In a Sea of Mediocrity, Daemonhunters is a Great Warhammer Game

Even with a name like Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate - Daemonhunters.

Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters is a great game with a name you probably shouldn’t remember. It’s the kind of gobbledygook word soup that would make a Tyranid say “Damn… That’s a lot of rough edges.” It also sounds exactly as generic as the 39,999 other Warhammer games you stumble across on Steam every day. The fine folks at Games Workshop want to make damn sure that, if there’s a popular genre of game, there’s a Warhammer version of it as well. As long as that genre is turn-based strategy. Because boy, oh boy, are most of the many new Warhammer games coming out all the time some flavor of strategy game. Not to mention most of them are mediocre.

Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters (or just Daemonhunters as I’m going to call it from now on) is different, though. It’s different because it’s good. Dare I say even great (I do dare, as it turns out, since I already said so in the first paragraph). This is XCOM 2 with Space Marines, yes. More accurately, it’s actually Gears Tactics with Space Marines — which was XCOM 2 with walking tanks. But the thing about XCOM 2 is that it’s also very good. Daemonhunters leans into that fact with a number of its own twists that feel both appropriate to the fiction and meaningfully different. Plus it looks damn good while doing it.

You play as the Grey Knights. If you’re a Warhammer nerd — which I’m not but I do know some and they explained this to me — you understand that this is a special Space Marine faction dedicated to daemon hunting. Hey, just like the name of the game! The big bad (or worse bad, as the case may be, since Space Marines are fascist pricks) is Nurgle. The Plague God. The pustule prince. The green nasty. The festering fella full o’ fumes. He’s spreading a mutagenic virus across the stars called the Bloom. Your group, fresh from having its ass handed to it and losing its leader in a kamikaze crusade, gets drafted by the catgirl from Final Fantasy XIV to stop the blight. This means rebuilding your forces, your spaceship, and your reputation on the homefront. All of which is done through shiny menus to drool over in your flying church-battleship: the Baleful Edict.

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Grey Knights don’t just have guns and fancy spaceships, though. They’re also allowed to use psychic powers. And like a lot of modern tactics game, Daemonhunters forgoes the whole chance-to-miss thing. If you can shoot something, you will hit it, and vice versa. Which means using telekinetic powers to kill enemies more quickly is the only way to reliably protect yourself from bullets. Does it normally take two actions to kill a Nurgle cultist? Not if you spend psychic power points to double your damage, it doesn’t.

Part of the appeal in any tactics game, you see, is the threat of loss. Why bother thinking tactically if nothing can kill you, after all? Yet most enemies can’t stand up against telepathic super-freaks in cyber-armor. Not without help, anyway. So the Bloom “rises” with every turn you take in Daemonhunters — filling a gauge that eventually makes your enemies stronger or adds hazards to the field. You need to be quick and use your brain juice frequently. Lest you get overrun with hypercharged enemies.

This is where “XCOM with walking wizard tanks” starts to make sense. The Bloom also feeds off your knights’ own psychic energy — rising faster the more you use powers like teleportation or magic laser bolts. Your knights can kill individual enemies in a snap, but doing so brings out the Bloom, which makes the remaining foes even stronger. It’s a fine line to walk. Daemonhunters knows it, too. Which is why the enemy AI loves to stall you out.

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Just one cultist can’t take down a Space Marine. Seven cultists, however, can drop a time bomb on your position and trap you with overwatch. Just look at the absolute violence in the screenshot above. Every single one of those red triangles is an enemy cultist lining up overwatch — daring my knights to leave the red circle that’s about to explode for major damage next turn. It’s a genuinely brilliant way of dealing with the nine-foot cyborgs that just cleaved your cousin in half with a single sword swing. My men can eat one or two cultist salvos. But six?

Then again, my Interceptor can teleport.

Every overwatch trap becomes wasted effort if my knight can just suddenly disappear and reappear behind the triggerman. “Nothing personal, heretic.” Suddenly seven cultists are in 27 pieces. Just like Cousin Gary. It’s little moments like these that add a bit of personality to the Space Marines, which are otherwise pretty much indistinguishable from one another.

Daemonhunters really has more “style” than it does “personality.” Every frag grenade leads to a slow-motion cutscene of your knight pulling the pin, the camera zooming up to show the explosive as it arcs through the air. Some of the grenades have “WRATH” printed on the side. It’s a trick that doesn’t happen frequently enough to get old. Yet it’s never different enough to continue feeling special. Every closeup is the same; every miniature cutscene follows the same camera angles. You could just about say the same thing about your troops. Each of them explodes onto the scene, but they’re utterly forgettable as individuals.

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This is, perhaps, the point. Except there are other good Warhammer games. Not many, compared to the grand deluge these days, but a few. Mechanicus in 2018 really knew how to set a mood. Even if it was on what felt like a third of the budget. It didn’t have catgirl voice acting money, but it had atmosphere. Daemonhunters has style. Even if that style repeats itself again, and again, and again. It’s not worse, exactly, but it’s also not the same.

Outside of battle, the game has a bit more going on under the hood. At least more than Gears Tactics, which seriously suffered from a lack of overworld goings-on. Daemonhunters isn’t a management sim by any stream, but you do get some research to complete and starship repairs to purchase, which unlock new wrinkles. Buy some faster thrusters, for example. They let you reach more planets more quickly. Any planet you don’t reach in time to stop Nurgle’s plans will fall deeper into corruption. All of which can be monitored with special probes as you heal your soldiers in real time. All of which also looks sick. The interior of your Baleful Edict is brightly Gothic — like the painted miniatures that inspired it. There is simply color everywhere. Even in the grim darkness of the far future.

Which isn’t to say these scenes don’t have issues. For whatever reason, parts of your command center are huge performance hogs. Looking at your technician will send the frame rate plummeting. Then the camera swings 90 degrees and everything runs just fine. Then you look at your XO and… single-digit frames again. Your holographic battle map? Totally fine!

Performance issues like these don’t much hinder a turn-based game, though. The daemon crunching is what matters. And they crunch good. So good that it becomes quickly apparent this is one of the best Warhammer games we’ve had in a good long while. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for some XCOM-adjacent dopamine, but it’s also a great tactics game in its own right.