There’s a good chance you might’ve missed Warhammer 40,000 video game Chaos Gate: Daemonhunters when it first came out on PC back a couple of years ago. It’s hard to blame you - there have been so many Warhammer spin-offs, especially in recent years, and despite technically being a reboot of a nineties strategy game, “Chaos Gate: Daemonhunters” feels more like a Warhammer Name Generator result than anything especially memorable by itself. What’s more, of those spin-offs, few have tended to rise above being “perfectly serviceable” or “good for a 40k game”, potentially even more damning given the very wobbly hit rate of past adaptations. (Dawn of War: fantastic. Fire Warrior: less so.)
Don’t let that deter you from giving Daemonhunters a belated shot, though. This isn’t just a good Warhammer 40k video game, it’s a genuinely good video game in its own right. For those picking it up largely in search of a faithful take on the grimdark universe of 40k, it’s got plenty to offer in that armour-plated, blood-soaked department too. If that’s whet your appetite, good news, because it’s soon headed to consoles, giving you a new way to pick it up.
I had missed Daemonhunters’ release on PC myself, so headed along to the offices of publisher Frontier Developments earlier this month to give its console version a go in a two-hour preview session. My time with the game on PlayStation 5 (it’s also headed to Xbox Series X|S and PS4/Xbox One) spanned its opening tutorial and second mission, before jumping ahead to some later-game scenarios and a chance to play around with its home base menus and upgrades.
The easiest way to describe Daemonhunters is “Warhammer 40k XCOM”. That’s by no means a disparaging comparison, mind. In fact, as a veteran XCOM fan, Daemonhunters is a worthy and entertaining XCOM-a-like regardless of your investment in Games Workshop’s sci-fi setting. If you’re a fan, that should just help to seal the deal.
The nuts and bolt(er)s are familiar. You assemble a squad of up to four Space Marines - specifically, Grey Knights - who are loaded up to the genetically-enhanced eyeballs with guns, melee weapons and equipment, whether that’s helpful support items to heal and buff your team or grenades to blow your enemies into itty-bitty chunks. Your squad deploys to planets with various mission objectives, many of which boil down to “kill everything”. It’s 40k, after all.
Gameplay is, like the original tabletop wargame and XCOM, turn-based. Each Space Marine gets a certain number of action points, which can be used to move, shoot and use other abilities, including psychic powers costing limited will points. Those abilities can depend on your equipment, as well as the unit’s class and skills, all of which you can customise and upgrade by assigning points gained by completing missions and earning experience. There are eight different classes, which will be familiar to 40k fans - your Apothecaries, Purgators, Justicars, Interceptors and more advanced units unlocked later in the campaign are all present and correct to their miniaturised cousins.
A key change to both the dice-fests of 40k and XCOM’s infamously punishing accuracy stats is that your marksman Space Marines will always land their hits.
Battles play out somewhat differently to the likes of XCOM and even Warhammer 40,000, though. While shooting at foes from behind cover is perfectly viable and sometimes preferable - you can also use the straight-from-XCOM Overwatch ability to lie in wait and open fire as enemies move on their own turn - the Grey Knights are even more powerful up close, making melee combat much more of a viable strategy. Close-quarters attacks also present the opportunity to target specific parts of enemies to limit their own combat abilities - normally by lopping off a limb - opening up some gloriously gory tactics as you rush foes and crush them into goo with a halberd or, yes, war hammer.
Another key change to both the dice-fests of 40k and XCOM’s infamously punishing accuracy stats is that your marksman Space Marines will always land their hits. Rather than adjusting your plans to maximise accuracy, then, it becomes a game of maximising damage - which can vary based on factors such as range, positioning and statuses - that, despite the name, makes battles less chaotic and more deterministic. In many ways it often feels closer to the exacting efficiency of planning your actions in a tabletop Eurogame or the chess-like positioning of mech masterpiece Into the Breach, albeit with a level of brutality and some chaos (and Chaos) preserved through random Warp events to still keep you on your toes.
Daemonhunters’ solid strategic foundation and satisfying dedication to a story rooted in 40k lore - helped along by a campaign from veteran Black Library writer Aaron Dembski-Bowden and a dependable voice cast including Hollywood legend Andy Serkis - are showcased most effectively in its boss fights. After ploughing through a few early levels where Poxwalkers, Nurgle Cultists and Plague Marines would ambush in groups, my preview threw me into a battle where my squad of Space Marines were up against a single giant Chaos Knight, Cruciatus the Generous.
With the Laser Destructor-armed mech able to stomp its way through my cover and brush off most shots thanks to Cruciatus’ refilling armour, I needed to shake up my approach from past encounters. Daemonhunters’ interactive environments - which can be used to crush smaller foes under collapsing pillars or trigger tactical explosions - played an even more vital role here, requiring me to identify and pick at the giant’s vulnerabilities until it finally fell.
Daemonhunters is a worthy and entertaining XCOM-a-like regardless of your investment in Games Workshop’s sci-fi setting. If you’re a fan, that should just help to seal the deal.
It was a fitting demonstration of Daemonhunters’ ability to offer both the Warhammer power fantasy of mowing your way through weaker mobs with massively armoured super-soldiers - decimating a gang of Poxwalkers with a teleporting strike never gets old - and crunchy, challenging combat encounters that offer a familiar but fresh spin to both tabletop 40k and tactics video games.
There’s plenty more to dig into in Daemonhunters, with time between missions spent on board your marines’ home ship, the Baleful Edict, researching ever-more powerful equipment, upgrading the ship itself and outfitting your squad, or even just chatting to the characters you meet about the game’s unfolding story of a galaxy-wide plague. Anchored by Dembski-Bowden’s knowledgeable and evocative writing, Daemonhunters’ corner of the grimdark universe feels appropriately gritty and grim without being overly dour or too dense for 40k newcomers - I enjoyed just going through each dialogue tree to gauge my crewmates’ thoughts on what was happening, and was left genuinely intrigued in seeing the rest of the campaign play out around the core joy of pulping planets’ wrongdoers.
With Daemonhunters’ console release making it more convenient to do that for those of us who didn’t pick it up on PC, I think I’ll be venturing back onto the Baleful Edict come its launch on February 20th. Of course, it’s still available on PC if that’s your preferred place to play - the PlayStation and Xbox release is a fairly straight port, including general fixes and additions from existing patches, so you’re not going to miss anything wherever you decide to play. Though I might’ve missed its gloriously brutal combat and captivating realisation of 40k’s universe the first time around, I won’t be making that mistake again.