Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, the first classic-style computer role-playing game to be set in Games Workshop’s iconic science fiction universe, is out in the wild as of Wednesday. Developers at Owlcat Games (Pathfinder: Kingmaker) have provided rabid fans who already pre-ordered the game with an early alpha, and it has quite a lot of content to mess around with.
But this is no mere tech demo. Owlcat has put its best foot forward, delivering a one-two punch of quality original narrative and delicious isometric ultraviolence. It’s still very early to get hyped about a game with no release date, but fans of 40K and the original Fallout will want to keep this one on their radar.
In the lore of 40K, a “rogue trader” is a swashbuckling merchant who operates on the fringes of the human empire. But don’t expect to slip on the mantle of a scrappy mariner fending off bands of marauding space pirates. Instead you’re a member of the nobility, with a ship the size of a small city and thousands of underlings to do your bidding. Your personal retinue is a band of highly skilled and eccentric humanoid warriors, and the goal is to blaze a trail of glory and enterprise across a dangerous galaxy.
Just how dangerous? In the first hour that I spent playing the game I experienced a total party kill, my band of six heavily armed combatants reduced to steaming piles of meat on a dusty floor. And that was just a low-level engagement against some street thugs.
Reloading, I hopped back in to my saved game determined to make it out alive. What I found was an intricate series of synergistic character abilities, not unlike something you’d find in a boutique Japanese role-playing game. Every character in the party has a role, it seems, even if sometimes that’s just hiding behind a crate and buffing the characters with the biggest guns.
And the guns themselves behave just like you’d expect. Bolter rounds explode with a satisfying thud, sometimes blasting opponents back and knocking them down. Flamers arc across the battlefield, setting enemies alight. Friendly fire is a huge concern, and making sure that all of your troops have clear backstops and open fields of fire is key to their survival.
By the end of an hour I had two snipers taking down targets at range, two melee-focused characters covering my right flank, while a heavily buffed space nun would spring from cover to lay waste to half a dozen thugs each round. Meanwhile, my own rogue trader ranged around the map hunting for the gang’s leader. It was an extremely satisfying tactical experience, with features and graphics that rivaled recent genre hits, including Wasteland 3.
Aside from its mastery of combat, this alpha shows that Owlcat intimately understands the setting’s quirky approach to storytelling. Rogue Trader is full to bursting with voluminous tracts of lore that slowly, irrevocably reveal a version of humanity poisoned by its own dogma. It’s a compelling read, one that tracks well even alongside Games Workshop’s own Black Library novels. It’s a lot of text, to be sure, but while I would have preferred full voice acting I’m not sure that the writers would have had as much leeway to expand and embellish the narrative in quite the same way if they were paying actors. The copy is strong — especially considering this game is made by an Eastern European team headquartered in Cyprus.
There are a lot of features that I still have yet to test out, namely the space combat and the trading system, but what I’ve seen has me impressed. This tiny taste of Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader left me wanting more, and that’s not something I’ve been able to say about many alphas that I’ve played so far this year.