Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader

Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader

Fortunately, there's more than just war in Owlcat's role-playing version of the 41st millennium.

Subscribe to our newsletter here!

* Required field

Since its conception in 1987, the world's most popular miniature wargame, Warhammer 40,000, has evolved into much more than dice rolling and puppet pushing. The dystopian future universe, particularly characterised by its exaggerated and semi-satirical cruelty - often referred to as "grimdark" - has become one of the most irresistible travel destinations for escapist kids with a penchant for fascist super-soldiers, mind-consuming space magic and war crimes on a galactic scale.

Computer games have, of course, played an important role in realising and spreading the not-so-good message of the Gods of Chaos to a wider audience, but while the market has been flooded with countless action and strategy games of varying quality, the more introspective and character-driven role-playing experiences have been grossly neglected. That's why Russian-Cypriot Owlcat Games boasts of having built "the first computer role-playing game in the Warhammer 40,000 universe" - a feat I applaud them for, without quite understanding why it has taken so long.

In Rogue Trader, you're neither a superhuman combat soldier nor a faceless commander of countless foot soldiers. You're an unexpected heir to the von Valancius family, an ancient dynasty of powerful rogue traders - exploring merchant barons whose special political status gives them greater freedom to navigate the otherwise xenophobic and corrupt Empire. After a short prologue where backs are stabbed and mechanics are introduced, you suddenly find yourself sitting on a throne as the absolute ruler of a kilometre-long spaceship and the thousands of souls who work hard to keep it running. Heroism and adventure await - but there are dark clouds on the horizon.

Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader
This is an ad:

Of course, before you even get that far, you have to build your character - it's a role-playing game, after all! The different character portraits you can choose from are a highlight, but I would have liked to see a bit more variety in the body and face types available. Perhaps it says more about my own bias than the developers', but many of the possible model configurations end up looking like the same hard-boiled slaves, with potato spouts and protruding jawlines.

Otherwise, character generation is largely a familiar process where, after determining the appearance of your character, you fill in various backstories, archetypal class developments and other characteristics. Your home planet, previous career and traumatic past all help to shape your character's traits and future play style. There's nothing particularly revolutionary about it, but I still ended up spending hours making up different biographies. Fans of the universe will surely appreciate that the different options are not mere abstractions like "warrior" or "thief", but are grounded in the game's colourful universe.

And so Magnus von Valancius, a slightly unworldly nobleman with cautiously pagan leanings, was born.

When Owlcat specifically refers to the game as a computer role-playing game, it's in reference to classic titles like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Fallout - games that, perhaps ironically named, are based on analogue role-playing counterparts. Rogue Trader is also based on a discontinued game system of the same name, and with its turn-based battles, variable dialogue trees and pseudo-isometric camera perspective, the game leans heavily on the nostalgic and conventional.

This is an ad:

Of course, there are also new additions. Perhaps the most extensive are the deadly battles that frequently occur between spaceships in the Warhammer universe. The Koronus sector - the remote corner of the galaxy in which the game is set - is filled with opportunistic pirates, shipwrecked heretics and worse. You can continually shoot them down with a secondary combat system where the forced movement and relative tilt of the ships are important elements in the tactical considerations. Keel smashing, flip sides and shield charging are integral parts of these space battles, which, in contrast to the game's other environments, seem somewhat barren and abstract. Still, the ship battles and their accompanying action economy of upgrades, crew and repairs add a little extra flair and help sell the fantasy of being a torchbearer for civilisation as the titular rogue trader.

Another point where Rogue Trader deviates from the norms is in relation to trade and inventory. Where many other games fill players' pockets with junk and trash that can then be sold to quality-(un)conscious merchants, Rogue Trader does things a little differently. Your bottomless pockets will still be filled with junk, but you won't be able to resell it at random. Instead, it's repackaged as goods and you can donate it to more or less shady trading organisations. Doing so increases your rank with the relevant faction and unlocks a number of rewards in the form of equipment and resources. Why they've done it this way is a little difficult to determine. On the one hand, it seems like a slightly counterintuitive way of understanding the value of the things you find. On the other hand, the whole idea of exporting goods harmonises very well with the player's status and task as a rogue trader.

Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader

The regular combat system is, at first glance, more traditional, with characters taking turns moving around and attacking. If you've played a tabletop role-playing game in the same genre, you shouldn't be completely lost. However, a special trick is that you can't move after attacking. At first this seemed like an annoying restriction, but with the restriction comes creative solutions. The officer role - the character class I chose - is especially good at bending the rules of the game by giving other characters extra turns. This way, you can gradually start jumping forward in the round queue and attack out of sequence. At the same time, sudden shifts in the odds of battle can unlock special abilities, and any use of magic also slowly dilutes the divide between our world and that of the demons...

In this way, despite a recognisable starting point, Rogue Trader still manages to feel like its own game. Being a digitised version of a tabletop role-playing game, it naturally involves a lot of hidden dice rolls and calculations. This is true in the battles, but also in other contexts. It can be overwhelming to read how the game's many, many character talents affect these calculations, but you do yourself a favour by trying. In my experience, a strategy game stands and falls with the player's ability to learn from their mistakes, and since the game is not always very transparent, you may have to read the same descriptions several times to understand what went wrong.

It pays to learn more about how the bloody battles actually work, because the game makes extensive use of them. Sure, sometimes they can be avoided through dialogue or other tactical ingenuity, but Warhammer 40,000's motto is "THERE IS ONLY WAR" and you're not here to dance. Some might wish that the game's skills - from poison tolerance to knowledge about aliens - were utilised more, but it's not an equation I can fully grasp. War is inherently ultimate, and it's hard to strike the balance between having so many skills on the one hand, that they make each other redundant or compete for space, and having so few that you reach the peak of all the essential ones too quickly.

But for me, the game's greatest innovation - or most interesting contribution to the genre - is the merging of the classic computer role-playing game with a universe as unusual as Warhammer 40,000. Games Workshop's dystopia may draw on tropes and themes from both fantasy and science fiction, but life in the 41st millennium is unlike anything else - thankfully. It's a world filled with xenophobia, dogmatic superstition and incomprehensible technology. A world where the worst paranoia is often well-founded and where relentless war is the only constant across countless horrific variables.

Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader

But most importantly, it's a world whose moral code is quite far from our own common perception of what's right and wrong - and that makes the universe interesting to roleplay in. If you're a dogmatic rule follower, there are plenty of opportunities to execute those who deviate from the narrow path of virtue, and the universe is full of forbidden rituals and occult artefacts just waiting for someone to make use of them. The third ethical "creed" that the game operates with instead prioritises community and compromise. Appropriately ironically called the "Iconoclast", it may be a more palatable view of good and evil for many - but in the 41st millennium, it often stands alone.

It's great to see how the developers haven't shied away from showing the uglier side of the universe. Many of the epic narrative tropes that might seem cliché in other contexts - the great task, the imposed fate, the difficult choices, the inner demon - have an extra brutal and sinister weight here: You don't become a rogue trader because Patrick Stewart predicted it in a dream, but because the law is the law and with the law, land must be built - or worlds brought to ruin.

It's hard to reconcile the typical role-playing expectations of adventure, heroism and unity with a world characterised by pessimism and distrust. The social, political and religious conflicts in the universe are truly given voice and face through the companions you meet in the game. Here, the developers dance a difficult dance between creating characters that are both charismatic and interesting, but also incomparable to each other in terms of conflict. The battle nun must be fanatical and xenophobic - as fiction dictates - without making co-operation completely impossible. The sorceress must be rebellious and secretive - without actually appearing to be a premeditated Satan worshipper.

Broadly speaking, Owlcat succeeds very well, and for me, the companions are by far the biggest draw of the experience. In a universe steeped in xenophobia, the gradual merging (or disintegration) of the various characters is a powerful testament to what Rogue Trader is capable of - both the game and the title. If anything, I wish there was more opportunity to interact with your companions. Typically, they all have some thoughts associated with each major mission, but I would have loved to be able to talk to them on the fly, out in the "field."

Of course, in keeping with tradition, there's a bit of banter - a bit of (mostly) good-natured banter - between the characters, but the voice acting is disappointing. Not that it's bad - there's just not much of it. Often it's limited to the one-on-one conversations you have with them. It must be said that the game is relatively text-heavy, and personally, it would be neither feasible nor desirable to have recorded every single line. But I could have used more from the companions and a larger handful of the story's key characters, and I also miss more variation in the "grunts" your own character makes from time to time.

Ultimately, it's a question of resources. Rogue Trader is a robust gaming experience created by skilful hands, but there's no doubt that the budget could have been bigger. It's not that the game looks downright cheap - that makes the unusual and well-executed style somewhat impossible - but it's still subject to some annoying technical restrictions. Load times strike me as more frequent and longer than they should be, many of the visual effects could have been more flashy, but my main frustration is the limited camera that doesn't really let you zoom in on the main characters and the world around them. This also sometimes causes difficulties in combat, where it can be hard to determine what your characters can actually see, but for me it's mostly the annoyance of not being able to get closer to everything. Rogue Trader manages to show so many other interesting and unusual aspects of the universe than just armoured soldiers and tanks, so it's a shame that the camera ends up being the thing that gets in the way of immersion.

Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader

When I say that Rogue Trader is reminiscent of role-playing classics such as Baldur's Gate and Fallout, unfortunately, this also applies to the technical issues I've encountered. I've experienced the game freezing, dialogue being interrupted and several different animations stopping working. There are parts of the user interface that lack text, while the voice acting doesn't always match the text. The most annoying things I've experienced, however, are the many times the game gets stuck in a battle because an enemy doesn't make their move or complete their turn. We all want to reload a save to try a different solution - but no one wants to do it because the game has stalled!

These are all things I've experienced in other games of the same kind and it's a shame that the negative traditions are also kept alive. Thankfully, I haven't experienced any quest getting stuck or the mission progression getting bogged down, but I have to admit that I've often thought that it was just a matter of time. With all these things in mind, as well as a quick look at the developers' track record and the early announcements of next year's expansion packs, it's hard not to imagine an improved and consolidated "definitive" version of the game down the road, but I'll try not to speculate too much...

I don't want to paint a picture of Rogue Trader as an unfinished or limited game. This is a well-written space adventure with plenty of content and a playtime not far from a hundred hours. I myself have spent around thirty and I'm still entertained and engaged. Compared to this year's big titles like Baldur's Gate 3 and Starfield, it may not look like much, but if Larian Studios has taught us anything, it's not to underestimate those overlooked nerds sitting somewhere in Europe making retro role-playing games. My criticism of the game is therefore not that it is too similar to the classics, but that it is currently a victim of some of their problems.

Whatever the future holds, Rogue Trader is already a capable role-playing game that brings an iconic universe to life without flinching. A masterful soundtrack - a sublime blend of Gregorian chant and dirty synthesizers - and a stylish interface set the mood from the start, while the colourful descriptions that accompany the dialogue spark the imagination to such an extent that the game's majestic and nightmarish world quickly begins to bleed across the four sides of the screen. If you've eaten too much after this year's extraordinary role-playing buffet, you can easily let this serving go by in the first instance, but if you have an appetite for more and an interest in the universe, Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader is definitely worth a recommendation.

08 Gamereactor UK
8 / 10
Strong premise, great universe and interesting characters. Sublime soundtrack. A successful marriage of genre and franchise. A solid retro role-playing game in an obvious context.
A camera with annoying limitations. Technical glitches and long loading times. I miss more voice acting and richer opportunities to interact with your characters.
overall score
is our network score. What's yours? The network score is the average of every country's score

Related texts

Loading next content