The editors have accused me of trying to turn Outermode into a Warhammer 40,000 fan site. It’s not true at all! My last article was just a set-up to prepare you for my unauthorised Warhammer 40,000 slash/fic, In the Hands of The Primarch, a hot-under-the-pauldron erotic war thriller set at the height of the Great Crusade. Unfortunately Dominic has rescinded my admin access to the site so I still have to send my articles for him for editing. Hence we’ll have to make do with a review of Eternal Crusade.

Eternal Crusade has been hanging around Steam Early Access for several years now in builds that ranged from broken to merely miserable, but it recently popped into the Humble Store at a good discount, and that and a Warhammer 40,000 license will catch my attention. My internet acquaintances suggested that a patch had brought it to playability, but I was skeptical that I would get anything other than an article out of playing it. The closest points of reference for Eternal Crusade are PlanetSide, Star Wars: Battlefront and Battlefield, a selection of games that never tickled my pickle. But as previously established, I’m something of a glutton for the grimdark, so I gave it a shot.

Initial impressions were not promising. Eternal Crusade is a class-based, third-person multiplayer shooter with vehicles and capture points and no tutorial worth a peanut. This is a problem. The control scheme is complex and varies slightly from class to class. For instance; on standard controller bindings the A button will cause most classes to dodge sideways when standing in the open, or contextually climb onto or vault over obstacles. But heavy weapons classes can’t climb onto obstacles, and pressing A prompts jump troops to fire their jump packs, launching them high into the air or swiftly to the side depending on how you tilt the movement stick and how long you hold the A button – but they won’t move at all if they’re out of fuel. That’s just one button, and doesn’t account for differences between the jump troops of different races.

“Experienced players filled the text chat with increasingly urgent orders to go to particular map points, and then with expletives when I didn’t.”

My first mission was bewildering. The battlefields are enormous, taking minutes to cross on foot, with firefights and melees springing up by capture points or in the killing fields around them. Maps have a huge degree of verticality and in some cases this meant I would spend minutes running around a basement two stories below an objective, desperately trying to find a staircase. Experienced players filled the text chat with increasingly urgent orders to go to particular map points, and then with expletives when I didn’t. There seemed to be no balance between infantry and vehicles, as tanks could simply roll over a footslogger and instantly wipe them out while only heavy weapon troopers could dent their armor. The melee combat system was brutally effective for experienced players, but I had no idea how to even land a punch.

It’s a noisy game, throwing information and lethal ordnance at players thick and fast. Some of this must be the result of the game’s unfinished state, but some seems inseparable from the design. The 41st Millennium is a maximalist setting, where power-armored, jump-pack-wearing religious zealots punch space elves with novelty over-sized metal fists. Eternal Crusade certainly does the job of conveying that excess, with dozens of design prizes plucked from Warhammer 40k’s grim tombola – it just wouldn’t be grimdark if a space ork with a pirate hat couldn’t punch an anti-gravity tank to pieces with a big metal claw.

Then there’s the lackluster advancement system. Completing matches earns advancement points, which in turn are spent to reduce the load-out cost of particular weapons or buy equippables that provide number-tweaking stat buffs. It’s all pretty boring, and despite having progression trees laid out in different shapes the differences between the factions aren’t obvious. You also earn Requisition Points that can either be spent on new weaponry or gambled on different tiers of mystery box. Naturally, I have spent all my RP on mystery boxes and I regret nothing. It takes quite a bit of progression before you have enough doodads to build a custom load-out that’s better than one of the stock characters. A premium currency is used for a few spangly unique weapons and – devastatingly – on a wardrobe of extremely detailed and fluff-specific cosmetic items that I am barely able to resist.

Pictured: Brother Fisty Glue Man, assault trooper of the Imperial Fists in Mk. III ‘Iron’ power armor, Mk IV Maximus helmet, with Heresy era Mk. V molecular bonding stud modifications to legs and left shoulder pad, here equipped with power sword and boarding shield. Don’t ask how much this outfit cost in real world dollars – it cost me 17,000 of the 20,000 pretend moneys I received for purchasing the game while still in Early Access.

I’m not the only one playing because they love the setting. The global chat after a match is filled with faction-specific warcries (as well as complaints that ‘Power fist OP!!!1’ and ‘gg ez PUG’) and Ork players even roleplay their faction in the teamchat. Only in the text-based teamchat, thankfully – you don’t have to hear LA teenagers yelling ‘Get some dakka inta dat oomie truk ya gitz!’ in a bad mockney accent. It’s a pleasant ambiance, as web communities go, notwithstanding complaints about faction balance.

“There are dozens of design prizes plucked from Warhammer 40k’s grim tombola.”

My knowledge of the setting also gave me a leg-up in understanding the mechanics of the game. Each faction has a selection of different classes, covering archetypes like heavy weapons specialist, melee assault, melee defensive, generalist, and healer. Heavy weapons troopers are hard to maneuver and lay down withering suppressive fire; they can cover an assault or be the lynchpin of a defense. They’re vulnerable to jetpack-equipped assault troops who can get behind them and quickly dispatch them; those, in turn, are susceptible to being stranded in the open under fire while their fuel recharges. The generalist trooper is unexceptional in any aspect (and tends to die to a true melee specialist) but is the only class that can initiate capturing an objective. The Eldar have radically different classes to the other three factions, with no defensive melee specialist, a short-ranged anti-tank specialist, a melee stealth specialist and a jetpack trooper that focuses on bombing runs and ranged firepower. As a 40k fan I knew how all these classes could contribute to a combined-arms assault just by reading their names – all I had to learn was how to put it into practice.

It took a lot of trial and error, but in learning how each class could contribute to their team – and how, in turn, that would contribute to victory – I started to have a lot more fun. In Hold the Line missions the defenders must protect a sequence of objectives, with a limited number of respawns at each point. If all the points are captured before the time limit expires or the defenders run out of spawns at the last point, they lose. Healers are a vital part of defence, saving downed players from bleeding out and squandering a precious spawn, while jump troops swoop in to wipe out both attacking and defending heavy weapon nests. Transport vehicles act as spawn points and need to be destroyed to slow down the attacker’s advance to a foot slog, so demolitions specialists or friendly armor need to break out and wreck them quickly. Eventually the defense of a point will become hopeless and squad leaders will call for a retreat to the next point to save spawns. As each defense develops new tactics are called for, and the maps seem well tailored to create interesting opportunities for all the factions and all the classes at different stages of the match. When it all comes together and with a good player count it’s thrilling.

“The future’s not certain for this game.”

This interplay is something that must exist in other multiplayer games, but I’ve never really seen it before. I couldn’t tell you how the classes are supposed to work together in Titanfall 2, a game polished to a chrome finish; I understand that the Team Fortress 2 cartoons all have something to do with that payload of hats, but I’m buggered if I could tell you how any one of them is supposed to contribute. I’m left wondering if my surprise enjoyment of Eternal Crusade is because the fiction has made it more accessible to me than its counterparts, or if its use of the Warhammer 40k license has educated me enough in the language of the genre that I should now be installing PlanetSide 2.

The future’s not certain for this game. The lack of a tutorial will discourage new players, and it certainly needs a healthy player-base – full 20v20 matches are utterly glorious carnage, but the matches are far less impressive with a lower player count. It hasn’t reached an official v1.0 launch and already it has appeared in a Humble Bundle, and that plus the paid-for in game shop suggest it could transition to free-to-play. That wouldn’t necessarily harm it – while players complain about the balance between different weapons, the deciding factor in matches is always a combination of skill and being the right class in the right place at the right time. Default loadouts seem perfectly competitive for everything except blowing up tanks.

This build still has bugs, the worst of which is occasionally spawning to completely unresponsive movement controls, and the matchmaking needs work – pick-up-groups will routinely run into guilds which, while not necessarily a death-sentence, is always a very hard fight. There’s a Left 4 Dead-esque PVE mode that sees players descend into a Tyranid-controlled maze, but if that’s your poison you’re better off playing Space Hulk: Deathwing or Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide or, frankly, the eight-year-old Left 4 Dead 2.

I enjoy Eternal Crusade a lot and I still don’t know how to feel about it. Is it a 6 out of 10 game that I love because of the setting? Is it impressing me so much because it’s the first multiplayer shooter to click with me in years, and not because it’s an especially good one? Or is it hiding a little bit of genius behind the shit-awful tutorial and buggy implementation? I don’t know. All I can really say is this:

Fulgrim drew the Fireblade from the silk-lined scabbard on his belt and held it out to his fellow Primach. Ferrus took it gently into his great, silver hands, feeling all along its length, the smooth surface of the blade hot to the touch as it burnt with inner life. The blade was hard, yet just a little pliant, crawling with white fire just as it had been when he forged it that unforgettable summer beneath Mount Narodnya. As he gazed into its burning silver surface he saw the reflection of Fulgrim and remembered his friend as he had been then, toiling at his side in the heat of the forges, sweat dripping from Fulgrim’s superhuman frame and running in hot rivulets around the lines of his slender, perfected musculature, pooling in the depressions above his collar bones or at the nape of his neck and then shaken free as he delivered another resounding blow into the hot adamantium he worked across the anvil. He wore the fruit of that labor, the mighty hammer Forgebreaker, in a scabbard at his side.

“I see her edge is still keen.” Ferrus said. Fulgrim nodded and leaned in closer.

“Indeed. I hope the man who forged her has kept his edge, also.”

He took Ferrus’ great silver hands into his own and set aside the blade, then pulled him close.

Boom! Played you Dominic. Slash/fic, smoke bomb, and I’m gone like Batman.