Stop tooting your own Eisenhorn!
One thing that has frustrated me about games set in the Warhammer 40k universe before, is that they tend to be lacking in a genuinely personal story. Eisenhorn: XENOS certainly looks to evade any such frustration as it’s based on a series of novels by the highly acclaimed author Dan Abnett. The game begins with the titular Inquisitor: Gregor Eisonhorn – battered and bloody – stumbling down a corridor, following a flying skull as he monologues about the eternal pain and suffering inherent in human existence. From there, Eisenhorn is sent to investigate a cryo-sleep facility where the inhabitants have been prematurely woken up, forced to die slow, agonizing deaths as they shamble around zombie-like (prompting the odd QTE section as they desperately grab for you). Of course, in pursuit of the psionic super-villian responsible for the whole mess, one of Eisenhorn’s closest friends dies a grisly death, but Gregor stoically resolves to choke down his grief like bitter medicine and fight on.
As if that didn’t seem like a sufficiently depressing start to the proceedings; I noticed that not only does the gothic scenery have an overwhelmingly grey-brown palette, the camera lens effect gives these already drab colours a washed out look to them! If you like your science fiction to have a oppressively dismal ambience, then don’t worry – Eisenhorn: XENOS has you covered! Now, as you Warhammer 40k fans wipe your sweaty brows with relief, let’s get into what Eisenhorn: XENOS is actually like to play.
Eisenhorn: XENOS first gave me the impression it would be a standard over-the-shoulder third person shooter game, but when I got into combat for the first time, it immediately felt like a much more clunky, minimalist version of Batman: Arkham Asylum. The focus of combat is to string together combos and dodge or block the assault of your opponents. On-screen icons appear over Eisenhorn to prompt you when you should click to most speedily follow up your last attack with another one. However, stringing together combos doesn’t really empower you to do anything other than attack a bit faster.
Ranged combat operates in pretty much an identical fashion, but feels like something of an unsatisfying distraction from melee combat. Eisenhorn automatically aims at whatever opponent you’ve generally faced him the the direction of, so there’s no real finesse involved in the shooting. In practice, ranged combat is just a way to quickly chip away at your adversaries’ health before he closes the distance with you. Right now, the upgrades you buy at the store don’t seem to add much to your playstyle beyond straightforward statistical bonuses, but the preview version I played promised many more guns and upgrades to come.
You even have a “bullet-time” like ability which allows you to queue up a series of rapid attacks while time is slowed down, not unlike the VATS system in Fallout 3. However, it just feels like a bit of a needless gimmick. You can’t really do anything particularly clever with this ability like aiming carefully at vulnerable body parts; you just have a moment or two to prioritize which opponent’s health bars you want to start whittling down first. Even the finishing animations seem to lack that visceral punch when Eisenhorn’s powersword awkwardly glides through brainwashed baddies, not exactly delivering the gory demise you’d expect. Given that Warhammer 40k was all about chainsawing through aliens back when Gears of War was merely a twinkle in Cliff Bleszinski’s eye, this is a bit of a letdown.
There’s even potential for stealth in the offing. Some areas which are conveniently littered with waist high obstacles to hide behind, allow you to sneak past baddies without being noticed. As you’d expect, can perform instant takedowns on unaware enemies, using a judo through or a good old fashioned sleeper hold to incapacitate them at the touch of a button. You can also yell out to distract patrolling guards and entice them over to you. And yes, this is all just as conventional as it sounds.
Overall, my first impressions of Eisenhorn: XENOS are mixed. I had been looking forward to a experience like Warhammer 40K: Space Marine; featuring solid first person shooting mixed with brutal, relentless melee combat. Instead, we get a thinly spread combination of game mechanics from disparate influences rather than a clear, focused experience. Hopefully, by the time the full version of the Eisenhorn: XENOS rolls around, the combat will have some much needed “oomph” added to it. The story of Gregor Eisenhorn’s descent into his own personal heart of darkness is very well told through the superbly-acted cutscenes that thread the narrative together, but the interactive segments between them are currently a little lacking.