In upcoming isometric RPG Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, players are free to explore the miserable world of Warhammer however they see fit. Developer Owlcat Games releases fans from the boots of a dutiful Space Marine by letting them create their own Rogue Trader – a role in the Warhammer universe that’s given a free pass to do whatever they like across the stars, as long as it advances the Empire’s questionable goals.
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It’s a brilliant vehicle for opening up a world where most people live their lives merely following orders, but this is still Warhammer – and violence is always just a shot away. In combat, Rogue Trader thrives on repulsion. Battles are turn-based, and each combatant has a limited pool of action points to move and use their abilities or items. Some of this may strike strategy fans as familiar – but not entirely: Owlcat explains that although it wanted to capture XCOM‘s unforgiving percentage-ruled combat, it was important to deliver a more traditional sense of power in line with other RPGs.
One way that Rogue Trader pulls this off is with a dynamic dismemberment system – an incredibly on-brand feature for a Warhammer game that turns every death into a disgusting spectacle. In one fight, a stray burst of las rounds dissected a Druchii with messy imperfection, leaving a single bloody leg skating along the steaming ice. It’s undeniably over-the-top and gratuitous – Warhammer‘s middle name – yet the gore sells the brutish strength of each weapon with aplomb. Owlcat points out that a shot from a plasma gun will ruin someone’s day very differently to being hit with a hammer, which is apt to mash Xenos into space jam.
Beyond the difference in weapons, each character’s class lends itself to different styles of play. A Tech-Priest can hit enemies with a range of debuffs or perk their allies up, while a Smuggler is all about fast movement and sneaking in as many potshots as possible. Each class also has its own background – the Smuggler in the demo was a former soldier, which meant they were a running, gunning killing machine that had no difficulty turning the table on a set of Druchii ambushers.
That being said, it wasn’t a clean fight. Rogue Trader draws inspiration from the older X-COM games: there’s a vast middle ground between simply hitting or missing a shot. A Druchii marksman’s shot on the Smuggler went wide, but a sigh of relief died as the stray bullet caught the party’s Psyker in the shoulder. This mechanic added a lot of life to the shootout – even on the receiving end – and there was a messy, frantic atmosphere to the fight that’s a rare find in a lot of strategy games.
That scrappy atmosphere is enhanced by a motivation system. If characters have been doing well and feel the fight is going in their favour, they will add to the party’s shared motivation bar. If this gets high enough, a party member can use some of it to activate their ultimate ability – for this party’s former soldier, it turned them into a killing machine with seemingly endless action points. On the other hand, there’s a desperation mechanic – the same ability with a host of downsides – that can be used as a last-ditch gamble if the fight’s going poorly. Owlcat explains that this is a way to spice up the usual tail-end of turn-based battles, where it’s more of a clean-up operation than a meaningful fight.
Any Warhammer fan – especially anyone who sank hours into the franchise’s turn-based Daemonhunters game earlier in the year – will find the premise of Rogue Trader deeply alluring, and rightly so. Combat feels grimy and captivating, and although the preview didn’t stray too far beyond demonstrating that, there were some promising signs of life from the game’s role-playing aspect. Aiming to launch in 2023, the latest from Owlcat Games is one that’s worth keeping an eye or three on.