Trust me: As Paste’s resident 40K n?e?r?d? expert, I really wanted to like Roadhouse Interactive’s new run & gun platformer, Warhammer 40,000: Carnage. But I should have been tipped off by the “Founders’ Edition: First Blood” seal on the app’s title screen—in its current state, it’s not entirely ready for service in The Emperor’s legions.
That’s not to say Carnage doesn’t have its charms. At its best, Carnage feels just like the universe it’s based on—an endearingly absurd celebration of Big Armored Dudes blasting green aliens into giblets. Throughout the 53 levels included in the game’s two maps, your Space Marine (capital S, capital M, thank you very much) will shoot and melee his way through hordes of Orks in a fast-paced, beautifully-drawn, well-animated trail of destruction. Having finished those 53 levels, the game doesn’t so much end as peter out in silence, leaving you with a strangely unfinished “that’s it?” feeling. Supposedly there are six additional maps coming in a future update, but whether those will be paid DLC remains a mystery. And while the game advertises a massive codex of lore penned by Games Workshop author Graham McNeill, it’s really not that extensive—and levels load so quickly you don’t even have time to read the occasional interstitial text about whatever foundry or temple you’re fighting to free from Ork rule. If there’s a story here, it’s presented in such a fragmented way it’s hard for even 40K dorks like me to make heads or tails of it.
Speaking of lore: Carnage starts you out as an unnamed Ultramarine, but you can eventually unlock a Blood Angel. That sentence will mean something to a very small percentage of you. For everyone else: start as Blue Guy, unlock Red Guy. Take it on faith when I say there are differences between the ways an Ultramarine and a Blood Angel would fight, so it is disappointing to those of us in the 40K 1% that there is functionally no difference between their play styles in the game. The usual assortment of 40K Ork baddies is present: your garden variety Squigs and Shoota Boyz, plus some variants like ‘Ard Boyz and Nobz. Yes, those are their names. Welcome to the grim darkness of the far future, where there are only creatures that sound like insults from A Clockwork Orange.
While Carnage does make use of oft-derided virtual buttons, the control scheme is intuitive and easily grasped. Your left thumb controls movement and blocking, while your right handles jumping, shooting, and melee attacks. Generally, the virtual buttons are responsive, although their small size can make for frustrating missed taps. Levels are short (most can be completed in under two minutes) and play more like an endless runner than a platformer. While you can reverse direction, the camera won’t move to the left—so you’re constantly prodded forward.
The level design is often uninspired, with predictable enemy and environmental hazard placement. But at least it looks pretty: The art is pitch-perfect for 40K’s future-Gothic vibe and looks fantastic on a newer-model iPad. The sound is a bit incongruous, though. I would have preferred 40K’s usual faux-opera to the irritating heavy metal soundtrack, and pretty much anything to the ersatz Shao Kahn announcing my combos, Mortal Kombat-style. “Brutality! Monstrosity!” Really? These are literal monsters I’m blasting to bits, dude.
Carnage employs the ubiquitous three-star scoring system, ranking your performance based on number of enemies killed, time taken, attack combos landed and damage received. Its unique twist is that you can replay each level with two modification sets, “Emperor’s Laurels” and “Crux Terminatus”, each of which applies one or multiple difficulty filters, like exploding enemies or reflected damage. While I liked the opportunity to inject some challenge into the repetitive levels—and earn more stars, which can be cashed in for better wargear—the additional filters often didn’t add much in the way of difficulty, making for a grindy experience. (Also, I’m not sure why Roadhouse thought platforming in the dark would be fun, but as demonstrated by the “Lights Out” filter, it’s not.) Yes, I know that 38,000 years in the future there is only war, but it would be nice if it was more interesting war.
But like other 40K games, Carnage gets that grabbing sweet loot is a big draw in this ultra-violent universe, and Roadhouse has implemented a generally satisfying wargear economy. You receive silver pieces for completing levels and can purchase and upgrade gear between missions. Silver is easily earned with all the replaying you’ll be doing. But because this is an iOS game, there are two additional forms of currency, one of which can be bought for real money, and another that appears to be earned in multiplayer. The potential practical uses for both are dubious.
This is where that “Founders’ Edition” label starts to reek of PC gaming’s increasingly common “Early Access” term. Finishing a level with three stars enables you to play it again in a “Fireteam Mission,” which I gather is a sort of asynchronous series of runs through a given level by up to four players, working toward a common goal (e.g., between the four of you, kill 50 Squiqs with plasma pistols). But the game presents no way I could find to initiate a Fireteam Mission. Only one person on my GameCenter friends list owns Carnage and I could discover no way to invite him to play, either through the game or GameCenter itself. Nor could I search for random players to team up with. Joining a “Company” to earn special rewards is another feature that’s promoted in-game but similarly unavailable at present. The decision to release the game with limited maps, a truncated “story” and incomplete multiplayer features would be much more palatable without the relatively hefty $6.99 price tag—and with clearer explanation in the app itself of what to expect.
2011’s XBLA twin-stick shooter Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team proved that the 40K universe can play well in an arcade setting, shedding the tactical trappings of its tabletop origins. As a side-scroller, I’m just not sure Carnage is as successful. With additional time and patches to add complexity and content, it could do more honor to the Imperium.
J.P. Grant is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Unwinnable, Gamers With Jobs and other outlets. He can be found on Twitter at @johnpetergrant.