So here we are then, getting into the meat of things. Challenging as the lore had been, the real point of contention behind this book was its rules. After all, the Deathwatch are usually little more than a "multiplier" aspect to an Imperial army rather than a massed force unto themselves, and emerge in small numbers at best. Thankfully the codex as a whole reflects this, building up the Deathwatch as a force of small, extraordinary well equipped and diverse squads sent in to annihilate a foe. While they certainly have access to the likes of Tactical Dreadnought Armour, Dreanoughts and bike squadrons, the structural dynamic and formations within the force are decidedly different to hose of Codex adherent chapters. Plus, even when the Deathwatch are deployed as a massed army, it's presented more as a small series of strike teams than a rolling tide of firepower intended for direct engagements.
Naturally their equipment is what helps them stay ahead and shoulders above most other marines. Besides the likes of bolters outfitted with high grade ammo a sight more effective than the usual BOOM BOOM rounds, you also have the likes of the frag cannon, beefed up astartes shotguns and weapons. Plus, atop of this, you have the unit structure which poroves to be remarkably flexible, and almost serves as a kind of concentrated version of a standard astartes company. Oh you have all the big guns, assault specialists, terminators and bikes there, but they're all focused into smaller groups than usual.
Strike Force & Special Rules
The actual nature of the Deathwatch and their aptitude at carrying out their mission is surprisingly well tempered here. Rather than creating a bunch of Toughness 8 marines with Assault 4 missile launchers or D100 attacks per turn, it is represented via existing sources. You can pair up certain units into single kill-teams via Formations, the bonuses offered via its Strike Force, and use the unique Mission Tactics to tailor them to a certain task. Each of these reflects upon tried and tested astartes elements from prior codices, but they have been tweaked somewhat to work with the new army. Personally, despite the lack of originality here, this is actually something I like. It's far removed enough to have certain ideas make them stand out, but still hold close ties to their progenitor chapters. Plus it makes life easier to mix and match the force with existing armies, in the manner it was intended for in the lore - Smaller units and detachments pairing themselves up with larger Imperial companies.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned Mission Tactics themselves are the most unique thing here, serving as a bonus to each squad which takes them. These are used in a manner similar to the Ultramarines' own unique tactics, buffing the army as a whole for a single turn before being switched out for something else. The problem is that, whereas the Ultramarines abilities reflected their planning and tactical discipline remarkably well, what we get here is rather underwhelming and can only be switched once per game. Really, read this for yourself and say you don't think this seems a little too simple -
Furor Tactics - When targeting Troops choices, re-roll 1s to hit on all dice.
Venator Tactics - When targeting Fast Attack choices, re-roll 1s to hit on all dice.
Dominatus Tactics - When targeting Elites choices, re-roll 1s to hit on all dice.
Malleus Tactics - When targeting Heavy Support choices, re-roll 1s to hit on all dice.
Purgatus Tactics - When targeting HQ choices, re-roll 1s to hit on all dice.
Really, all of this could be rolled into a single rule with the player picking which one they want and a few others beefed up to cover more diverse tactics. Honestly, damn near anything else would be an improvement here, even if it was just a slight tip of the hat to their relationship with the Inquisition or multiple origins. All a writer would need to do would be to add something like "Combat Preparations: Sabotage" and have a few enemy vehicles risk not showing up on the board.
What makes matters worse though is that even once you get into their Strike Force command benefits, the big one just ties into this. Really, all we get is "Veteran Master of the Watch" which allows you to re-roll your Warlord Traits, "Sudden Onslaught" which allows everything to Deep Strike at once (causing yet more pain to already maimed Deathwing fans) and "Flexible Mission Tactics" which is as follows:
"If your army contains one or more Black Spear Strike Forces, you can change the army's Mission Tactic one extra time during a mission. Usually this will allow you to change Mission Tactics twice during the game rather than only once, but if your Warlord is a Watch Master or has the Vigilance Incarnate Warlord Trait you will be able to change mission Tactics up to three or four times!"
Oh, yay. So, no fun things like raiding an Omega Vault or using their vast resources to help pin down the army, or even ensuring they can wipe out their target in one assault. Plus, if you take a Watch Lord in your army, you get a smaller scale version of this exact rule free of charge.
Units & Ranged Equipment
Many of the core units are, for the most part, fairly similar to those of your common or garden astartes. There are no exceptionally unique marine choices, no vastly differing stats and the likes of Dreadnoughts, Land Raiders and all the usual combos put in an appearance. Admittedly, i'm having a hard time thinking of when any story mentioned the Deathwatch using Land Raiders at all, but it's in there for some reason. Aside from the lack of standard Tactical Squads and focus upon Veteran squads, it's more or less what you'd expect from a traditional marine force.
The force does lack certain aspects which either don't fully suit the Deathwatch on the whole or would fit a larger force used to slugging matches. So, Centurions don't put in a showing, there are no Land Speeders, many of the Anti-Air units are not present, and most of the big guns don't put in a showing. So, you don't get access to Predators, Whirlwinds, Thunderfire Cannons, Convergence Beamers, Ironclad Dreadnoughts or the like. While problematic, i'm not entirely against this as it does suit the thematic elements of the army and it is a nice change to have an astartes force which can't immediately cover all its bases. Hell, it might encourage some people to actually take the Imperial Guard with them as a meat shield, or put their guns to good use.
What makes this army stand out instead is a few bonus special rules and the guns they have access to. For example, their Assault Marines (well, Vanguard Veterans) roll into battle with all the stuff you would usually expect, from their Heroic Intervention tactics to general stats. However, they also have access to Inferno Pistols, Hand Flamers, heavy Thunder hammers, and special bolter ammunition. As such, they carry out the same role but with a good deal more tactical flexibility and a few new choices.
This is even more evident with the Veterans than anyone else where you can effectively combine together just about anything you want. Really, it specifies the following - "Any model may take items from the Melee Weapons, Ranged Weapons and/or Special Weapons list." Thanks to this you can put together some costly if downright hilarious combos, with a personal favourite being pairing up bolter wielding units with Storm Shields. Really, it's even more gloriously frustrating for a foe than you can imagine.
That said, there are a number of weird choices with each listing for certain units. This could be down to poor editing, but multiple sections of the book keeps either omitting certain obvious ideas or contradicting itself. For example, Bike Squadrons, Veterans and a lot of choices lack bolt pistols as a back up weapon, even when it would not truly limit them or cause any issues in terms of game balance. Equally, While Vanguard Veterans are noted as "Jump Infantry" their trademark jump packs are not noted either as wargear or an equipment option. Equally, no HQ choice can take a bike or jump pack as an optional piece of wargear, which is sure to upset certain players.
The only thing here which truly stands out as a brand new addition is, of course, the Corvus Blackstar. Intended as the big centerpiece model of the army (because apparently we need a new one of those per codex these days) it's basically a more lightweight version of a Stormraven combined with the abilities of a Drop Pod. Lightweight, relatively small scale, and built with extremely rapid insertions in mind, it lacks the capacity to deploy Dreadnoughts but gains the ability to carry bikes. With a twelve model capacity in total (and lacking the pig ugly look of the Stormraven, even if it is still a flying brick) the Blackstar is basically intended to turn up, kill a few things, drop marines, and then run. It can admittedly take a minor upgrade to its Jink and even a Skyfire capable weapon, but it's not the sort of model you want to leave in the line of fire for long.
What has caught the eyes of many people is its landing ramps. Retaining three in total, with two at the front and a larger third section at the rear, it makes life surprisingly easy to drop down units in the right place. Combined with a rather meaty assault cannon and several missile options ranging from the cluster (S4 AP6, Bomb 1, Large Blast or S5 AP4 Bomb 1, Large Blast and Ignores Cover) to the Stormstrike missiles (S8 AP2 Heavy 1, Concussive, One Use Only) it can do serious damage upon arrival. Of course, it's likely to die shortly after arrival thanks to having relatively paper thin armour and few defences despite three hull Points, but that's to be expected. It is a flyer after all, and anything more would just be plane wrong. It is only twenty points cheaper than the Stormraven though and the option to upgrade it with hurricane bolters is still overkill, but it lacks a few of the more infamous special rules which made others hate that model.
So, with that done, what equipment can you expect to find with this army?
To start with the obvious first, there is the Special Issue Ammunition options which can be offered to just about any unit in this army. This is what you would expect by this point from the Deathwatch, from the Dragonfire rounds to the Vengeance bolts, which are once again hilariously underpowered for what is effectively an anti-matter assault weapon. Each has a different role and can be offered to a number of bolt weapons from the pistol to the Stalker (yes, they're in this and we'll be getting to those in a moment). To list them off one at a time though:
Strength 4, AP 5, Strength X with Stalker.
Type: Ignores cover
Strength 1, AP 5, Strength X with Stalker.
Type: Poisoned (2+)
Strength 4, AP 4, Strength X with Stalker.
Type: Increased range.
Pistol - 15"
Bolter - 30"
Stalker - 36"
Strength 4, AP 3, Strength X with Stalker.
Type: Adds the "Gets Hot" special rule. Limits range.
Pistol - 9"
Boltgun - 18"
Stalker - 24"
They're not a bad mix at all for what's basically intended to be a nice bonus atop of some good equipment, and they do a solid job of reflecting the rules without going too far. The Kraken bolt is probably the one we'll be seeing the most of followed by the Dragonfire round, and perhaps the Vengance bolts showing up for Deep Strike antics. While they're not the most powerful weapons in the game, we should at least be thankful that one of thse didn't turn into a Strength D bolt round for entire squads.
This naturally brings us to some of the more exotic weapons on the list, with the likes of the Frag Cannon and Infernus Heavy Bolter quickly catching the eyes of many fans. No surprises there, as each is on the verge of being able to annihilate whole squads on their lonesome, and the Frag Cannon in particular waltzes over into downright broken territory. Really, take a look at its ammo stats for yourself and just consider the possibilities:
Frag round - Range: Template, Strength 6, AP -, Type Assault 2, Rending
Solid Shell - Range: 24", Strength 7, AP 3, Assault 2, Impact (If the target unit is within 12", this weapon's Strength is increased to 9 and its AP increased to 2.
So, squads of Guardians, Fire Warriors, Guardsmen or Gaunts are probably going to die by the dozen to this damn thing, and any of their heavy units like Warriors, Crisis Suits or tanks won't be far behind. It's the Assault special rule and multiple shots which really pushes this into the "what were you thinking!?" territory, Really, think about it for a moment. Have two or three models in a unit armed with these drop out of a Blackstar, open fire all at once on something close by, and then either have the vehicle or another squad mop them up in a second. Unless you're the Tau Empire (who, let's face it, seem to be damn near impervious to all tactics these days) you're in for an extremely bad start to the session.
The Infernus Heavy Bolter is just as bad in many regards, also focusing upon the Assault aspects of the gun and retaining an obscene range despite that. In effect, you have the standard stats for botha Heavy Flamer and Heavy Bolter, but both can be used on the move without any penalties. Again, imagine an entire squad of these guys rolling into battle for a second. It would be expensive for sure, but they'd stand a damn good chance at wiping out anything they run into.
The flexibility of the Deathwatch themselves is really what hurts this as much as anything else, as you can have several of these guns working on the move the entire time, but have a guy with a Storm Shield taking the brunt of each attack. Even once you fire well within assault range, the squad can have a few units armed with power weapons ready to utterly ream whoever is left. This wouldn't be so bad if the veterans were the single unit the codex was intended to focus upon, but it can easily be backed up by other forces to help keep them out of combat or free them up if they bump into a roadblock unit. So, once again, rather than tactical planning or reactions, a lot of your potential for victory comes down to buying the right stuff and running forwards.
Of course, there are some better ranged weapons among this list which prove to be fun without stepping headlong into the power gaming territory. The Deathwatch Shotgun in particular proves to be a fun new addition to the game, offering a variety of new close range rounds without pulling something like the Frag Cannon's special rule. To list off its ammo abilities in full:
Range: 16", Strength 4, AP -.
Type: Assault 2, Shred.
Range: 16", Strength 4, AP 4.
Type: Assault 2.
Range: Template, Strength 3, AP 6.
Type: Assault 1.
It's honestly not bad at all. Combined with a relatively cheap price, some fun opportunities for initial attacks and multiple shots, it makes for a great crowd control weapon. The gun itself is a solid second option to back up bolters and more assault orientated squads. While it would have admittedly have been nice to have an underslung grenade launcher, what we get isn't all that bad at all.
The other fun option is the Stalker Pattern Bolter, quite a famous weapon with a rather godly reputation. One which, going from these stats, it wholly deserves. The aforementioned ammo choices offer this gun a great deal of flexibility when it comes to downing multi-wound models, heavy infantry and cover clinging units alike. However, even its basic stats are certainly nothing to sneer at:
Range: 30", Strength X, AP 5.
Type: Heavy 2, Sniper
This means it's a good multi-purpose choice for a unit you don't mind staying in one place too often. It's perfect for weakening units at long range, picking off leaders in squads and deterring an enemy from advancing towards your lines. It's also a good bonus option for any unit you want to help secure an objective as well, as the Heavy 2 stat does mean you can't use this all that well while you're on the move. Certainly a mixed start for sure, but not an entirely bad one.
Melee Weapons, Special Issue Wargear & Relics
Before we get into anything else here, there are two rather jaw dropping choices for weapons which just seem questionable at best if not facepalming at worst. Normally this is the sort of thing we would go into via the lore section of course, but given their stats the lore isn't the only problem here.
The first of these is the xenophase blade, which seems to be an attempt to hearken back to the old idea that the Imperium has been using necron tech among their own warriors or machines. Originally we saw this with certain assassins and characters, as both Cypher the Fallen One and the Callidus Temple were both known for using them. Originally this was to help add a little depth to the game by adding that slight element of hypocrisy to the xenocidal warriors of the Imperium and set down the seeds for the necrons arising at a later date. However, what was different was that they were used among less puritanical forces, whereas here, we have an alien weapon being used among extremely devout marines. In fairness, the lore does note that some "believe it has its origins amongst long-defeated xenos dynasties," but we're only given a poor defense as it states "speaking of its history has long been forbidden on pain of excoriation."
It's a moment of "yeah, just accept this and move on" which doesn't sit well with the army or its identity, and seems extremely out of character. The few times the Deathwatch have used alien devices in the past have been fleeting and, here's the fun part, often always at the behest of the Inquisition. So, without that influence or political pressure, there's really no justification for them carrying this damn thing rather than breaking them on sight.
In terms of rules, it's basically a weapon built to screw with invulnerable saces. While it uses the wielder's Strength, it hits at AP 3 and uses a special rule called the "Molecular Realignment Field". Yeah, because that doesn't scream "Necrotyr" at all, does it. Basically any successful invulnerable saves made against this weapon must be immediately re-rolled, turning it into a nightmare weapons for the likes of Aspect Warriors.
The other weapon which will stick out like a sore thumb is going to be a rather infamous one. You might well know this weapon as it's supposed to only belong to the Adeptus Custodes - The Guardian Spear. Yes, the Deathwatch has access to the same armory as the Emperor's personal guards, but exactly why is never clear. At all. The Watch Masters just show up and they're suddenly armed with this damn thing, which is supposed to be one of the rarest and single most sacred weapons produced within the Imperium. It wouldn't be so bad if there were some genuine detail or justification for this, but all we get is a brief note stating it's "borne only by the Emperor's most trusted warriors" and nothing else.
At the very least, this one does live up to its reputation without the rules going overboard here. The melee mode increases the wielders Strength by a single point, gives it AP 2 attacks, and has its own special role: Block. It's basically what it sounds like, with the wielder sacrificing a single attack to block a swing being made in their direction, meaning it's useful against certain one shot weapons and power fists, but not too great against big monsters. Honestly, its presence here is more baffling than anything else, as the Deathwatch do have big two-handed glaves already, all of which could have fitted these stats without any issue at all. Hell, the oversized two handed power axes the Keepers wield wouldn't be a bad choice for this.
Beyond these two previous examples, the book does once more retain a few good choices. Returning favourites of note are the Relic Blade and Crozius Arcanum, with a few completely new weapons to help back them up. First and foremost among them is the Heavy Thunder Hammer, a two handed variant of the weapon typically wielded by terminators. Considered to be the single largest man-portable melee weapon fielded by the Deathwatch and even eclipsing the Evicerator in its sheer power, this thing packs a serious punch.
Limited to a single marine per squad, and with good reason, this thing hits at Strength 10 AP2, with Concussive effects. However, it is also a Two-Handed weapon and suffers from the Unwieldy rule, meaning there's a solid chance of blows missing or failing during the strike. As such, it basically serves as a variant of your common or garden power fist, but with a bit more flexability in terms of general lore and an interesting special rule: Pulverize. Basically, if you roll a six to wound a target in combat, that blow counts as having Instant Death. Most readers would probably be expecting me to rail against this one and declare that it breaks the game, but this is admittedly a rare case where it does work. Between the opportunities to kill the wielder early on, its limitations and a fairly hefty cost of thirty points, it mostly balances itself out. Plus, unlike other examples here, it's limited to one model per unit. So, overall this was actually a decent edition.
Most of the others consist of other weapons we know quite well from the chainsword to the venerable Lightning Claws; save for one slight bonus which is a quite fantastic mash-up between two extremely deadly weapons. Known as the Power Fist and Auxiliary Meltagun, it's exactly what it sounds like, with a meltagun glued directly onto a power fist for twice the tank killing power. So, basically you can carry two guns and a melee weapon with this; use the melta gun at close range while shooting and then switch over to the power fist during assault. Honestly, simple as it is, I have no complaints about this at all. Really, this is hilarious and even the lore seems to get in on the joke, noting that the Mechanicus usually consider this sort of thing to be heresy, but don't give a damn thanks to a loophole.
The remaining bits of equipment are secondary items and non-killy bonuses to help with survival or boosting stats. Combat Shields, Digital Weapons, Storm Shields, Iron Halos, Auspex devices and Jump Packs; it's all the usual mix of things save for just a couple of new additions. The only truly new ones are the Clavis and, to a degree, the Deathwatch Teleport Homer and that's unfortunately about it.
The Clavis, for starters, is an ancient machine spirit device which can be used to royally screw with the enemy - specifically focusing upon enemy vehicles. Once you get within 6" with this sucker, all enemy vehicles immediately lose a point of BS, WS, and Initiative, making this thing horrendously effective against combat walkers. So, if you're looking to screw with Hellbrutes and their ilk, this is a definite essential to help drag that machine down. Well, that or small mobs like Killa Kans.
The Teleport Homer, meanwhile, is mostly what you'd expect it to be. It helps teleport in certain units onto certain locations and that's about it. What makes it a little different than usual is that alongside units in Tactical Dreadnought Armour, it also works on just about anyone with the Sudden Onslaught special rule; so just about any non-vehicle unit in the Black Spear Strike Force. In other words, if you didn't want to bring them in via Drop Pod, you can have squads of Veterans suddenly appear right next to an allied unit. Quite frankly, as open to abuse as this was, the sheer rage of certain players at having Sternguard show up right on objectives was too funny to truly hate.
So, as the remaining items are once again largely what we've seen a thousand times over in various astartes codices, that just leaves the relic list to look through. Listed as the Relics of the Vigilant, this is actually the moment where the codex should truly shine. Really, any person who has read through the Fantasy Flight books should know just how many relics, ancient weapons and blades the Deathwatch inherits from other chapters; given either via donation or by other means. Even if you want to stick to just the popular chapters, that's a good eleven or twelve very distinct and very different forces to take equipment from, so by rights this should be strongest point of the book. Well, to be fair, it does try to do a few different things and does repeatedly note that the items have been taken by various chapters. On the other hand though, it's not really pushing the boundaries on what could really be done with them.
First up we have the best and worst option in the game, the Banebolts of Eryxia. The best as it's nice to have a relic which augments another weapon for once, and the worst due to, well, just look at the name. These are basically a different variant of the ammo found elsewhere, boosting its stats to Strength 5, AP4 and gaining the Kill Shot special rule. Basically the rule works the same way as the big Thunder Hammer - Roll a six while wounding and the shot counts as an Instant Death attack. As the pistol and bolter can each only shoot one round, reducing the latter to an Assault 1 weapon, the Stalker is the way to go with its Heavy 2 rounds. Or at least it would be if you can find any way to actually use the damn thing, given the lack of HQ choices permitted to take the gun. This is why I keep stating that Veteran Sergeants should be allowed to wield relics.
Following that we have the Beacon Angelis, which is a standard Teleport Homer with a few tricks up its sleeve. While you can use it as standard, it can also be used once per game to teleport an allied unit about the board, where you remove them from the board and then immediately drop them within 6" of whoever is carrying this. On the downside, this can only be used with Deathwatch units, but on the upside it has no range limitations and the rules specify you can use this even when the allied unit is in combat. Admittedly it can only be done in the Movement phase, but it's a fun little addition to the game.
The Dominus Aegis is a giant shield, as you might have guessed from the name, and it's surprisingly not made by the Imperial Fists. What it does do is offers a 4+ invulnerable save to any unit with the wielder so long as they stand still, making it perfect for holding an area after a sudden deployment or securing an objective. Useful, slightly flawed, durable and open to flexable tactics. Not entirely original, but a good option for sure.
The Osseus Key, while oddly lacking anything machine spirit related, counts as a clavis with a few odd additional effects. Made from the bones of dead Imperial Fist heroes (their finger bones to be exact) it can inflict a bit more damage to a targeted vehicle. So, during the Assault phase once an enemy vehicle is within range, roll a D6. On the roll of a 2-3 the enemy vehicle suffers a glancing hit, while on the roll of a 4-6 it's an immediate penetrating hit. This would obviously be open to abuse and rather broken were it given a substantial range, but given this seems to retain the previous 6" limitation, this is a solid option on the whole. Now you just have the problem getting there.
The Key of Secrets is, oddly enough, a sword. Once it stabs a foe, it drinks deep of its blood, takes samples, analyses its target and decides how best to next help kill it. Hitting at AP3, it has a unique special rule by the name of Biophage. Basically, if it wounds a specific unit type it immediately gains better knowledge of how to kill them in the following turns. So, stab a Carnifex and hurt the big chitin bastard, and you're wounding on 2+ from there on. This unfortunately is taking things a bit too far here as it makes the weapon a bit too easy to wield against mob units. After all, if all you need to do is kill a single ork to start scything through all orks, that is more than a little easy to abuse. While it states that this focuses upon exact units, it's not clear where the limitations are in terms of species, so you're probably going to bump into a few nasty debates surrounding this weapon as well. Here's hoping it doesn't prove to be another Plasma Syphon.
Finally, we have the Tome of Ectoclades, which is really the boring one here. It basically allows you to switch Mission Tactics again, and allows you to use the widespread advantages of two for an entire turn. That's about it really, and more than anything else it's a little frustrating to see something like this just turn into another opportunity to shill that particular aspect of the book. Not bad, but not very fun either, really.
Overall it's a very mixed bunch to be sure as most are certainly decent or at least entertaining, but they once more fall into the old categories we've seen many times prior to now. At least this time there was a push to experiment a bit more with the rules in question though, and throw out a few original concepts here and there.
The overall rules here are problematic. They're okay but rather unremarkable, and it seems that for every step forwards there was a missed opportunity or an immediate step backwards. The book in itself is solid, going for an offshoot or experimental design intended to compliment or contrast with the standard astartes armies; basically what you get when you compare the standard Imperial Guard to Tempestus Scions. What hurts it more than anything else is a lack of real direction at points, poor editing in places and a few downright broken weapons; all of which stick out like a sore thumb. Still, it has plenty of good high points despite its flaws and there are some very fun units present in the book on the whole. If you're interested in fielding the Deathwatch you should be in for a fun time, but you might want to spend time remodeling the Veteran choices. You're going to want plenty of pins or magnets to switch out arms and weapons.
And expect to be hated by everyone if you turn up with half a squad full of Frag Cannons or burning heavy bolters of firey doom.
Next up, we'll be finishing our look at this codex's rules with the Formations.