There are so many Warhammer games out there, but so few truly understand Games Workshop’s worlds. Whether we’re looking at old fashioned fantasy, or futuristic Warhammer 40,000 fiction, devs are rarely able grasp the odd mix of horror and humour that makes the Warhammer universes special.
Take Space Hulk: Deathwing as an example. That game looked beautiful and captured some of the fantasy of wearing a suit of Terminator armour whilst mowing down hordes of Tyranids, but the Tyranids were floppy idiots and the tone was—as so often happens—all too po-faced and serious.
Space Marines should be serious, I should say. They believe—in fact they’re indoctrinated to believe—in their own power fantasy. But the best Warhammer fiction pulls back the camera and shows us the great big inhuman mess that is the Imperium. Are Space Marines heroes or fascistic enforcers? The secret to Warhammer 40,000 fiction is simple: forget about good guys and bad guys—in the grim darkness of the far future there are only bad guys.
Dan Abnett writes the universe very well, and I’d recommend his Horus Heresy books to Warhammer fans and sci-fi nerds alike. His understanding of the morally ambiguous 40K universe is spot on, and I’d love to see more of that in games.
The Dawn of War games did well. The designers at Relic always put great personality into unit barks. The Space Marines are pompous, the Eldar are aloof, all high on their own hype. Relic’s Space Marine does a good job too. The plot reflects the heroic ideal of a Space Marine Captain on a rampage, but his status rests on a bedrock of corruption and petty human squabbles between Inquisitors and traitors, and the poor Imperial Guard troopers are stuck in between—perfect.
That brings us to Darktide. I have particularly high hopes for this interpretation of 40K for a few reasons. Firstly, playing as small fry in the depths of a hive city is a great way to approach the universe. It’s fun to mow down Ork hordes as a Space Marine, but it’s even better to play the underdog at the behest of an uncaring Inquisitor.
Secondly, in Vermintide the writers at Fatshark nail the tone of the old world. The dynamic banter between heroes hits a perfect note. Your characters needle each other as they’re slaying Chaos hordes, and each hero has tremendous self-regard. Unearned arrogance ought to be the cornerstone of any good Warhammer fiction. Vermintide has haughty elves, proud dwarves and dutiful knights.
And most importantly the game captures the universe’s odd mix of humour and horror. Vermintide has an outstanding mission where you’re following a dimly lit minecart into the bowels of a rat-infested maze. It’s a tense, horrible adventure, broken up by the nervous chatter of your heroes teasing one another.
Warhammer 40,000 needs to be a bit grumpier than that, but I actually think Fatshark might do a good job getting the fiction right. The concept art we’ve seen so far is suitably grim. If the designers capture the nasty claustrophobia of the hive world and work in some grimdark jibes, we might just get the best Warhammer 40,000 game yet.