DarkTide is a great FPS in a grim place

DarkTide could still live up to its fantasy predecessor, if its monetisation gets out of the way of its gameplay.

I’ve spent just over 130 hours hacking and blasting my way through Tertium’s infested corridors and feel qualified to say that DarkTide contains a great core that is badly undermined by a grim monetisation system that has hit player retention hard in the short term and threatens its long term live service ambitions. When delivering bad news it’s always best to do it in a shit sandwich; positive, negative, positive. Well this is a 40K game set in a hive city, so I guess corpse starch sandwich is more appropriate in this case.  

First off, DarkTide is an astoundingly authentic and detailed game. Every inch of every level in Tertium looks the part and then some. From the freshly stamped hull’s of Atoma pattern Leman Russ tanks clanking along a production line, to the tech priest Hadron’s glittering green eyes and skeletal mechandrites, to the servo skulls zooming around the Mourningstar and infested corridors of Hab Dreyko, everything belongs. I don’t know how long it took Fatshark’s artists and engineers to design and build all these assets from scratch before weaving them together to bring Tertium to life, and I don’t want to know. The core gameplay loop feels great. It’s about a 70/30 split between ranged and melee spread across all 4 different classes and I cannot overstate how good it feels. Lasguns pop heads with a satisfying sizzle and squelch, bolter rounds atomise small enemies and chew through armor with teeth rattling booms while power hammers and eviscerators bludgeon and carve through hordes with all the feedback necessary to make them feel satisfying, swing after swing. The care and thought put into that loop carries through to Jesper Kyd’s soundtrack, which builds on the high bar set by David Guillaume’s Mechanicus OST. Immortal Imperium is a nearly 4 minute long crescendo that effectively depicts the imperium’s lumbering war machine gradually grinding into gear and the nearly 2 hours of music that follows is just as good. The banter between the different character classes strikes a healthy balance between tactical communication and looping in some details about the wider 40K universe, with debates ongoing about Major Morrow’s age and what conflicts he’s fought in, doubts about Hadron being a pretty weird person to take orders from and what’s up with the Indomitus Crusade.

DarkTide; Inquisitorial servo skull
Credit: Fatshark Games

But here comes the recycled dead matter. When you get away from the core gameplay loop, the sound and the art style, the good decisions stop and the bad decisions start. Bad decisions such as; levels being available on a timed rotation. How does it in any way benefit the game to gate off big chunks of content at a time? Doing so forces you to login just to see whether the content in the game you already bought is actually available for a short while or not. The same goes for the weapon vendor. How does it make it more rewarding to fill it up with weapons I might not need on a timed refresh instead of making everything available at once so I can actually work towards a loadout that I want. And why, oh god why, is one of the most interesting and impressive features in the form of environmental modifiers that flood levels with thick fog or plunge them into pitch black darkness barely ever used? They cropped up a few times around launch but since then they’ve barely made an appearance. It sets alarm bells ringing when the only way to clue yourself in on these things is to login to the hub area and put yourself in the same space as an in-game cash only cosmetics store. There’ll be a ratio of logins per week correlated to money spent in that store and logically it follows that stretching and scraping content in this way was done with that ratio in mind.

There’s also the confusing role that Dan Abnett played in the creation of DarkTide’s narrative to call out. We can assume that Abnett’s work primarily went into developing the setting because Tertium, Atoma Prime and exposition through casual dialogue is where all of that good stuff lives. There are cutscenes crowbarred in as you level your character up which consist of key NPCs summoning you somewhere just to tell you to get back to work. There’s also a subplot about a traitor being aboard the ship which means very little in the context of what you’re doing and no action that you take aside from triggering the next cutscene by accruing XP has any effect on the outcome of it. Considering the fact that Abnett’s involvement got its very own reveal trailer and was a key component of the pre-launch marketing campaign, it seems like a deliberate decision to not mention that his role was actually much closer that of George R.R. Martin’s on Elden Ring; to create a setting for the game to take place in. A warning to fans of Gaunt’s Ghosts, The Eisenhorn Trilogy or any other of Abnett’s fantastic 40K novels; DarkTide’s narrative is as barebones as they come and if you’re looking to play through a 40K story in a similar setting right now, Streum On Studios’ Necromunda: Hired Gun is the game you’re looking for. Stories in co-op shooters can work, Left4Dead being a good example of that, and comparisons between Left4Dead and DarkTide are threaded through critic and player reviews across the internet. However, Fatshark has omitted a ton of fundamental features from those games that have helped keep that series alive since 2009 without a sequel in sight. From key accessibility like the ability to play offline with bots, choose which levels you want to play when you want to play them, a custom game browser and mod tools, to things as basic as scoreboards at the end of each round. None of them are in DarkTide and all of them are missed. Also, remember that fantastic soundtrack? You can’t purchase it seperately through Steam because its shackled to a bundle of cosmetics which inflate the cost close to the launch price of the full game. Whoever made the decision to do that – get in the bin.

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Nonetheless, I have faith. All of the key elements for DarkTide to hit its potential are still present. It’s a live service title with a long tail that in a year or two I hope to have a reason to return to as it grows into a complete product. Right now this is the best a 40K FPS has ever felt and Atoma Prime has so much more space for weird and wonderful warp related hijinks to unfold in that it’s impossible not to be excited for whichever of Grandfather Nurgle’s abominations is around the next corner. The gunplay rocks, the music rocks, the sound design is incredible, the atmosphere can be electric and despite the launch versions’ abject failure to tell a remotely interesting story, the scope for one to be added still remains. But it’s held back by the way in which its live service trappings are implemented to prioritize F2P style grind and in-game spending, ultimately leaving a very bitter aftertaste. It seems that Fatshark’s appetite has grown to the point where it’s hungry for whales and little else.

DarkTide: Nurgle rot in Tertium
Credit; Fatshark Games

To saran wrap this up; DarkTide raises the bar for realizing the 40K universe in a game and has a brilliantly addictive combat loop at its core, but obnoxious monetisation implementation scrapes too little content over too much bread, meaning that currently, like Tertium itself, DarkTide is a corrupted jewel with one hell of a fight for survival ahead of it.