This is the last article in my brief attempt to transform Outermode into a Warhammer 40,000 fan site. I’ve snuck it past editorial on the pre-tense that I’m going to use Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr as a lens through which to analyse the ARPG genre, but really this is a vehicle to redress the balance in the erotic fiction I have been infiltrating into these articles. Anyone who complained about the homoerotic tension in the slash/fic I ended the last article with, good news – we’re going to cap off this series with an extremely steamy, sultry exploration of heterosex in the 41st Millennium.
Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr is currently available in a playable alpha build from Neocore Games. Neocore’s stated intent in making the alpha available to purchase (at full fat launch price) is to attract a smaller, more hardcore stable of players who will feed back on the game as it develops.
Straight up advice: don’t buy it now, even if you’re a 40k fanboy, even if you like what I describe in this article. Perhaps if you’re a student of game design and want to see what a working alpha build looks like, then maybe. Otherwise, this isn’t yet a game so much as the armature a game will be built on and most any other finished ARPG is going to give you more enjoyment.
Neocore have put out what they consider to be the very baseline of functionality for an Action RPG, a minimum viable product. Any less and it wouldn’t be an ARPG. So what do we have?
Diablo developer David Brevik described in his 2016 Games Developer Conference talk the moment how, after the team reluctantly converted the game from turn-based to real-time at direction from their publisher Blizzard, he first clicked on an enemy. “I clicked on the mouse and the warrior walked over and smacked the skeleton down and I was like ‘Oh my God – that was awesome!’ And the sun shone through the window and God passed by and the angels sung and sure enough that was when the ARPG was born…” Inquisitor – Martyr has clicking. Inquisitor – Martyr is clicking
A lot of ancillary support structures facilitate the act of clicking. Enemies are there so that there is something to click on and levels exist so that there are different places to click. Attack and injury animations confirm that you’ve clicked and cooldown timers on abilities say when you can click again. Stats and attack keywords dictate what effect the click has on your target. Health bars dictate how many clicks you need to make an enemy fall over.
Neocore have built up those support structures enough that clicking in Inquisitor – Martyr often feels good. My favourite clicks so far are the click that smashes the Thunderhammer weapon into the floor, sending out a twenty-foot shockwave that ripples through enemies in a burst of lightning and damage numbers, and the sustained click that unleashes a hail of Heavy Bolter fire which (gloriously) accelerates the longer you hold down the mouse button without releasing. Less impressive are the basic clicks for default attacks. Bereft of spangly SFX these rely on responsive animations to indicate the connection between weapon and body, and those just aren’t in place yet.
Mise en Scene
In its progressing alpha build Inquisitor – Martyr has seen bugs including hard crashes, equipment that will not stay equipped when entering a mission, enemies that stay frozen in their final pose after death, AI that simply doesn’t activate, and enemies that can’t be damaged except by attacks with the Knockdown keyword. It is conspicuously feature-incomplete – the hub location is full of translucent grey cubes with the names of missing features stamped on them. But from build 0.1 it has looked the part.
The most common tileset is Industrial-Gothic, a combination of metal bulkheads, Tyrell corporation columns, huge statues, and skull-packed ossuaries: a science-fictional realisation of the Rogue dungeon. The Warhammer 40k setting has a deep visual language well suited to the ARPG genre: cribbing from common fantasy roots, full of meaningless but interesting accents, and of course well suited for procedural repetition. Coherence is more important than context – why are there all these hallways filled with explosive containment chambers and giant skull reliefs? Why is there a dungeon under the church in Diablo? Because of course there is. It’s not environmental storytelling – it’s the minimum scaffolding for an ARPG. If your dungeon doesn’t have a skin you might as well be playing with ampersands and ASCII.
It is very important that numbers go up. If I see a number and I don’t know what to do with it, if in doubt I will increase it. This is presumably a holdover from humanity’s pre-historical existence as a species of root-grubbing simians. Our earliest innovation was learning to count the stock of hardened tubers we stored in our cave. A decrease in the tuber pile was an omen of horror; an increase a source of great joy. Whence the pleasure of levelling up, the proliferation of advancement mechanics throughout the whole video-game media, and why Progress Quest is disturbingly playable.
Some games make advancement an art form. Path of Exile has an advancement grid like a tapestry, a thousand nodes threaded through it like rich jewels. I was struck with something between arousal and religious terror when I realised that after several dozen levels it would be possible to create a character who used their health instead of their mana pool and had lifeleech on all their attacks.
Inquisitor – Martyr doesn’t go that far, but neither did Diablo. It has a perfunctory skill system that mostly tweaks your resistance or output in various kinds of attack, and there are other upgrade systems as yet unimplemented. Progress wipes have been foreshadowed as part of the alpha process, so those numbers will not remain large for long. Soon they will become small. The pleasurable thing is to make them grow.
The marriage of dungeon and advancement is treasure. I’m a fan of the classic Mentzer edition of Dungeons and Dragons which has the purest relationship between loot and progress in any game: you gain experience points equal to the cash value of plunder you haul back to civilization. It makes your motivations extremely clear; you are a horrible individual who can only achieve personal growth by stealing the material goods of dead civilizations or sentient nonhumans. In videogames (and latterday DnD) the loot economy has become its own advancement system, as well as a way to play dress-up with virtual dollies.
Inquisitor – Martyr ties your abilities to your equipment. It’s a design choice that provides less customisation than Diablo 3’s freeform allocation of skills to buttons, or Path of Exile’s ability socketing, but provides a clear metaphorical link between your equipment and your abilities. Hammers do knockback damage because, well, they would. Shotguns have spread attacks. Bigger weapons have longer cooldowns on attacks. It’s legible and intuitive, at least up to the edges where Warhammer 40,000’s armory goes a bit silly. As a 40k lifer I can’t really judge whether other people will understand the difference between a Lightning Claw and a Power Sword as intuitively as I do.
Dress-up options are sadly lacking, as the current build only shows a change in your character model when changing a whole armour set, not for tweaking your pendants. There aren’t even coloured illustrations of items in the inventory, just silhouettes. I didn’t realise how sad this would make me until I began tinkering with my loadout. I want to accessorise my dour space knight. I want to give him a fancy hat.
Everything is better with friends, except food poisoning on a package holiday in Magaluf. Since Diablo adopted Blizzard’s groundbreaking Battle.net we have been able to enjoy our ARPGs with company. I’ve always found the core gameplay loop in ARPGs to be quite simplistic – more favourably, one might say focused. It’s a function of the geometric laws that pull and push mobs in relation to the player until they reach their preferred attack distance, usually assuming a tight circle of sparkling attack animations with a few elite mobs firing interesting status-effect attacks from a distance. Player powers change where their avatar is standing in relation to the circle, blast it apart, split it, push parts of it backwards, slow or poison or trip up other parts of it, but that circle will attempt to reassert itself. The more players there are acting on the enemy corale the more opportunity there is to dismantle it with elegance, efficiency, or brutality.
Inquisitor – Martyr’s current enemy AI is very simple, while its encounter balance is still shot to bits, and in single player this turns most rooms into either a cakewalk or a bitter little circle of mobs wailing on a stunlocked player. Multiplayer might not be much smarter, but it is a lot more fun. Multiplayer is also multicarnage, a multiplication of the attack SFX firing off at any moment, and it smooths out the difficulty spikes largely by reducing the risk of stunlocking. ARPGs don’t have much in common with actual RPGs – there’s certainly no role playing involved – but they have the group dynamic down just right. Kick in the door! Kill the monster! Steal the loot!
Warhammer 40,000 and ARPGs are natural bedfellows and perhaps the only surprise about Inquisitor – Martyr is that something like it wasn’t made sooner. Neocore Games have all the components they need to make a fine game, but I wouldn’t pass judgment on it any more than I’d comment on the architectural properties of a pile of bricks and cement. If something very interesting happens during the Alpha and I can successfully trick Dominic perhaps I’ll write more about it. Until then:
[Ed.: I’d just like to apologize in advance for everything you’re about to read.]
Arch-biologos Marya Litvochenko stood on the observation gantry above loading bay V of Prenatal Recruitment Centre MMXVII for the Valhallan Astra Militarum. A frosty fog rolled slowly around the vast metal hall, tugging at her faded red cowl. What remained of her human skin registered dully that the atmosphere was cold and somewhat unpleasant, but her personal systematic readout informed her the air temperature was twenty standard units below the freezing point of water. When she exhaled, every minute or so from an exhaust port installed beside her spinal cogitator bundle, it formed a cloud of white condensation. Her liaison was late and she was growing impatient.
A roaring klaxon sounded and red warning lights strobed the cargo bay. The great atmospheric bulkhead doors, easily 100 meters high and forged of meter-thick adamantium, first shook, then began to open, dragged apart along their cog-toothed runners. A torrent of screaming air and spiralling snow burst into the cargo bay, a great wave of brutal windswept ice. Litvochenko’s readout told her the temperature was already 40 units below freezing point and dropping. She released an internal reserve of biological antifreeze into her auxilliary bloodstream to keep her flesh-parts from dying and activated the magclamps in her feet, fixing herself to the gantry.
Finally the doors shuddered to a halt. A vast vehicle ground forwards into the bay on huge caterpillar tracks. It was mounted with a snow-plow like the prow of a warship, from behind which leered the visage of a vast skull, crusted over with a layer of hard ice. Great mounds of snow and ice cascaded from its hull as it dragged its vast bulk into the hold. It took many minutes but eventually the great machine was within the bay, and the doors began to close behind it. When they had finally closed, bursts of hot steam burst forth from the ceiling and floor, rapidly melting the outer crust of ice from the megatanker into water that sluiced away into the floor. Cybercherubim descended from their roosts in the ceiling, swinging censers of acrid incense and blessed decontamination around the vehicle. At last the klaxon subsided and the lights in the chamber returned to their standard, dim orange glow.
Litvochenko snaked out a mechatendril from beneath her robe, the tip of which was a laud-hailer. She addressed the great machine below.
“Blessed Engine, most Holy vessel of the Omnissiah’s will, that which is known as the Arcticus Ice Crawler Mk 2045.19 Megatransporter, thou most revered and trusted of steeds, thou who hast crossed the great ice waste and knows no complaint, gayly do we receive you here within our holdfast of steel. We shall tend your wounds and make right those most foul injuries done unto you in the place of ice beyond the light of the globulb and the healing touch of arcwelder. We shall bathe you in blessed oils and massage you with angle-grinder and rust-cleanser. You may take your deserved rest.”
Then, in a markedly less reverential tone, she said:
“Pilot-enginseer, identify yourself and confirm cargo integrity.”
The great transporter’s laud-hailer clicked for a moment, before the response came.
“I am Pilot-enginseer Onastus Ohm Onagus, designate first class. The cargo is entire and intact. 250,000 deadweight tons of human seminal fluids.”
“Acknowledged.” Litvochenko replied. She retracted her mechadendrite, deactivated her magclamps and walked away. Enormous hoses began to snake towards the vehicle from their compartments in the cargo bay, but she paid them no heed, her thoughts already turning to the next requirement in the lengthy, messy process of producing fresh recruits for the Imperial war machine.