Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is shaping up to be a stellar CRPG

Rogue Trader party art
(Image credit: Owlcat Games)

Footfall Station is an Imperial outpost on the edge of the Koronus Expanse, a wild sector of frontier space that I plan to tame as a newly minted Rogue Trader. It's essentially Mos Eisley with more buttresses. The Liege of Footfall has requested an audience, a convenient development as my ship needs repairs anyway. Before we arrive at Footfall, however, one of my tech-priests asks a question. Do I want to be greeted with the pomp and formality my title deserves? Or do I want to enter the station incognito?

Frankly, I'm insulted by the question. I'm a bloody Rogue Trader! I'm a one-man East India Company, given special warrant by the Imperium to explore uncharted space, expand its borders, and milk the colonies I establish for everything they're worth. In the callous meat-grinder of the Imperium, I'm one of the few allowed to turn the handle. I want the red-carpet treatment. Trumpets, confetti, adoring crowds, and something sexy bursting out of a cake.

(Image credit: Owlcat Games)

When I descend to the station via dropship, a throng of sycophants applaud my arrival, though frankly I expected it to be bigger. Suddenly, a man dressed in orange rags yells out, and armed gangsters pour from all corners of the dock. The applauding masses are subject to an appalling massacre, as bullets aimed at me rip through the crowd. But I know a thing or two about massacres, and leap into the fray with my entourage, butchering the thugs with blades and bullets. Heads roll, limbs fly, a good number of the attackers are simply mulched. From the carnage, I pick out a couple of weapons I like the look of, then store the rest as cargo to be sold in bulk at a later date.

This explosive scene isn't the opening to Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader—the closed alpha test provided by Owlcat games starts at Chapter 2. But it's quite an introduction regardless, capturing both the ceremony and cruelty at the heart of the 40k universe. I've been intrigued about Rogue Trader ever since it was announced, but after emerging from that bloody skirmish on the dock, I was excited. And the more I played, the more excited I became. Rogue Trader has serious potential to be one of 2023's best games.

With the first act absent, it's not wholly clear how the events of Rogue Trader kick off, although there are some tantalising allusions. In any case, the upshot is you're given personal control of the von Valancius Empire, a fat chunk of space that includes multiple lucrative colonies. Unfortunately for you, instabilities within the warp have wiped all the navigation data for the sector clean, meaning you'll essentially have to rechart your own empire, and rediscover the many worlds hidden within it.

What's in a name?

(Image credit: Owlcat Games)

You're also not technically a Rogue Trader at this stage, although you are one in all but name, and are treated by everyone as such. As you stroll through the gunmetal Gothicism of Footfall station, an accompanying servo-skull declares your presence to everyone nearby. Your position within 40k's rigid hierarchy gives you unusual freedom to behave how you please. In your meeting with the Liege of Footfall Vladym Tocara, you can be empathetic and understanding, coldly professional, or a suppurating arsehole who demands Tocara beg for assistance on his knees. You can also kill people at the drop of a hat with alarming (or, depending on your viewpoint, thrilling) frequency. 

The extent to which your actions have consequences is hard to judge at this early stage. But certainly, your party aren't afraid to share their opinions on your choices. And not just the cruel ones. One of your party members is an Imperial Inquisitor who encourages you to kill non-humans at every opportunity, and will look down on you for simply speaking to a "xeno".

In the 40k universe, empathy is in short supply. Not only does this mean many people view kindness as weakness, it also means that a lot of situations can only be resolved by bloodshed. Combat in Rogue Trader is turn-based, tough, and thoroughly grisly. Your party gets to wield the full 40k arsenal, from bolters and flamers to chainswords and thunder hammers. Rogue Trader really emphasises the nastiness of these weapons. A blast from a bolter can burst an enemy's head like a grape, while smashing someone with a thunder hammer will leave little but a messy stain behind. 

(Image credit: Owlcat Games)

Beneath this crimson sheen is a deep, chewy tactics system. Your party members have separate pools of movement and action points, but using a weapon will nearly always deplete any movement points remaining, and prevent you from using another weapon that turn. Initially, this feels restrictive, but you'll soon find ways around these restrictions through the class-specific abilities. My Rogue Trader specialised as a Leader, letting them use their action points to give other characters additional movements and actions. Leaders can also essentially bet on their party's own prowess, designating zones on the battlefield for the party to capture, achieving which rewards them with bonus actions. It's a fun system that rewards canny thinking, although it can be hard to figure out what some abilities actually do.

After your meeting with the leader of Footfall, you can head straight back to your ship if you like. But I ended losing about five hours exploring the station, dealing with the rebel incursion, getting involved with a rakish con-woman who I ended up recruiting to my party (much to the chagrin of my tech-priest Pasqal), and helping out another companion by sniffing out some heretics. This latter side-quest was particularly entertaining, requiring me to follow symbols etched into the floor, spot hidden doors and avoid nasty traps.

Footfall feels substantial when you're in it, but returning to your ship reveals the station to be but a speck in the wider Koronus Expanse. Once the ship is repaired, you're free to explore the expanse via a Mass Effect-ish galaxy map, travelling between star systems and exploring the various planets within them. Some planets are barren rocks that offer little beyond celestial decoration. Scanning others might yield resources or equipment, or provide a short narrative interlude that results in opportunities to colonise that world.

Profit motive

(Image credit: Owlcat Games)

It's worth pausing here to talk about the trading side of Rogue Trader, as it's quite unusual. Trading doesn't provide you with income in the game—you're already significantly wealthy. Instead, selling cargo to specific factions bolsters your reputation with them, increasing the availability of their stock. At the same time, you have a set purchasing power known as Profit Factor that, when you buy something, regenerates over time, while the Profit Factor cap can be increased as you progress through the campaign. At higher levels, your Profit Factor can influence the story, unlocking new dialogue options and letting you use your wealth as a political and diplomatic tool.

Core colony worlds are where the bulk of the story plays out, such as your main colony world Dargonus, which upon arrival you discover is far from the agrarian idyll that it used to be. As you explore, you'll also stumble on side-quests that are as substantial as they are strange. Early on in my adventure, I discovered a derelict voidship drifting in some minor system. Investigating, I found the ship littered with deranged tech-priests attempting to shed themselves of their remaining organics, and become completely one with the ship.

All these space-faring adventures are accompanied by writing I found to be generally excellent, as ornate and evocative as 40k requires, but with vivid and clearly defined characters shining through. Moreover, it communicates how weird the 40k universe is. During one warp-jump, my Rogue Trader's nightmares literally came to life, forcing him to fight them off in his bedroom as his party rushed in to help. In another instance, I was asked to have a quiet chat with one of my party members because she was being lethally odd, and her attempts to socialise with the voidship's crew were driving them to suicide.

(Image credit: Owlcat Games)

I wasn't impressed by everything, though. While the combat system is well-designed, encounters can drag on, as the game likes to throw a lot of enemies your way. There's also a separate system for space combat, where your voidship blasts enemy vessels with broadsides and controllable torpedoes. It has some interesting ideas. Ships have large turning circles and can't stop in space, so you must think hard about manoeuvring into strong firing positions while keeping your shields facing the enemy. But it feels a bit pokey, and doesn't evoke the grandeur of a 40k space battle.

Still, I've had a ton of cool experiences in Rogue Trader, and there's still a fair chunk of the Alpha I've yet to explore. If what I've played is indicative of the quality of everything else Owlcat has planned for the game, then this could end up being something truly special.