety of these that ranges from ‘hold position’, to ‘reunite with a lost comrade’ that manage to always keep the game feeling fresh.
Overall, Deathwatch is a great game that plays to both the strengths of its systems and those of the Tactical RPG genre. Whilst the game in its current format only takes the fight up against the various forms of Tyranid, expansions including additional races are largely expected to be on-route given Rodeo Games’ extensive DLC for ‘Warhammer Quest’. At almost 2gb I’d say it’s a space killer for your mobile, but one that’s worth experiencing, and possibly even more so through Steam on a desktop, where the added functionality of mouse-control can give you that pixel-perfect click.