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Interview: How Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters “Ramps Up The Cool Factor” Of The 41st Millennium

“We have this connection to [Games Workshop] and we were talking on a regular basis,” explains Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters creative director Noah Decter-Jackson. “They're always open to creative pitches from solid developers that they know. But it's a long process.” Decter-Jackson’s Complex Games had previously worked on mobile title The Horus Heresy: Drop Assault when the developer pitched another, more ambitious game to the tabletop giant.

“Where we started fundamentally was with the conflict itself,” says Decter-Jackson. “So at the high level, strategic level, what kind of conflict do we want to handle? And how do we want to build a game around that – we didn't want to deal with a conventional conflict.”

Decter-Jackson and his team wanted to be sure that this wasn’t an opponent you could just shell into oblivion with artillery; that’s how the concept of fighting a galactic plague came about. From there, Nurgle was the obvious choice for a villain. (This was years before the pandemic, too – Dexter-Jackson did say it’s a long process.) But it also allowed Complex Games to combine the individual battles synonymous with the genre with a bigger, overarching tactical narrative.

“There's very few games that do combine turn-based tactics with a larger strategic layer beyond mainly linear narratives, which you see in a lot of TBT games,” Decter-Jackson says. He notes that the original Chaos Gate’s larger strategy was something he wanted to recreate, and during Complex Games’ discussions with Games Workshop, the idea of a “spiritual successor” was formed.

As the idea evolved, Chaos Gate: Daemonhunters would aim to “modernise” the original to match up with what players would expect today, as well as “focus more on the higher stakes aggressive offensive mechanics as opposed to more defensive cover to cover mechanics that are pretty dominant in the genre right now.”

The Grey Knights fit in with how Complex Games wanted to differentiate itself with offensive mechanics. From their proclivity for power swords, to their teleporting tactics, to their role as the Imperium’s elite task force for dealing with daemonic incursions, it all just fell into place.

“Because the Grey Knights are melee experts, we really needed to come up with a design that fit their mould. And so the upgrades and abilities that had to be built around that, largely so you're really customising an army that works with range, but we're not dealing with artillery or large vehicles, we're dealing primarily with these very power intensive individual units.”

It was noticeable in the demo build that I played, despite the fact that I couldn’t customise my squad, that getting up in your opponents’ faces was the best way forward. Even the ranged weapons available are best suited to close range, flamethrowers and pistols were on offer, rather than sniper rifles or missile launchers. The fact that Grey Knights are an elite force of daemonhunters and have a host of psychic powers at their disposal was an added bonus. When it came to making the Grey Knights fit their turn-based tactical game, however, there wasn’t much wiggle room with Games Workshop’s precious IP.

“There's often a situation in design where the design team which I lead is like, ‘we really want to do this with a particular power, or we want to work on this kind of ability’,” Decter-Jackson explains. “And we have to pitch that throughout the whole process, and Games Workshop evaluates it, and it's often just a push and pull… It's a very iterative process with them, where we see something and design that we think is really good fit for the game, but it may not be a great fit for the Knights, right? So sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn't.”

It makes sense. Although the lore of Warhammer 40,000 is always shifting and slowly lumbering forwards like a Warlord Titan onto a planet overcome by Orks, everything interweaves and works together. The Grey Knights can’t suddenly turn into werewolves or space vampires – those niches are taken by the Space Wolves and Blood Angels respectively – they have to abide by the rules of decades of lore and backstory (“the Codex is where we start from”). That said, some rules can be reworked in a way that befits the Inquisition’s armoured force.

“A lot of the abilities I wouldn't say are directly grounded in the Codex,” explains Decter-Jackson. “In the sense that we usually start with the rules of the game. We want to be able to automatically crit an enemy. And, looking through the Codex, Hammerhand is a staple, Grey Knight ability, it's the melee ability, it's sort of a psychically enhanced one. So that seemed like a good fit, it's just kind of a no brainer.”

So your abilities that you see in Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters may ring some bells if you’ve read the books or played Warhammer 40k before, but things don’t perfectly align. It’s the same as how a single Space Marine can defeat a thousand Orks in a novel, but on the table that is not nearly balanced and wouldn’t sell enough Space Marines, so they rebalance it a little. Hammerhand still gives you a boost in combat, but it’s got nothing to do with dice rolls any more.

Another departure from the tabletop game is the destructible environments of Chaos Gate. Of course, this is entirely in keeping with the lore of the 41st millennium – explosions rock battlefields and entire planets are razed on a regular basis – but can’t be effectively reproduced on the table. In a video game, however, breaching through windows and lobbing grenades at explosive barrels was one of my favourite ways of dealing with Nurgle’s pestilence in the game, but it didn’t come easily.

“It was incredibly hard,” says Decter-Jackson. “We took it on because we really wanted to get that epic, explosive quality of the world into the game. And it was a huge challenge, it was definitely bigger than we thought it would be in the beginning, but I think it also kind of really ramps up the cool factor.

“When you have that Helbrute charging literally through a wall, sending bricks flying and it craps on your Knights, we can get some pretty awesome moments that way. I think it paid off, but it was definitely a massive hassle.”

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