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March 2024

Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Developer: Owlcat Games
Release Date: Dec. 7, 2023


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PC Review - 'Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader'

by Cody Medellin on Jan. 9, 2024 @ 12:28 a.m. PST

Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is the first classic roleplaying game with turn-based combat in the legendary grim darkness of the far future of Warhammer 40,000.

Warhammer 40,000 has never had an RPG before. There have been strategy games, action games, shooters of all types, and even an upcoming racing game, but the franchise has never made an attempt to go after the role-playing game, which is odd considering the franchise's roots. Owlcat, the developer behind Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, decided to finally let the series tackle this genre, and while the result is imperfect, Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader shows off some serious potential.

That potential starts with the character creation system, which seems pedestrian by normal standards. Body types and parts aren't plentiful, but there's enough to build an interesting-looking character, even if you can barely see the details. Stat building is also nice but nothing special, so the interesting bits come from building up your character's backstory. They come with the usual stat buffs and detriments, but those familiar with Warhammer 40,000 lore will get a kick out of the fact that you can make a diplomat come from a death world or a criminal from the fortress worlds, just to name a few. The number of combinations are good enough that you'll spend a considerable amount of time crafting your character before beginning the adventure.

The story starts with your created character aboard a voidship and learning that despite the bloodline distance, they stand to be the heir of the von Valancius house. The head of the house is important since they are a Rogue Trader, a class that serves the God-Emperor but is able to do things that would normally get someone killed on the spot, such as trading with heretics and xenos. In other words, you're a powerful being in the universe, but some limits are in place. Shortly after your arrival, a mutiny takes place aboard the ship, which renders the ship lost in the uncharted Koronus Expanse and finds the head of the house and the next apparent heir dead. As the new house head and Rogue Trader, you must forge your own legacy while also fulfilling the former head's secret quest.

The story works well because the team at Owlcat has successfully nailed down just about every aspect of the Warhammer 40,000 world. It's an overly grimdark universe where skulls are everywhere, and almost everyone tries to speak in poetic prose. The different characters like the Sister of Battle, Space Wolf and Aeldari all behave and act as they should. The choices that would be considered evil in other games are actually encouraged. The characters all hate one another for petty things but decide to work together under your guidance. There's a sense of familiarity with the license that makes the game feel authentic.

At the same time, Rogue Trader is so rich with lore that it feels like the only way you'll get into it is if you're already a fan of Warhammer 40,000. The first few scenes are bombarded with names and terms that will make you wonder what is going on. The game includes a glossary that allows you to highlight each word to get a definition, but the influx of highlighted words can be daunting for those trying to use this game as an entry point into the universe. You'll be better off trying to learn more of the world lore before starting this game, but if you insist on jumping straight in, prepare to pore over everything in those opening moments before it can have a chance to click.

As mentioned earlier, this is an RPG, specifically a CRPG, which means having to juggle a large party of memorable characters of different races from all types of backgrounds. The game is massive, so while you can speed through the main quests in a little over 50 hours, it would mean you're powering through loads of dialogue and skipping all of the side-quests, which can increase the playtime into the triple digits. Bypassing those quests would be a shame, since nothing feels like filler; every quest feels tailor-made to expand the lore or provide some very good loot.

If you were to break down the game beyond the numerous stats and other RPG fare, it could be divided into three main categories. The first is the dialogue system, which pops up often whether you're conducting trade with the inhabitants of different planets, getting information from your fellow characters, or maintaining the voidship and helping a crew so massive that it might as well be a large floating city. Dialogue options are numerous, but the main attraction comes from choices that are explicitly tied to one of three Convictions. While Heretical feels simple since it overtly aims to set you on an evil path, Dogmatic and Iconoclast are far more interesting. For example, letting a crew member go unpunished is actually seen as unbecoming of a Rogue Trader, but handing out extreme justice for minor infractions is considered good. It all seems so strange until you realize that it fits in perfectly in a world that embraces order and obedience.

The dialogue system naturally leads you to completely different story pathways and situations, but they're also in service to some pretty well thought-out sections of game management. As mentioned before, this is essentially a floating city, so your actions involve seeing that resources are maintained at high levels and any discord is swiftly addressed. You never have to worry about currency for buying items, but you have to make sure that your trade is going well enough that you can easily convince other people to give you what you need because they trust you have the means to pay them back. They aren't the focus of the game, but the subsystems are interesting enough that you'll want to spend some real time with them before moving on to the quest.

When it comes to combat, your voidship is well equipped for taking on fights against other spacecraft. The game goes with a grid-based system but follows naval combat, as you need to turn the ship sideways to attack. Enemies also go down slower, since you need to take down their shields before they can actually get hurt. Combined with the fact that the turns need to be wide, ship combat can feel like a slog. The worst part is that most of the fights are unavoidable, so even though you can customize everything about the battle, it remains the least enjoyable part of the game.

While ship-to-ship combat is rarely exciting, the opposite holds true for fighting on the ground. Fights are naturally more dynamic thanks to the differences in party abilities and the fact that enemies are willing to hurt one another if it means being able to harm your party. For example, you can have a party member stack damage as more turns go by, while another sends out a lightning attack that can damage others in a wide radius, including yourself. The grid movement system is still there, but you get holographic views of where you'll end up and lines of sight so you know who you can and can't target from that position. Fights can get complex in a good way, and fights are often fast. Compared to ship fights, there are also less randomized encounters, so you'll find yourself wanting to get into more fights to play around with the different abilities.

There are a few knocks against the combat system, and that comes from the dice roll mechanics. Seeing your characters or enemy characters dodge or block melee attacks is perfectly fine, since it's believable. Seeing someone miss a shot from a gun at point-blank range is infuriating, since there are no other visuals to confirm that there's no hit aside from the large "Miss" that appears on the screen. It makes sense if you were rolling dice like in the tabletop game, but since that's invisible, players with no knowledge of that will wonder how shots are missed. The game also lets you freely waste your attacks swinging at air or shooting at a wall, which can feel strange since there are times when it shows that you're clearly targeting someone, but there's no indication of a hit or miss when the weapon is fired or swung.

On top of those aforementioned issues in various areas are the bugs, which are unavoidable in a game that can average in the triple-digit hours, but they are bothersome nonetheless. Some of the bugs are harmless, such as characters entering default T-poses. Others are more annoying, like the re-spec ability being grayed out despite meeting qualifications or the battle menu incorrectly identifying whether something is usable. More egregious issues include vital quest-giving characters not appearing and crashes that are only resolved by rebooting the game. This would normally make the experience disastrous, but the game has been getting fixed constantly; the patches seem to come in every few days, and some of those aforementioned issues have disappeared. Those familiar with the Pathfinder games will recall that this sort of thing happened with that launch, and the patches were numerous enough to turn the game into a very solid RPG experience. At the current patch release pace, this will go down the same way, but that also means that those playing the game early are serving as bug testers. Those who are on the fence have a good reason to wait for a bit before jumping in.

The presentation is good but also feels like it needs more polish. The environments are a standout not only because of the detail they showcase but because of the varied colors being used. You'd expect the grimdark setting to show off loads of metal and gray with smatterings of fire orange and blood red, but you'll occasionally travel to planets full of colorful vegetation to brighten up things. To contrast that, the characters are good but are barely detailed with animations. One could argue that this is fine since you'll never get to zoom in the camera for a closer look, but with the game still experiencing some stutters on an AMD Ryzen 7 7700X, 32GB of DDR5-6000 memory, and a GeForce RTX 4090, the simple characters don't quite fulfill expectations.

The story is the same when it comes to the audio. The music is awesome, not just in relation to the overall theme but as a whole. It amplifies the mood of every scenario thrown at you, and its only real failing is how the transitions between pieces are abrupt. The voice work is excellent all around, with each actor embodying their given character very well and demonstrating their adeptness at chewing scenery every time they speak. It feels perfect for Warhammer 40,000, but if you're using a controller, you will tire of hearing your selected character make vocal call-outs every few seconds. That kind of thing might be passable if you're using a mouse and clicking every few seconds to move, but with movement tied to the analog stick, the feature is a nuisance. You also wish that the whole game were voice acted. The text for most of the characters gives you a sense of their mood at the time, but it would be nice to hear their inflections.

Steam Deck users will find the experience to be fine enough, provided expectations are kept in check. The game runs at 1280x800, and while there are a number of options that can be changed, the default setting is a custom mix of High and Medium settings with no FSR in place. It makes for a good-looking game that also isn't as performant as hoped. The frame rate caps at 30fps but hovers around the mid-20s, depending on how busy the screen is. For a game that isn't reliant on fast action, this may be fine, but you'll want to dial down things to get a better frame rate. You'll also want to fiddle with the settings to squeeze more battery life out of the original Steam Deck, as you can get a little over two hours before needing a recharge.

As it stands now, Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is good. The story is interesting, the quests are plentiful, the characters are well rounded, and there's plenty of depth in the RPG systems. The game is also flawed. The attack roll system can produce infuriating results if you aren't thinking with dice in mind, the quests can feel too similar in the late game, and the lore is awesome but so dense that the learning curve for newcomers is rather steep. It's also very buggy, but at least that part is getting ironed out by the day. Despite that, the game is fine as-is, but based on Owlcat's track record, if you give the developer a little more time to fix up the game, it can be one of the highlights in a year that's already packed with great RPGs.

Score: 7.5/10

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