When looking at the breadth of war games out there, the ones that inspire players to buy, paint, and field massive armies in skirmishes with each other, few names loom quite so large as Warhammer 40,000. But with Rogue Trader, Owlcat Games is giving the 40K universe a slightly different treatment. And to me, they look like the right studio to do it.
I’ve been a digital admirer of the WH40K realm for a while, thanks to the Dawn of War series. A real-time strategy game just makes sense for the world of Warhammer 40,000, as its tabletop version already inspires devotion to the little dudes you send off to battle against Orks, Necrons, and heresy. But how do you translate that to a more narrative CRPG approach?
The answer Owlcat Games has come up with is Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, an RPG that manages to meld the worlds of role-playing and tactical sci-fi carnage into something that, honestly, seems like it just might work. I recently got a chance to sit down and play a new build of the currently in-beta RPG and chat with creative director Alexander Mishulin about their approach to building Rogue Trader.
A classic legacy
If you’re not familiar with Owlcat, the studio has been steadily on the rise in the CRPG space. The team has tackled another tabletop property twice now, with Pathfinder: Kingmaker and Wrath of the Righteous, each time to increasingly positive response. Though Warhammer 40,000 is a decidedly different kind of universe, Owlcat wants to keep its approach the same.
“We really want our games to focus on choices and consequences and reactions,” Mishulin tells me.
In Rogue Trader, you play as just that: a Rogue Trader, given relative freedom to search for discoveries and profits. In the world of 40K, it’s a clever choice; a Space Marine may not have so much freedom for role-playing, but through a Rogue Trader, you can make choices and determine outcomes independent of any restrictions. You can adhere to the Imperium’s will, and preach the word of the God Emperor. Or, maybe, indulge in a little heresy.
Mishulin tells me companions will react in kind, and possibly even turn on you depending on your choices. But that’s a big part of the appeal, for me at least; the nature of Rogue Trader lets Owlcat smash together factions and forces that might normally be at each other’s throats. Heck, they might still be there, but have to play nice around you.
The Rogue Trader aspect also opens up some interesting avenues for role-playing. On top of being an explorer and adventurer, you’re also a merchant. That means managing a ship full of goods and, occasionally, playing diplomat. Mishulin described to me a situation where another party member might seek my Trader’s help in gaining some permits, and that the player’s Trader might have various ways of approaching this bureaucratic issue.
It can lead to funny moments, but also interesting choices as you begin to choose sides and push relationships to a potential breaking point. Those who played Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous know that Owlcat has no qualms about letting you veer down a dark path. It sounds like with Rogue Trader, that isn’t changing.
“What we are trying to bring, to channel, is our narrative experience and the way we construct our stories, with binary choices that are usually left out,” said Mishulin. “We are trying to allow you to play any possible side. Of course, not like any interaction or just killing any character in the game, but allowing you to evil or good, or to dabble in heresy or be loyal to the Imperium, or try to save everybody and see what happens in Warhammer 40K when they try to do that.”
As Mishulin explains, it’s very important to Owlcat that you be able to roleplay in their game. But role-playing is one piece of the pie. Where WH40K starts to look a bit more familiar is in Rogue Trader’s combat.
Squares and corners
Previous Owlcat Games projects, or at least their Pathfinder ones, adhered to a real-time approach with a turn-based option available. The option was nice, but as Mishulin tells me, the turn-based option felt “a little bit secondary” to real-time combat. There were different areas they wanted to explore with Rogue Trader.
So, in Rogue Trader, combat is exclusively turn-based. It uses a grid system that maps out onto the world, and will probably feel familiar to anyone who’s played something like XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
“It’s not like we’re building up on our experience, but we are branching out a little bit and trying to, this time around, to make very interesting turn-based combat, nut based on our strengths,” Mishulin says. “Like a lot of abilities, a lot of combinations between the characters and deep build complexity.”
Builds may not get as wildly complex as Pathfinder’s 26 classes, but a big part of Rogue Trader seems to be the way characters can interact.
Take, for example, the ability to define stratagems on the field. Mishulin showed me how you can designate certain areas of the field as specific areas of battle, like Assault or Blitz, to add bonuses for allies in the area. Using these tools, he could quickly map out a battle plan on the first turn and start to execute it, or counteract the enemy’s formation.
Adapting fast is key, as Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader looks quite capable of being brutal at times. Hits can do a lot of damage. Enemies can shatter fast, but so can you. And, in a very interesting move, bullets are all tracked as their own object. If you spray fire down a corridor, there will be spread, and you could hit anything from objects behind your target to your own allies.
“It builds the physicality of the space,” Mishulin tells me about their combat. “Warhammer is dark and gloomy and visceral. And we wanted to convey this throughout the whole game and mechanics as well. And when bullets start flying, it adds to that.”
Yet the myriad numbers, abilities, synergies, and systems all seem crunchy and enticing for someone looking to play tactician in the WH40K universe. In a way, it marries in the strengths of the war-gaming side of 40K and attaches it onto the RPG potential; build your party and manage them outside of combat, then see how they synergize and refine in battle.
The far reaches of space
When talking about Owlcat, it’s easy to draw comparisons to fellow burgeoning CRPG studio Larian, who just had a home-run hit with Baldur’s Gate 3. And I only bring this up because Owlcat finds itself in a similar situation: building up year-over-year on its RPG systems, now stepping up to the plate with a massive tabletop franchise.
And so far, I think Owlcat is doing a solid job. I’m keen to see a bit more of the role-playing side; my demo primarily focused on combat and tactics, showing off a new Aeldari party member. That side of Rogue Trader looks solid so far, as I was already drawn into the gritty but well-paced turn-based combat.
If Owlcat can lock down the storytelling side too, Rogue Trader could continue their upward trajectory. Especially as more players are now getting into this style of RPG, the timing seems ripe for Owlcat Games to make a mark. We won’t be waiting long to see whether it does either, as Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader officially launches on December 7, 2023.