Warhammer 40K: Darktide adds to Vermintide’s meaty combat formula

The shift to 40K and ranged weapons in Darktide doesn't sacrifice any of the frantic close-in melee fighting that made Vermintide so great

Warhammer 40K Darktide hands-on: A lasgun fires a bright red blast deep within an underground manufacturing facility

One of the first things to learn about living in Warhammer 40k: Darktide’s dangerous hive undercity is that a chainsword works whether or not it’s switched on. Without powering it on, you can use it as a perfectly good cudgel that can also help with pushing back hordes of the Chaos-touched. At the press of a button, however, it’ll chew through armour and bone with an upsettingly satisfying ease. That’s the mode you’ll want for one-on-one encounters with Hive Tertium’s more dangerous elites.

Developer Fatshark brought Darktide to Summer Game Fest Play Days in Los Angeles, and I played two sessions, and the experience left me excited. Darktide is dripping with grimdark atmosphere, but this is more than a 40K-flavoured reskin of Vermintide 2. The new theme has driven a new focus on firearms and ranged combat, but Fatshark’s managed to pull this off without sacrificing the frantic, in-your-face meatiness of the Vermintide games.

During my first session, I play as the zealot. She’s armed with both a powerful thunder hammer and a standard-issue Imperial autogun, and while I start out favouring the new rifle, my Vermintide reflexes kick in after a few minutes and I find myself frequently switching between ranged and melee.

While a few of Vermintide’s weapons had alternate fire modes, every weapon in Darktide has some additional gimmick you can activate. For my autogun, it’s a flashlight mounted along the barrel – nothing too flashy, but it’s a helpful tool when the crowds start getting thick in the dark warrens of the underhive.

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Activating alt-fire for the thunder hammer charges it with electrical energy, allowing it to deliver a potentially killing blow to the next thing you swing it at. But as the developers warn me, it’s best used with caution – you’ll want to power it up after isolating a large, tough enemy rather than when swarmed with low-level chaos foot soldiers, as the impact of the powered-up hammer can leave the user stunned for a couple seconds.

That’s more or less the situation with the veteran’s chainsword, too. The temptation, of course, is to buzzsaw everything into blasphemous hamburger. But it’s best to save that functionality for armoured enemies, which will shrug off quite a bit of gunfire and normal melee strikes.

Anyone who enjoyed playing as Vermintide’s bright wizard Sienna Fuegonasus will feel right at home with Darktide’s psyker, who I played as during my second session. She can fire bolts of warp energy from her fingertips, or channel it into her staff for close-range combat. Similarly to Sienna’s overheat mechanic, the psyker has to vent off the chaos energy that she accumulates by using abilities, but in Darktide, this can happen at any time without taking damage – just hold the reload key. Like Sienna, the psyker also has a powerful ranged AoE attack that I drop into the centre of hordes to send Chaos heretics flying.

Warhammer 40K: Darktide impressions: A mutated chaos heretic staggers toward a player holding a chainsword

Another change in Darktide is that grenades have become part of your class kit – rather than a consumable item you discover in the world, grenades function more like a skill that you equip and use. These take unique forms for each of the four classes, and in the psyker’s case, it’s the ability to give someone a literally splitting headache. Holding the grenade button lets me reach out and burst the skull of a nearby cultist, or stagger a big mutant who’s charging my team.

That’s a detail that feels pulled straight from Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, and no wonder: Abnett was tapped as co-writer for Darktide, and worked side by side with Fatshark to establish its atmosphere. The nooks and crannies of the missions we run, the feedback of the weapons, and their devastating effects are all suffused with Abnett’s attention to personal detail. The loose, throaty diesel growl the chainsword makes when an ally flicks it on is just perfect – chef’s kiss, no notes.

The guns feel great to use, and it’s clear Fatshark spent a lot of time on the technical side making its engine work with automatic gunfire. But even with the boltguns and lasguns, Darktide manages to maintain Vermintide’s thrilling horde combat. The firearms present another tool to use when dealing with the screaming hordes, but there’s always a moment when it becomes clear that it’s time to ‘fix bayonets’ and get the chainsword running, as it were.

I spotted a few types of elite enemy during my sessions. There’s a mostly human sniper who will accurately fire on you from dark corners, and one that runs toward your party and detonates itself. Another type can spread toxic gas, much like Vermintide’s globadier, and there’s a mutant ogrynn who will charge you and pick you up by the throat before repeatedly smashing your flimsy carcass against the wall and/or floor until your allies can come to the rescue.

Another interesting point of departure from Vermintide is Darktide’s base of operations. While that space operated primarily as a staging lobby in the Vermintide games, Darktide’s version is a social space that Fatshark says can be thought of like the Tower in Destiny 2. You’ll be able to select missions, fuss over gear, and see and team up with other players while you’re in the orbital space station between missions.

Warhammer 40K Darktide hands-on impressions: A player pushes a group of chaos cultists with the flat side of a chainsword

Fatshark had to scramble a bit at the last minute to find a place to hold its second day of demo sessions during Play Days, and wound up finding a venue in Burbank – under ideal conditions, that’s a half hour drive from downtown LA, where the rest of Play Days was held. The fact that I was eager to hop in a cab and head out there on a beautiful Saturday evening in southern California just to squeeze in an extra session should tell you how much I enjoyed my time with Darktide during the show.

The Warhammer 40K: Darktide release date is coming up in September, and it’ll be available on Steam, the Windows Store, and PC Game Pass.