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Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader’s devs want to capitalize on 2023’s CRPG obsession

Romance, tactical combat, and cooperative multiplayer make party-building even more enticing

Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

Good combat is not everything in role-playing games, but it sure doesn’t hurt. And in Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, combat is looking pretty damn good.

The upcoming computer role-playing game from Owlcat Games has been in closed beta since June, and thus far, we’ve had a blast digging into its companion recruitment, intergalactic politics, and heaps of grimdark lore. Of the myriad games set in Games Workshop’s sci-fi universe, Rogue Trader’s world is already shaping up to be one of the most engrossing. And based on what Owlcat showed me during a hands-off demo of late-game content last week, it’s not skimping on the tactical options, either.

“This battle is about 80 hours into the game, so this party is pretty powerful,” Alexander Mishulin, creative director at Owlcat, tells me as he moves the group toward a combat encounter. “It will take a while to upgrade your party this much. But you absolutely can.” His own create-a-character is accompanied by five companions: Abelard, his first officer; Idira, an unsanctioned psyker; Jae, a smuggler and tactician; Pasqual, a tech-priest of the Adeptus Mechanicus faction; and, finally, Marazhai, a previously unannounced Drukhari (dark elf). Taken together, the group is as vibrant as it is imposing — even compared to the group of Necrons waiting in a darkened pit up ahead.

The party of companions stands in a dimly lit underground space in the city of Commoragh in Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader Image: Owlcat Games

Once the fight starts, Mishulin guides each character into cover (or, in Marazhai’s case, to an empty space at the center of the battlefield, the better to draw enemy fire and rely on his high dodge chance) in preparation. Mishulin voices his thought process alongside every move he makes: Abelard is a sturdy tank and will fare better in close-quarters combat. Pasqual should hang back in order to buff his teammates. Jae, a strong fighter and intelligent strategist, will be tweaking the turn order to the party’s advantage, and granting extra attacks every chance Mishulin gets.

As the fight unfolds, so too does a web of XCOM 2-level tactical decisions. There are four charge-rifle-wielding Necrons on the field, along with several swarms of smaller bugs. The catch? There are also two glowing green “matrices” that will summon more Necrons if Mishulin doesn’t deal with them quickly enough. The fight becomes a balance between removing the enemies already in the fray and preventing reinforcements from causing further problems. In other words: Every turn counts.

Midway through the pitched battle, Mishulin points out a momentum meter above his Drukhari’s UI. If the party’s momentum drops too low (from taking damage or missing shots) Mishulin can activate a “Desperate Measure.” If they accrue enough momentum (by landing shots or killing enemies) he can use a “Heroic Act.” Both will grant temporary benefits (Mishulin says the latter is generally more powerful) but the results will vary depending on the character who uses the ability. Mishulin activates it for Marazhai, who proceeds to kill two Necrons with his dual blades in one turn.

The party enters a battle and takes cover in an industrial maze in Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader Image: Owlcat Games

Mishulin proceeds to make efficient work of the Necrons. (I get the sense that the battle will not go nearly as well for me.) He uses Pasqual to buff the front line from a safe spot, before destroying both matrices with damage-focused duos. It’s a far cry from the battles I’ve seen during the current beta, which, although compelling, have revolved around my much cruder party. Mishulin’s group looks less like a loose collection of misfits and more a stalwart corps of battle-hardened veterans.

I can’t help drawing parallels to my current obsession: Baldur’s Gate 3. Larian Studios’ CRPG has not only sold far better than its creative director anticipated, but also ignited public forums and Polygon staff DMs with conversations about another unlikely band of friends: Astarion, Shadowheart, Gale, and Lae’zel, to name some. Baldur’s Gate 3 is nothing short of a phenomenon, and it’s proven that CRPGs, despite their presumed niche-ness, still hold quite a lot of clout. It’s an exciting time for fans of role-playing, and I imagine it must be exciting for Owlcat. I mention as much to Mishulin as he closes down the demo.

Baldur’s Gate 3’s success is very encouraging,” he says. “Larian Studios is doing great work, and as a result, they’re bringing even more people into the CRPG genre, and renewing a lot of passion for it. Ideally, when those players all finally finish Baldur’s Gate 3 [laughs] they’ll be even more ready to dive into Rogue Trader.”

A super weird laboratory, filled with strange scientists and hulking bipedal monstrosities, in Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader Image: Owlcat Games

Perhaps because it’s the first cool, breezy day in New York after several weeks of sweltering summer heat, or perhaps because I’m thinking about Shadowheart literally all the time, my mind turns to romance. On the one hand, Warhammer 40,000 is set in a depressing world predicated on conflict, greed, and lies. But on the other hand, Rogue Trader an RPG that’s set to be released not long after one of the horniest RPGs of all time. Can love bloom in a grimdark universe?

“We have had a lot of fun adding romance to such a dark universe,” Mishulin says. “As you can imagine, romance in 40K is not like it is in other worlds — here, it’s a lot of arranged marriages and political maneuvering. But we’ve had a ton of fun figuring out out-of-the-box ways to incorporate it in Rogue Trader, and we can’t wait for people to see it.”

Just how that romance will unfold alongside Rogue Trader’s nuanced tactical combat, intergalactic politicking, and cooperative multiplayer (which Owlcat just announced at Gamescom today) remains to be seen. Personally, I can’t wait to find out.

Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader is currently in closed beta for pre-order players, and will be released “soon” on Windows PC.

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