Next Warhammer 40K Game Goes Beyond Hack and Slash

LOS ANGELES — Long-running sci-fi tabletop game Warhammer 40,000 has had a very mixed relationship with video games. With a number of outright classics and complete stinkers under its belt, the popular war game is always ready to try something new, even if it means shaking up some well-defined genre conventions. The latest edition, Warhammer 40,000 Inquisitor – Martyr, looks like a traditional hack-and-slash action RPG, but dig a little deeper, and this upcoming release planned for next year makes a few nuanced innovations that give it a distinct 40K feel.

I had a hands-on demo with Inquisitor – Martyr at E3 2016, and even though I’m a neophyte when it comes to 40K lore, I felt comfortable jumping right in and carving up some of the most fearsome soldiers in the galaxy. At first glance (and subsequent glances, too), Inquisitor – Martyr looks a lot like Diablo. You take control of a single character with a globular health bar and a few special abilities on cooldown timers before facing off against hordes of foes from an isometric perspective.

MORE: Best of E3 2016 Awards: Games to Watch

Like the Diablo series, you can choose a distinct character class (a close-quarters Crusader, a ranged Assassin or a third class, not yet revealed) and fight your way through a colorful variety of enemies. In the demo I played, I encountered both regular soldiers and much bigger, uglier monstrosities with twisted, scarred faces and even scarier guns.

However, the similarities with Blizzard’s classic series don’t go as far as I initially thought. Rather than pitting you against an endless horde of foes, Inquisitor – Martyr instead focuses on tactical combat with small groups of enemies. Even regular minions can take a big chunk out of your health if you’re not careful. The result is a game that forces you to make use of your special abilities, a strategy of luring enemies away and even taking advantage of the levels themselves. In addition to cleaving enemies with my sword-rifle and blowing them up with grenades, I could also take out huge pillars to crush them — or at least deprive them of cover.

The overall structure of the campaign is quite different from previous releases as well. Instead of following a linear storyline either alone or with friends, Inquisitor – Martyr is much more freeform. Missions are randomized from a list of roughly 50 different objectives, and while most focus on combat, some will also be investigations that reveal more about the 40K universe. You can play these with up to four friends, exploring procedurally-generated dungeons for procedurally-generated loot.

The single-player campaign, you’ll have to tackle alone. You can take on the single-player campaign alongside the more freeform missions, and follow a story of intrigue and destruction that places you at the center. Giving players a persistent, multiplayer-enabled world with a walled-off single-player campaign seems like a fair compromise to keep the game both story-driven and replayable.

As for the gameplay itself, it still needs some work, but considering that Inquisitor — Martyr is in a pre-alpha state, that’s hardly surprising. Some of the special abilities feel sluggish, or don’t trigger properly, and I was disappointed that executions — bloody finishing moves that showcase the game’s gritty graphics — only activated some of the time. But the game is rich in potential.

Thinking tactically and fighting off small groups of enemies is something that hack-and-slash games haven’t tried too often, and I enjoyed the more measured approach. The core mechanics of melee, ranged and special ability combat were also satisfying when they worked properly (which, to be fair, was most of the time).

The demo ended with a boss fight against an enormous Hellbrute, and this is where I got to see one of the game’s more unconventional systems in action. By focusing my fire on the creature’s arm, I was able to cleave it clean off, depriving him of a powerful gun. As a melee foe, the boss was much less intimidating. Finding and exploiting boss weaknesses could be a welcome alternative to incessant clicking.

Inquisitor – Martyr is slated for 2017, although the developers aren’t exactly sure when. Either way, it will launch on the PC first, and the Xbox One and PS4 sometime after that. That should be enough time for new fans to get a crash course in Warhammer, or for veterans to finish painting their army of miniatures.