Warhammer 40,000 is a franchise I admittedly have a lot of history with. I’ve played the tabletop strategy game off and on since I was twelve, read man a Dan Abnett novel, pored over books for lore and have won (and lost) many a battle. I’ve also played a lot of the franchise’s video games. Some of them were all right. I have fond memories of chaos cultists in Dawn of War asking with manic glee and overlong S sounds what villainy they should concoct next, and of bashing orks about in Space Marine. I also have not so fond memories of games like Fire Warrior, where no matter what I did, I just couldn’t find enjoyment, no matter how much I loved the 41st Millenium.
Beyond that there are a bevy of Warhammer video games that I haven’t, and likely won’t ever have the time to play. Through it all though, the franchise keeps making games, with the hopes, I assume, that one of them will be a breakout success. They’ve gotten there a few times with titles like Vermintide and Total War: Warhammer, but 40K has not really had a big hit on its hands of late.
Which leads us to Necromunda: Hired Gun. A game that I want to like more than I think I do.
In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future…
To go into the story of Hired Gun is to also go into the vast lore of Warhammer 40K, and the hive world of Necromunda. There’s a lot, and there’s not really enough space here to go into it all. Hired Gun seems to agree, as the plot just kind of drops you into things, and then has little interest in ever really explaining more than the bare minimum.
Now normally this might not be a problem if the narrative isn’t important or gets out of the way to let you get on with things, but the game has an issue where it wants you to care. Or at least it seems like it does. After a tutorial mission where a job you’re doing goes awry, you’re introduced to Kal Jerico, a staple in 40K lore. Your mercenary seems to know who they are, which is a problem if the player doesn’t. Conversations about gang wars, bounties, and the goings on of the Underhive happen often, and for extended periods between missions, and it’s all delivered with banal half-interest by the game’s main players.
That sort of thing permeates the whole narrative. If you’re a veteran of the franchise, talk of hive gangs, the Ministorum, and other jargon will no doubt make you nod your head with the satisfaction of knowledge. If you’re a newcomer? Well you’re out of luck. And that’s a problem if this is your first outing with the franchise as you’re expected to know all these things, or at the very least keep up with them. However, some of these references and discussions go so fast that anyone just coming to 40K is going to be left with a lot of questions and nearly no answers.
This fast pace and disinterest in explaining anything to the player also follows the story as a whole. Characters are barely that, with only the surgeon that outfits you and your dog (more on that later) with cybernetics and the member of the Adeptus Mechanicus (a group of people that take cybernetic augmentation and transhumanism to the extreme) being the only real characters that stood out to me. Even Kal Jerico, a character whose books I have read lacked a certain level of pizazz that ought to make a game like this shine. He comes off as stiff, and then coupled with lifeless animations, there’s just no pulse to anything within the world. Enemies will be introduced and typically die not long after that, with very little interaction with the game’s actual villains in any capacity that matters.
It’s a shame, because Hired Gun could have had a fairly compelling, or at least decent gangland story with a few tweaks.
Mercifully the game is focused on other things.
There is Only War.
What Necromunda: Hired Gun lacks in narrative chops, it more than makes up for in raw gameplay. Blending elements from modern classics like Titanfall, DOOM 2016, and other fast paced shooters, it is a game that clearly prides itself on allowing the player to move freely.
Double jumps, wall running, grappling hooks, tactical slides, they’re all here, and they come with a blisteringly fast pace, and snappy response time that makes getting around levels feel delightful once you get the rhythm and pacing of movement. Upgrades assist with this, with some giving you the opportunity to avoid damage and rip shields from enemies.
This is coupled alongside a bevy of firearms for players to tinker around with. Most of the genre staples are here. Las weapons, stub guns, even bolters and their variants all make their way into your mercenary’s hands. Most players will likely find the weapons that suit their play styles, but there’s enough there that it warrants mixing and matching just to see what some of the more unique weapons are capable of.
Weapons also feature various attachments and configurations that allow you to mix up how you utilize them even turning various core functions on their heads to turn them into different weapon types entirely. While this turned some weapons that I didn’t like into favorites, weapons I expected to love never really had any configurations that wowed me. This was particularly disappointing after finding a good bolter, one of the most iconic weapons of the setting, and having it underperform compared to an autogun I had been using for a good portion of the game until that point. Hired Gun isn’t lacking for player empowerment, but given the mythology built in with the bolter, having it just be another gun in the arsenal was something that never really sat right with me.
Similarly the companion dog feels a bit underwhelming. You can call the pooch out for limited stretches of time and have him run amok fighting enemies alongside you. Outside of occasionally downing an enemy and sometimes drawing fire off you though, it didn’t feel meaningful. I’m all for AI controlled allies in games, and I will credit the pup that he’s largely inoffensive, but it would have been nice to see more functionality. Having him dig up supplies or hidden treasures would have been fun, especially since the game does have numerous hidden treasure chest throughout levels that provide excellent loot.
Missions as well lack variety, with only a few taking advantage of the great movement to have players perform platforming challenges. When there are deviations for puzzles, they’re often poor affairs that are too simple, and not engaging. It’s somewhat understandable, given the game’s focus on the gunplay, but having those breaks could have allowed for fun story beats, or to give the developers an opportunity to show off the strength of the other mechanics.
Still, overall the gameplay feels great, and coupled with the fast movement speed, there is a certain chaotic mayhem about combat that is fun to master. Especially with upgrades, powers, and some of the cybernetic enhancements that you and your dog can get. When the game is at its best, in combat arenas with enemies barreling in, it shines with potential.
But there’s some some flaws to this gem.
The Flesh is Weak, The Machine, er… Weaker
Part of why this review took so long to come out was that there have been numerous large updates to the game. It was clear the developers wanted to do right by players and so I wanted to give it a fair shake.
That being said, this game has. Problems. The first among them is a noticeable loading stutter on many levels. In the hub zone in particular during my time in the game, the level would load, stutter for a frame or two, then fade in with the title card for the zone. Something similar happened at the start of most levels. While not game breaking, it is jarring to experience, and doesn’t look great.
Stuttering also occurred at points where tons of particle effects, or set piece moments occurred. Thinking it might have been my PC I adjusted settings, but even after doing so, they occurred, leading me to think it might be the game struggling to keep up.
Problems also arise with the AI which has a tendency to just rush the enemy, with little else going on other than “attack.” While this isn’t too big an issue given the nature of the gameplay, it doesn’t really lead to any meaningful interactions with most of the enemies. Most enemies can be easily dispatched with a liberal application of bullets, plasma, or laser blasts, and after a while, the distinctions stop really having any meaning other than color palettes, save for Ambots, the bigger members of House Goliath, and certain enemies that turn invisible.
Which, speaking of. In a few instances, one of which was during a climactic boss fight at the end of the game, an enemy would turn invisible, and just disappear. And not in the way the game intends. Their entire model and hitbox disappeared, while they continued to unleash a barrage of attacks on me. I am all for a challenge, but being unable to engage with a foe and defeat them crosses a line that I think I can safely say isn’t that fun. This was infuriating to deal with, and I imagine for others it might have ruined the entire experience for them.
There are more issues than this, little hitches in gameplay, UI choices and foibles that would be too numerous to account for, but they pile up, and do so in a manner that become frustrating to deal with.
A Galaxy in Flames
The great issue here is that there is a good game inside Necromunda: Hired Gun. A great one even. When it works it works wonderfully. The movement and gunplay alone stand among the fast paced giants that we have seen over the past few years, and the visuals present the industrial gothic look of 40K and Necromunda well. On top of that the developers, Streum On Studio have done a lot of post-release work to update the game. Patches tackling bugs, gameplay problems, and other fixes have released fairly steadily, and have done a lot to tighten the experience up since its initial release. It is clear they care about this game, and that makes me want to care as well.
However, there are sections of Hired Gun, like the game’s plot, a clunky UI, or enemy AI, that would require a significant amount of work at the game’s foundation. They’re not impossible to fix, but they are things that Streum On Studio may not have the time or resources to dedicate. As a result the game often has a habit of getting in the way of itself, always keeping greatness just out of reach of a double jump or grappling hook.
Which makes it a hard game to recommend. Though it is in a far better state now than when it released back on June 1st, Necromunda: Hired Gun doesn’t offer a ton that other shooters don’t already provide. For die hard fans of the Warhammer 40,000 setting, there might be something to gain experiencing the underhive in first person, but at the game’s current $40 price, it might be a steep fee for a game that stumbles more than it soars. But who knows, in a few more months the game might be even tighter than it is now, and absolutely worth the price tag. I’ll be sure to keep an eye on it