Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is a top-down RPG on Steam and Good Old Games set in the Warhammer 40K universe, and it’s one of the best games yet for granting the player a glimpse at the scope and scale of that universe. Better yet, it’s one of the rare chances players have to actually go around a full star system and exercise freedom of choice. I sampled a demo of Rogue Trader provided by Owlcat Games, and there’s quite a bit of choice to be had — but a few disappointing restrictions on player freedom.
The demo included a look at the main campaign, starting with character creation. I had the chance to dress up my new character, picking her augments, home world, origin story, and specialties. I chose a noblewoman with an affinity for rifles, although I could have been a filthy criminal, dangerous psyker, or veteran of the Imperium’s long war. All of the available portraits, however, were of white characters — in a world where humanity has overcome bigotry of skin color or gender in favor of new, exciting xenophobia.
It’s disappointing to feel like I’m locked out of customization options, but this appears to be a byproduct of the incomplete beta. When asked for comment, a representative of Owlcat shared that “there will be MUCH more variety for customization of the character in every aspect including the portraits.”
The story itself immediately proved intriguing. Rogue Traders date back to the inception of Warhammer 40,000, and while they’re not as action-oriented or prominently featured as Space Marines, they are a core part of the setting. These voidship sailors are privateers in service of the Imperium of Man, granted a far longer leash than their peers. They travel, trade, and brave the outskirts of the galaxy. Rogue Trader is also an inherited title, and the various dynasties are endlessly vying for power, wealth, and influence.
There are only so many documents authorizing Rogue Traders to go around, and when I find myself in the running for one, I’m immediately thrust into a world of cutthroat politics. I’m betrayed by a colleague, I betray him in turn, and we’re subsequently embroiled in a cat-and-mouse campaign across the stars. I appreciate how, in this game, I’m able to start role-playing immediately. Owlcat Games has added an in-game codex that highlights and explains 40K-specific terms without halting dialogue, and I’m able to check on those notes while defining my character.
The world of 40K also offers some interesting subversions of the RPG formula. Usually my character is a helpful hero, always inquiring about a villager’s quest requirements. Rogue Trader quickly reminds me that in a grimdark future of only war, typical RPG protagonist behavior is read as servile and pathetic. On the other hand, I’ve quickly accumulated a party of dangerous people who I need to keep happy, so I can’t be too mean. My skills offer me alternative solutions; I can use my lore in the warp to suggest a ritual, or my knowledge of foul xenos to warn an ally of their machinations.
Rogue Trader excellently captures the flavor and tone of the 40K universe while telling its own story and setting the stakes. All of my allies are under the banner of the Imperium of Man, but the schisms and fractures within that banner lead to very different interpretations and executions upon the Imperial Creed. It’s also fun just to chat to my Space Marine or Sister of Battle friend and see what they think about the world, even if it doesn’t mean I’ll progress in a specific quest.
Even better, the game lets me and my allies delve into places that the “main” narrative of 40K doesn’t, like the Drukhari city of Commorragh. This city is tucked into the Webway, a system of pathways in between the extra-dimensional Warp and realspace, and it’s full of evil elves who make the Sith look like toddlers. Going to Commorragh is a huge breath of fresh air in a setting that focuses so heavily on the Imperium, and it makes for a complete blast to explore such a dangerous, alien place with the freedom afforded by a RPG with branching dialogue trees.
My allies are also massively helpful in battle, which plays out on a grid in turn-based combat. This is the same formula used by games like Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Wasteland 3, and it works well with the blood-soaked and bizarre combat traditions of 40K’s setting. Nuns with flamer guns, a Space Wolf who tears heretics to shreds, and the technology of the Adeptus Mechanicus are all used to great effect.
I only ran into a few snags during my time with the beta, albeit some that blocked my progress. At one point, a NPC saved me from an assassination attempt but refused to let me leave the room until I equipped my gun and bandaged my wounds. The fact that I had already done both of these things did not deter him, and I ended up having to load an older save. I’m also eager to see more character customization options in the full release of the game, and for the avatar options to match the diversity of the Imperium of Man.
There’s still a great deal of content to come; much of the Rogue Trader beta is marked with warnings that certain backgrounds aren’t fully fleshed out, or dialogue options don’t exist for specific options quite yet. Owlcat Games says more campaigns will arrive after the release of this initial adventure. I’m already excited for the final product, and to fully immerse myself in the danger and decadence of the Rogue Trader lifestyle.