Top down hack and slash action RPGs haven’t really needed to evolve for quite some time, having largely been perfected decades ago when 2D character sprites were the graphics of choice, but to create the first action RPG in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Neocore have had to get a little more inventive. Your first thoughts with Warhammer 40K is going to be of the heavily armoured, stodgy movement of Space Marines through alien wastelands and Terminators clanking through the dank corridors of a Space Hulk, but slow stomping isn’t really conducive to exciting and fun action RPG gameplay. It’s a huge boon then for this game to be based around Inquisitors and the variety in characters that this offers up for Neocore.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Game Designer Lambert Tóth. “First we made the Crusader, which is a slower character and much closer to the classic Space Marine’s bulky movement and a bit of a tank character in action RPGs. After that we start experimenting with the Assassin which is much faster, and at that point I think we realised that maybe it’s much more fun to jump into the battle and jump back.
“At that point we were also in Early Access and player feedback was that, yeah, they wanted a little bit faster pacing, and that’s why we just brought the game speed up, the movement speed and the actual feedback for the players with the turning speed, skill and effects feedback. […] It was a lot of experimenting, a lot of listening to the players.”
You do still have some of the slower paced and more considered gameplay, though. The Crusader is a heavily armoured, gun-toting tank of an Inquisitor, in contrast to the faster and more nimble Assassin and the Warp Magic infused Psyker. You can take cover behind scenery and then pop out of cover to take a few shots, and enemies will do the same. That said, it’s only on higher difficulties that I ever felt like I was taking too much damage from simply wading into the thick of the action and gunning or chopping enemies down. Getting people to engage with the cover system when coming from other action RPGs is one of the hurdles Neocore have had to overcome.
Lambert explained, “When you’re in cover your health regeneration is faster, so you can rebuild yourself a little bit before or after a battle. It is pretty useful for the Psyker and the Assassin, which are a little bit less tank-like characters, but for the Crusader it can absolutely work that you just move to the middle and kick some asses.”
With the game having been in Early Access on PC, Neocore have had plenty time to see it in action, and Lambert added, “It’s kind of interesting watching the players that are used to it and they’re getting to learn that tactical gameplay. We realised that they can play it faster because they had adapted their play style.”
David Martha, PR Manager also said, “It depends what kind of character you are building, also. In certain situations we force the players to use cover because there are certain enemy types. For example, the elites or small bosses, that require you to use cover, simply because if you get hit you take so much damage you instantly become suppressed, and the only way to get rid of suppression and all the debuffs that come with it is to find cover.”
It’s nice and easy to pick up on console, with direct control over the character and camera or the ability to lock on to enemies. There’s also differing control schemes, so you can have all four abilities mapped to the face buttons, the shoulder buttons and triggers, or a mixture of these, which can help with certain styles of play and weapon combos.
That ease is carried on by the way that you can simply pick up a new weapon and have all four of its abilities unlocked for you right away. As long as your character is high enough a level for that weapon, you’re good to go and don’t need to worry about unlocking different attacks. You can very quickly change up your weapons with the ability to switch between two when on a mission. You could have two strongly contrasting weapons like sword and sniper on the Assassin, or complimentary Bolter and Laspistols for the Crusader. Throw four player co-op into the mix, and you can easily pick complimenting classes as well.
But then this accessibility is nearly thrown out of the window as soon as you open the character skill tree. It’s almost impenetrable the first time that you look at it, giving you over a dozen different categories, from ranged to melee, area of effect, support, debuffs and more. Within each category there’s a tree that you can funnel points into and unlock incremental little boosts to your character, increasing movement speed by a percentage here, adding to the chance of critical damage there.
Of course, it’s here that the real depths of the game’s characters reveal themselves. Spend time with it and you’ll see the ways that you can take your Psyker and make their Warp-infused attacks that much more powerful and effective against hordes of enemies, you can amp up your abilities with the cover system, make that Assassin an expert in hit and run strikes.
“Progression is very tricky,” David admitted, “because you constantly have to make the player feel like they’ve achieved something and reward them accordingly. What we wanted to do is that, even though whenever you pick up a weapon and are presented with its set of skills, certain weapons are only accessible after a certain level, so then you get more powerful skills, more powerful weapons and more powerful armour.[…]
“Casual players won’t really be interested in putting a lot of time into the passive skill trees and perks, but I think that’s where Inquisitor really shines. You’ve got passive skill trees where you can mix and match your skill trees that you want to use, and the synergy between these are really awesome. I think if you’re at all interested in action RPGs and building a character, then you can enjoy that.”
Skill points are earned on an account level, cutting out much of the grind for having multiple characters, but you do also have the hunt for new and different weapons. It’s here that you’ll find the familiar grind of the action RPG, as you open the rewards for completing missions and cross your fingers to find something new or better than what you currently have. Thankfully, Neocore aren’t just relying on incremental number increases to keep things interesting after completing the main campaign.
Once the main Nurgle threat has been defeated in the Caligari Sector, running through handcrafted levels and following the story, you can keep playing with Priority Assignments. These are randomised missions built using the different tile sets and potential layouts, customised them with generated mission briefing details and objectives, populated with appropriate enemies and covered with destructible cover and scenery. There’s even added variety through different weather conditions and having Nurgle’s green corruption spreading across the different planets.
Sometimes these can be strung together in the form of Grand Investigations. As Lambert explained, “These are special story-based missions which are linking together and are much closer to an investigation, like an Inquisitor that is just seeking for heretics and then finds that the problem is much bigger than you expected and that you have to solve this problem and purge all of the heretics. It’s not just the purging missions – maybe at the end of the sequence – but meanwhile you need to seek some clues or protect an important person. For example, there will be some protective missions, like the fifth level in the tutorial where you have to stand your ground.
“So there will be much more diversification of the missions, but I think most importantly, they will be linked together with the story. We have really good narrative designers that are at home in the Warhammer 40,000 universe and I think they’ve done a great job with that. If fans read the stories, they’re going to love it.”
And even with that, Neocore are building this with the modern concept of a live game in mind. There’s live leaderboards that you can compete on in order to become the protector of a system in the broad Caligari Sector and earn better loot from missions, and then a little while after release Neocore will launch their first season of free content. Each of these will introduce a new race from the Warhammer 40K universe to battle, a new series of story beats, new missions and environments, and there will be an overarching decision for the community to make through their actions and choices in-game that will alter and decide the fate of the sector.
Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr really feels like an action RPG born out of modern gaming. The way that player rewards are doled out, the instant gratification of getting a new toy to play with, the free additional content and in-game events to keep people engaged. Most importantly though, it’s not a plodding Space Marine fest, but a fast and fun action RPG with more than a few ideas on how to shake up the genre.