Hands on with Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters: promising, but XCOM cowards beware

Of the four great gray knights under my command, the teleporty sword boy was without a doubt my favorite. Once for each turn, he could blink across the map, move twice as far as he could with a regular action point, and slap him right behind an annoying Cultists cone to suppress fire. It was both effective and efficient, but the real fireworks started every time I clicked on the teleport strike, which relocated him while also rescuing several enemies in sequence with his power sword. He was at the same time my initiator and my (almost) one-man cleanup crew, ready to be greeted by a shout from my Justicar when his AP tank ran empty. I almost felt sorry for the sects.

I’ve played a curated two-hour excerpt from Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters, and I’m eager to play more. But just as fast as my sword boy felt in those moments, at other times I felt compelled to move forward on a crawl. When I asked creative director Noah Decter-Jackson if I was just too cowardly, he secured his bets.

Other turn-based strategy game comparisons are available, but the simplest and easiest way to describe Chaos Gate is something along the lines of ‘XCOM in space with tank-sick super-soldiers, no miss-chances and emphasis on aggressive melee’. I’ve already written an overview that fits in nicely with Rick Lane’s great interview with Decter-Jackson, so here I want to get a little more into the plague-infested weeds.

Admittedly, I’ve only been in the middle of that weed for two hours, under far from ideal conditions. Some of my upcoming concerns stem in part from jumping into early game missions with an unknown team, and packing unknown abilities. It’s like jumping into the middle of someone else’s Slay The Spire race and trying to figure out how another lump’s combinations should click together. The lack of knowledge introduces friction, but not representative friction – I mention it just to highlight how the water was muddy from the bottom. Add a dose of latency issues, occasionally the notch from accessing a build running on a remote PC (plus an unfortunate crash in a late session), and the water starts to look cloudy.

That said, there are definitely elements of Chaos Gate that I would find frustrating, regardless of any technical issues. This is a game about super stiff space boys running through hordes of gribblies with an admirable commitment to aggression. You’ll be rewarded for getting into the fight thanks to hard-hitting melee attacks and action point updates for special executions, but if you’re something like my cowardly ego, you might find that the momentum disappears when you’re not actually in the fight.

In the first half of my session, I could not help but fall into the XCOM shuffle, where I always moved up under the awake (and occasionally even overvigilant) knight’s eyes with remaining action points. There were roaming patrols of Cultists and Chaos Knights to keep an eye on, and XCOM has trained me to be hyper on guard so as not to provoke more than one goon patrol at once. It’s a dynamic that encourages putting a lot of thought into movement orders that do not matter 90% of the time, but where a careless sprint into open terrain can still prove disastrous – or at least, so I assumed .

A gray knight attacks an enemy in Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate - Daemonhunters

A gray knight is attacking a little cultist in Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate - Daemonhunters

Somewhere around the midway mark of my demo, I accidentally ordered one of my massive, heavily armored knights to jump out on a raised box in the middle of a firefight, leaving him completely exposed to half a dozen attacks. It took every enemy’s total attention to get him down, but then I just picked him up again. Your surviving soldiers can revive a fallen knight by throwing them back on their feet with 50% HP and instant combat readiness. I knew it, but I had not really thought about its significance.

I realized that I had wrapped my teams, in that I had been too reluctant to let them bare.

I realized that I had wrapped my teams, in that I had been too reluctant to let them bare. From that point on, I became more cavalier, making liberal use of every single soldier’s ability to sacrifice an action point each turn in return for a pip or two of temporary armor. I still did not reach the point where I could feel confident charging outside of coverage, but I saw how I could get there. I suppose I will not be the only one to be lured out of motion.

Increased resilience requires an interesting shift in mentality, but it comes with a trade-off. I did not experience the same moment-to-moment excitement as XCOM, where an incoming flanking shot at a vulnerable device often pushes my heart into my mouth. At the same time, the tension leaks from a different direction: When every shot is guaranteed to hit, there is no need to hold your breath.

Gray Knights Fight a Big Meaty Boss Monster in Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate - Daemonhunters

When I said all that to Decter-Jackson, he told me that they have built the tension more around “your knights’ long-term resilience,” seen as if each knight can only be overthrown a certain number of times each mission. “Avoiding the critical hit is the one thing I think the player will focus on,” he said, though every situation compared to XCOM will feel “a little more gentle.” The idea is that tank sick soldiers and lack of chances of failure give you room to take control of a situation, but you will also have to adapt to changing circumstances when you or your enemies trigger a warp wave. These can summon a new wave of reinforcements, for example, or clothe your commandos with a particular taste of corruption.

Tankiness in particular is a pronounced change in mindset, which Decter-Jackson agrees can reasonably be called “attritional.” Based on the approximately one and a half game Warhammer I have played at a friend’s home, that focus seems appropriate. That does not mean I like it. That’s not my only complaint either.

Decter-Jackson was eager to emphasize how they have tried to support players who would like to sneak around patrolling teams, as I did, but I suspect he may have over-egged the player-driven pudding. He alluded to ticking timers and potential reinforcements that encourage a quick push forward, but for me, the real attraction of ruthless charging between fights would be to cut back on motion admin. Unlike XCOM, the kicker with Chaos Gate is that you have to wait for each soldier to finish jogging around before you are allowed to move the next one. Unfortunately, that’s a fundamental limitation of their code, Decter-Jackson told me, though he stressed that you do not have to wait for enemies to intervene individually if they are away from the screen.

A technical priest talks to the player in Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate - Daemonhunters

Decter-Jackson also mentioned that there will be opportunities to speed up the enemy’s attack animations, which I saw myself longing for in my last confrontation. I was up against one of those special boss fights where you’re thrown into an arena with a big ugly Warhammer name and environmental hazards – in this case rivers of devastating bile. I do not know who Eggs the Benevolent is, but I can tell you that by default he takes an awful long time to swing the skull. Even with faster swinging, though, this boss fight would have been the weakest part of my preview because it turned into a war of attrition, I gradually realized I was losing. When it crashed and interrupted my session, I could not help but feel relieved.

I’m aware that all of this sounds blatantly negative, which may be unfortunate when I look forward to getting my fingers in the game. My hope is that I will have a better time by leaning into the cavalier, overwhelming style from the start – especially when I am on my way with a squad in development, where I get the opportunity to choose each new ability and have a better opportunity to understand how all my abilities are related.

A planet explodes in Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate - Daemonhunters

This short session also completely took root with the important strategic overlay that is crucial for XCOM, where shooting at a specific target can add excitement and purpose to an otherwise mundane mission. Decter-Jackson and I talked briefly about balancing around catastrophic situations where the player may find himself in a situation where it seems like Bloom is set to sweep across the universe, only to save himself out with a desperate explosion from Exterminatus (see above)), a doomsday weapon that can eradicate any annoying plague plant that has taken root in a system. It sounded like a smart way to encourage a comeback, rather than a rage.

The bottom line is that without playing more, I can not tell to what extent my preview frustrations stemmed from a mixture of inexperience, impatience, or unwarranted personal cowardice, or whether these things will slow down even the most fearless space grunt. Fortunately, we do not have to speculate for long, as Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters will be released on May 5th.

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