Many developers have attempted to capture the grim darkness of the 41st Millennium (and the high fantasy of the Old World) in video game form. Every Tuesday, Jonathan “Crion” Bernhardt will be diving into the games that use the Warhammer license and talking about what works, what doesn’t, and which ones are worth your time.
This week we’ve called something of an audible; this space was going to play host to a review of Warhammer 40K: Battlefleet Gothic 2, but we realized a day or two later that Heretek, a full DLC expansion to Warhammer 40K: Mechanicus, had dropped. Given that there was still a bit more to say about late game content in the base game that didn’t make it into my first review, a full new skill tree for the player’s tech-priests, and an entire new mission type staffed with entirely new enemies, it felt relevant to buy it, install it, start a new campaign, and just keep the Mechanicus content flowing.
Up front, there is something that will endear me as a reviewer to Heretek as an expansion far more than it will some other reviewers, especially dedicated 40K heads who played Mechanicus thoroughly upon release: Heretek bolts on to the standard Mechanicus single-player campaign rather than being a fully-realized additional side campaign or secondary, stand-alone game. Activating Heretek content is a toggle on game launch much like you’d see in XCOM 2 when activating DLC packages. That means its content is slowly titrated to the player over the course of what is otherwise the base Mechanicus experience — and that’s all stuff that veterans of the game have played before. Heretek does change the flow of combat in its expansion-specific missions in fairly consequential ways, but everything involving the Necrons themselves is just about the same, except for some of the toys you can bring in from the expansion content to play with.
So if you’re not burned out on the Mechanicus experience at the moment, Heretek is a $12 addition to a $30 game that almost makes it feel like a full price title. I’m playing the day of release build as I write this and there are certainly some things that will get patched very quickly; for instance, the description of the new skill tree for tech-priests, the Xenarite, has the placeholder text “Xenarite description” instead of explaining to you what, precisely, a Xenarite is. But to the extent Heretek has problems, they’re not stability or bug problems; they’re problems of balance. Depending on how you liked the base game, this will either be appealing to you or it won’t be.
Let’s start by doing the game one better and talking about what Xenarites are: they’re tech-priests you’ve shoved forbidden Necron technology into. Their equipment glows Necron green instead of the red or blue of other skill trees; the expansion is called Heretek; this is not a particularly surprising development. From a lore standpoint, it would stand to reason that taking a tech-priest and grafting the most powerful combat machines in the setting into him would give him incredible power at substantial cost; if you’re a stickler for mechanics reflecting the lore, you’ll be happy to know that’s incredibly true. The Xenarite is the most powerful skill tree in the game and it’s not particularly close.
It’s a long-running trend that DLC classes and player options often outpace their base game counterparts, both for iterative and economic reasons; having done a first pass on the systems and played with the final product, the developers doing DLC likely understand how the game works as a finished package better than the original dev team did when designing character options the first time around, since they were building as they went. And obviously there’s a pay-to-win aspect here; you want your DLC to lure players into spending more money, and it’s always better to err on the side of overpowered add-on content than underpowered, especially in a single-player game where balance is more a personal preference than a marketplace necessity, like it is in multiplayer.
That said, the Xenarite is rather brazen even by DLC class standards: while the six base skill trees are a loose grab bag of individual abilities which each point to a certain thematic battlefield role, like the Secutor as troop support, the Enginseer as the party healer, and the Lexmechanic as the resource gatherer, the Xenarite’s abilities and equipment all work together to form a terrifying engine of death, all turning around the skill depicted in the screenshot below.
XCOM fans will recognize this skill from the shotgun-toting Assault class. They will also recall that in the XCOM version, there are two important differences: first, that it’s based on enemies in sight (and therefore danger to the unit in question, a close combat unit), not hit points lost; second, that it has a hard cap at +30% critical chance.
This skill does not have a hard cap, at all. And the Xenarite’s tree-granted equipment, which you can see every even level there, is the best raw +HP gear in the game. The leg armor, to add insult to your enemy’s injury, gives you a base resting +20% critical chance. The UI is opaque in this respect but testing has made me almost certain that this stacks with Critical Knowledge. If you look at Manarius’s HP there on the left hand side of the screen, you’ll see that with all the gear and all the skills from Xenarite, he caps at 20 HP with 1 physical armor. That means at half health, he adds +50% crit chance to all his attacks, stacking with his +crit chance from armor and the base 10% crit chance every unit has for a resting 80% crit rate, at a health level that only endgame units can threaten with an alpha strike.
Crits in Mechanicus are incredibly powerful: they automatically max the damage roll, ignore any armor, and, if a critical hit kills a Necron unit, they’re immediately removed from the battlefield — you don’t have to worry about them getting back up at all. Xenarites you start to break the action economy of the game, which is based around you having to spend actions and resources to finish off Necron foot soldiers.
And as if that wasn’t enough, here are how the four other skills on that tree support the Xenarite: the level 1 skill restores 1 HP at the beginning of every turn, while the level 3 skill gives the Xenarite a +1 permanent passive damage buff to all weapons but hurts the Xenarite for 1 HP whenever he uses a weapon. So if you attack twice on a turn with a level 3+ Xenarite, you net 1 HP loss…but this is a class for whom lost HP is literally a resource. And not only would the way the lost HP interacts with your crit justify that skill on its own, but you get a +1 global damage buff thrown in. The level 7 skill has you spend a Cognition point (the game’s action currency) to heal 3 HP on a 3 turn cooldown; this is a panic button for if your health gets too low, and is the closest thing to a balanced power the class has.
The capstone is highlighted below, in a screencap of me sending my Manarius out to murder a Heretek Tech-Priest and end the fight by himself. If, somehow, something does manage to live long enough to kill your crit tank Xenarite, he returns at the beginning of the next turn…with a 75% crit chance, because after he revives he’ll immediately get a full turn like a Necron does, and that means he heals 1 HP right off the bat.
It is my advice to anyone playing on Casual or Normal, and probably even Hard, who wants the game to remain challenging past the initial 10 missions of the campaign, to choose one Tech-Priest who gets to be the Xenarite and resist the urge to invest in the tree with any of your other heroes. Because a ranged Xenarite is a wandering death engine, and two ranged Xenarites supporting a melee Xenarite can win entire dungeons without summoning troops or really having to even engage with most of the game’s systems. A resting 30% crit chance at full health is incredibly powerful for characters who can attack multiple times per turn to begin with, and it quickly gets out of hand as soon as the Necrons put up any semblance of resistance.
The only enemies in the game that can stand against the Xenarite Tech-Priests for even a little while, in fact, are the guys doing the same thing as them. The enemy Heretek Tech-Priests have their own internal skill trees, none of which rival what the player has access to but each of which are quite deadly. There’s an assassin-type Tech-Priest who uses high mobility and a new status called, fittingly, “Untargetable” that makes them impossible to target with an attack until they have attacked themselves — the Tech-Priest closes to melee with one of your heroes, hits twice for strong damage, then uses an ability to give themselves 100% Dodge against their target. This is a straight, fiat “you can’t touch me” ability — you’ll have to bring in someone else to deal with them, or just run. There’s a ranged weapons platform-type Tech-Priest that fires high alpha strike single shots and AOE electricity attacks from great distance, chewing through your base troops, few of whom are set up to deal with high-damage energy attacks, and slowing your Tech-Priest heroes. The Heretek Servitors, which populate these battlemaps at the rate of a rat infestation, are about as tough as yours but pack a much meaner punch, and instead of a Taunt ability they have an ability that buffs the crit rate of an allied Tech-Priest’s next attack. Uh oh.
The biggest problem with all of this isn’t the combat — the Hereteks are the only guys who make the early game a real challenge now unless you’re disciplined with your Xenarite use; you’ll still lose troops to the Necrons, but until Destroyers and other enemy units with multiple attacks per turn start showing up it’s difficult for them to handle a Tech-Priest cadre that includes even one of the DLC class monsters — but the pacing. The first time you’ll get a Heretek mission it will read “Easy,” the same difficulty designation as the tutorial levels, and you might think it would have a tutorial level difficulty. No. The fight is your two (or three if you’ve gotten Leonardus by this point, which you absolutely should) Tech-Priests and three or four troop units against four of the assassin-type Heretek Tech-Priests and some 8 Heretek Servitors. Depending on what your objective is (much like in the tombs, before the fight with the Hereteks you’re given a series of narrative prompts whose effects are sometimes counterintuitive, which can change the fight’s objective or composition), you could be doing something as simple as killing one of the Heretek Tech-Priests, or something as difficult as trying to scan a terminal on the other side of the main Heretek force. This mission can be very difficult; it almost led to my first straight-up wipe, and that was after retrying it a couple times to see if I could get better boons from the narrative section beforehand. The developers knew it, too: after you complete your objective, the goal isn’t to kill everyone, but to survive for two turns. You win the map by running away.
I beat that and I thought: great! Sure, the difficulty tag was misleading — every “Easy” map should at least be in the same ballpark as every other one — but if this sort of challenge is what the expansion content is providing, then the Xenarites are at least slightly balanced for the content made for them, and this will provide an interesting challenge. Unfortunately I then plowed through the next two Heretek maps. I think you really do snowball too hard given the tools available to you, especially since you have to go do some 3-4 other maps before you’re able to take on the next Heretek mission.
The lore and storytelling, as limited as it is, remains cool; there’s precious little chance of “Tech-Priests using jumped up Necron tech” making its way into a Codex anytime soon, so this is a fun way to see what that might look and play like, and again, from a setting standpoint: of course the Mechanicus/Necron hybrids should be the most dangerous and fraught people on the battlefield. But until they do another balance pass, you might find it a greater challenge if you just play the base game…or bump it up a difficulty level or two more than you’re used to.
Worth the money, because the money’s not much; while there are some pacing and balance bumps and bruises, Heretek is a good amount of content for a $12 expansion and is especially recommended for new players who will appreciate the crutch that the Xenarites represent and enjoy the expanded storyline.
Next week, we’ll finally get to Battlefleet Gothic 2. Probably.