It’s easy to be cynical about the glut of video games based on Games Workshop properties. In the last two years they’ve been coming out too fast to keep up with, like there’s some horrifying mutated creature squatting out new games about Space Marines and Goblinoids leashed in a factory somewhere. The beastmaster feeds his creature expensive toy soldiers and tie-in novels and out the other end pops another slightly disappointing version of Space Hulk or a mobile game that’s basically 3D Angry Birds called Snotling Fling. From deep within the engorged creature comes the waft of an upcoming MOBA.
But we shouldn’t give up on the whole idea of making Games Workshop video games just because there have been a few letdowns. We’ve seen several promising ones already and the worlds Games Workshop creates have potential for many more.
But first, some history
Games Workshop released the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battle back in 1983 and that same year the first video game based on one of its titles came out, though it wasn’t a Warhammer game. Instead, it was an adaptation of its board game Apocalypse made for venerable 8-bit PC the ZX Spectrum and its mighty 16 kilobytes of RAM. Apocalypse was essentially Risk with nuclear weapons, and was followed by adaptations of other non-Warhammer games like Talisman and Chainsaw Warrior (both of which have recently been remade) and an original video game published by Games Workshop itself back when that was a thing it did. That was Chaos, an early design of Julian Gollop, who would go on to make the X-COM series. (It’s also been revived, as Gollop’s spiritual sequel Chaos Reborn.)
In the 1990s, the focus shifted to Warhammer, with turn-based strategy games set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, a couple of atmospheric versions of Space Hulk, and a series of real-time tactics games on the fantasy side of things as well as the first forgotten Blood Bowl game in 1995*. Some were great and others less so, but they all demonstrated how well these settings worked for games. With adaptations based on the settings of books or movies often you find yourself repeating highlights of the source material, fighting for Hoth yet again in Star Wars: Battlefront or playing the Stark-alike Forresters in Game Of Thrones, for instance. Warhammer games don’t recycle icons like these because they were made specifically for gaming, and have player-shaped gaps at their core like they’ve been stamped out with a cookie cutter.
While THQ and Relic made good use of the 40K licence with the Dawn Of War series and third-person action game Space Marine in the 2000s, the main development on the fantasy side of things in that time was Warhammer Online: Age Of Reckoning, a sadly short-lived MMO (kept alive by a private server). On the whole Warhammer Fantasy has been underserved compared to 40K, even if you count Blood Bowl as part of the setting (which it is in a 'non-canon episode' sort of way that suggests on the weekends the Old World’s warring races get together to kick a pigskin around and commit acts of brutality that make their wars seem quite pleasant).
A world of peril and puns
The Old World has bafflingly never been the setting for a single-player RPG. A decent MMO and a version of dungeon-crawling board game Warhammer Quest are the closest we’ve come. While there are plenty of other Tolkienesque RPGs out there, Warhammer’s combination of dark fantasy and black comedy is unique. The pen-and-paper Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game depicts a doomed world constantly on the verge of being swept away by the forces of Chaos, but then makes unlikely heroes out of rat catchers, vagabonds, and apprentices, swerving between gritty low-fantasy and extreme silliness as the mood takes it. While The Witcher’s world is similarly afflicted by bigotry and corruption, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay lightens that with puns and clumsy player-characters among whom literacy is a rare skill to be treasured. It’s more like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld than all the spikes and skulls in the artwork suggest †.
Vermintide gives you an idea of how much fun that game could be. Its heroes fight endless hordes of Skaven rat-men while gothic architecture looms over them, but find plenty of time for banter while being shot at by enemies with automatic weapons called 'ratling guns'. Vermintide’s heroes would make fine characters for an atypical RPG—the cool-looking Witch Hunter is actually a sneering puritanical buzzkill and the Pyromancer’s a lunatic whose magic so dangerous she catches fire almost as frequently as her victims. Vermintide’s Tudor houses and twisty streets would likewise make a wonderful backdrop for an RPG, as would the decaying city of Mordheim from the strategy game of the same name.
In the grim darkness of the far future there are mostly Space Marines
Although the sci-fi wing of Warhammer has been explored more frequently in video games, they’ve almost exclusively been games about the Space Marines. While I’m on record as being pretty into those particular shoulderpad fetishists, even I have to admit that after shoehorning them into chess maybe we’ve come close to exploring all the possibilities. With rare exceptions like Rites Of War, a strategy game about the space elf Eldar, and Fire Warrior, a first-person shooter that cast you as one of the alien Tau, almost all the 40K games have been about some flavor of Space Marine‡.
It’s a big galaxy though, and one with room for more than just Ultramarines. Tabletop game Necromunda, in which colorful gangs do battle in the dystopian Underhive, is such a blatant candidate for an XCOM-style digital version it would be odd if someone wasn’t secretly working on it already. Likewise, Gorkamorka, a racing game that pits vehicles clumsily welded together by Orks against each other, is such an obvious idea for a video game I’m worried someone will announce one between the time I write this and its publication. [Ed. note: not yet!]
Next year, NeocoreGames, creators of The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing, are releasing a 40K RPG called Inquisitor – Martyr, so we’ll finally get to play a single-player RPG in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Pleasingly, it’s not about a Space Marine but instead the Inquisition, grimly holding back the tide of darkness with their boltguns and a scowl§. Pen-and-paper roleplayers have been spoiled with multiple 40K RPGs, however, covering not just the Inquisition but the Imperial Guard, the forces of Chaos, the Deathwatch, and Rogue Traders who are essentially the crew of Firefly if their ship was a floating cathedral the size of a city. Any would make for an excellent video game RPG.
There’s more to Games Workshop than Warhammer, and I’d love to see a digital take on their adversarial vampire-hunting board game Fury Of Dracula, but it’s the Warhammer worlds that video games keep coming back to. As I said, they’re ideal settings because they were made with room for players to be the stars, but the the other thing that makes them perfect is their unoriginality, and I mean that in the best possible way. They’ve been built on love of popular fantasy and sci-fi–incorporating ideas from Elric, The Lord Of The Rings, Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser, 2000 AD, Dune, Aliens, Starship Troopers, the Cthulhu mythos, and more—which means they can rush through the exposition that makes the opening of so many games feel like wading through Backstory Bog.
We don’t need an hour of slowly being introduced to the core concepts in an extended tutorial because they’re already familiar from books, comics, and movies. And when you dig under the surface that the superficial familiarity gives way to weirdness beneath—stranger elements like the alien frogs called Slann who are responsible for helping to genetically engineer the stock fantasy races of the Old World, or the Emperor of Mankind’s secret history as an immortal who has been around since the 8th millennium BC. Those are the kind of things you stumble across delving into the backmatter of the rulebooks or the spin-off novels, and those are things the video games will get around to including as they keep filling up the corners of the Warhammer worlds.
In the meantime, I do have Snotling Fling on my phone, and will probably play whatever slides out of that mutant creature in the factory’s gut next.
* When people complain about the more recent Blood Bowl games by Cyanide I think back to that 1995 version by MicroLeague, which didn’t let you choose where to place individual team members on the pitch or how to spend your upgrade points, and only had one player model per team. You had to click on every player individually to figure out who was a skeleton and who was a ghoul. It wasn’t ideal.
† Warhammer Quest gets this tone right with the mission in which you go to great lengths to rescue a miller’s donkey from a grotesque spider lair, only to learn he wanted Old Nell back so the village would have something to eat. Your reward for that quest is one of Old Nell’s roasted haunches.
‡ Even Fire Warrior had Marines in it, though it gave back some of their mystique by making you face them as terrifying stompy enemies. While not a brilliant shooter it did have Tom Baker narrating its intro if you’ve ever wanted to hear the Doctor explain that in the 41st millennium there is only war.
§ The posterboy for the Inquisition in the novels is Gregor Eisenhorn, an Inquisitor who suffered a facial injury during torture that prevents him from ever smiling again, but doesn’t care because he never did anyway. He’s a perfect encapsulation of the 40K paradigm, hugely over-the-top but eternally straight-faced.