Necromunda: Underhive Wars Review10 Sep 2020 0
Necromunda: Underhive Wars Review
Released 07 Sep 2020
Flashy gangs fighting for survival and treasure in the dark and dangerous underbelly of an unfathomably large sci-fi city? Sign me up! This sentiment drove many of us towards the original tabletop release of Necromunda, along with its 2017 re-release. But does the game’s first digital adaptation - Necromunda: Underhive Wars - meet our expectations?
In the grim darkness of the far future, there is (not) only Necromunda. The planet’s surface is dotted with Hives – humongous spire-cities, teeming with the masses that will never see the sky in their lives. The great houses that rule these megapoli can't fight directly, but in the darkness of the underhive, their associated gangs can do that however much they like.
When a lightning strike reawakens some mysterious but without a doubt valuable piece of archeotech, Tessera and her gang of Escher ladies won't be the only ones gunning for it. This serves as a story campaign which you're meant to finish before building your own gang and moving on to skirmish matches and operations (short campaigns).
Now, if you know anything at all about how tabletop Necromunda is played, throw it out of the window. Following the example of Mordheim: City of the Damned, Necromunda: Underhive Wars takes the concept of gang skirmishes, narrows it down until you only have five fighter per gang, and has them powered by mechanics that are light-years removed from anything you may find familiar.
Only the essentials of alternating ganger activation remain the same. You pick a fighter to act, the enemy picks a fighter to act; Act, Die, Repeat. Gangers act once per turn, and once all of them have gone the turn advances and activations reset. But now, the fighter with the higher initiative score gets to act first, and you can't really know which of the gangers the opponent will choose.
So you got to activate a minion – what do you do next? Well, in Necromunda: Underhive Wars, each ganger has an Action Point (AP) pool and a Movement Point (MP) pool. The insanity of Mordheim: CoD movement bubbles has been replaced with a slightly less kooky system: your MP reserve is expressed as a circle around the character where they can move. Your points aren't subtracted from the total unless you perform an action or come under attack. Therefore, you can run around quite a bit.
Quite a lot, in fact, because the game doesn't track the real distance travelled – only the straight line from the ganger to the point of origin. Yes, even vertically. This can lead to some... interesting maneuvers, especially from AI. This also means that your gangers are more mobile than ever.
And if you don't want to move, that's fine – one of the abilities that everyone gets is being able to transform a large quantity of unused MP to a smaller amount of AP. And AP rules everything around you: from offensive skills (shooting, stabbing, special attacks), to tactical actions (from kneeling to medicine, to buffs) to interacting with the environment or traversing it in more active ways (using ziplines, jumping and rappelling, vaulting).
This is a lot more complicated and a lot different from the tabletop. Pinning is now mostly the domain of Overwatch (or Ambush for the melee version), which is a stance any ganger with the right equipment and AP can take up. It deals damage and takes away 10 MP. You're interacting with the environment a lot more – and you're also much safer, since you can't fall or fail jumps (I guess Mordheim players were not too happy about that). As for various traps and hazards, they usually apply meager debuffs.
In exchange, combat can be quite vicious, especially when the gangers level up and gain abilities that allow multiple attacks. Once you gain those on a Heavy or a Bruiser, you're almost deleting opponents in a single turn. And even if you're not, you're carving off good chunks of health more often than not.
Curiously enough, all fighters have a similar base level of competency no matter their actual level. What separates a high level ganger from a rookie scrub in Necromunda: Underhive Wars is their ability to take punishment, increase crit chance, and act quicker. Those are all stats raised by skill points, but even someone with low stats can carve up someone big when armed with a good weapon. This is before you take into account abilities, mind, which experienced gangers will have more of.
Folks, one of the most disappointing things in Mordheim: CoD (if you’re wondering why I’m mentioning this game a lot, it was made by the same devs) was the insane granularity of stats. All the increases in skills and resistances were in single-digit percentages. It was really hard to care then, and it’s hard to care in Necromunda as well. And you know what? When a character can easily have 5+ buffs and debuffs affecting it at every moment, you stop caring as well. If a character is not on Overwatch/in Ambush, you don't really have to pay attention to it.
Also, all the activated abilities have (repetitive) animations for them, complete with grunting, posing, and a circle of icons that briefly float around the character. It's not too annoying when you're doing it, but when you have to spectate an opponent – especially the AI – it really grinds the game to a halt. Doubly so when AI is dumb and likes to run big circles around the map and then use up all the leftover AP by firing whatever abilities it has (this sometimes includes throwing grenades at their own feet).
So let’s get to it: If you're a Warhammer 40K fan, Necromunda: Underhive Wars wreaks havoc with any and all expectations you may have.
Let's take the plasma gun: it's an iconic special weapon across Warhammer games, always powerful, it even cuts right through Marine Power Armor. In Necromunda: Underhive Wars, it's merely an alternative to the lasgun that deals less damage per shot, but can have devastating critical effects. This makes Necromunda the first game in the history of Warhammer where sticking with las- rather than plas- weaponry is the right choice. The game warps expectations with other weapon types as well, like the autocannon.
About the only weapons that are as scary as you'd expect them to be are the various bolters, bolt pistols and heavy bolters. But – surprise surprise – not everyone can use them due to Necromunda's weird approach to classes. Instead of the usual quartet of Leaders, Champions, Gangers, and Juves, you get Deadeyes, Brawlers, Saboteurs, Lay-Mechanics, and Heavies. Any of those can be your gang leader, adding access to leadership skills. All of them have their own class specialities and access to weapons.
So only Deadeyes can use bolters and bolt pistols while also having a grappling gun to scoot around the map more. Saboteurs can sabotage stuff in the environment, place traps (AI loves being hoisted by its own petard) and throw grenades/boosts, while Lay-Mechanics build stuff and have the last arm replaced by a bionic limb that accepts only weapons made for it. Heavies don't just wield heavy weapons – they're the ones providing various auras. If you’re not an existing 40K or Necromunda fan, it’s hard to describe why this is all slightly off-putting, but it is.
It's also hard to put a finger on why the visual side seems to fail the game. Just like in Mordheim, the models for the characters seem to be right, and the environments have markedly improved. But that's where it ends - the textures, the colors that wrap it all up just don't 'pop' even on high settings. I'm constantly haunted, from battles to gang management, by the feeling like I'm playing a game on medium settings - an issue thatexisted in Mordheim. The cutscenes provide a huge contrast to all this, as they have better colors, better animation - better everything.
There are more things we could talk about – like consumables that have descriptions busy enough to fit right into AI War II or the extreme boredom of the equipment in the ganger market but we risk straying into a level of minutia deeper than any Hive. For me, it's nice to see that Rogue Factory is learning from their mistakes in Mordheim: City of the Damned, but It feels they're not learning fast enough. If you wanted fast and flashy battles in the crumbling domes of the underhive, you'll have to wait a bit more. But for now, there's a distinct lack of flash and a clear overabundance of bloat.