Warhammer 40K: Eternal Crusade devs discuss the evolution of their ambitious online shooter

This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 292. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US. 

There’s no shortage of Warhammer 40,000 games right now. At one end, you’ve got the game that graces our cover this month, and at the other you’ve got 40K games as obscure as chess-alike Regicide. Eternal Crusade is an ambitious foray into massively online shooter territory that’s currently in Early Access, and has been worked on by Behaviour Interactive, founded by former members of Age of Conan team Funcom. It looks like a pretty convincing facsimile of the 40K universe, like a slightly nicer version of Relic’s Space Marine, even though as a shooter it feels like there’s a long way to go to completion.

Eternal Crusade’s senior producer Nathan Richardson and its lead game designer Brent Ellison, sat down with me at the PC Gamer Weekender to talk about their game’s origins and how they’re replicating certain elements of the tabletop game. 

“We started on a concept doc back at Funcom in 2013,” says Ellison. “Then at one point our executive moved over to Behaviour and took the project with him, and started it up from there. We started with an early prototype and got some stuff up and running very quickly, and that was when the project was announced and the deals were signed and everything like that.”

A change in game engine helped the project’s evolution. “We switched over to Unreal 4 at the beginning of 2015, which is the point where we revisited the scope of the game and focused it more,” Richardson recalls.

Originally billed as an MMORPG, the game now seems to more resemble a large-scale online shooter with MMO elements attached. “We call ourselves a massive online shooter,” Richardson says. “ I think it’s a term that’s coming up that you can apply to Division, Destiny and stuff like that, which are not quite MMOs. They’re big, massive online games, so we’re in that category and have many similarities. But we thought we need to get that core shooter experience nailed down first, because anything we put on top is just useless, unless it’s fun to run around and shoot.” 

With that in mind, the team’s first move was to set up a form of playable prototype of the game for Warhammer 40K fans to try. “We started with a founders programme, where they started playing the game last summer in June, and that was about 25,000 people. The philosophy is we want players in as soon as possible to get feedback and evolve the direction of the game. We were looking for the fun in the shooter, and us locked in a room in Montreal is not the best way to do that.” 

“Particularly with a game where it needs 30 people to play it properly,” adds Ellison. “Being able to get good iteration internally on something like that? You can’t do it. You need people playing the game.” 

Early Access has proved a good match for Behaviour—the team had already built seven iterations of the melee system at the time I spoke to them and clearly they’re soldiering on until their audience is satisfied that the right systems are in place. 

“Basically we knew we wanted to make a 40K game in an [online] space, and so that was the starting point,” Ellison says. “And our guiding philosophy has always been that you’re one of the guys on the tabletop.” It certainly feels like there’s a scale to Eternal Crusade that I’ve not seen in other shooters set in the 40K universe—from my brief hands-on, the maps seem huge, and are built to support vehicles, too. 

“Right now we have 60-person matches,” Ellison tells me. “The 30-person maps, that’s 15v15. Most of the time you’ll be playing on those. The 30v30 maps are these epic siege events where you roll out the Vindicator, blast down the doors, and defenders up on the walls actually have a limited number of reinforcements and are trying to stay alive while the attackers are just throwing their bodies at them. Those we’re going to be testing a lot to make sure we’ve achieved the right scale. But our goal is to make it feel like the game. If you play a game like Battlefront… Battlefront actually reduced the number of players from Battlefield. But they feel much bigger than the battles in Battlefield 4. That’s what we’d like to achieve, we want to have battles that feel absolutely enormous and appropriate for the 40K universe.” 

I like the concept and certainly want to see a 40K shooter that can achieve the feel of something like Battlefield, but the quality of the melee combat and shooting is where it feels like Eternal Crusade needs the most work. Based on the few games I’ve played, both currently fall short of The Division and Destiny in providing instantly satisfying feedback to the player. Early Access gives Behaviour the chance to fix that.

Samuel Roberts
Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.