The intriciate details in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide are great. It nails the grime of the 41st millennium, the ship feels straight out of a Warhammer novel, and the combat is gruesome fun. What more could you want from a co-op combat game set in this universe? Fewer microtransactions and pointless storefronts, for one.
Darktide’s live-service elements stop it from being a great game, but developer FatShark has previous for this. Vermintide also launched in a buggy, broken state, and yet the developer listened to its community, and crafted a great live-service title from the bones it initially released. Darktide’s got a long way to go, but at least the bones feel great.
Darktide’s combat is deliciously crunchy, and there’s no better feeling than slamming your Ogryn’s Battle Maul into an unsuspecting Poxwalker. Watching a horde of lumbering infected crumple with every swing was one of my gaming highlights of last year, and I suffered the rest of the game to do it as often as possible. Little did I know that the very mechanic I loved so much was inspired by the Dark Lord Sauron himself. Let me explain. Or, more accurately, let FatShark co-founder Martin Wahlund explain.
“Before we started Vermintide 1, we looked at [a scene] in [The] Lord of the Rings. I think Sauron is hitting a lot of enemies out on the battlefield in the beginning of the movie,” he told Polygon. “That’s [the] kind of feeling we want for our two-handed club, basically.”
The moment Wahlund is talking about occurs during The War of the Ring, a flashback that introduces the Dark Lord and his omnipotent Ring to the audience. A swing of his great mace sends a swathe of Numenorean soldiers flying backwards, crumpled and ragdolling across the plains of Dagolad. The details don’t matter, though, the satisfying crunch of steel on flesh does.
Vermintide wants to mirror that power fantasy. As horrifying as the Dark Lord’s great swings were when rooting for the good guys, there’s some part of you that goes, “It’s pretty cool, though.” FatShark mimicked that crunch of combat, and allowed players the opportunity to live that power fantasy. Whether playing as Sienna Fuegonasus or an Ogryn called Bob, we’re all Sauron, and the ratmen and Poxwalkers of these universes are our Numenoreans to swat away like pests.
Perhaps I’m the only one interested in where these mechanics come from, but the fact that FatShark had such a specific moment in mind astounds me. That second where Sauron flattened a rank of opposing soldiers is memorable enough, but most of us don’t think too deeply on it. He’s big, he’s bad, end of story. But FatShark took those few seconds and crafted the core of their game around it: big, crunchy combat that felt really, really satisfying. It succeeded, and although other elements have brought their experiences down over the years, the combat has always been great.
The success or failure of FatShark’s games does not come down to whether or not the combat feels like Sauron or not, but the clear inspiration serves to differentiate it from many other co-operative combat games out there. Many expected Darktide to move to a more first-person shooter oriented formula, but FatShark stuck with the combat that was so successful in its fantasy predecessor. Perhaps the developers couldn’t find a satisfying shooting moment to base its gunplay on? Darktide would be a very different game if everything was based on that part of Saving Private Ryan when the Good Sniper shoots the Bad Sniper through his own scope, blowing out his eye.
Darktide has a long way to go before fans will be happy with it, and rightly so. But at its core, there is a fantastic combat experience that FatShark has honed over the course of three games now. But, before the games, there was Sauron. May he be an inspiration to us all.