Rogue Trader Alpha: Goonhammer’s First Impressions

Last week, Owlcat Games made a closed Alpha build playable for their upcoming Warhammer 40,000 cRPG, Rogue Trader. Rogue Trader is based loosely off of the tabletop RPG of the same name set in the 40k universe, focusing on those titular Rogue Traders. You step into the shoes of one of these space privateers to explore the Koronus Expanse as you fight, talk, and perform general feats of grimdark derring-do it takes to survive and profit. 

Since developing the Pathfinder video games, Owlcat has gotten a positive reputation in the gaming community for putting out modern cRPG classics. With rogue trader being the first ever role-playing Warhammer video game and Owlcat’s first foray out of Pathfinder, there’s a lot of excitement about this game and even more questions. So, Owlcat decided to put out an Alpha preview version of the game for fan’s to sink their teeth into. 

The Alpha is available to those who backed at the Digital Founders tier, and lets you get to touch the game before most others as well as providing feedback to the development team. Since the Alpha last week, Dan “Swiftblade” Richardson has been able to explore the Koronus Expanse as a backer, and Owlcat Games was kind enough to provide us here at Goonhammer a few Alpha Keys as well. So if you’re curious what the Rogue Trader Alpha is like but weren’t able to play, look no further. We’ve already got our captain’s hat and Goonhammer writ of trade, so that means we’ve got carte blanche from the High Lords of Terra to give our hottest takes and first impressions!

Credit: Owlcat Games

Before we get too much farther we should give another shoutout to Owlcat for providing us with Alpha Keys for the team, and to note that this isn’t a review of Rogue Trader. Our proper review will come with the game’s full release next year. These are thoughts based on a very early version of the game, many of it’s systems aren’t quite done yet but that’s to be expected. 

Without further ado, let’s hear from the crew: what do you think about Rogue Trader so far?  

Jonathan: Wow, they just throw you right into this thing, don’t they?

I’m probably the least 40K-invested person on the masthead of this site — at minimum, I’m in the bottom five there — so I’ve got an amateur’s eye when it comes to the aesthetics of the property. I’ve learned most of it from the other video games that I’ve played that have gotten the license. Even so, something here feels a little off — the thing that struck me the most is how pretty everyone, man and woman, is in their character portraits. That’s not out of place in most CRPGs, where you’re just scrolling through picture after picture of someone who should be on a fantasy novel cover, but Argenta and Heinrix should probably have a little more wear and tear than they do. Chaos Gate did a pretty good job with this with its cast of alternating grotesqueries and scarred-up babes, including the doomed Commander.

Sister Argenta, one of your companions. Credit: Owlcat Games

This title seems to be following that narrative template — you’re a created character following in the footsteps of the doomed Rogue Trader/Chapter Master/Commander/so on that came before you and who exists in the game essentially as a tutorial character. The tutorial isn’t in this alpha yet; you begin in the second act, after your character has taken control of the ship and the title of Rogue Trader, and they just sort of throw you right into the deep end with your first combat. Hopefully whatever tutorializing there is concerns the whole of the first act, because when it comes to the battle system there’s so much to learn. I’ll turn the discussion on that over to someone else.

Primaris Kevin: Holy crap I have 27 hours into this. So yes, if you’re the kind of 40k fan who loves CPRGs then this will definitely be right up your alley. Looking past the alpha state there’s a real gem here, with the right atmosphere for conveying the idea of a Rogue Trader personally responsible for the fate of billions. Decisions are meaningful, the game appears to give you plenty of freedom, and for the most part the gameplay is a lot of fun. In terms of atmosphere there’s a lot to like here, although the music definitely needs more tracks. I’m playing the part of a xenos-tolerant lovable scamp who has absolutely no tolerance for the presence of Chaos, and will casually crush the skull of any heretic who dares whiff of the Ruinous Powers. Meanwhile I’m carrying a Drukhari Glaive right in front of an Ordo Xenos Interrogator and all he can do is be annoyed. This must be what it feels like to be rich.

Credit: Owlcat Games

The Good

  • The atmosphere and scope of the game is really fun, with you making decisions that can affect thousands and working hard to bring together your dynasty.
  • The ship combat is probably my favorite part and even with the limited exposure I have had I want a LOT more.
  • Combat offers a lot of really fun combinations and options, with both melee and ranged play styles being viable.
  • There’s a pretty solid sense of progression, and it seems like you have a lot of flexibility in terms of how you want to approach your character.
  • The characters are great and I can definitely feel like they have interesting back stories.
  • Overall the game is remarkably solid in spite of its alpha status.

The Bad

  • The game features a lot of ‘old school’ design choices which honestly feel out of place in 2022. For example I shouldn’t need to walk across the map to visit a vendor, and there should be an option to simply highlight objects by default. I also loathe that there is no way to respec your character.
  • The inventory system in general is a bit of a disaster, and your inventory will quickly end up full of trophies which are just random quest items that you have no use for.
  • The “money” system is based on a concept called Profit Factor, an amorphous representation of your incredible wealth. This is fine, but it leads to odd things where a generic boltgun is worth as much as the mining equipment for an entire planet. 
  • The character progression system feels like a mess, with it being fairly easy to end up with a bad build which doesn’t really use things well. It can also force you to play things a certain way, such as requiring you to swap between weapons if you’re a Veteran.
  • Your Rogue Trader should automatically be able to use any weapon he wants, especially in the case of generic options like plasma, flamers, and melta. 
  • Combat is incredibly obtuse and after 27 hours I still don’t understand all of it.

The bad is easily fixed, and the good is incredible, so I’m extremely excited for this game.

Swiftblade: Well, I wasn’t able to match Primaris Kevin’s impressive 27 hours with the alpha, but I’m not surprised at all that he’s been able to clock in all that time and still have things to do. Even in it’s alpha state, Rogue Trader feels big and I love that. The first time you open the star map and scan for warp routes and see all those routes hits the same sort of feelings of wonder for me that finding new map markers did in Elden Ring. What’s really cool is that so far, these systems aren’t just empty space, but contain explorable planets and space wrecks to explore. I found one Mechanicus ship that had fallen to chaos corruption and it was some haunted house stuff. Apparitions of dead tech priests flashing before my party, things turning on and off all the time, weird red lights. Great stuff. Fought a Forgefiend at the end of it in a real nail biter of a boss fight, had to use everything I learned about combat.

Credit: Owlcat Games

One of my only gripes is with the combat system introduced here. Not because I don’t like it, its great actually. The archetypes and skills felt universally useful, and doing things besides “shoot/hit bad guy” didn’t feel like a waste of action points. No, my real gripe is the fact that like Johnathan said earlier you are really thrown right into the thick of it. You start in the game’s second act with 15 ranks already underneath your belt, so any portions of the game dedicated to tutorials are absent here. They did provide a document with a detailed guide to combat, but that’s the only tutorial you get before you are thrown up against 20 hive scum ten minutes into the game. There’s alot going on here and learning it took trial and error I hope they smooth out on release, but once I got the hang of it the combat is excellent. Shoutout to Melta guns in Rogue Trader, they go hard.

My favorite moment so far has been a little sidequest I ran into while wandering around the first city area, Footfalls. You stumble onto a funeral for a stranger and get mistakenly recognized as someone close to the dead stranger. A little more digging reveals that your case of mistaken identity could turn out profitable for you, as you are the sole inheritor in the will. What follows is a quest that has several options for resolution, be it diplomatic or covert. Are you greedy and take the money for your own, or help a little girl who just lost her grandfather? Who exactly is the person you are mistakenly identified as? Who can you trust?

Without spoiling too much, I did not unravel this mystery. My Rogue Trader, Rogue Trader, is a dangerous and violent man. I lied as much as I could and blasted literally anyone in my way. In the end, I stood covered in blood, uncaring about the dead man or who the person everyone thought I was actually was. I only wanted profits, so in the name of the Emperor run me my money.  

Credit: Owlcat Games

I’m very excited for Rogue Trader. What I was able to play was a pleasant surprise, even in it’s alpha state, in terms of the complexity of it’s combat and skill systems and tactical decision making. The dialogue was interesting well done, and while I do wish Footfalls felt a little more dystopian, walking around the abandoned corrupted ship and my own ship had an excellent Warhammer atmosphere. My biggest wishlist item for the full release is that I hope there is an option to have my Rogue Trader fall to Chaos. Or make allies with the Drukhari. I’m a Badman after all.

Jonathan: I am kind of all in on this game even though its battle system is inscrutable; I played at least a little bit of this studio’s Pathfinder games, after all. And I do love the universe. I love the possibilities. I personally would love to make friends with the Aeldari, the Ta’u, and all the other weird beneficent factions, and drive my Rogue Trader ship hither and yon until I had a great becoming through which me and all my cool friends could simply opt out of the greater Warhammer 40K universe. They don’t cater to me for a reason! But given that this is my mindset, it’s worth noting that I wasn’t put off at all by the writing of the protagonist, the NPCs, and the companion characters throughout the alpha. There’s a lot still to do here — if you’ve seen your ship trying to move across the starscape in the sector screen, you know that this is truly an actual alpha prototype of the game released to us to stress test, not some buttercup sleek near-beta — but I am very hyped for how this will eventually end up as a finished product. I also hope they can take another nine months on it to nail everything down.

Credit: Owlcat Games

Josh: I didn’t manage to clock in as many hours as everyone else here, but what I did manage to play left me with a bit to chew on.  There’s a lot of depth here, even for an Alpha, and that really excites me. I’m typically someone who can get massively sucked into a game until I’ve finished it front to back, and I could feel myself doing the same thing with the alpha. (Unfortunately, work and having a crappy, easy-to-overheat laptop limits the amounts of binge-playing I can do.) 

Dialogue, for the most part, is fun to read in this game. If you’re not someone big into 40K, there’s a helpful dictionary and glossary of terms that the game highlights in text so you can get some basic understanding of the topics being discussed. It’s a helpful touch. (though a little sparse in the Alpha. I feel some things could’ve used some more explaining, but I can’t blame Owlcat for not filling an alpha-test with lore dumps)  Warhammer is a universe that is so expansive that even people versed within it is going to understand the lore behind Rogue Traders, their dynasties, and all the peculiarities that come with it.

As incomprehensible as combat was, I did manage to do a lot of it and get by just fine – though not always in a smooth or effortless manner. I reloaded a few fights wrestling with the controls, which really could use streamlining. It’s a little silly my beatsticks have to be told to walk and then attack. It’s happened more than once that my beatsticks just swing at air because I forgot they need to be told to march first. 

Credit: Owlcat Games

As the others said above, I feel like if I’d played through the game naturally, through the tutorial, I’d have gotten a lot more used to the abilities and gameplay mechanics. I’d hope so anyway. The document really wasn’t enough to just get across all the abilities and all the stuff you can do in combat, which is fine – it gave me the jist, but it was a frustrating grind to minor understanding. Reading through all the abilities and then testing each one as the combats came ‘n’ went. Some felt like duds – maybe I didn’t find the right enemy, but I just never used the Adept’s Study ability.  All the Battle Sister’s soldier abilities were very straightforward, and I found them the most useful. There might be a case where I understood what they did so I used them better here. 

A lot of the leader abilities were pretty great too, and I appreciated their names being reminiscent of the Guards’ orders. Some were, again, a little obtuse though. Move Move Move to grant extra movement seemed great, but it snatches the turn away from your current character to give the other characters chance to move, and you don’t decide which order they move in, so it never seemed great to clear up a traffic jam or slam the right people into cover when they needed it. 

Maybe there was a way to switch between people at “equal” initiative, but I never figured it out if there was. 

Shout out to Bring It Down! It was the buff I kept up most on my shooters.

Credit: Owlcat Games

Atmosphere wise – something about Footfall and the games visual design doesn’t quite do it for me. My ship is awesome, and some parts are meant to show the sheer extravagance that some people live in… but there’s a level of grit that I just feel isn’t present.  It’s hard to pinpoint, it being so subjective. Maybe it’s like what Johnathan said, the portraits on some characters are a little too clean – I think there could be more style to them.  But it’s more than that. The environments are, while bleak, just a little… eh. Some more touches would’ve done wonders. There are some, I particularly love the backdrops you can see near railings on your ship. 

I didn’t really get to do much beyond Footfall, regretfully, so it really might’ve just been me not getting to experience everything and getting a complete picture.

Acting as a rogue trader captain with full authority is, in fact, very cool. You get to play with your power and status, and you are someone of status. Subtlety is for losers. Shame your mentor died and all, but we’re out here to kick ass and make profit, and that means wheelin’ ‘n’ dealin’ with the worst of the worst.  Inquisitor Bozo can stuff it. 

I quite like the Profit system – it’s a unique way of dealing with the type of wealth a Rogue Trader would have access to. You’re not a schlub counting creds, you’re someone dealing with sustaining wealth. It makes shopping fun – you don’t have that gnawing ‘but something else might pop up’ instinct you might get in other RPGs. If you find something, buy it. If you find something better in a bit, you can just wait a bit to get it – or, just get it if enough time has passed. 

One of your companions and Navigator in Rogue Trader. Credit: Owlcat Games

Overall, it’s a game worth waiting for. There’s a lot of streamlining to be done, but they’ve got the time to do it. I’d be excited to see how different my perception would be if I started from Act 1. A good build up and intro is an important part of games like this, and I really hope they nail it. 

Condit: I’m the kind of sicko who likes to engage Bravery Mode at every opportunity in games like this, and that totally bit me in the ass. You see, the game offers two difficulties: normal and “Core,” and, as with basically everything else on offer in the alpha, doesn’t bother to tell you what the difference is. This resulted in my party stepping off their shuttle in Footfall, immediately getting embroiled in a firefight, and losing four of six party members to some nerds with autoguns and shotguns before any of them were even allowed to react.

I want to be clear – that won’t necessarily be a bad thing when the finished product comes along. That sort of unapologetically hateful experience is what I and likely at least a handful of other gamers are looking for out of a new CRPG. That said, being thrown into the deep end and told to figure out a complex system with dozens of options at any given time where the penalty for any minor mistake is instant death was a bit much, so I decided to shelve my pride and give the game a go on normal difficulty. I’m definitely looking for whatever bullshit they’ve got planned for the harder difficulties on release, though.

Speaking of combat, the other folks here are not wrong when they say it’s complex. If you’ve ever played one of the older 40k-themed RPGs like Rogue Trader, Dark Heresy, or the like, the basics of the system will be familiar to you. It’s still a percentile-dice system where a “good” starting stat is somewhere in the 40s, which means that with the bonuses for basic actions and the judicious application of buffs, you can expect to get a reasonable chance to hit when you’re doing something your character is good at, though what’s meant by “reasonable” has about a 20% swing depending on the difficulty.

Your action economy is where things get more complicated, though. Each character has a set of action points they can spend on various things, including attacks, class skills, using items, or anything else they may have available to them. Some of these actions have other limits; for example, you can typically only attack once per turn. On top of that you’ve got momentum, which is a shared resource you can spend on some really meaningful abilities.

Credit: Owlcat Games

At the end of the day, each of your characters has a whole pile of options available to them, defined by their background, their class, and their equipment, and getting your head around how they all interact is going to take some time. As one example, the Sister of Battle in your starting party is pretty handy with a gun, and she starts with a bolter, giving her a decent chance of one-shotting weaker enemies at range. And while she can blaze away on full-auto to try to hit a group of enemies in an area, doing so drastically reduces her accuracy. If you want to keep that reliability, you can instead lean on your Navigator’s class abilities, which allow her to order the Sister to take an out-of-sequence activation to attack, and then keep attacking as long as she kills something with each attack. Set this up well with good line-of-sight and a few softened targets and you could turn the tables on a group of enemies who’ve got the drop on you. But if you miss your shot, you’ve wasted a powerful ability and likely rendered your Sister unable to benefit from the Navigator’s buffs for the rest of the fight.

Thankfully, if anybody’s going to be able to make a solid game out of such a complicated system, it’s Owlcat – after all, their previous titles were based on Pathfinder, a system not widely known for its lack of complexity – and Rogue Trader is already off to a good start in that regard. It’s clear from this build that they’ve laid down the framework necessary to build a solid CRPG. Now we just have to wait and see whether the finished product can live up to that promise.

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