The Warhammer 40,000 universe isn’t known for being shallow. It is chronicled across hundreds of different novels, lore articles, and rule books, each drilling deeper into the histories and abilities of the 41st millennium’s many factions. With that in mind, Owlcat Games – creator of the incredibly layered Pathfinder series – is the perfect developer for a 40k CRPG. And after seeing just 30 minutes of Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, it seems as though Owlcat is well underway creating a dizzyingly deep and complex game that’s totally authentic to the setting.
At Gamescom 2022 I sat down with game director Alexander Gusev to watch him play through two combat scenarios against a crew of Drukhari warriors (sadistic space elves, for anyone not literate in 40k). At first glance Rogue Trader’s turn-based combat is a close cousin of XCOM; a party of six companions navigate a battlefield built upon a grid that dictates movement, cover, and weapon ranges. But as the turns go by, I begin to realise that Rogue Trader has the potential to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the most strategic RPG battle systems ever made. It draws on the unique opportunities of 40k lore, providing a huge library of combat skills that demand careful set-up to make the most of.
While devastating psychic abilities and guns capable of reducing an enemy to smears of red paste are exciting, I’m surprised to find it’s the planning layers before the kill that have me most impressed. Party member Pasqal, for example, is a Tech Priest with the ability to survey an enemy and identify their weak points, which can then be exploited with an attack. That attack can be enhanced through the use of the Machine Spirit Communion skill, which blesses a weapon to increase its attack value. Finally, Pasqal’s firearm – a volatile plasma gun – can be overcharged for devastating damage (provided you’re willing to run the lethal risk of it backfiring). These three steps combined can prove devastating to an enemy character, and this is what appears to be one of Rogue Trader’s more simplistic strategies.
Most turn-based RPGs embrace this kind of forward thinking, but it’s the fact that every single character in this demo has their own strategic abilities that impresses me. Even characters that share a class can have unique skills thanks to Rogue Trader’s multi-tier career ladders. All characters have a basic class, but they develop into advanced and then elite tiers, which further specialises them. For example, Pasqal is an adept, a class that studies the battlefield to identify opportunities and weaknesses. Idira, another party member, is also an adept, but as an unsanctioned psyker (see: illegal space wizard) her advanced and elite tiers promise to tap into adjacent-but-different areas to Pasqal’s, such as precognition. So while both characters hail from a similar skill set, they have the potential to evolve into distinctly different specialisms. That will hopefully avoid the classic RPG pitfall where having two companions of the same class feels like pointlessly doubling up.
In this combat demonstration Gusev uses Idira predominantly as a magic cannon. Other characters, like the Inquisition interrogator, Heinrix, or seneschal, Abelard, are tankier fighters able to buff and provide shields for her if needed. Gusev has Idira use her Psychic Shriek to blast waves of eardrum-bursting sound at a Kabalite Warrior, which successfully erodes away at their health bar. But psyker powers cause The Veil – the barrier between reality and the demon-infested realm of Chaos – to weaken and fracture. If it breaks all sorts of terrible things could happen on the battlefield, Gusev warns. I don’t get to see any of those awful things, but Gusev does tell me that I’ll need to be careful as both allied and enemy psyker abilities will weaken The Veil. That’s another thing to monitor and keep track of as the turns go by.
A more recognisable strategy for XCOM veterans can be found in Jae, one of Rogue Trader’s soldier class characters. She’s able to move and attack twice per turn, a fairly standard skill compared to lethal screams and channelling the god of machines. But combine that with a buff from a more specialised character and she could become an explosive force on the battlefield. Rogue Trader’s tactical depth seems to be hidden in the gaps between characters, and the way their skills can be layered to create strategies far more impressive than each individual companion.
The final part of the puzzle is the Rogue Trader themselves, captain of this whole venture. They have the ability to issue orders, which effectively grants any companion in range an extra turn, free of charge. We all know the desperate pain of not quite killing a powerful enemy in a single turn and having to suffer one more attack, and the Rogue Trader seems set to mitigate those situations. While they will no doubt bring their own skills to the table, it seems like a Rogue Trader’s most important job (in battle, at least) will be unleashing the potential of their companions.
The final major system Gusev shows me is Momentum, a stat that builds with each attack and heal. At high Momentum, a character is able to use an ultimate-style ability that could be the devastating finale to a multi-turn strategy. Daring Breach, for instance, is a ‘Heroic Act’ that allows a character to move and attack multiple times in a turn. Essentially, it’s the deluxe version of the soldier’s basic skill. The really interesting thing about Heroic Acts, though, is that they can also be used at low Momentum… for a price. The alternate version of Daring Breach is Desperate Rush, which allows the same skill to be used but the character is then put into a stun lock for two turns. Once again, this forces you to map out a multi-turn strategy: either work out a way to build Momentum and unleash Daring Breach as soon as possible, or use Desperate Rush right now and devise a plan to keep your fighter protected for the next two turns.
All this paints a picture of an RPG battle system that’s as tactically rich as a dedicated strategy game, and there’s still plenty more to discover beyond this (including that enemies can use Momentum, too, and have unique methods of building it). But while Warhammer 40k’s tagline may threaten that there’s “only war”, Rogue Trader is about much more than battle. Combat is, at least to me, the least interesting thing about a Warhammer RPG. What of the worlds we’ll visit? The allies we’ll make? The fine line between puritan and heresy that will no doubt see our own companions tear each other apart? That’s the stuff I’m desperate to see. It’s also, unfortunately, not the easiest thing to show at a busy games convention, hence the Gamescom demo being combat focused. But, if the adventure and narrative side of Rogue Trader has as much promise as its battle system does, then Owlcat’s hands appear to be an incredibly safe place for Games Workshop’s ocean-deep sci-fi universe to be.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.
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Author: Matt Purslow