There's always that great moment of celebration when a company delivers exactly what the fandom wants. It's both a sign that they have been listening to their requests, and proof that your franchise of choice is worth sticking with, especially when it comes to the truly massive expansions. Well, here we are, over thirteen years after players started to ask "Hey, what about the Alienhunters?" and Games Workshop has finally delivered a Codex: Deathwatch. It's that final characteristic bit of the setting slotted into place fully (if not entirely properly, sorry Hereticus fans) representing the militant arms of the Inquisition and their specialist forces.
Structured and trained unlike almost any other astartes chapter in existence, the elite forces of the Deathwatch are often the first and last line of defence against the worst of xenos foes. With recruits taken from the veterans of a thousand different chapters, the Deathwatch are an amalgamation of outcasts, hard bitten soldiers and elite forces. Receiving training and equipment superior to the armories of all but the greatest chapters, they have slain xenos pirates and alien gods alike in the name of the Emperor. With the image of small elite teams of warriors, all from diverse backgrounds and professions, beating the odds time and again, it's no small wonder players hungered to see them in the game. After all, what you have here is effectively the A-Team if they had power armour and a Knight Templar streak a mile wide.
However, there are a couple of slight problems when it comes to tackling this force. Not only has the chapter long stood as a pillar of Fantasy Flight's Warhammer RPGverse, but their very structure works against the usual massed armies 40,000 favours. We covered many of these here, and with Games Workshop keeping its cards close to its chest, whether or not it would avoid these flaws was always in question. However, now it's out and released to the public.
Did the writers succeed in producing lore worthy of the Deathwatch? In short: Partially. As for the long answer, feel free to read on below.
Given that this has largely been a background force in the overall universe, Codex: Deathwatch largely approaches readers as an early introduction to the chapter. Rather than trying to push boundaries and outdoing Fantasy Flight at their own game (an act of suicide given their massive head-start) Games Workshop instead opted to stick to the meat of things, and give a straight forwards but immersive explanation of who the Deathwatch are.
The opening pages offer a brief but succinct explanation, with some fairly inspirational words to build an impression of who this mysterious force is in the minds of readers. What's there is surprisingly emotive and driven, and it quickly offers a good impression of the army as a whole. This is also one of those few times where the big splash artworks actually work in the book's favour, as the army's overall theme is fairly simple. The Inquisition asks for marines to help them kill aliens, chapters send the marines, said marines get sent on do-or-die missions of the worst kind.
Unlike Codex: Imperial Knights, Codex: Eldar Craftworlds or quite a few of the others we have seen of late, there simply isn't as much detailed or intricate history behind them, or much of an internal culture or examine. Trying to create much of a one beyond a few core traditions, rituals or tithes to chapters would likely seem too small scale or fail to truly work with its diverse legion of recruits. As such a big splash page of art is, at least initially, quite welcome in conveying the thematic elements.
Speaking of thematic qualities, the lore constantly frames and presents the Deathwatch itself as either a hidden blade or the tip of a spear. Despite initial fears, there is no moment where we suddenly see hundreds of Deathwatch marines deployed at once, nor is the entire organisation suddenly retconned to a mere thousand marines, with a hundred per company. Good to know they have learned something from the Codex: Grey Knights disaster, even if that mistake has been made one time too many. Whenever the fighting astartes themselves are discussed, the codex either presents certain examples on a very individual basis or depicts the squad performing assassination or acts of sabotage. The closest the codex ever actually comes to a real, full on battle with countless marines involved is an alien raid on a Watch Fortress and a series of surgical strikes against the Farsight Enclaves. This isn't even left in question either, at multiple points the story brings up the fact that oaths and required secrecy will sadly force them to remain unsung heroes amid a bigger galaxy.
The writers behind the codex also knew when and when not to shift from an organisational to an individual focus; presenting it both the Deathwatch as a galaxy spanning force, but a massed army of individual heroes. It can do this on a moment's notice, flicking back and forth between them with surprising ease and without either element clashing against the other. Better yet, despite a surprising number of named Watch Captains and a fully named Kill-Team lead by Cassius himself, the codex doesn't make the mistake of framing everything around a few heroes. Keeping any narrative or examples focused squarely upon a couple of people, letting them steal the spotlight, would have been even more damaging than usual. It's bad enough when a codex does this with its characters, making them the only important leaders of the whole book and leaving no room for a player to craft his own soldiers or narratives within a chapter; yet here it draws the line before ever going that far.
Instead of overriding the story, any heroes or any characters the story pauses to expand upon are there to serve as examples. They give an identity to the Deathwatch beyond being just a bunch of chapters, show the sorts of astartes who remain a part of such a force and ultimately use their acts to better depict the Deathwatch as a whole. While Watch Captain Artemis gives a general view of how truly elite an astartes needs to be in order to ascend through their ranks, others cite more specific engagements. For example, a large chunk of the section titled The Well Aimed Strike details how a Kill-Team's tactics will vary between foes, but also how they are conceived; detailing the development of Purgatus tactics through the actions of Librarian del Athyu in decapitating the leadership of a Ulthwé warhost. It's mighty, but not overly glorified and it allows the codex to be a rare example of where characters and accomplishments feel more like an essential cog in a bigger machine; not the focus of the whole damn book from start to finish.
Another secondary, but nevertheless quite interesting, aspect is how the codex goes back and reintegrates many older or less often seen elements of the lore. While you're not about to see ambulls brought up as a foe the Deathwatch purged or any mention of a few classic Rogue Trader beasts, a sizable chunk of the opening pages details the arms and equipment of an astartes. Rather than just using anyone though, it specifically uses the old Inquisitor model of Brother Artemis as a basis, right from the Mk. VIII armour right down to the specialized bolter design and distinctive blade. It's a nice hit of nostalgia to be sure, all while offering some solid general purpose lore about their equipment and some decent eye candy.
Even besides this though, Codex: Deathwatch attempts to integrate a few of the less frequently seen chapters into its page, albeit in minor roles. While the book does stick to the First Founding chapters or their more famous Second Founding successors for the most part, there are some solid exceptions. The Hammers of Dorn are brought up when discussing the problems of rivalries among Kill-Team members, the Mentors show up a few times and the Howling Griffins put in a few good appearances here and there. It's not much admittedly, but there are enough chapters brought to the forefront of the book to truly make the Deathwatch seem like an organisation spanning the entirety of the Adeptus Astartes.
Finally, the codex does one of the absolute, single most important things possible - It knows when to let the Deathwatch fail. While there is sadly the lack of a truly costly failure - unlike a few xenos codices which come to mind - for every moment where the Deathwatch are resplendent there is another which shows how hard pressed they are. The organisation is frequently at near breaking point in trying to hold back the masses of alien foes hidden away in the galaxy, and the timeline introduces several moments where they either fail or emerge with pyrrhic victories.
One attempted raid on Commorragh (well, stealth infiltration with shooting involved) to retrieve a Watch Captain ends in near total disaster, with all but one member of the original team ending up dead. Another, an engagement against a Necron Dynasty, ends in disaster and the leading Inquisitor captured by enemy forces. Even the typical "END TIMES ARE UPON US, BRING IN THE BULLSHIT!" moment proves to be well handled. It simply states that the Deathwatch are gradually being overwhelmed despite their best efforts and despite requests for more marines, they lack the manpower to deal with so many varied alien threats.
On the whole, Games Workshop basically did the intelligent thing and didn't try to beat Fantasy Flight at their own game. Anyone who wanted a fully fleshed out and ultra-detailed version of the chapter would have already nabbed a copy of the RPG. Instead, it just offers a few general and quite basic but well handled descriptions, avoiding screwing up any established canon while integrating as many ideas as it can into itself. It's a cautious start, but in this case that honestly seems like the best one we could have asked for.
Of course, despite these positive qualities, there are more than a few unfortunate failings which really do drag down the codex.
More than a few of the aforementioned positive qualities are only partial successes unfortunately. While they all certainly count towards this book's overall verdict in terms of lore, it seems that for every one in favour there is another which at least partially undermines it. This is what makes grading it so truly difficult, as there's no point where it starts to be good, and another where it starts to be bad.
For example, while the splash images in the opening pages are certainly justified, they're only justified up to a certain point. Oh, certainly, the first eight or so pages were fine and there were no problems there. However, after this point we start to run into that old problem of artwork or unnecessary details padding out the entire book. Multiple pages are bulked out by oversized images time and time again, spreading the content of a single page across two separate ones and sometimes even less than that. It robs the codex of any true opportunities to expand upon certain core ideas, or to even integrate a few fun elements from the RPG books into the lore.
This is especially bad on pages 46-55, which devolve into the usual mix of same basic images copied and repeated over and over again. They're hardly immersive, hardly interesting and far from well drawn, but we waste nine pages on it. Okay, there is some lore to be found there, but the closest thing we find of any worth is a mention of how the chapter icons are painted onto the armour. No, really. Combine that with the following fourteen pages of simple model shots over and over again, just with certain weapons and elements switched about, and it's really just a waste of space.
The fact the book is so insanely cluttered hurts it all the more when it comes to certain facts, details and even essential, long standing, ideas. The very idea of Black Shields is squashed into a small paragraph, bereft of even half the detail or nuance found in the original works, boiling down to little more then "Totally not Fallen!" mystery elements. You will keep finding essential core bits of information either whittled down to near total nothingness thanks to the book's minimal length, or thrown about into nonsensical locations. Take, for example, the war which forced the Imperium to found this force in the first place - The War of the Beast. If you read the introduction, at no point does it specify or hint that they were ever founded to help prevent such a threat from ever arising again. Instead that is left to a random paragraph halfway through the book and a small stub of an event in the timeline.
The very organisation of the Deathwatch itself is also highly questionable. On the one hand, the way in which each Watch Fortress is founded and formed is relatively solid on the whole. It lists each major stronghold as retaining several Watch Captains, each heading and guiding four squads, serving as their commander and general organizer. It's admittedly a bit overtly codex-y compared with some of the older alternatives, but it does admittedly make sense given the Deathwatch's structure and role. However, the writers push things further once again trying to make the force into some arrayed series of specialists focused upon a gimmick, akin to the current Space Wolves and their "we're known only for doing this!" aspect.
So, rather than a mass of various Watch Fortresses arrayed and organised to fight a multitude of varied alien threats from the C'tan to the Hrud, the codex turns them into overly specialized forces. The Praefex Venatoris and Onyx Patrol, for example, are apparently wholly devoted to combating the threat of the eldar. The latter keeps an eye on a bunch of webway portals which occasionally spew forth Dark Eldar, while the latter relentlessly hunts down Craftworlds. This naturally opens up a metric ton of questions, from why they don't just destroy the aforementioned portals to end the Dark Eldar threat, to how a few hundred marines could be a threat to a few hundred million Aspect Warriors and a full warfleet. One which, the book claims, is so effective that they have prevented the eldar from ever appearing anywhere across the Segmentum Soldar. Well, supposedly anyway. Apparently no one told the guy making the map this fact. According to it, both Iybraesil and Altansar are both happily floating about just a few hundred light-years from Terra itself.
The map keeps throwing up odd quirks and elements which either don't make sense or just open up some very big plot holes in the overall narrative. For starters, apparently there are two major Watch Fortresses either side of the Tau Empire, both within striking distance of the Aun's realm and the Farsight Enclaves themselves. Those probably would have come in handy during the two Damocles crusades, eh? You have to wonder just why they didn't offer their presumably detailed knowledge of the Tau Empire to the Imperial Commanders, or offer their services to help behead this foe alongside the Raven Guard, right? It's almost as if they didn't plan for this and it was just thrown together, isn't it?
There are just so many extremely obvious mistakes here from declaring that Talasa Prime is a planet located on Macragge to the very way in which certain bolt shells work. Some are forgivable due to artistic license, but so many others here are things any dedicated fan could point out as wrong at a moment's notice. While there was certainly an editor involved with this, it's rather odd that they seem to have only payed attention to certain key facts while ignoring other obvious mistakes entirely.
Of course, a few odd locations and basic lore errors aren't the worst of this codex's problems. No, instead that stems from how the Deathwatch itself has been set up and formed. Now, it has been long established that the Deathwatch has stood as the military arm of the Ordo Xenos since its inception. While still semi-autonomous and likely to shoot more than a few radical Inquisitors on sight, fans know that they are nevertheless loyal to the Inquisition as a general force in the universe. Well, unless you're the writer of this book, apparently. According to this book, they are allies and little else, with occasionally aligning interests and offering favours to one another. Yeah, they're now completely different groups entirely and one is not subservient or bound or the others of the other.
Splitting these two groups causes no end of problems in terms of existing lore and stories, but it also robs the army of something which made it unique. Half the reason the stories following Talon Squad revolved around having an unscrupulous if not downright cold blooded Inquisitor commanding their actions, and their very role as small strike units was closely linked to the Inquisition's own tactics. One group was the investigators and examiners, the other was the muscle and big guns, and it was a dynamic worth exploring. Well, that's gone now, either thanks to some moronic decision to remove all Inquisition models from this army entirely, or thanks to Codex: Grey Knights retconning the 666th chapter as the only astartes directly commanded by Inquisitors. Either way, it's still a poor decision which turns the codex into just another purebred astartes army and limits a vast number of interesting possibilities.
Anyway, without the Inquisition you'd imagine life would be hard for the Deathwatch on the whole, having to rely upon less detective work or an information network, right? Well, apparently you'd be wrong here. While the codex never bothers to fully explain why or how, for some reason the chapter has a massive network of informants across the entire Imperium, serving on everything from Rogue Trader vessels to Administratum clerks. Many stories focus upon how necessary this information is and how many early warnings are needed to avert disaster, and much of it honestly reads as if the seperation was a thing thrown in at the last second. As it stands, it just adds a very big and very problematic plot hole to much of the overall lore.
So, that's the words done, but what about the inks?
Pretty damn spectacular across the board actually. Games Workshop seem to have finally singled out a fantastic few freelancers with a relatively consistent style to dress up their books. While there is the odd difference here or there, for the most part they stand out extremely well and really help bring this codex to life. A few favourites which stand out are the scenes of combating necron forces and Crisis battlesuits, showing the team in the midst of a much bigger battle. It's these bits which really help emphasize the heroism and superhuman determination of the chapter's warriors.
There are a few re-used artworks here, but this is a rare moment where it seems worth giving it a pass. The few carried over are from both the Deathwatch tabletop releases, and as each are hardly likely to be used elsewhere (not to mention the relatively recent release dates) the small handful introduced here seems justifiable. Especially as many characters from both releases show up here in one form or another.
This one is middling in terms of lore. Really, it's hardly good and nothing stands out, but it's inoffensive enough to just shrug your shoulders at after a few reads. While there are a few frustrating retcons in places, it's not nearly so bad as anything we have seen in the past couple of years, and the big one was something established a long while back. It's just a damn shame it wasn't dropped like so much of that codex's sheer stupidity. Really though, as it stands you'd do better to go to Fantasy Flight if you want some solid Deathwatch lore, as nothing here truly surpasses or builds upon anything they have done. If you're not familiar with this chapter though, and you are determined to build an army, what's here should be good enough to set you on the right path.
So, that's the lore done. Join us tomorrow for the rules.