Game

Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader embraces sci-fi role-playing freedom

“In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” That’s the tagline of Warhammer 40,000, one of the most over-the-top and brutal sci-fi settings around. But even in a merciless, brutal dystopia that grinds its people into dust, some get to enjoy being on the top of the food chain. Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is about the perils and pleasures of being atop that particular hierarchy.

Rogue Traders in 40K are freelance explorers, scouting the far frontiers of the Imperium of Man. It’s a risky career, but it comes with luxurious rewards: agency, freedom, power, and a giant flagship. As the player, I explore a system of the Imperium with a loyal crew of companions, making impactful choices and determining the fate of those around me.

Rogue Trader is a computer role-playing game in the vein of Baldur’s Gate 3 or Pillars of Eternity. I create my custom protagonist, determining stats and bonuses based on my backstory, home world, and so on. I’m then thrust into a high-pressure job interview as a potential heir to a Rogue Trader aboard her flagship. Little do we know that there’s a coup in the works, and traitors aboard the ship. After a deadly struggle against heretics and demons, I ascend to the position of Rogue Trader. I’m the captain now, and I get to decide how to run my ship.

A Sister of Battle as depiected in Rogue Trader by Owlcat Games. A member of the Sisters of our Martyred Lady, she holds a massive bolter in two hands.

Image: Owlcat Games

This is a vast game, with tons of features you’d expect from a CRPG — companions (each with their own narrative paths and conversation trees), top-down strategic combat, and branching choices that impact the world around you. I get to make choices all day — in fact, that’s part of the gig of a Rogue Trader. Some are more important than others; whenever I get to specific points in the story, I can choose from one of three major paths. Dogmatic choices exult the God-Emperor and loathe the mutant and the witch, the Heretical options pursue corruptive power, and the Ionoclast path is the closest thing we have to modern-day “good guy” morality.

After the events of the tutorial, my beautiful voidship is run down and my staff is struggling. As the newly anointed Rogue Trader, I have to trek around the various planets of the Koronus Expanse to get a new Navigator, fix my ship up, and avoid any major diplomatic incidents with the locals. My voidship is the size of a modern city; I’m as much a governor as a captain, and I have to manage the ship, its cargo, and its many occupants.

In the process of getting back on my feet, I uncover a nefarious cult and a deep conspiracy. It’s not an easy job, but I’m blessed with a handful of companions from the Imperium to help me out. I can call on them to unlock doors or perform other environmental checks, but they come most in handy in combat.

When I meet opposition, it’s deeply satisfying to control my troops in a turn-based battle. Each fight takes place on a grid; it’s very similar to Baldur’s Gate 3 or even XCOM 2. Some positions provide cover, while others are out in the open. Friendly fire is also a very real concern. An arc of auto-fire from a bolter, or a Navigator’s third eye opening, can harm friend as well as foe. My Rogue Trader is a sniper, and she would be lost without her Senechal taking the front lines. There’s a lot of firepower at my disposal, and it’s mostly quite satisfying to use — even if I occasionally shred my poor Senechal with a devastating AOE.

A Rogue Trader and his companions are mid-combat, which shows the grid-based movement and cover systems of the new CRPG from Owlcat Games.

Image: Owlcat Games

I can chat with the companions between battles, learning more about their pasts. Most of them have deep and dark secrets I can uncover with a little time or patience, and they have fascinating stories to tell. Abelard, my Senechal, is a guy who sucks morally but will back me to the absolute hilt. I grew to love hearing about his days in the Imperial Navy, and he was the one guy I felt like I could trust. Augusta, a Sister of Battle, starts as a one-note zealot, but cracks form in that facade when I learn about her past and doubts. Cassia and Pasqal both represent two sub-factions in 40K, and they have lots to share about the Navigators and Tech-Priests.

My absolute favorite companion is Marazhai Aezyrraesh, a dark space elf who feeds off the suffering of sentient beings. He’s cruel, depraved, and an absolute hoot. Yes, he may flay a few too many people for my tastes, but he’s the best companion to bring to a party.

In the grand scheme of things, this is one of the most complete and detailed explorations of the 40K universe you can find. The game is an homage to the Warhammer 40K RPGs from Fantasy Flight Games, including Rogue Trader and Dark Heresy. I spent years as a teenager and young adult poring over these sourcebooks (which Rogue Trader is inspired by), learning more about the tiny details of life in the Imperium. Developer Owlcat Games has paid the same attention to every detail of the Koronus Expanse. I delve into ancient facilities staffed by tech-priests of the Machine God, the hostile xenos city of Commorragh, or massive cities built to honor the God-Emperor of Mankind.

I love the characters, the environments, the writing, the lore, and the flow of battles. But I have concerns with the game’s pacing. By the end of the first chapter, I had leveled up 16 times. Each level offered marginal rewards, like being able to move slightly farther during the character’s turn in combat or having a higher parry chance when being attacked. A slow drip-feed system means each level feels less important, and even though I’m growing stronger, I don’t get that sense of long-term satisfaction.

A nefarious room for scientific experiments, with gurneys and green lighting, in the world of Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader

Image: Owlcat Games

It’s especially frustrating to hit a roadblock like the one at the end of Act 1, where an incredibly tough boss rolls out of nowhere and spanks my crew — and I can’t leave to go grind experience somewhere else. I eventually found out a way to cheese the fight by focusing on my melee fighters’ positioning, but it took far too long banging my head against the wall. The victory tasted like ash in my mouth after all that frustration.

Voidship combat is another aspect that feels clunky and frustrating. Like the squad-based skirmishes, naval encounters are also turn-based, where positioning is ultra important. Space naval battles should feel tense, but instead, I’m mostly annoyed at having to continually rotate my ship and set up my zones of attack. I wish I could delegate these annoyances to my Senechal — to delegate the duties of character leveling and ship combat, the better to appreciate all of the things Rogue Trader is doing so well.

Rogue Trader is a dense, vast game, and much of it has clearly been crafted with love for the expansive lore of the 40K canon. While there are small annoyances and clunky features along the way, the political intrigue, cast of characters, and moral choices have me hooked. For 40K fans, this is a rare treat — a game that digs past the heroic facade of bolters and battles and taps into the grimdark dystopia that makes this particular sci-fi setting so damn compelling.

Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader will be released on Dec. 7 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Owlcat Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.



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