Space Hulk: Deathwing is a game that puts you in the role of a librarian, as you make your way through a Space Hulk. How much you understood that last sentence will largely depend on how much you know about the Warhammer 40k universe - if you've come away expecting giant mech-like robot suits, huge guns, and Gothic space ships that look more like castles on the inside, then congratulations - you've clearly spent a morning or two doubled over a tabletop shuffling your figures around with the best of them. If you imagined a game where you play a grey haired skinny fellow who goes about telling raucous beasties to shush so as not to disturb the other readers, well... you probably won't last very long.
What's described as a "tactical first person shooter", we went eyes-on with the latest (of many recent) games set in the Warhammer universe at the recent gamescom show in Germany - and, knowing very little about Warhammer 40k beyond the big suits and chainswords, we were learning as we went along too. Luckily, it looks like Space Hulk: Deathwing won't be too tricky a game to get into - especially as you'll be playing with either your friends, or some AI bots by your side.
The story here sees you playing as a librarian - a character that's about as far away from the gentle shusher we imagined earlier as it's possible to be. Strapped into a gigantic robot suit with psychic powers at your disposal, you'll be joined by up to three other friends, or computer players, each playing as their own fully customisable character, as you venture inside a Space Hulk - a mishmash of space ships, interstellar detritus, and asteroids, that forms one heck of an adventure playground. Promising a story that lasts around 15 hours, there'll be plenty to explore here, too.
Our demo began on board an ancient Black Templar warship, where a strange signal had been detected coming from another ship, known as the Caliban's Will. Systems coming online, a torch from atop our our head cut a path through the darkness and lit up the tunnel ahead, strewn with bits of rubble and broken masonry. Despite being giant futuristic spaceships, the Black Templar ships seems more like a giant Gothic castle, with huge sweeping stone archways, and stained glass windows - a far cry from the polished monochrome metal of most sci-fi.
One of the first things you notice about Space Hulk: Deathwing is just how much weight it feels like your character has - your boots stomp across the ground with purpose, you feel higher up than a normal human, and your HUD looks like it's projected on the inside of a visor. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long before we find ourselves grateful for our tank-like feeling, as we soon find ourselves under attack by a swarm of enemies.
The bad guys here are known as genestealers, and promise to attack in groups, with AI designed to take advantage of their superior numbers. On their own, they're weak, but if you come up against a few dozen of them, you've got a job on your hands unless you work together. If a solitary gene stealer sees you, it may run off to regroup before attacking as part of a larger force, while a bigger group may split off into two or more smaller attacking factions for a pincer attack, as they do their best to separate you from your team mates, in the hope they can finish you off. While most are purely melee attackers, some can also use guns, adding an extra layer of unpredictability.
With the fairly narrow corridors and platforms of the ship sometimes opening up into huge, expansive halls, the developers plan on ensuring there's no one strategy you can employ to tackle the genestealers. This is where the "tactical" part comes in, as if you want to survive, you'll have to work together with your friends (or the AI), or you'll end up being over run. That means keeping an eye and an ear out, work with your team - and trying not to get separated. To help make things a little bit easier, you do have a radar on hand - but while this tells you the direction enemies are attacking from, it doesn't tell you how many there are, giving the genestealers another craft strategy for dividing and conquering...
One of the more interesting ideas is that Space Hulk will be using a "location based damage system" - which, in English, means that rather than having a general, overall health, different bits of your body will take damage when they get hit. Take a few sharp shots to your leg, and you'll find yourself walking slower; get hit in the right arm too much, and you might lose accuracy with your gun - something which could easily turn the tide of any battle...
Should you need to head back for repairs, you can jump back through a psy gate to get to your safe zone - and area in which you can patch up your wounds, and, perhaps even more importantly, equip your squad with new and better weapons, should your strategy not be working. With a wide variety of weapons on offer - some taken from the 40k universe, like the storm bolter, and other exclusive to the game, the key takeaway here is that different weapons have different strengths and weaknesses, and you'll want to equip your squad accordingly, to ensure a fully rounded team.
With a release locked in for this September on PC (PS4 and Xbox One versions should follow shortly after), Space Hulk: Deathwing is shaping up to be a shooter that's dripping in atmosphere, with a setting like no other. While we hope other levels will offer a variety of different enemies (after all, who wants to play through an entire game where you basically fend off against Halo's flood?), Space Hulk Deathwing is trying to chart a course all of its own - let's hope it manages it in just a few weeks' time.