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Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader Review: Nothing a Bit of Elbow Grease and Gunpowder Can't Fix

Owlcat's foray into Warhammer 40,000 has seen some big improvements since it's beta version - though it's still hampered by some instability and performance issues.
Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader Review: Nothing a Bit of Elbow Grease and Gunpowder Can't Fix
Image: Owlcat Games

Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader has been a long time coming. Over the 30-year history of Warhammer games we’ve had tactical squad games, shooters, real-time and grand strategy - but never a good old-fashioned story-driven CRPG. But finally, that missed opportunity has been taken.

It’s a title I myself have been following for a while, and when given the chance to try the beta version - I took it. But doing so left me with reservations. I knew it was a game I should like - but I struggled to enjoy it. The pacing lacked urgency. Key story beats felt clumsy and sluggish. It was littered with little bugs and annoyances that sapped its appeal. It had a lot of good qualities - its combat was violent and had a rapid tempo, and the characters and writing were superb. But I walked away from the playtest feeling downtrodden. This was yet another Warhammer 40,000 game that had great ideas, but fell short in execution.

But I’m very happy to say - I was wrong.

Dialogue options in Rogue Trader
Identity theft is no joke in the Koronus Expanse

The full game felt like a different beast entirely. My complaints about the pacing and drawn-out early game were all addressed. Owlcat has reworked noticeable chunks of the opening sections. They’ve changed up the cinematics. Made camera adjustments. Added in some voice acting. Where once I felt the game was graphically underwhelming, it now looks great. The lighting now highlights the moodiness and foreboding of the world - rather than making it look like an underground German nightclub.

The new momentum helps you as a player sail through the slower parts, and into the meatier sections - where Rogue Trader really shines. You’re not just some guy or gal on a little personal quest. No - you’re a huge deal. As you chart courses from system to system, you’ll find a derelict freighter to explore here and set up a mining operation there. You’ll fight off squadrons of pirates and push back the tide of chaos, all whilst settling up and developing colonies across the expanse.

The system map in Rogue Trader
Be prepared to go off the beaten path as you search every nook of the sector

It strikes a fine balance. Sometimes you’ll be managing your little trader empire, and scuppering vagabonds in unexplored sectors. Sometimes you’ll be on the ground, dispersing - or possibly instigating - an insurrection. All the while your adventures feel varied, bordering on ludicrous. That’s exactly what I look for in a CRPG.

It still has some cracks showing. A lot of the bugs I faced before were fixed, but in their place a slew of new ones have emerged. Sometimes they’re cute, like an object or an actor not appearing in comedic fashion. But sometimes they’re not. Like when all combat tooltips breaking, or a key event not spawning.

On top of that, some of the game systems are still very intimidating. The levelling and morality systems have been streamlined, but there’s still a myriad of talents to choose from – and not all of them will benefit you. This does lead to an information overload on a new player - and a very real possibility of building your character into a dud. Though the game does initially throw levels at you like hotcakes, so even if you make a few bad choices here and there, your power level will keep growing regardless.

Utilising height in a gunfight
Getting the drop on an enemy is even more effective when you have a boltgun

Rogue Trader lands at an interesting time. Baldur’s Gate 3 was a huge success, and everyone decided that we like RPGs again. But really, it wasn’t a quick trend shift. We’ve been on this path for a while. Owlcat themselves have been pioneering it with Pathfinder. While Rogue Trader is a step in a different direction, they’ve clearly got their experience on show.

I’m not going to say it’ll appeal to everyone who loved Baldur’s Gate. Likewise, this won’t be a must-play for every Warhammer fan - but there is a crossover between those two groups. And for people like that, this is going to be a blast. Sure, there’s some issues that need ironing out, and it might be a while before it’s stable, but the game's positives do make it possible to turn a blind eye to its ugliness. 

The combat is superb, if you like tactical XCOM-style warfare that’s also incredibly grotesque. The writing is believable and absorbing. Oftentimes, it's pretty damn funny. It parodies the absurdity and severity of the world around it and gives it a real charm - something I find lacking from most Warhammer games. 

This does set itself out from the crowd, both in its franchise and its genre. It feels unique. It’s not just boltguns and chainswords slapped onto Pathfinder. The thought and care to make it have its own identity has been taken, and I hope Owlcat follows through further with it. ‘Cos it works great.