Tuesday, September 29, 2015

VIDEO GAMES: Warhammer 40K: Deathwatch

Thoughts on the latest 40K game for iOS.

Had no idea this game existed for iPad until I saw a notice that it was coming to PCs as well. Not great marketing on Games Workshop's part...

But, I'm always willing to give a new 40K game a try, and am a sucker for turn-based strategy. The trailer showed several of my favorite Tyranid units, from hormagants to hive guard, brought to life with decent animation and effects, so I downloaded the app for $5 US, and played several hours.

Much like the other 40K games available for mobile, it does a lot to capture the aesthetic of the 40K universe, with excellent use of music, sound and art direction, but lacks in impact, as the mechanics are slow and limited in depth. Although there are microtransactions in the game, I can attest that they don't feel forced, and I've spent my time with the game without feeling pressured to spend additional money to succeed.

Basic gameplay revolves around collecting marines and gear, equipping and upgrading the marines, and then choosing a squad of five to complete story driven missions in a narrative campaign. In reality, mission objectives differ little, as each task is a variation on "traverse the small map while blasting xenos, and get to the extraction point", or "hold your ground and blast waves of xenos, THEN traverse the map to the extraction point". Later levels introduce welcome twists, like avoiding exploding obstacles, and one level even introduces objectives that must be carried to extraction, which precludes the marine from using his weapons. This leads to some interesting strategy concerning which marines to use as escorts to the carriers, and how many trips should be taken, given there are more data cores than marines.

Completing missions earns XP which is banked per character, and can be spent to level up, or unlock additional equipment slots. This creates a risk/reward mechanic, as upgrades can cost several thousand XP, but banked points are lost if a marine falls in combat. Players are also rewarded with a random card at the end of each mission that grants an additional marine, weapon or piece of gear for their collection. Completion of whole chapters in the narrative awards a "pack" of cards, which grant three random items. Additional card packs can be purchased in the micro-transaction store, of course.

The game's app store listing and title screens make much of the fact that it is built using the unreal 4 engine, but the graphics are not noteworthy in any regard, and include several glitches and rendering errors like missing explosions and intermittent charged plasma effects. Overall, the visuals are on par with the older mobile games, Carnage, and Space Wolf, which we have discussed on this site.

Turn-based gameplay is largely what you would expect, with a measured pace that allows careful, strategic use of your marines and environment. Each marine and xeno has a set of four action points that can be spent on anything from movement, shooting and melee to throwing grenades. You can pinch to zoom in and out (although you can't get close enough for dynamic views) rotate the map and even tilt the camera down from the default, overhead view. (however, this causes problems with scenery blocking the camera as there is no  transparency feature)

The game employs a "fog of war" effect that allows you to see the entirety of the battlefield, but wisely hides the position of zenos until they are in the active line of sight of one of your marines. This works for the largest part, but can lead to some frustrating and unintentionally odd moments when you kill a lowly gaunt to reveal a massive hive guard has been standing directly behind him the entire time.

There are some strange choices in the weapon effects, both visual and functional. The standard plasma rifle fires a grey blob that sounds similar to the basic bolter, instead of the blue or green super-heated plasma you would expect. And the lascannon, which takes three out of four action points to fire, kills only a single target if multiple zenos are lined up behind one another - given the action cost, and fluff of the weapon, it should really eliminate multiple targets.

Still, Deathwatch is a fun distraction, and worth the $5 price. I've enjoyed selecting my fireteams, kitting them out and blasting xenos. During a particular mission, I rushed most of my squad forward to set explosives on a bridge in advance of a swarming zenos horde, and covered their retreat with my devastator equipped with a heavy bolter. He meted out the emperor's justice like candy at halloween, as my team raced back across the divide, gaunts nipping at their heels.

If anything, the game has inspired me to paint up a squad of deathwatch for killteam games, or to stand in as sterngard veterans in my own force. Now, where to find deathwatch shoulder pads that won't cost me GW's $40 asking price...


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