I’ve always been fascinated by the universe that Games Workshop has created with the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. I’ve played the board games, I’ve painted the little figures, I’ve played the video games, and for the most part I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of them. Now, there is a new entry into the universe in the shape of Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus, coming from Bulwark Studios. But is this as much fun as everything else from the universe?
Now, the Mechanicus of the title in this latest Warhammer 40,000 experience refers to the most technologically advanced armies in the entire Imperium: the Adeptus Mechanicus. Now, when I’m playing a game, or creating some kind of thoughts piece, I like to read around to find out what I’m talking about, so I have a rough idea of what the world I’m looking at is all about. However, in this case there is such a wealth of information available online that I really feel like I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s happening here. Alas, from what I have gleaned it seems as if Mars is the home of the Adeptus Mechanicus, and was one of the first Forge Worlds that was built. The Adeptus Mechanicus value knowledge above all else, and have become a favourite of the Emperor. They have a dislike of their squishy organic bits, and are constantly seeking to replace flesh with machine, with the predictability of what happens when a program runs. Some of the higher ranking figures, such as the character we play as, Magos Dominus Faustinius, even have their emotions hived off so that the decisions they make can be wholly logical, preventing emotions being allowed to play a part. It all sounds a bit lonely to me, but it does make the cohort very efficient warriors.
The story of Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus is that a member of the Adeptus Mechanicus has gone missing, and has been tracked to a world called Silva Tenebris. Now, as luck would have it, this particular planet is also the site of a Necron tomb. The Necrons are a race of creatures who, long ago, were tricked into giving up their flesh and becoming wholly robotic creatures, made up of living metal. The story behind this transformation is long and involved, covering god-like creatures called the C’Tan who used their powers to manoeuvre the Necrons into becoming what they are today. They decided to go to sleep 60 million years ago, to awaken in a time when the scourge of organic life may have been destroyed – their awakening has been hastened by the arrival on their planet of terraformers. So, as we pull up and park our huge great spaceship in orbit, the Necrons are stirring, and we have to find out not only how to fight an undying metal army, but how to come out of it with our shiny metal asses intact.
The game plays like a strange hybrid between board game and a real-time strategy video game. As we select missions from the various leaders of our faction in the hub level, we are loaded first of all into what appears to be a holographic layout of the level. This shows all the rooms on the level, along with points of interest: an exclamation mark shows there is something to interact with, usually requiring us to choose an action from a preset menu. These actions can be good, and award resources, or bad, and either awaken the Necrons faster or even injure our troops. There are also symbols that represent Glyphs, and interacting with those asks us to find a symbol that unlocks a door or something similar – again, results can vary, so play with these at your own risk. Lastly we have red rooms, where the enemy is awaiting us; heading to these rooms triggers the fight stage of the game. Now, there is a balance to be struck here between exploring and getting the job done, as you’d expect. The longer you spend in a level, the more alert the Necrons become, and for each level their awareness grows by something bad usually happens. The first level means there are more Necrons in each battle, the second sees them reanimate faster, and so on. So, judge carefully whether the chance of loot is worth a harder fight at the end of the level.
Once you enter combat, the scene becomes much more familiar. The enemies appear, you choose where to place your troops – known as Tech Priests – and then the rest of the scrap plays out in the familiar way. Each unit can attack and move, or vice versa, and it’s all jolly familiar. One difference from a run of the mill strategy game is the use of Cognition Points, or CP. Basically, by expending CP, your Tech Priests can move further, or even attack twice – once with a ranged weapon, then by closing the gap and applying the sharp end of a Power Axe to a Necron’s face. Again, you need to be aware of your units’ spacing, as it’s possible to block your allies’ shots by one misplaced step, and the Necrons really don’t take any prisoners.
At the start of each new turn, you do have the option to deploy Skitarii troops, which are basically like cannon fodder to take the heat off the Tech Priests. They can attack, albeit weakly, but luckily as you advance through the levels more and better units are unlocked: however to bring them on a mission costs Blackstone, the in-game currency, and to deploy them on the field of battle requires CP as well. Luckily, CP can be picked up from certain points, like pillars on the maps, and your servo skulls (exactly what it says on the tin, a skull with the power of flight and many robotics attached), can fetch points for you if you can’t get to them.
So, the battle lines are drawn, and usually you have to eliminate the Necrons. Now, this is easier said than done: depleting the HP of a Necron merely knocks it down, and to truly defeat it you either have to “kill” it with a critical hit, or hit it again when it is down. Don’t leave a “dead” Necron to its own devices; it will reanimate and shoot you in the back. For goodness sake keep your Tech Priests alive too: if they fall, the mission is a failure. The poor Skitarii are, as I said earlier, just there to act as a squishy buffer between your Tech Priests and harm, so you’ll be best served seeing as many of them killed as you like.
Once all the enemies are removed, it’s usually a case of going back to the ship for tea and biscuits. Here in the hub you can upgrade your Tech Priests, levelling them up in one of seven different skill trees by spending Blackstone. These skill trees can be anything from a purely combat-based one, dealing more damage, to more subtle traits like inspiring your troops to fight harder and so on. Each level also has the ability to unlock extra tech slots on your Priests, enabling them to be outfitted in a number of ways. Maybe a ranged and a melee weapon, maybe melee weapons only, but with increased armour and health. How about the ability to heal?
With new tech brought back from the missions that can be utilised against its former owners, and with more Tech Priests available to deploy as the game goes on until you have a large army on your side, along with different upgrades to pursue and try out, the depth on offer here is tremendous. There are so many ways to get your guys ready for a mission, it’s hard to even shake a stick at them all. And it’s not just your guys that get tougher; as the game advances, new enemy types appear, from bog-standard Necron warriors, through Flayed Ones and things that look like scorpions, right down to named bosses who are a complete pain to take down. This constantly evolving threat keeps you on your toes, and keeps forcing you to adapt in order to overcome – if that’s not too much of a cliche.
The difficulty of Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus is just short – and I mean only just short – of eye watering. I think someone should have a word with the developers about the meaning of the word “Easy”, as even this is anything but. It is very trivial to get surrounded and shot to pieces. However, the difficulty acts like a spur, it doesn’t put you off – it forces you to try again, discovering new tactics. With the way the game is laid out, choosing certain missions over others will give different rewards, and lead to a different path through the game. This is promised to take us to multiple endings, yet in a weird way it’s the draw of this, and the very difficulty itself, that makes the games such a pleasure to play. You see, if you beat a level, you can be damn sure that you’ve worked for it, and it is a great vindication of your tactics.
In conclusion, Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus on Xbox One is one of the better Warhammer 40,000 games I’ve played. Both sides have such a tremendous backstory that exploring it is almost a full time job in itself. The missions themselves are always challenging, yet more importantly fun, and while the difficulty can seem crippling just a few points spent upgrading the Tech Priests, or bringing along better backup troops, can usually see you victorious. There is such a lot of content here, and such a huge array of replayability, that if you like Warhammer 40,000 it’s a no-brainer. If you don’t, or aren’t aware of it, this is a very good game almost in its own right. Real tactical thinking is needed to stop those dastardly Necrons, but you’ll enjoy the journey.