Warhammer 40,000: Darktide PC review — Great gameplay, but grimdark performance

This shift to 40K works well in practice, but technical problems abound.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide key art
(Image: © Fatshark)

Windows Central Verdict

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide has a deeply satisfying core loop, with amazingly faithful art direction and audio. There's a wide variety of optimization and server problems right now however, so the technical side of the experience may vary wildly.

Pros

  • +

    Detailed visuals

  • +

    Great audio and soundtrack

  • +

    Engaging gameplay

Cons

  • -

    Major performance and optimization issues

  • -

    Balancing issues

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With the Windows PC launch of Warhammer 40,000: Darktide, developer and publisher Fatshark, known for the Warhammer: Vermintide games, has taken the co-op horde-slaying formula and applied it to another world of Games Workshop.

The result is a game that is incredibly detailed and fun to play, with players customizing their own grunt of the Imperium's war machine and fighting the endless reserves of Chaos. Unfortunately, technical issues run rampant throughout this experience, with poor optimization even for more recent hardware. 

With time, Warhammer 40,000: Darktide will likely be one of the best games to play in co-op, but for now, anyone who isn't a diehard Warhammer fan should consider a couple of things before jumping in.

Disclaimer: This review was made possible by a review code provided by Fatshark. The company did not see the contents of this review before publishing.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide — Story and characters

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Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is set on the Imperial Hive World of Atoma Prime, in the Hive City of Tertium. For the uninitiated, a Hive World is a densely packed planet filled with massive cities (or Hive Cities) and is almost always devoted to the production of arguably the most important resource the fascist structures of the Imperium require: Fresh bodies for the Imperial Guard. 

In this game, players will create their character who has been imprisoned for some crime, imagined or real. Four classes are available right now, and players can choose the sharpshooting skills of a Veteran, the hulking strength of an Ogryn, the magic powers of a Psyker, or the fanatical frenzy of a Zealot. 

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DeveloperFatshark
PublisherFatshark
GenreFirst-person shooter
Minimum requirementsWindows 10, Intel i5-6600 (3.30GHz)/AMD Ryzen 2400G (3.6 GHz), NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970/AMD Radeon RX 570, 50 GB
Playtime12 hours+
Players1 to 4 player co-op
PlatformsPC
PC Game PassYes
Launch price$40

The player is then quickly drafted, as Tertium is falling to Chaos forces loyal to Nurgle. While there's an overarching plot involving suspicion of treachery among the ranks as the Inquisition attempts to take back the planet. It's a weak plot however, and you'll go vast amounts of time before getting the briefest cutscene or update, which end up feeling jarring rather than interesting. I won't spoil anything, but the already-thin narrative in the Vermintide games was much stronger than we get here.

Fortunately, the characters shine in spite of this, as there's an immense amount of in-game dialog on the nature of Tertium, the player characters' lives before being drafted, and how the Imperium itself works. 

One of many ways replaying a mission can feel fresh is through this dialog, and I found myself listening carefully whenever I noticed a new team composition. Characters comment on the seeming futility of their struggles, the exploitation of Abhumans — human mutants like the Ogryn that are deemed okay for serving the Imperium — and more. The developers clearly understand the nature of Warhammer 40,000 at more than a surface level, and this is some of the best commentary yet found in a game on the brutal structures that the protagonists serve.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide — Gameplay and customization

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Being a first-person shooter, players use a variety of ranged and melee weapons to obliterate the hordes of cultists infesting Tertium. Each class has different abilities and gear that help set them apart. As an example, a Veteran might use the trusty Lasguns or Autoguns, while a Psyker can just use magic to pop apart an enemy's head. Every character has Toughness, a layer of protection above their health that recharges faster when close to other players, adding encouragement to stick together.

Players group up in squads of four, playing across missions that cover a number of settings in Tertium, from the foundries and sprawling streets to narrow chokepoints and the gnarly underbelly. From there, mission control gives you tasks like assassinating Chaos leadership, restoring access to water supplies, researching new pathogens, and more. 

A number of difficulty settings and different tasks on varied maps change the gameplay up, but you'll definitely be repeating missions once you've played for a few hours. No matter what, the main objective is ultimately combat, and this is where Darktide excels. The Vermintide games packed in dozens of rats, but Darktide hits a new level that actually feels "next-generation" as hundreds of Nurgle cultists swarm you, allowing you to respond in kind and unleash obliteration. 

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Cutting apart dozens of enemies at a time just feels good, and I've had more fun playing this than any other co-op game in a long time, as my team would set up chokepoints, trying to hold out until the objective was complete.

Tougher, special types of foes like trappers and gunners require more thought in order to avoid having party members be picked off, which can quickly domino into everyone being overwhelmed, and the entire team has to work together to bring down disgusting bosses like the Plague Ogryns, Daemonhosts, or Beasts of Nurgle.

Completing missions earns players experience, resources, and occasionally new equipment, while other types of gear are unlocked for purchase as you rise through the ranks. Each class also has different skills, such as the Veteran's ability to focus fire and deal increased ranged damage for a short time.

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Looking ahead, players will eventually be able to construct their own equipment with gathered resources, but crafting has been delayed. Right now, the feature simply reads as coming soon, meaning players are restricted to gear drops and whatever is available in the shop at the time.

The result is that progression specifically in regards to improved equipment doesn't quite feel right at the moment. It feels too difficult and random to actually get a better gun, and being able to just make one would be an easy fix. You can pay some special materials to add blessings to your equipment, but this just adds a random perk, and the cost goes up each time, making it prohibitively expensive to keep investing in the same item.

While players can also earn some cosmetics to change up the look of their characters, the game also has a premium currency shop, where players can spend money on special cosmetic items. I'm not as opposed to cosmetic-only microtransactions as many other players are, but it is annoying that this is already functional in-game while other features have been delayed. That's especially true considering this is a paid game, not a free-to-play experience.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide — Visuals and audio

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Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is not only gorgeous, it's one of the best realizations of the scope and scale of the IP ever. At every level, Tertium is beautiful to look at, and the developers at Fatshark have nailed not only the aesthetic but the scale that Warhammer 40,000 demands. From the Lasgun fire that illuminates the winding hallways to the rotting, corpse-like appearance of Nurgle's worshippers, everything here looks as good as any fan could hope.

Unfortunately, none of it seems particularly well-optimized right now. To be clear, problems that occur with PC gaming are always a bit difficult to quantify, with innumerable possible issues depending on a variety of factors. With that said, Warhammer 40,000: Darktide simply isn't well optimized. 

Even with an RTX 3070, the framerate jumps around all over with ray-tracing enabled, bouncing between 30 FPS to above 60 FPS depending on the exact room. Certain settings behave with a complete lack of consistency, as I found my performance improved in several areas setting ray-tracing to "High" instead of "Low."

If you want a good, somewhat stable experience playing Warhammer 40,000: Darktide, you'll need one of the best desktop computers or one of the best gaming laptops available. Even then, be prepared to drop a few settings down and tinker far more than the usual PC game requires.

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A first-person shooter's sound design is in many ways just as important as the visuals and fortunately, that's another area in which Warhammer 40,000: Darktide delivers in spades. Whenever you get into pitched battles, the capaphonous screams of enemy hordes come barreling down, blanketing arenas in the screeching and the howls of the infected.

All of the special enemies have unique sound effects, making it clear that one is approaching even if you can't spot them in the chaos. Player feedback with the audio is similarly great, with clear sounds for landing a melee hit or having your Toughness meter broken. 

The soundtrack is composed by Jesper Kyd, who is known for his work on franchises like Assassin's Creed, State of Decay, and Warhammer: Vermintide. Kyd brings out some of his best work yet in Darktide, with panicked drums signaling the approach of a horde, or dark chanting as a team fights against a more powerful Chaos fiend. At no point does it ever feel out of place, and the music compliments the mood of the game's every step in spades.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide — Approachability and accessibility

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Unfortunately, Darktide doesn't have a wide variety of accessibility options. Outside of the standard PC gaming features found in shooters like adjusting aiming speed or reducing latency with NVIDIA Reflex, there's just not much to go on here. 

That being said, the game has been designed in such a fashion where color is not used to convey much information. It's not perfect, but the developers have spoken about how colorblindness should not be much of an issue here compared to other first-person shooters. Dedicated options would still be ideal in future updates though.

As for the general approachability level, players can always opt to continually play on lower difficulty missions even as their characters grow stronger. It will in turn take longer to level up, but there's nothing stopping you from just playing on easier missions until you get the hang of how everything works.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide — Should you play it?

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Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is a mixed bag, and there's a lot of different things to weigh if you're considering playing it. The gameplay is simply awesome, the soundtrack stellar, and the bleak world of horror that is Warhammer 40,000 has perhaps never been visually represented quite as well as it is here. It's also just flat-out not well optimized, with some downright bizarre technical issues.

Ultimately, I do think it's worth playing, but with the caveat that if you don't have a top-of-the-line rig, you'll likely run into some problems. There's a lot of things the developers can improve, but Fatshark has shown in the past it's in for the long haul with games, so there's no reason to expect otherwise here. The base edition of the game is $40, and it's also available in PC Game Pass, so you can keep that in mind as well.

Despite my list of complaints, I've had a lot of fun with Darktide so far, and I'm looking forward to playing it for dozens (if not hundreds) of hours more as new features are added, issues are patched, and an increased player pool with the arrival of the Xbox Series X|S console versions.

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Warhammer 40,000: Darktide

Fatshark's latest co-op title has great gameplay and perfectly nails the feeling of fighting as a grunt for the Imperium of Man, but some technical problems mean you may want to wait a bit before playing.

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Subscribe to PC Game Pass and you'll get access to a huge library of titles, including first-party Xbox games and some day one third-party titles like Warhammer 40,000: Darktide.

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Samuel Tolbert is a freelance writer covering gaming news, previews, reviews, interviews and different aspects of the gaming industry, specifically focusing on Xbox and PC gaming on Windows Central. You can find him on Twitter @SamuelTolbert.