Following up on our previous coverage, the fine folks over at Frontier and Complex Games invited us to play Chaos Gate: Daemonhunters in a remote hands-on event. This was handled via the remote-play app Parsec. Minor spoilers below.
After attending the last preview, I was pretty stoked to finally get my hands on Chaos Gate: Daemonhunters. There has been a steady trickle of info from the game’s YouTube channel, but even well-produced marketing material has nothing on playing the game myself.
The event included a playable tutorial, two standard missions, a boss battle, and a cutscene to send things off. Each mission took roughly 15-20 minutes to complete, which is long enough to get invested but short enough to play a mission or two on a lunch break or whatever. We were told not to mess with the loadouts of our squads too much, as they’d already been chosen to suit each mission, and to skip the additional Glorious Deed challenges, as they were causing some freezing issues in this build of the game (said build had more issues, which I will touch on later). However, we were invited to customize our squad members, which I had fun messing around with.
In addition to all the abilities, weapons, and wargear you’d expect, there’s a host of cosmetic options available for your dudes. With a broad range of skin colors, hair styles, accessories, and customization on every single piece of armor, each Knight can be truly unique. Each Knight also has a given name and a surname. Their given name can be anything you want, Commander Shepard-style, while their surname is chosen from a list of names you scroll through. These are all nice and Warhammery sounding, and mean that when you click on Terry Iolanthus, he’ll proudly announce himself with “Iolanthus!” but you’ll know deep in your heart that you named him Terry. It lets you still make these guys your own or do the XCOM thing where you name your squad members after your friends, but ties into the setting. It’s neat.
While I am no stranger to this kind of turn-based tactics game, I still thought it would be useful to play the tutorial and get a grasp on Daemonhunters’ unique systems. The tutorial dumped me into a bad situation that was steadily getting worse, as Khornate cultists and Bloodletters were swarming my Grey Knights and their Grand Master. It walked me through all the basics of combat like using cover, destroying terrain, using psychic abilities, and so on. It explained most of these fairly well, although I really wish it gave me some better info on parts of the environment I could interact with. When the game introduced the a Bloodthirster boss, right as things were looking real bad for my crew, the game froze completely and the folks at Complex Games moved me on to the next mission. I asked the team if all these Grey Knights die at the end of the mission and they said I was more or less correct.
By setting the stage and getting your shit thoroughly rocked from the word go, Daemonhunters narratively establishes the severity of the threats you’ll face. With much of your strike force’s leadership presumably dead, there’s also tons of room for advancement with the guys you will be commanding from here on out.
I won’t get too in the weeds on the specific missions here, as they’re both pretty general tactics missions – kill the thing, go to the place, etc. The interesting part is how those objectives are achieved, and what obstacles need to be overcome to get there. A mission will usually have some clearly understandable objective delivered to you via vox transmission and some on screen text, with direction on where you should take your dudes. On your way to said objective you’ll encounter pockets of enemies wandering around who will all be alerted when they see one of your Knights enter their sight range. It works pretty much exactly like it does in XCOM. These enemies were groups of Chaos cultists, Plaguebearers, Plague Marines, and some more beefed up variants thereof. There is also a steadily building Warp Surge meter that will cause weird things to happen when it hits 100%. This could be summoning additional enemies, causing existing enemies to mutate and gain new abilities, or your dudes to be affected by some negative effects.
Quickly dispatching a group of baddies in one round is immensely satisfying, and something I feel players will try to do as often as they can. Blanketing an area with cover-destroying fire from a Purifier, softening your enemies up with some stormbolter fire, then teleport striking your Interceptor between all the survivors feels good, y’all. Against a couple yahoos with autoguns this wasn’t paramount, but I imagine when you come up against bigger groups of Plague Marines or what have you, putting this to practice will be important. I didn’t get a chance to use my mission-wide Stratagem cards in any of the missions, as I either forgot about them or saved them for a clutch moment that never came. These are one time use cards you can take before the mission that can heal your dudes, provide buffs, or any number of other effects that haven’t been revealed yet.
One thing I did take advantage of was my Knights’ psychic powers. Each Knight has their own pool of psychic points they can spend to power up their existing skills or use on unique abilities. Said points replenish pretty readily when you kill stuff, so you’re encouraged to use them often. My favorite one of these is the aforementioned strike my Interceptor could do – he got to teleport to a location within 10 tiles then pinball between a couple enemies, doing a boatload of damage. I’m really curious to see how they’ll leverage these for more psychic-focused classes like the Librarian. It’s a healthy sprinkle of spice to put on a class, and makes your squaddies more distinct.
I went over a lot of this stuff in the First Impressions article I wrote back in February, and what little I got to play met my expectations from that event. Despite some technical issues I’ll get to in a bit, playing this game feels good. These missions weren’t especially difficult when I played them, but I imagine these are fairly early missions and the folks at Complex Games didn’t want to discourage anyone playing that day by kicking their teeth in. I’ve put in a solid 120 hours into the recent XCOMs plus my fair share of other turn-based tactics games (including the original Chaos Gate from 1998) so your mileage may vary.
When there is a piece of the environment that can be interacted with, it will have a little psychic swirly icon on it. There will be boxes labeled “Explosive Crate” or whatever, and shooting them will cause them to do just that – explode and cause destruction to units and terrain around them. There are also pillars you can shoulder charge onto unwitting enemies, sconces you can shoot shoot and spill flame from, and barrels that can be picked up and yeeted by your chosen Grey Knight. They all had the same swirly icon on them that marked them to me as interactive, but not in what way they could be interacted with. For a game that’s transparent with so much of its combat, this was uncharacteristically murky. It did lead to the accidental discovery of said barrel-yeeting interaction, and I laughed out loud and said something akin to “that owns” when my Justicar threw a barrel at a daemonic tree like he was Donkey Kong. The exploding barrels and burning sconces accounted for no shortage of my kills, and knocking pillars over onto slackjawed Chaos cultists is both tactically effective, as well as extremely cool looking. I liked the variety of interactions and how useful they were, but I do wish their functionality was clearer. I hope there’s more stuff like this you can interact with in the final product.
As I mentioned in the tutorial section, some terrain is destructible. I remember from the first preview event, a bridge was destroyed to drop a bunch of enemies into an extremely videogamey bottomless pit. I didn’t get the chance to do anything quite so dramatic in my hands-on time with the game, but I regularly blew up barricades and intervening cover that was protecting my enemies. Breaking the cover some dudes are hiding behind with a grenade then gunning said exposed dudes down made me feel clever every single time.
The amount of love and care that went into the animation here is obvious. Characters are bouncy, dynamic, and have a pleasing weight to their movements. Realism is not the goal here, and there’s an endearing cartoony nature to the animation. This doesn’t look like a Ratchet and Clank game or anything, but it’s more exaggerated than what you’ll find in other Warhammer games.
The interface is certainly busy, looking like a gothic’d up XCOM. It looks good, but can get pretty cluttered when there’s a bunch of icons for your guys on the left, theirs on the right, buttons in every corner, a Warp Surge meter front and center, and a stack of mission objectives taking up the top left 10% of the screen. I wish that mousing over icons gave you more info and/or a hotkey for them though. I typically play games like this with a keyboard almost as much as I play them with a mouse for comfort reasons, so I would really liked to have known what key to press to end my turn or select my next squad member without digging into option menus.
Music all sounds like it could have come from Dawn of War II. I don’t mean that as an insult – I like the music in Dawn of War II! It’s just that nothing I heard in this preview stood out to me, but it “sounds” like Warhammer, if nothing else. The voicework also hits the mark pretty well, with the vox-distorted bassy voices of the Grey Knights lending each combat bark a memorable quality that would again be right at home in Relic’s RTS classics. It’s nicely reactive, with my knights shrugging off attacks with “Barely a scratch!” or “Weak!”. Voiceover from mission givers was kind of low in the mix, but the performances were solid, about what you’d expect from a stern shipmistress and an even sterner Grey Knight. The Chaos cultist voices are all pretty over the top, and take cues from Borderlands-style wackadoos. Daemons sound suitably gross and evil as you’d expect, with some good audio processing to make them sound grosser and weirder. Some weapon sounds were incomplete, but what was there sounded great. Autoguns have a crackling rattle that rises above the music and voice work, boltguns are bassy and powerful sounding, and the meaty squelches of Chaos dudes getting vivisected really sell the action.
The Boss Battle
The big boss fight that ended this preview had your team of Grey Knights take on a Great Unclean One, based pretty firmly on the tabletop model. His animations are downright grody, with his guts spilling out and him regularly tugging on his intestines to spill cartoony purple goo on the ground. The twist is that while he shuffles around dropping AOE attacks you need to escape, the environment is laden with hazards and there are hordes of Nurglings being spawned every turn. Instead of acting like normal enemies, these Nurglings cavort about and act more as environmental hazards, slowing down and damaging your guys. It’s a race to burn the Gauntlet-style Nurgling spawners and chip away at the big ugly before your dudes go down. Boss fights are always tricky in strategy games, as they can often just be trading hits with an especially tanky enemy until one of you dies. If all the boss fights in this game are this this well thought out with this many tactical challenges, I think they could be a tactical challenge that lives up to their spectacle. Unfortunately, I was not able to see how this particular battle ended, as you will see below.
Performance and Bugs
I ran into two bugs that stopped my game in its tracks. The first was in the tutorial, when right near the end a Bloodthirster belched fire on the ground and my game froze. The second was in the boss fight with a Great Unclean One, where my Purifier used his Incinerator to lay down a carpet of flames and again, I was caught in a frozen game. I was told these bugs were unique to the demo build they had put together for this event, and as I’m accustomed to these sorts of things being held together with chewing gum and good intentions, I wasn’t hugely surprised. I hope they were right though, or at the very least this gets ironed out before launch – losing 20 minutes of gameplay against a challenging boss due to a bug would really suck in the finished product.
Beyond that there were a few audiovisual bugs, like my Grey Knights exclaiming that they would avenge their fallen not only when one of their own went down, but when one of the opposing Chaos baddies died. I never took the Grey Knights to be empaths, but here we are. Sound effects were frequently missing and some animations and cutscene camera cuts seemed incomplete, but I’ll chalk those up to the game not being finished yet and the nature of remote streaming games. Speedtest.net puts me at around 920Mbps download speed and 3 ping, so it probably wasn’t on me when the stream dipped to or below 720p and had some hiccupping issues. Watching back the capture they sent me of the game running locally on their machines, everything is at a pretty smooth 1080p and 60fps.
Despite having my enthusiasm somewhat tempered by the two game-crashing bugs, I did enjoy what I got to play. Even watching back the capture of my gameplay, I was excited to play more and reminded how much fun I had playing. The turn-based tactics genre is one of my favorites, and this has a ton of potential to be a great entry in that genre, as well as in the wildly variable Warhammer gaming landscape. The missing piece of the puzzle for me is the campaign-level progression, which is where good games can become great ones. Expect a full review when the game drops this May.
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