The Warhammer 40,000 universe is not known to be shallow. It is chronicled through hundreds of different novels, lore articles, and rule books, each delving deeper into the history and capabilities of the many factions of the 41st millennium. With that in mind, Owlcat Games – the creator of the Pathfinder series – is the perfect developer for CRPG 40k. And after watching just 30 minutes of Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, it seems Owlcat is doing a great job in crafting a dizzyingly complex and profound game that is completely authentic to the setting.
At Gamescom 2022, I sat down with game director Alexander Gusev to watch him play through two scenarios fighting against a group of Drukhari warriors (brutal space goblins, for anyone illiterate in the region. 40k). At first glance, Rogue Trader’s turn-based combat is a close cousin of XCOM; A party of six companions navigates a battlefield built upon a grid that specifies movement, hiding places, and weapon ranges. But as the turn went on, I began to realize that Rogue Trader had the potential to rival the most strategic RPG combat systems ever created. It’s based on 40k lore-only chances, offering a huge library of combat skills that require careful setup to get the most out of it.
Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader – Gamescom 2022 screenshot
While devastating psychic abilities and guns capable of smearing enemies with red glue were fun, I was surprised to find that the pre-kill planning classes impressed me the most. For example, member Pasqal is a Tech Priest with the ability to survey enemies and identify their weaknesses, which can then be exploited with an attack. That attack can be enhanced through the use of the Machine Spirit Communion skill, which will bless the weapon to increase its attack value. Finally, Pasqal’s handgun – a volatile plasma gun – can be overloaded to do heavy damage (as long as you’re willing to take the risk of being lethal from it firing backwards). These three steps combined can prove devastating to an enemy character and this is what appears to be one of Rogue Trader’s simpler strategies.
Most turn-based RPGs adopt a forward-thinking style, but the fact that each character in this demo has their own strategic abilities impressed me. Even characters who share a class can have unique skills thanks to Rogue Trader’s multi-tiered career ladder. All characters have a base class, but they evolve into advanced levels and then into elite levels, which specialize further. For example, Pasqal is an adept, a type of person who studies the battlefield to identify opportunities and weaknesses. Idira, another party member, is also an adept, but an inactive psyker (see: illegal space wizard) her elite and elite floors promise to mine the zones. areas adjacent to but different from Pasqal, such as precognition. So while both characters have similar skill sets, they have the potential to evolve into distinctly different specializations. That will hopefully avoid the classic RPG pitfall of having two classmates that’s like pointlessly doubling.
In this combat demonstration, Gusev mainly used Idira as a cannon. Other characters, such as the Inquisition’s interrogator, Heinrix, or the old man, Abelard, are tank warriors who can buff and provide shields to her if needed. Gusev asked Idira to use his Psychic Shriek to create sonic waves like bursting an eardrum at a Kabalite Warrior, which successfully corroded their health bar. But the power of the psyker causes The Veil – the barrier between reality and the demon-possessed kingdom of Chaos – to weaken and break. Gusev warned if it disrupted everything terrible that could happen on the battlefield. I couldn’t see any of that terrible, but Gusev told me I would need to be careful as both allies and enemies’ psyker abilities would weaken The Veil. It’s another thing to keep track of and keep track of when the turn goes.
A more recognizable strategy for XCOM veterans can be found in Jae, one of Rogue Trader’s minions. She can move and attack twice per turn, a skill that’s pretty standard compared to the deadly screams and mechanical god control. But combine that with a buff from a more specialized character and she can become an explosive force on the battlefield. Rogue Trader’s tactical depth seems to hide in the gaps between characters, and the way their skills can be layered to create strategies far more impressive than individual companions.
The final piece of the puzzle is Rogue Trader himself, the captain of this entire venture. They have the ability to give orders, which can effectively grant any companion in range an extra free turn. We all know the desperate pain of failing to kill a strong enemy in one turn and suffering another attack, and Rogue Trader seems set up to mitigate those situations. While they will certainly bring their own skills to the table, it seems Rogue Trader’s most important job (in battle, at least) will be to unleash the potential of their companions.
The last major system Gusev showed me was Momentum, a stat that builds with each attack and heal. At high Momentum, a character can use an ultimate type skill that can be the ultimate element of a multi-turn strategy. For example, Daring Breach is a ‘Act of Heroes’ that allows a character to move and attack multiple times in a turn. It’s basically the advanced version of the soldier’s basic skill. However, what’s really cool about Heroic Acts is that they can also be used with 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-locked state for two turns. Again, this forces you to devise a multi-turn strategy: either figure out how to build Momentum and launch Daring Breach as soon as possible, or use Desperate Rush now and plan to keep the battle going. Your troops are protected for the next two turns.
All of this paints the picture of a tactically rich RPG combat system as a dedicated strategy game, and there’s still much more to explore beyond this (including the fact that enemies also can use Momentum and have unique construction methods). But while Warhammer 40k’s tagline may threaten that “there is only war,” Rogue Trader is more than just battle. To me, combat is the least exciting thing about a Warhammer RPG. What worlds will we visit? The allies we will make? The fine line between purists and heretics is sure to see our companions tear apart? That’s what I’d love to see. Unfortunately, this isn’t the easiest thing to show off at a busy gaming conference, so the Gamescom demo is focused on combat. But, if the adventure and narrative aspect of Rogue Trader is as promising as its combat system, the hand of Owlcat seems to be an extremely safe place for the sci-fi universe deep in the ocean. by Games Workshop.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s News and Features Editor in the UK.