Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr is an ambitious mouthful

We got hands-on time with the wildly ambitious -- but incredibly early -- game at E3.

Warhammer games won’t rest until they’ve tackled every genre. This one looks a lot like Diablo.

Obviously, “Diablo” isn’t a genre, but it’s my strongest link to what better-versed players tell me is called the “action-RPG.” NeocoreGames, developers of Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr, aren’t strangers to the breadth of the genre. They developed The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing - that is, Diablo with vampires and a lovably ill-timed sense of humor.

Now Neocore joins the legions developers partnered with Games Workshop (licensors of Warhammer, and its sci-fi sister Warhammer 40,000). They’re still making an action-RPG, but this one is set in the grim darkness of the far future. A time when, so I’m told, there is only war. Though “war” typically implies more than one side, and this particular conflict is told almost entirely from the perspective of theocratic, spacefaring creatures known as “humans.” In video games, at least.

That hasn’t changed in Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr. A game that I - like the developers who gave me the demo - henceforth choose to call “Inquisitor.”

Actually, Inquisitor is arguably the most human-centric 40K project in some time. This time you play as one of the titular zealots, whose entire purpose is xenophobia. Their task is to purge aliens, yes, but also investigate possible heretics to this universe’s morally questionable god-emperor. From what I saw at E3, you accomplish this by putting punching holes in humans corrupted by “Chaos” from a top-down perspective.

The build was decidedly early: pre-alpha, and no less than a year away from release. Running on a PC, Inquisitor wheezed along like a chainsword low on Promethium fuel. Enemies didn’t seem particularly aggressive, either, preferring to stand quietly behind cover. This gave the devs ample opportunity to show off Inquisitor’s very impressive destructible environments.

This seems like a big draw for the game. It’s been highlighted in the trailers that have slipped out thus far. Not to mention, criminy, does it ever look nice. Techno-Gothic 41st millennium architecture might have been built to last, but bolter rifles and melta grenades were made to destroy in spectacular fashion. That’s something that comes through nicely in the crumbling, shattered cover of Inquisitor.

What’s not clear as yet is how much it matters. Those enemies that were programmed to attack the demo-giver mostly made a beeline into melee range. From his top-down perspective he easily dispatched them with hot, pseudo-futuristic death without ever entering cover himself. Occasionally, Chaos cultists took potshots from behind pillars, but this seemed like a one-sided tactical consideration. The player can blow enemy safe spots to pleasing dust, but whether you’ll need to flit from cover-to-destructible-cover yourself wasn’t clear.

Maybe it all depends on what class you choose. I saw about a dozen minutes of the “Crusader,” but only a handful more of the “Assassin” before the demo crashed and Neocore switched gears. The former is your bulky and basic Space Marine-looking dude -- with wires entering the head, and shoulder pads entering the stratosphere. The Assassin was a woman -- another underrepresented species in the Warhammer universe -- which you could tell because of her visible cyber-breasts and lithe silhouette.

Neither class seems particularly different at the moment, but technical difficulties meant I didn’t get to see much of one class for comparison. There’s also a third role coming, but Neocore wouldn’t say what that might be.

I’ll be honest; I wasn’t strongly moved by the moment-to-moment gameplay either avatar had to offer. Technical hindrances aside, the demo didn’t make a great case for why, in particular, Warhammer 40,000 is a strong fit for an action-RPG.

Being vaguely familiar with the uber-franchise, I feel as though that should be self-evident: a cadre of alien species with high birth rates to meet and murder, as well as a vast galaxy of conflict to explore. Bringing different tactics to bear against each faction, and getting loot specific to their slimy, sparkly selves seems like a foolproof environment for a game about clicking things to death thousands of times over.

What I saw just didn’t do a great job of showcasing that. The mostly ranged combat was slow, and not particularly flashy yet. Not to mention it all occurred against a single, opposing faction -- the forces of Chaos. The sole interesting wrinkle was that certain enemies are as indestructible as the setting. You can target individual body parts for elimination, but with such passive targets on display it’s hard to say how much this matters.

What I heard about Inquisitor has me much more excited.

NeocoreGames is looking to leverage the action-RPG for the long haul. Which isn’t surprising, since every game and its mother wants to be “the” game users play and pay for from now until the actual 41st millennium (see: Destiny, The Division, the latest Hitman, etc.).

The devs promise “live events,” and investigative side quests across hundreds of in-game worlds set across dozens of zones and sub-sectors. That’s in addition to the single-player campaign, which can be picked up and dropped at any time should you decide to tackle some other threat.

Many of these will be time-limited and mutually exclusive. The reason being that players’ actions will determine the “official” story of Inquisitor as it happens.

The example the devs used went something like this. A horde of Orks -- violent soccer hooligans that ride meteors -- and a dispatch of Dark Eldar -- semi-mystical space pirates -- could both attack at the same time. Beating back the former might quell their numbers in the sector, but letting the latter advance would bolster them with slaves. Whichever choice the game recognizes as canon is determined by how many players make which choice.

Choosing one of two awful options is, to me, an angle true to the Warhammer tone. Which makes this feature exhibit A in Neocore’s case for a 40K action-RPG. The futility of that choice -- being able to fight for what you think is the best bad decision, only to have popular opinion sway against you -- is a fine exhibit B.

Just as on-brand, though potentially frustrating to some, is the promise of asynchronous in-fighting.

As your Inquisitor levels up and garners loot so too does their “fortress” advance. These, like much of the most tantalizing promises on offer, weren’t shown during our demo. They were described as customizable dungeons players call home. Squabbling Inquisitors will (apparently) be able to invade each other’s abodes for a crack at the loot therein. Though they’ll have to contend with custom foot soldiers and “retinues” guarding each player’s treasure.

Much like the live events this function of Inquisitor is largely dependent on one thing: a strong and invested player base. Which is something I’m not entirely sold on as a given, as of yet. In its pre-alpha state the game has a long route to chart. The developers themselves seem keenly aware of this, citing unfinished animations as the least of their work yet undone. Poor moment-to-moment, creature-to-heretic gameplay might not magnetize players to the total package long enough to let these more interesting features fire.

That said, Neocore has a track record. Even if it’s not one I’m personally attracted to. Van Helsing didn’t set the world on fire, but it does have its fans. I bounced off the modern “Diablo clone” myself, but did see glimmers of what other players found in it.

Hopefully, that work experience ultimately translates into a well-rounded game. Not just one with mesmerizing ambition, and poor execution. If Neocore can pull it off -- while marrying the action-RPG to a well-liked world like Warhammer’s -- I can see this being my next point of entry to the genre.