In Defence of Warhammer

“In the dark future of the 41st millennium, there is only war.”

That is a tag line which should be familiar to most sci-fi fans. In some it conjures memories of table-top wars fought in years gone by, in others it might raise goose-bumps on the skin, but for many it elicits a roll of the eyes and maybe a slight sigh of despair.

You see, that tag line belongs to the Games Workshop franchise, Warhammer 40,000. It’s a table-top war gaming system involving painted miniature models of futuristic soldiers, aliens and vehicles, and is a hobby which, even among hardened sci-fi fans, is often looked upon – rather unjustifiedly – as being, well, pretty sad. It seems that reading and watching tales of futuristic battles is one thing, but conducting those battles with your own hand-painted assault squads is quite another.

This lesson in GEEKschool is in defence of Warhammer 40,000.

Say what you will about the hobby aspect, but take a closer look at the franchise as a whole and you’ll find more than just models, and dice and paint colours with funny names. The Warhammer 40,000 universe has expanded, evolved and spawned a host of video games, books and graphic novels.

Games Workshop has had 23 years to flesh out the universe, adding a rich back story with a bloody history and vibrant, heroic and occasionally tragic characters to its cast of players.

For those unfamiliar with the world of the 41st Millennium, here are the basics:

38,000 years from now the earth is united under one single leader – The Emperor of Mankind. This once immortal ruler now sits broken, and unmoving, on his Golden Throne on Terra (Earth), using his vast psychic powers to smooth the transit of his inexhaustable armies through the treacherous Warp dimension that facilitates inter-stellar travel.

Those armies fight to protect the Imperium of Man from alien threats such as the green-skinned Orks, the Tyranid hive, the ancient and powerful Eldar and the malignant and corrupting Ruinous Powers of Chaos that inhabit the warp.

Angels of Darkness - Gav Thorpe
Angels of Darkness – Gav Thorpe
The Emperor’s chosen champions are the genetically engineered Space Marines – known as Adeptus Astartes – who fight across in the galaxy in Legions and Chapters with such weighty titles as Blood Angels, Dark Angels, Ultramarines and Space Wolves to name but a few.

As the world of Warhammer 40,000 (or WH40k) has evolved so too has the history and character of each alien race and Astartes legion.

Their stories continue to unfold as new tales are penned and published by the Black Library (the Games Workshop’s publishing house) and even if you don’t play the table top war game it’s very easy to be drawn in to this rich and detailed science fiction universe.

Compare WH40k with any major, long-running science fiction franchise and you’ll be hard pressed to find a world so detailed, with such a fantastic history and with so many intricately link stories and characters. Stargate, Babylon 5, Farscape and even Star Trek with its 44 years of broadcast and written adventures – none quite match the nightmare world of the 41st Millennium for tight continuity and richness of detail.

Only Star Wars, beloved of all, with its (not so beloved) prequel trilogy, various canonical video games, a weekly magazine, a computer generated animation TV series and shelves upon shelves upon shelves of extended universe books can claim to outstrip WH40k with the extent of its universe.

In true science fiction tradition, the scribes of the Black Library, for many years, left much of the detail of the universe’s major historical events to the imagination of the players. These would be mentioned in passing in other stories, receiving no more attention than was required to fill in the basics.

The greatest of these events is known to Warhammer fans as The Horus Heresy. Until very recently The Horus Heresy was left un-touched. That said, all players and fans of WH40k know what it is and what it represents in their favoured universe.

We know that in the 40th Millennium the Emperor’s Warmaster and favoured son, Horus, betrayed the him and turned to Chaos, bringing his Sons of Horus legion of Space Marines, several other legions and their commanding Primarchs with him. We know too that at the culmination of the events of the Heresy, the Emperor himself battled the corrupted Primarch and slew him, but not before suffering a mortal wound that would see him interred in his Golden Throne in a life-sustaining form of suspended animation.

What we have never really known was how it happened. What were the details of the events that led to Horus’ betrayal and ultimate ruin?

Horus Rising - Dan Abnett
Horus Rising – Dan Abnett
In April 2006 the answer to that question began to reveal itself. First with Horus Rising, by acclaimed sci-fi author Dan Abnett, and then in June and October with the follow-ups, False Gods and Galaxy in Flames by Graham McNeill and Ben Counter.

To date there have been 15 stories, in the form of novels and audio books, dedicated to the Horus Heresy alone. By April 2011 there will be 20 in the series.

It may come as a surprise to learn that there has never been a movie or TV series adaptation of this expansive world of Space Marines, Orks and Chaos Daemons, but most fans will agree this has probably been a good thing.

Phillip T. King is a Warhammer player and science ficton fan from Glasgow, he believes that any previous attempt at a movie would have been unsuccessful, “Games turned into movies are generally rubbish…they have a rather unimpressive success rate.”

“Look at the dreadful attempts at Super Mario, Street Fighter, Hitman, Mortal Kombat. They’re so bad it’s funny! I’ll watch Tomb Raider if you like, but not really for the plot, if you take my meaning!” laughs Phillip.

He adds, “In all seriousness, though, I’d hate to have seen a really crap looking, half-arsed attempt at a 40k movie with bad acting cheapen the hobby and kill any chance of making a decent movie in the future.”

But the world of the 41st Millennium has grown beyond a simple table-top wargame with video game tie-ins; the time has come to make the move to the movie screens.

Ultramarines: The Movie is scheduled for a 2010 release. The 70 minute CGI movie is, as the name suggests, focussed on the Ultramarines chapter of Space Marines, but at present no further detail is known about the plot. The script has been written by Dan Abnett, a veteran WH40k author who has written also for 2000AD and Marvel, and the voice cast is headed by John Hurt, Sean Pertwee and Terance Stamp.

Animation technology used in the video game industry is being used to bring the world to life; and there is a cautious sense of optimism among the fans of the franchise.

“The trailer looks good,” says Phillip King, “Dan Abnett is a known and loved author among 40k fans and they’
ve got some pretty legendary voice talent signed up too. Maybe it won’t suck!”

So, here endeth the lesson. The next time you pass Games Workshop on the high street, don’t just stop and admire the painted models in the window, before dismissing it as the realm of big kids playing with toy soldiers. Go on in. Pick up Horus Rising, or Gav Thorpe’s Angels of Darkness, and give them a chance to win you over.

You won’t be disappointed if you do. In the dark future of the 41st Millennium, there is not only war-gaming.




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