When you start missions in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide as an Imperial Guard, you’re often passing barricades set up by the local defense forces. You go from safety into the dark no-man’s land of tunnels and cavernous halls. Walking down the shadowy pipes, you sweep the corners with the barrel of your Lasgun and imagine carefully coordinating movements with your team mates. For a moment, you almost feel like you are one of the hand-picked troops tasked with a mission in the enemy territory that will require all your tactical acumen and coordinated fire to win.
Then you mow down 50 plague zombies without breaking a sweat and the illusion is shattered forever.
Warhammer 40K: Darktide is not the Imperial Guard experience we wanted
Join the Guard, they said
The Imperial Guard — excuse me, Astra Militarum — is almost a meme faction in the Warhammer 40,000 universe: their lives are cheap, and their weapons are weak. However, they’re also enchanting; they’re simple humans thrust to fight in a universe where almost anything else is deadlier than the common man. So that idea of serried ranks for everyday people armed with mass-produced guns and clad in mass-produced armor standing against creatures armed with relics of ancient power, impossible technologies, and fell magic is compelling in its heroism and defiance of the odds. Fantasy Flight Games even created Only War — a TTRPG about being one of the millions who die every day for Him on Terra.
The Imperial Guard is also the army that most lends itself to what you could term “military fiction.” The most troublesome fans will beat the dead horse of “send in the next wave” memes until the corpse is naught but elementary particles. And a medium’s writing will aid them with lines like “the T’au ran out of ammo from shooting all of the Catachans.” But there is space in the Guard for a normal chain of command, supply issues, calling in artillery support, bounding overwatch, combined arms assaults and all those other phrases that make a wargamer’s eye sparkle.
Granted, I’m also of the opinion that Space Marines would be no less cool if they were forever treated solely like high-speed, low-drag Tier 1 Kinetic Operators and not a field army. But I have written in the past that games can’t — or aren’t interested in — figure out what makes special forces, special, so back to the Guard.
It is sad to have that Imperial Guard fantasy snatched before my eyes in Darktide. Sure, you’re technically working for the Inquisition. But you have been trained, as the Veteran or the Ogryn, by the Guard. And even Psykers and zealots can be found in the field in the form of specialists attached to regular units (though in the latter case as Ministorum Priests rather than just random rambling lunatics).
I hear the whispers of the gameplay
The gameplay already supports the idea as well. In moving from Warhammer: Vermintide 2 to Warhammer 40,000: Darktide, Fatshark had to accept the bigger role guns play in the game. So it introduced something many first-person shooters don’t bother with: suppression. You get suppressed and you can suppress ranged enemies. If only the latter mattered; it’s not like you can really afford to focus on individual shooters or do meaningful flanking when you have 50 zombies running at you. And, of course, the elite shooters don’t believe in suppression.
So, if you had fewer enemies and the regular Lasgun shmoes were any tougher, you could have some tense firefights where you find a way to root entrenched enemies out of their holes. Maybe you can even have spots where ambushing “patrols” matters. And if the Poxwalkers were more prone to suppression, maybe you could even play with establishing crossfire zones.
But I also believe that the melee system — largely inherited from Vermintide 2 — would benefit from gameplay that focused not on Left 4 Dead zombie hordes mixed in with special infected (after all, what is a Daemonhost but a Witch that will kill two player characters?), but on fewer, stronger enemies. You already have light and heavy attacks, and the rudimentary attack chains. You have blocking, showing, follow-ups, and (on some swords) parries. Except that 99% of the enemies in the game don’t require much more finesse than block-shove-chop-chop-chop. The melee elites are the types you can only dodge and then go ham on if you can flank them.
Having time — and reason — to think about how you approach the fight and then meaningfully fighting an individual enemy would both do the system more good and make the whole experience more military science fiction; more Imperial Guard.
Now, I’m not advocating going full Chivalry on it, but come on! Plus, the lethal verticality of the hive world setting would let you implement the biggest gift Dark Messiah of Might & Magic gave us: the ability to kick enemies into bottomless pits.
How to fight with even more friends
Of course, a single four-person fire team isn’t the most tactical unit on the field — and the Guardsman fantasy is about fighting in a squad. Even Only War understood, and that’s why every player character had an NPC companion to bolster the ranks. The same could be done for Warhammer 40,000: Darktide. Give each player (except maybe the Ogryn) NPC companions to order around. The Veteran sets up a firebase with their lads, and maybe one of them even has a support weapon unavailable to player characters. The Zealot flanks with their team; they’re the ones armed with vicious close-range weapons, and ready to get stuck in melee. Meanwhile, the Psyker might just have a couple of tough minders to watch their back.
The Ogryn doesn’t have a fireteam. He is the fire team.
At the same time, with more bodies on the field there are more options for customization and engagement.
Now, another thing about military fiction is that characters can have a favorite piece of gear that sticks with them through thin and thick. This is notably not the case in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide, where you play the usual loot treadmill, tossing out your gun after a couple of missions because you found one with superior numbers. There’s no attachment to anything!
What can be done
I actually wrote a whole other article on the subject of Darktide loot, but the short version is this: rip out the whole power rating, leave the weapon classes as just weapon choices, and then let us customize the living daylights out of them. Maybe one player likes Helbore Lasguns for their charge ability or another favors Kantrael MG Ia for their versatility. Both of them should be able to play with adding bayonets, preysense sights, purity seals, and other grimdark attachments. They should be able to strip a weapon down and change barrel lenses, laser focusing chambers, and triggers to get performance closer to what they like.
Do all that and you have the perfect Imperial Guard experience for Darktide without going too much in the Brothers in Arms direction. Once you are taking point with your fireteam, scanning sublevel shanty windows for movement, your lovingly maintained Lasgun in hand, you feel like a real soldier worthy of the Emperor’s blessing.