The business of licensing an IP to make a videogame is complicated, and in this magazine’s opinion, works best when a single publisher gets exclusive rights. Even better, if the owner of the IP can spin off some kind of associated developer, then the results can be truly spectacular. We’re not saying EVERY Star Wars game ever made is awesome, but LucasArts has done some incredible work. Good enough, in fact, for videogame content to flow back into the canon of Star Wars at large.
Of course, Games Workshop is no Lucasfilm. But its Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000 collectable miniatures games are played, loved, and obsessed-over by millions.
Warhammer 40,000 was created as a spin-off of the high fantasy Warhammer, when designer Rick Priestly was simply told to come up with sci-fi versions of the usual fantasy tropes. Pretty much everything in 40K can be mapped to a fantasy equivalent (the Tau are functionally wood-elves, 'kay?), and it’s pretty obvious looking back at the first edition that the whole thing was cooked up in some British shed over a couple of weekends and a lot of beer.
The point being that the creation of Warhammer 40,000 in the first place wasn’t exactly controlled, or planned, or managed in any real sense. Eight editions later and the game is well defined, sure, but in the early days, Games Workshop pretty much just threw stuff at 40K to see what would stick, and what the fans would buy.
Usually, a videogame that licenses an IP picks something that’s well-established, something that is already huge as a movie or TV show or whatever, and goes from there. And sure, by the time Relic got to Dawn of War, 40K was huge, and making an RTS in this universe made good sense.
But the first 40K videogame, a turn-based tactical thing from Gremlin called Space Crusade, came out in 1992. That’s just five years after the first edition of 40K, Rogue Trader, was published. And a year BEFORE the second edition.
The first three 40K videogames were all conversions of single-box boardgames, rather than encompassing the wider 40K universe (which was still fairly unevolved at that point anyway). Space Hulk (1993, EA) maintains a place of honour in many PC gamer’s Mental 3.5-Inch Floppy Disk Flippy Box of Memories, because despite its basic graphics and turn-based structure, it captured the tense atmosphere of leading a team of Terminators through the cramped corridors of some terrible hulk, where getting torn apart by Genestealers (the Tyranids didn’t exist back then) was only a keystroke away.
In the late 1990s, Strategic Simulations Inc - you might remember them as SSI - took up the totally-not-Christian-in-a-40K-context cross. Final Liberation gets named-checked in our DOW3 review as a rare example of an Epic-scale turn-based tactical game, with teeny-tiny Space Marines and multi-storey Titans on the same battlefield. It had nifty FMV cutscenes, but ultimately relied too much on simply aping the mechanics of the tabletop system, right down to random “dice rolls” affecting outcomes.
Chaos Gate and Rites of War rounded out the millennium with more turn-based tactics, and zoomed the scale back into the Space Marine squad-level, where most tabletop gamers play. Both were solid strategy games, but (and this is a common theme) could have swapped the 40K graphics for anything else and still played the same.
In 2003, THQ released one of PC PowerPlay’s favourite terrible games - Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior. Eschewing the undeniable awesomeness of the Space Marines for the relatively new (launched 2001) Tau, Fire Warrior was just an awful FPS with bad design. Worse, if you weren’t into 40K enough to know what the Tau are, it barely even looked like 40K game. Alternate box-art showing a green Space Marine probably confused some players... since you play as a Tau. A few Space Marines do pop up during the story, though. Thanks THQ!
So up to this point, Warhammer 40,000 videogames were minor, niche titles. That all changed in 2004, when Relic released the first Dawn of War. Running on a heavily-modified version of the developer’s unfortunately-named SPOOGE engine, which had been created for Impossible Creatures, DOW looked good, played well, and filled out the 40K roster with expansions until pretty much every major army was represented (and you’d spent $300).
Dawn of War gave the world’s videogame publishers a newfound confidence in Games Workshop’s IP. So began a “golden” age of constant Warhammer releases.
Proof of the bubble: there was even a turn-based strategy title for the Nokia N-Gage called Glory in Death. Which turned out to be a surprisingly apt name for the platform... except for the glory part, that is.
After 2011, it becomes fairly pointless trying to identify any sort of pattern or trend in what kinds of videogames would license 40K. Twin-stick shooter? That’d be THQ’s Kill Team from 2011. Relic getting distracted after Dawn of War II and doing a hybrid third person melee-shooter and making it their first console title? That’s 2011’s Space Marine. A reissue of Space Hulk for iOS? That was 2013 by some mob called Full Control. Terrible, terrible “free to play” squad-based strategy card game app? Space Wolf, by HeroCraft (listed here so you can avoid it.)
And finally, just in 2017 alone, we have Space Hulk: Deathwing (David liked it (yes, I did)), an “open-world sandbox action” thing called Inquisitor: Martyr, Dawn of War III, and yes, even a humble old-school turn-based strategy romp called Sanctus Reach... which on the one hand seems to be the most authentic to the tabletop version of them all, but on the other, yet again seems to be a case of “hey we have this turn-based strategy game engine, we should put 40K graphics on top of it!” Hey, it’s a 25-year-old tradition. Why stop now.
So what do we take from all this? That there are many 40K games but only some of them are worth playing? That 40K games are slowly getting better over time? That the existence of a 40K game on the N-Gage proves the inescapable ubiquity of Warhammer?
Whatever your personal interest in or attitude to this idiosyncratic IP from Old Blighty, one thing at least seems clear: in the grim darkness of the far future, there will always be Warhammer 40,000 games.