Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40k universe is a sprawling collection of tabletop role-playing games, books, comics, and other mixed media. Set in the far-flung space future of another world, 40k pits several fantastical factions of space-faring creatures against one another. The Warhammer 40k universe is no stranger to video game adaptations either, from action rpgs like Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor to sweeping real time strategy epics like the Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War games. The latest 40k game comes to us in the form of Bulwark Studios’s Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus. A turn-based strategy game set in the depths of space, Mechanicus puts the player in charge of an expedition comprised of members of the powerful Adeptus Mechanicus as they explore the far-flung Necron world of Silva Tenebris.
Yeah, that’s a lot of weird sounding proper nouns to digest all at once; let me help you break it down. The Adeptus Mechanicus are a cult of machine-worshipping cyborgs who see the pursuit of knowledge as a holy act. They’re a bit like the Borg from Star Trek crossed with the Spanish Inquisition, and they combat their enemies with fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to their Omnissiah. The Necron, on the other hand, are an ancient space-faring race of skeletal robots who abandoned their flesh long ago. Missing from the cosmos for millennia, the Necron begin to reawaken as you explore their ancient tomb-world of Silva Tenebris. The threat the Necron pose to the rest of the galaxy is too large for the Mechanicus to ignore and you set out to purge the planet of heretics.
There’s a core moral dilemma that plays out within the tombs of Silva Tenebris: Mechanicus doctrine dictates that furthering the technology of mankind is to be one of your chief priorities, yet the xenophobic nature of the tech-priests renders all technology used by the Necrons to be heretical. This moral conflict between two core tenets of the Mechanicus are manifested in the characters of Scaevola and Videx. Scaevola is a computer-like tech-priest who wishes to plunder the planet for all its forbidden knowledge, while the hyper-religious Videx would see Silva Tenebris plunged into cleansing fire. The vast majority of the game’s narrative focuses on the conflict between these two mindsets, and I found the idea of working through a moral quandary as well as having to fight your way through dozens of death machines to be an interesting set up for the game.
The bulk of Mechanicus’s gameplay lies within the mission system. While you take on the role of Magos Dominus Faustinius, your various advisors provide you with a multitude of missions to contend with. Once you select a mission you send a cohort down to the planet’s surface. This cohort is comprised of your tech-priests and an assortment of troops that you select for battle. You initially begin with two tech-priests and one very basic troop type, but as you explore and conquer the Necron tombs you’ll gain access to additional tech priests and troop options. Magos Faustinius controls the cohort from the safety of the Caestus Metalican, your ship and base of operations, and you view each expedition from a top-down perspective as you guide your men from room to room. There are usually a handful of rooms you have to explore to complete the mission, but other rooms may contain an event or a glyph.
Event rooms pose some sort of problem, for example you may come across the defaced corpse of one of your comrades, and three potential actions you can take to solve that problem. Each action typically lines up with either Scaevola or Videx’s ideal, with the third option often being a more neutral choice, and when you pick an action you are either rewarded with some boon like additional currency or you’re penalized in some way. Picking either of the options that fall in line with your advisors beliefs does not seem to influence the outcome one way or another, and more often the result of these events seem almost random and you usually leave an event room at a disadvantage. Glyph rooms pose similar choices, but instead of picking direct actions you choose one of several images indicative of the Necron language. The meaning behind the glyphs you choose carry over from room to room, so if a specific glyph gave you a health bonus, choosing that same glyph later on in the game will provide the same result. These glyph rooms ended up being much more interesting than the event rooms, as the glyph system felt a lot more fair. After guiding your cohort from room to room, you’ll eventually reach one of your objectives which will, more often than not, begin a combat encounter.
Combat is the most refined and best part of Mechanicus’s gameplay. You transition into an arena, usually ripe with creepy Necron architecture, and you place your tech-priests on the board. Combat is round based, with both friendly and enemy units getting a turn in each round. Most actions you can take are powered by a resource called cognition which is typically gained from resource points in the combat arena, but can also taken from the corpses of fallen enemies. A unit can theoretically take an infinite amount of actions provided you have enough cognition to perform them, and this turns each of your tech-priests into incredible versatile troops. Tech-priests can be equipped with a plethora of unlockable weapons and gadgets, while the abilities your other troops have are more set in stone.
The damage you deal is divided into two types: physical and energy. Different weapons deal different types of damage, with melee weapons and ordinances like flamethrowers dealing physical damage, while laser rifles and lightning shotguns deal energy damage. Both friendly and enemy units can have shields that reduce the damage of a certain type. Friendly troops also require specific amounts of cognition to deploy and the game outright tells you at one point that troops are great way to stop your tech-priests from being blown to bits by Necron gauss cannons. Your Necron foes are also very capable in the ways of war and come in various shaped and sizes. The basic Necron Warrior will simply blast you at any given opportunity, whereas units like the Necron Destroyer are intelligent enough to try and combat your strategies. Killing a Necron isn’t the end either, if you don’t deal additional damage to them after they fall in battle they’ll come back to life in a few rounds. Every enemy type poses a pretty unique threat and the variation of tactics you have to use to survive a given encounter makes combat a pretty rewarding experience.
Each combat encounter is objective based. Many battles require you to simply eradicate the enemy, but sometimes you just have to survive several rounds of combat or fight your way to a specific node. Battles have a tendency to evolve with objectives changing as you complete them. Time becomes a really interesting element; as you move through the tombs and take turns in combat the “awakening” level of a given mission increases. As your awakening increases, the Necrons gain bonuses ranging from increased numbers in battle to decreasing the number of rounds a Necron needs to revive itself. This system pushes to player to make decisions that will end engagements quickly and helps build on the idea that the Necrons pose a serious threat if they’re allowed to awaken fully. The awakening system carries over into other aspects of the game as well; your awakening level at the end of a mission determines how much the overall awakening level of Silva Tenebris exists. When the overall awakening of the planet reaches 100%: the Necron cometh and the game ends.
As you progress through the missions, you’ll eventually unlock boss encounters within each tomb; Necron lords rise from their great sarcophagi to put your wits to the test. These boss fights are built around one unique mechanic that requires a strategy that you would not typically use in a regular encounter. One boss routinely switches places with his minions to dodge your attacks, allowing you to set up interesting ambushes. Another boss gains health whenever another enemy falls in battle, forcing the player to spend their cognition more wisely than usual. I found each of these fights to be really entertaining and a great example of how deep the seemingly straightforward combat system actually is.
Completing missions rewards you with new equipment and an amount of Mechanicus’s currency: blackstone. Blackstone is primarily used to improve your tech-priests who have several talent trees that can be developed. One tree focuses on ranged combat, while another focuses of cognition management, and still another might improve how your other troops perform in battle. There’s a lot of choice and experimentation to be found here, and as a tech-priest levels up they also gain armor specific to the talent path you choose. I like the idea that a tech-priest’s visuals evolve alongside of it’s abilities, and having a diverse group of tech-priests looks pretty cool. Leveling a tech-priest also allows them to equip more gear, which also has a visual component. A fully equipped tech-priest will be covered in robot arms and gadgets, which adds to the overall visual atmosphere of the game.
While the core combat is really enjoyable, I ended up encountering a pretty perplexing problem about halfway through my time with the game: I completely broke the difficulty curve of the game. The mission structure of the game more or less allows you to complete tasks in any order and unlock the items you want to unlock, and the early game is appropriately stressful as you’re under-equipped and still learning the game’s systems. However, around the time I unlocked my fourth tech-priest, I realized I had just far too many resources. All four of my main units were fully leveled down a talent path and were loaded to the teeth with the meanest space guns I had access to. Every mission became a walk in the park as I lit entire rooms of Necrons on fire; most encounters began to last only one or two rounds. I ended up giving just about every useful talent to all of my tech-priests because I could pretty easily afford to, and my four cyborgs were unstoppable killing machines. I never ran out of cognition because I suddenly gathered it three times faster than normal.
Missions labeled as hard were significantly easier than the normal difficulty missions that I struggled with in the early game, but I do not feel like I took any actions out of the ordinary. I just pushed through the game as I saw fit, and the difficulty curve just could not keep up with me. Things got so out of whack that I went to fight the final boss pretty early in order to challenge myself and i ended up defeating him before he could even take an action. Keep in mind, I only had four of six possible tech-priests; I cannot imagine how easy the last part of the game would be if I had let the awakening timer fill up all the way. To add insult to injury, it would appear that me defeating the final boss early, an option the game readily gives you, I missed out on the chance to side with either Scaevola or Videx and more or less completely undermined the narrative climax that the experience was clearly pushing toward.
I thought about why I was able to just disregard the end game content and I think it boils down to the lack of limiting factors present in the game. Sure, if you fail a mission you lose out on its rewards but that seems to be the only real limit to progression. Mechanicus is so eager to let the player craft their own experience that it kind of forgets to keep itself balanced. Tech-priests can potentially have every perk in the game at once, and you end up with so much blackstone that you can make a full group of super soldiers and still have a surplus of currency left over. I think if tech-priests had a level cap, or perhaps if the cost of healing and deploying units increased as the game went on, the last half of the game would come across as more balanced. I should also stress that this was my personal experience with the progression system, but ultimately I feel like I took a path that many other players would also take.
Ultimately, I still really enjoyed my time in the murky dark of Silva Tenebris. Mechanicus’s core combat was still enjoyable even when I began to feel overpowered, and I had fun throughout the entirety of my fifteen hour campaign. I think there is a lot to enjoy here if you’re a big Warhammer 40k fan or someone who really likes turn-based strategy. The setting is cool and unsettling; the sounds and sights of laser rifle ripping through a robot centaur is satisfying. For the uninitiated 40k player like myself, Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus is fun romp that might just be a few robotic appendages short of a truly fantastic experience.
Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus is available now for PC via Steam. This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.
Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus
- Well-designed and exciting combat system
- Open-ended progression system that allows you to play the game how you want to play the game
- Smaller gameplay systems like events don’t feel polished or rewarding
- Open-ended progression system that cause some series balancing issues