Warhammer is a frustrating license. When adaptations using the brand pop, they’re fantastic. Great settings, rich gameplay, and a lot of perks that come from being able to draw from such long-lived and celebrated IPs. Blood Bowl 2, Inquisitor: Martyr and Mechanicus were all fantastic, and some of my favorite experiences.
Unfortunately, IP owner Games Workshop isn’t too selective about who they license to, and any videogame bearing the Warhammer name has a 50/50 shot at best of being decent. That low success rate doesn’t deter me, though, and I keep trying every one that comes down the pike.
The latest from Warhammer‘s 40K branch is Necromunda: Underhive Wars. It’s almost a good time, but a number of issues hold it back.
I’m not familiar with Necromunda specifically, but Underhive Wars is set inside a large city comprised of layer after layer of urban decay and populated by several varieties of gangs. Everyone’s after some recently-uncovered loot at the bottom, and squad-style turn-based tactics ensue. Think XCOM with rust, drugs and mohawks.
The biggest hook to Necromunda is how vertical every level is. I have rarely seen a turn-based strat try to leverage height as much as this one does, and it’s a great tack to take — every area is filled with multiple elevation levels riddled with elevators, ziplines, ladders, ramps and more. It’s claustrophobic and busy (in a good way) and a new kind of challenge to wrap my head around a fully 3D space while figuring out strategies for attack and positioning. As one might expect, getting the upper hand on an enemy is always advantageous, and a good sniper perch is invaluable.
Unfortunately, despite my appreciation for the height element, too many aspects of Necromunda feel like they need more polish, and I ultimately bailed on it.
One of my biggest issues is that Necromunda relies on a lot of small text and icons instead of relying on easier-to-read visual feedback and contextual information — there are multiple statuses and factors affecting combat that are tough to discern at a glance, and it’s difficult to get a good sense of what’s going on at any given moment.
Related, there are many, many factors which seriously affect gameplay. For example, I once used an ‘overwatch’ power (meaning that my character would open fire on any enemy that moved in their line of sight) and successfully devastated an enemy squad. In the next match, I watched enemies walk straight through the same overwatch and they crushed my team, and I don’t know what the difference was. A glitch? Did they have an ability that canceled out the overwatch? I have no idea.
Also, I have never played a tactics game where characters were constantly too close to fire weapons. Apparently point blank range isn’t a thing in the 40K universe? And when an attack does happen, it’s another case of modifiers being unclear, which then leads to less-than-optimal choices. Sometimes I’d hit an enemy for 50 points of damage with the next attack dinging them for 5, leaving the enemy still breathing and my exposed soldier ripe for a beatdown.
I don’t doubt that Necromunda is telling me all of this incredibly relevant information somehow or somewhere, but it’s not coming through in an easily-digestible fashion, which makes combat a series of frustrating, mystifying messes against an AI that vacillates between ‘brain-dead’ and ‘John Wick’.
Making all of this worse, the pace of play is absolutely torturous… players must watch the enemy each take their turns in realtime, and it just… takes… for…e…ver….
I reached my breaking point when I was in a level with two teams fighting each other, so I decided to let them thin each other’s ranks before striking. I spent close to two hours on that mission and eventually felt forced to take action because reinforcements kept coming. Of course, once I jumped in both sides turned on me and I promptly got overwhelmed, and the time invested got flushed down the toilet since there’s no way to save and continue mid-level.
With some reworking, some polish, and a few quality-of-life concessions, Necromunda: Underhive Wars could easily join the ranks of other Warhammer titles that beat the odds to deliver a solid experience. Unfortunately, it’s currently too much of a time investment for something that isn’t giving me enough feedback and doesn’t play reliably enough.
I think the bones of something are something really good are here, but Necromunda: Underhive Wars doesn’t quite get it done. (Insert your own clever Warhammer-themed pun here.)