One of my fondest childhood memories has to be the first time I walked into my local Games Workshop. While I had passed by this particular store on the historic Royal Mile several times, it was not until after I received the adventure board game Space Crusade (and subsequently Advanced Space Crusade) that I made it a point to enter for the first time. Admittedly, it was the intricate miniatures that initially appealed to me, as I had always enjoyed building and painting models my entire childhood; but once I became engrossed with the dystopian science fantasy that surrounds Warhammer 40K, I was hooked for life.
Rather than attempt to paraphrase an introduction to the Warhammer 40K universe, the following block of text which appears in several works of fiction sums things up quite nicely:
“It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor of Mankind has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods and master of a million worlds by the might of His inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the vast Imperium of Man for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day so that He may never truly die.
Yet even in His deathless state, the Emperor continues His eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the Warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in His name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst His soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the Tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat to humanity from aliens, heretics, mutants — and far, far worse.
To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.”
— The standard intro to every Imperium-centered written work from the 40K universe, first spoken by Vulkan, Primarch of the XVIII Legion
The Birth of Warhammer 40K
Games Workshop released a sword-and-sorcery wargame titled Warhammer Fantasy Battle back in 1983. As the title suggests, this tabletop wargame focused on fantasy races such as Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, and Goblins. Warhammer Fantasy Battle was a monumental success, so much so that the game evolved through eight editions until finally being replaced by Age of Sigmar in 2015. But soon after Warhammer Fantasy Battle was initially released, Rick Priestly was tasked with developing a science fiction version of the game, as he had been working on a project of his own called Rogue Trader. The suits at Games Workshop were unsure whether sci-fi would sell well or not, so Rick incorporated elements such as magic and counterparts to fantasy races such Elves and Orcs; hoping that the fantasy elements would attract players. Sure enough, the combination worked.
Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader was released in 1987 and demolished Warhammer Fantasy in regards to sales, even so it was more of a role-playing game than a proper wargame. Rogue Trader required a minimum of three players, one of whom assumed the mantle of the Game Master which was fairly similar to the role of a Dungeon Master within Dungeons and Dragons. I firmly believe that this initial similarity is what thrust Warhammer 40K into such success. While DnD is unquestionably successful — with more than 20 million people still playing it today — there was a notable moral panic during the 1980s that falsely linked the game to Satanism and suicide.
Even so the lore of Warhammer 40K nowadays can be viewed as equally blasphemous as DnD, not much was known about it at the time. There is a good chance that parents were much more content with their kids playing the ‘space thing’ rather than the ‘devil-worshiping thing’, well at least over here in the U.K. that is.
Fast forward thirty years, and Warhammer 40K is now on its eighth edition. There has a been a myriad of changes to the core rules, dozens of spin-off board games, and hundreds of novels that all combine to supplement the universe that Rick Priestly created. While all of these physical forms of media have continued to be successful, there is one particular medium that Warhammer 40K has accumulated more failures than successes: Video Games.
Lost in Translation
Just as my first foray into the physical world of Warhammer 40K was via the board game Space Crusade, my first digital experience was Space Crusade from Gremlin Interactive on the Commodore 64. The box art was identical, albeit much smaller since it was a cassette tape, and in retrospect it was a faithful conversion of the board game. But back then, I was less than impressed. One of the major draws of Warhammer 40K was always the miniatures for me, I thoroughly enjoyed painting them, and of course the physicality of actual figurines was much more aesthetically pleasing than the 8-bit graphics circa 1992. That being said, the video game version allowed for the visual representation of explosions and whatnot; featuring 3D close-ups during battle scenes, a feature which was later adopted by games like X-Com.
It was not until 2004 that I took my next dive into a digital representation of the Warhammer 40K universe, deciding to skip titles such as Space Hulk (even so I owned and loved the board game) and Fire Warrior (a mediocre FPS); and that was of course the fantastic Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. This real-time strategy game was initially small in scope, as players could only play as Space Marines, Chaos Space Marines, Eldar, or Orks; but the graphics at the time were fantastic. The ability to zoom in and inspect units that any lifelong 40K player is more than familiar with was amazing. Witnessing Assault Marines utilise their jetpacks or Terminators trudge into battle was something that my imagination had always pictured, but being able to literally see it was like a dream come true. After several expansions and two sequels, the last iteration of this particular franchise was Dawn of War III, which was released in 2017. Unfortunately, due to not meeting expectations at launch (the game focused on MOBA elements rather than RTS), Relic Entertainment announced that they would stop active development of the game.
The next game of note for me was Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine (which at the time of writing is available for free here). Whilst I have no love for the Ultramarines, as I was always a Dark Angels fan (as the picture above of one of my tactical squads evidences), I still thoroughly enjoyed it. This third-person shooter/hack-n-slash game was released for PC, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3 back in 2011. For this particular title, Relic Entertainment recruited staff that had experience working on console titles; featuring talent that had worked on Gears of War, God of War, and the Far Cry series. Despite the linear campaign and uninspiring environments, the game received a generally positive reception, and of course was a lot of fun to play. Once again providing a stunning visual depiction of various units from the Warhammer 40K universe, and allowing lovers of the tabletop games to see these characters move in real-time. While sequels were indeed planned, disappointing overall sales figures and of course the closure of the game’s publisher THQ have removed any chances for a sequel; unless of course a different publisher decides to pick up the reigns.
In total, there are around 48 video games that are set within the universe of Warhammer 40K. These titles range from turn-based strategy games, first person shooters, role-playing games, and even a digital collectible card game. Most of these were fairly hit-and-miss, failing to capture the true essence of what makes the Warhammer 40K universe so appealing: it’s fusion of sci-fi with Gothic darkness. For the most part I had given up hope that there would ever be video game that truly delivered an experience which rivaled one of the fabulous novels, or an all-night campaign with friends at a tabletop.
Then along came Space Hulk: Deathwing.
Still Not Quite There
Space Hulk: Deathwing is a first-person shooter published by Focus Home Interactive in 2016, and is of course based on the turn-based board game Space Hulk that was released in 1989. As you will most likely suspect, I owned the board game and the subsequent expansions that were later released, which pitted Terminators against the evil Genestealers; an aggressive alien species that are similar to the xenomorphs in the Alien franchise. I truly wish I still had my copies of Space Hulk, Deathwing, and Genestealer, not because first editions are now highly sought after and worth quite a bit, but purely for sentimental reasons. Subsequent editions of the board game have always sold out soon after becoming available, it is honestly that good. The initial reception of the latest video game however (which is the 7th video game to contain Space Hulk within the title) was mixed, with criticism focusing on poor optimisation, poor AI, and a lackluster story.
When the Enhanced Edition was released on 22 May 2018, it brought with it significant additions and of course enhancements, so much so that I had fully intended on writing a full review of the game. Personally, I thoroughly enjoy the game. It features phenomenal graphics and exceptional sound effects, whilst providing intense visceral combat that all combine to create an immersive atmosphere that even Rick Priestly must surely approve of. The game itself revolves around the feared 1st Company of the Dark Angels, the Space Marine Chapter that I have been devoted to since before puberty. But even with all of that, it still falls short of the tabletop experience. Something which initially left me scratching my head in bewilderment, as it certainly ticks a lot of the figurative boxes.
Then it dawned on me, it was lacking the one thing that makes any tabletop experience unique: the player’s own imagination.
Consider the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons, whilst figurines are admittedly used to help visually represent where characters are located, most of the magic that the game delivers is courtesy of the interactions between the people playing. Just as a book requires the author to successfully paint a picture, those words merely provide a foundation, it is the reader’s imagination that fully transforms the written word into vivid images. Whilst there have been many video games based upon DnD (92 last time I checked), several of which are excellent—Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights (2002)—they also tend to fail to deliver an experience that is comparable with a tabletop late-night session in a basement with your friends.
It is one of the fundamental problems of most video games, which is exponentially worse with those set within the Warhammer 40K universe; you are merely playing through someone else’s story, rather than crafting your own. Whilst the codices for Warhammer 40K of course outline special characters and certain units, it is ultimately still the imagination of the person that put the force together that spins their story. Only you know the origin story of your third tactical squad for example, which could be a tale of woe or successful revenge following the brutal decimation of their battle-brothers. Any good tabletop campaign is usually crafted by the players, with victories and defeats becoming part of their canon. A video game, no matter how well it is put together, will always be someone else’s story.
Another limitation of most of these video games is that they tend to focus on only a few aspects of the Warhammer 40K universe. Whilst these ‘slices’ of the proverbial pie are of course interesting, they ultimately leave players wanting more; especially if their particular force of interest is not present within the game. The Dawn of War series came close, providing several of the factions within the games; but still omitted much more than what was actually present.
In my mind, the perfect Warhammer 40K video game is nigh on impossible. It would most likely be a Massively Multiplayer Online game that would be on a scale several times larger than Eve Online and World of Warcraft combined (considering both physical size and scope). Whilst the core story line would naturally follow in the canonical footsteps of previous literary works, most of the game itself would be player driven; with the community themselves being responsible for how the story plays out. Of course this is a pipe-dream, as not a single company on this planet has the resources to tackle a project like that; but it would certainly be quite amazing if they did.
Warhammer 40K continues to evolve, with recent—as well as upcoming—video games proving that there is still much to offer fans of the series; but currently, the best Warhammer 40K experience is still on a tabletop rather than a desktop.