Adapting the grim, dark future of Warhammer 40K has had a very mixed record, despite having many traits that should make it prime territory for computer games. There’s been a long history of adaptions, ranging from turn-based strategy games, to real-time strategy, to RPGs and first-person shooters.
For those who’ve never held a bolter or killed a tyranid, Warhammer 40K is set in the far future of the 41st millennium where mankind’s vast Empire is ruled over by a mostly-dead psychic messiah-Emperor. Its fascist police state requires a huge standing army of the Astares Militarium and the Space Marines to fight off a wide variety of aliens such as orks, Eldari (space Elves) or Necrons (Skeletal robots).
However, Necromunda: Underhive Wars is not about high-level warfare; the fighting in Necromunda is between scrappy little hive-gangs. The Hive-City of Necromunda is a cramped super-sized city that houses billions of citizens. The conditions of the hive-city depend on the level of the city: the higher you go, the better the conditions and the city ranges from the grim underhive and the “sump” all the way up to the highest levels where the aristocrats live in blissful ignorance of the violence going on in the underhive.
Players can generate their own gang affiliated with one of the three Houses. The Orlocks are mechanically sound, agile and are sort of ranged specialists. Meanwhile the all-girl Eschers are fast, aggressive in close quarters and they often have poisonous weapons. Finally, there’s the brutal steroid monsters of House Goliath who are big, brutish and sort of tanky.
Your gang consists of characters recruited in one of the five-character classes, a departure from the board-game that it’s based on. Here you can recruit deadeyes, bruisers, saboteurs, lay-mechanics and heavies. Each start with different weapons, buffs and skills and have different perks available to them as they gain XP for taking part in missions. You can also modify their appearance, either for the whole gang or for individual members of the gang.
Your initial gang has a leader who starts off with higher stats and access to some new skills. Otherwise you can potentially recruit new members of your gang at any level but the more experienced ones cost a lot more. Gradually you’ll recruit new gang members, though only five can take part in a mission.
Once you’ve recruited your gang and kitted them out with weapons and gear, you can put them into action against other gangs. The maps are huge multi-layer jumbles of machinery, giant cogs and elevators. At times it is hard to tell where you are in relation to other characters, though you can hold down the left shoulder button and all other characters, as well as objects of interest, are highlighted, which helps you navigate around the map a bit better.
Characters are very mobile. The game uses an odd blend of turn-based and real time gameplay, somewhat like the Valkyria Chronicles. You can move your character “in real time” and they only spend Action Points for the straight-line distance from their starting point, giving the characters great ability to manoeuvre around the map.
At times this can mean that it’s hard to predict how far your characters will be able to move, leaving you somewhat confused as to why you can’t get into a firing position. Equally, at times it is quite hard to predict how far an enemy can move and sometimes an opposing character will seemingly traipse across a vast distance on the map. Attacks also spend AP, ranging from 40 AP for an aimed shot to just 15 AP for a melee attack. Speaking of which, melee is very effective, though it can, of course, leave your characters open and out of cover.
Damage is tracked in points, with most characters having around one or two hundred hit points. Damage ranges from eight or nine per shot to seventy, so characters are fairly durable – though if they are caught by more than one enemy ganger at once, they can quickly get shredded and put down.
Necromunda: Underhive Wars doesn’t have perma-death as such and characters who are knocked out usually recover, sometimes with injuries that mean they need to miss a few missions before they can take part again. Gang members gain XP for taking part, for taking down their enemies, and there are some other odds and ends. This XP are then spent to improve individual stats to give the character a stronger profile or to add a passive or active skill to that character.
It is here where your characters “level up” based on the amount of skills they’ve upgraded, and can eventually be promoted to take over the gang as a leader too. As characters level up, more skill slots are available to them.
After a mission you can buy and sell gear, with the game’s shop being restocked every two or three missions. You can gradually sell and buy gear for your characters’ weapons, consumables, armour and even “loot chests” which will randomly spawn a few items for you when you buy them.
Missions are just one part of the game, however, as you can play “operations” which are larger linked campaigns where you compete with other gangs over objectives and can win additional loot and accolades, as well as “infamy” which can grant your gang some buffs.
Finally, there is a story mode which also functions as a tutorial, and the game strongly suggests that you play the story through first. Interestingly, you’ll switch gangs during the story-mode and there are plenty of twists and turns throughout, as well as some fairly good cutscenes that help to set the stage.
The voice acting is okay as well, with a range of accents present reflecting the futuristic setting. However, it has to be said that the story mode could be better set out, with some objectives being quite unclear at times; there is a lack of firm direction.
It’s also worth pointing out at this time that Necromunda has some serious issues with its graphics. Textures are a bit drab at times and it can be hard to make things out. Text is printed in small blocks on the side of the screen which can be very difficult to read. As someone with eyesight issues, I found elements of it totally unreadable unless I got up off my couch and stood by the screen. There are no options to increase the text size or change the colour, which is an accessibility option that should be standard issue these days.
Unfortunately, you really can’t talk about Necromunda without going into the faults with the visuals too. There are frequent issues of clipping, flickering characters and repeated animations as well as moments where the camera is obscured by the background. At times it is quite impossible to tell what is happening.
It gets worse too when you start talking about the AI. Sadly, the game has launched with truly useless AI. Enemy gangers will frequently make actions that make no sense at all, with them taking cover in their “entry point”, overwatching an area of the map where they are unlikely to ever see anyone or using buffs that will be gone before they get a chance to act upon them.
For example, one enemy AI ganger went down a lift, buffed his movement score, called the lift back, went back up in the lift then jumped back down again. I also witnessed an enemy ganger kneel in a corner with his back to the enemy.
This does compromise the game quite a bit, and whilst multiplayer is a lot better, there are still lots of graphical problems. I also encountered two hard-crashes, thankfully neither mid-mission. It does feel that Necromunda may have been rushed through and could do with more QA.
However, if the game gets the right support with patches, then there are some really interesting elements, and if a bigger community of players develop, then this does have an interesting charm to it. The core gameplay loop of missions, levelling up characters, buying gear and then going back in is quite good fun, and its nice to see your rookie gangers’ level up.
Necromunda: Underhive Wars could also do with some additional DLC, as despite the wide variety of character classes, there are only three gangs available; after a while the novelty will wear off. The tabletop miniatures game has lots of gangs in its various editions as well as interesting hired guns and other odds and ends, so hopefully those will be introduced in future DLC. Though I guess this would be contingent on the game getting patched as at the moment it is in poor shape.
For WH40K fans, there are good and bad points here. Its great to see the underhive represented with huge maps and the feel is about right – grim, cramped and hostile. However, there are lots of things that have changed from the game with some weapons far less powerful than you’d expect, and the new character classes don’t quite line up with what you’d expect either. The sheer number of buffs and debuffs means that its hard to tell how much effect they are having and the game’s granularity mean that fights can become grinding wars of attrition.
Finally, one must compare this to XCOM and XCOM 2 – the current gold standard in turn-based tactical games. Necromunda has tried to do something different, borrowing the “live” movement system from Valkyria Chronicles and the team’s previous game, Mordheim, but you have to ask why they have done this. The old school turn-based system of XCOM works really well and there’s a feeling of “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it”. To be fair, it’s great to have such mobility for your characters but strategy games depend on being able to tell what the enemy could do, and at times it is just impossible to tell how far the enemy can move or attack.
Also, characters having hundreds of hit points just means weapons need to land lots and lots of hits before someone dies. This means that even making a clever flanking attack and dealing 30 points of damage can feel a bit deflating, compounded for a WH40K fan if you’re using a plasma gun and see it do less damage than an autogun!
Necromunda: Underhive Wars on Xbox One has raw potential, but as it stands at the moment the game is a bit of a mess and you’d need to stick with it and look beyond its faults to see the potential in there. And even then, the story-mode and operations may not quite have enough to keep you coming back.