Review: Deathwatch: Tyranid Invasion17 Jul 2015 0
The term "old-school" must be exhausted. It's dragged onto App Store and Steam listings to describe such a vast spectrum of games that it's all but meaningless now, like "terrorism" and "literally". So I'm going to do something foolish and attempt to make old-school useful again.
Let's suppose that the defining characteristic of the current "school" of gaming is procedural generation -- the random algorithmic assembly of limitless worlds that makes Minecraft Minecraft and what causes that sharp intake of breath when you see infinity in the trailer for Somebody needs to fire their pool cleaner.[/caption]
Deathwatch is a turn-based square-tiled squad tactics game that puts you in charge of a kill-team of the titular Space Marines from Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 universe. The Deathwatch are a sort of Space Marines all-stars, recruited from the dozens of chapters of the Emperor's genetically-engineered superhuman stormtroopers for their prowess in killing aliens -- or xenos to use the in-universe term. The Tyranids are the bad guys your Marines you will be facing down -- a swarm of outrageously-painted monsters that look like the fruit of a collaboration between H.R. Giger and My Little Pony. Like the Space Marines, the Tyranids are modelled in exquisite detail and are rigorously faithful to the tabletop game pieces that GW sell.
We shouldn't be surprised that Deathwatch is lovely to look at. British studio Rodeo Games have staked out a reputation with games like Warhammer Quest, another Games Workshop-licensed title that looked like a professionally painted miniatures set come to life. Deathwatch is even nicer to behold, with dramatically lit levels and Hollywood particle effects.
Rodeo know exactly how pretty the game is, and they lean on that hard. This may be a tactical game but the core loop of Deathwatch revolves around collecting stuff. Successfully complete a mission and you'll get a few spacebucks and a card. The card will represent a random selected doodad (usually a weapon or accessory but sometimes a collectible Space Marine that you can swap into your squad) which is rendered in 3D with extraordinary detail. Most of the screen space in your armory and barracks is devoted to hi-res rotatable models of your customized Marines, and they are undeniably cool. You may think your heart is hardened by now against collectible game mechanics but earning loot in Deathwatch is worryingly enjoyable.
Where Deathwatch surprises is the quality of the turn-based tactical game at its heart. I adored Warhammer Quest but its relatively simplistic combat lacked the tactical depth of say, XCOM -- which limited its replay value. Deathwatch is a bit of a slow burn (the tutorial is so gentle its primary concern seems to be not hurting your feelings) but once you've started to unlock some gear and some more Marines you start to see the complexity lurking around the edges of the combat.
Each one of the Space Marines in Deathwatch has a unique combination of abilities (unlocked through experience points) and can be further customized by equipping unique weapons and gear. Each squad you take into battle consists of five Marines, and you can mix and match from the three chapters in the game at your leisure. If you want a melee-focused team for doing battle in a close-quarters map, bring all Space Wolves with chainswords and flamer pistols, plus purity seals that maximize their dodge and critical hit potential. You can try for a more diverse group, but some Marines have abilities that only benefit members of their own chapter, so you'll have to be smart about your selections.
The game's linear campaign is full of clever scenarios, and this is where Deathwatch improves most over Warhammer Quest. The earlier game suffered from a lack of variety in its scenarios (which pretty much all boiled down to "fight from point A to point B, kill the big foozle") and Rodeo clearly took improving that as a priority. Every scenario here (there's 40 total) is pretty good but a few are downright brilliant. I had a particularly white-knuckle finish to a Blackhawk Down-style mission where a random Marine from my kill-team was dropped on the opposite end of the map from his comrades. Getting them happily reunited using a desperate combination of careful bounding overwatch and headlong melee charges was one of my favorite game experiences of 2015 so far.
There's no permadeath in Deathwatch -- something that initially irked me, as it's something X-Com has conditioned us to expect in this sort of game. After a few failed missions I came to appreciate the elegance of Rodeo's alternative. Every mission your Marines gain experience, which can be spent on improving your Marine's stats (health, attack accuracy, critical chance) or on unlocking special abilities. The abilities are very expensive, and for rarer Marines with more potent abilities they're costlier still. This means that you'll often just bank experience from a mission and let it ride while you save up for Glory of Guilliman or Red Thirst. But here's the rub -- dying on a mission means losing all of that banked experience, so the stakes feel pretty high when a fight starts to go pear-shaped on you. Getting your Marines back intact is a nice salve when you're smarting from the loss of 9,000 experience points.
One aspect of Deathwatch that is decidedly new-school is the presence of in-app purchases. They're implemented in a manner that I think rather restrained: you're able to buy packs of cards (containing weapons, wargear, and Space Marines) directly with cash, as well as through the in-game currency you accrue through completing scenarios and trading in unwanted gear. If you buy a pack and land a super-rare high-level weapon, it's not an unalloyed good. High-tier weapons have lower accuracy rates in Deathwatch, meaning that they require an experienced Marine to get anything decent out of them. This means that there's really no substitute for playing the game, as there's no way to get experience other than to earn it. Because you accrue points to buy card packs as you play, all of the content in the game is within reach just by playing. Old-school? Probably not, but I can live with it.
There's a couple of other minor sticking points here and there. Though the controversial flip-to-inventory feature from Warhammer Quest has been exterminatus-ed, the UI still has a few quirks. In striving to be minimal (the better to appreciate those lovely models) it is occasionally stingy with information. You don't get as much detail about enemies as you did in Warhammer Quest, and the game's barracks screen desperately needs a high-info mode that shows more than just the name and chapter of your warriors -- it gets damned hard to remember who's who from a roster full of faceless robot-men with names like someone dropped a Latin dictionary into a Nutribullet. There's also one particular particle effect--the flamer--that looks like it was made at 5pm on a Friday afternoon, and looks doubly silly next to the other beautiful effects in the game.
None of those criticisms will be at the forefront of your mind as you're actually playing Deathwatch, which is full of dramatic moments and satisfyingly crunchy tactical problems to solve. It can be convincingly argued that Rodeo are the Blizzard of mobile gaming at this point -- their commitment to polish and detail is like no other mobile-focused game dev studio going. It doesn't take an inquisitor to divine Rodeo's plans for Deathwatch: more mission packs with new enemies to immolate, new Space Marine chapters with unique models to ogle and collect. I'll be the first one in line to get them.
Played on iPad Air for this review.