It was just a few months ago that I wrote about the legacy of Left 4 Dead and its many descendants that have emerged over the years. These "horde shooters," as I call them, are so numerous that it's hard to get an accurate headcount, but one of the teams doing the best work in that space has long been Fatshark. First with the two games in the Warhammer Vermintide series, and now with the forthcoming Warhammer 40K spin-off, Darktide, it's been fun to watch how this team has reimagined and sometimes improved on the core of such games created by Left 4 Dead nearly 15 years ago.
The recent Darktide closed beta was yet another example of how studios making games like Left 4 Dead aren't content to just rehash the same material, but rather seek to redefine the co-op horde shooter genre. Darktide adds a new wrinkle with its robust character creator that gives purpose and personhood to my monster-maiming anti-hero like few games in the subgenre ever do.
In Darktide, character selection is so much more than choosing a class or a favorite face. You don't choose a character as much as you create one from the ground up, accounting for their whole life through detailed backstory that feels ripped right out of the Warhammer lore bible. With its history tied to tabletop RPGs, maybe I should've seen it coming, but as it's a facet that even Vermintide didn't offer, it took me by surprise.
After selecting my class, I figured I'd be whisked into a matchmaking lobby. Instead, I was given pages upon pages of lore to choose from, with each page helping form the history of my character's life up to that point. At the start of Darktide, you're breaking out of some sort of prison colony--frankly as someone unfamiliar with Warhammer lore, a lot of it goes over my head, but that's also part of what makes the character creation so interesting here; it contextualizes who I am and where I've been in a way other games like it don't do.
As a "Reject" in society, bound for the bottom rung of the social ladder, the odds feel stacked against me as soon as I take control of my character. Left with little to rely on other than a few other outcasts beside me and whatever abilities I may possess as a result of my class selection, the road ahead looks grim, though familiar to fans of this sort of game--head that way and brace for impact, its level design implies. But minutes before, I brought this anti-hero into the world, and her backstory feels different in my hands. It gives me not just a purpose, but through my own headcanon, a combat style, too.
I was able to choose what my character, whom I named Slone, was like as a child, what she experienced growing up, and what her home planet is. I decided that Slone was born on Rocyria, an agriculturally-focused planet, where she spent time as a child-laboring algae farmer, mass-producing a gross but abundant crop used to cheaply feed the overpopulated masses of the Warhammer 40K universe. Growing up, she got by on her own by pitching herself as a soothsayer to anyone seeking a glimpse of the future, but this sort of behavior left her as a outcast to a society that considers such Psykers, or Warhammer witches, second-class citizens.
Whether she was faking her abilities or not seems to be up to me--I like to think she was--but her "Defining Moment," to use the game's words, comes when she has a true awakening and finds she is, in fact, a Psyker. No longer a lonesome hustler, now a confirmed witch, Slone was sent aboard The Black Ships, a transport convoy that will move her away from home and force her to contain her abilities or serve the state--and all this is only because she was spared from a Psyker's usual fate: execution.
Choosing her personality includes a demeanor and a voice, which paints Slone in even more vibrant colors, and because of her backstory, I find I've unveiled unique visual characteristics, like glassy-colored eyes that are apparently exclusive to my upbringing. I then further change her face, tattoos, scars, and hair, giving her the look that I feel fits the story I've helped create for her. Her last detail is her crime--the explanation for why she's on the prison vessel in the first place. Slone was unjustly imprisoned for protesting and rebelling against the tyrannical Imperium.
Her years of strife or unjust detainment don't matter to the ruling class, but out of game, all of these details imbue me with a more lively fighting spirit. As the game truly begins and I'm soon cutting away at hordes of monsters and militia men alike, or I'm using Slone's Psyker powers to literally pop the heads off of them from a distance, each action comes from a place of trauma for her, as though she's a caged animal no longer willing to be prodded by her overlords.
I let Slone give into her bloodlust because she's seen more than enough in her time and is unwilling to die for an unworthy cause. She's livid. The game's combat animations paint this picture quite well on their own, but having her history in my mind takes it further for me, in a way that feels personal. My co-op partners don't have these details about her, but I do, and that's what matters most.
There are no peaceful existences in Darktide. Everyone there has been bent and twisted by the corrupt ruling class and now finds themselves fighting for their lives with the strange bedfellows of other prisoners, each bringing their own stories to the fray. While I'll need more time to understand how well Darktide might otherwise build on the horde shooter principles, the deep character creator already stands as one of the coolest innovations to the genre in years.
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