Dark Heresy is a lovely book, it evokes the feel of the Imperium all over again and it’s a heavy book, topping out at nearly 400 pages while WFRP tops at at nearly 250 pages. It’s also remarkable in that, for all that extra page count, it somehow manages to accomplish far less than WFRP does. WFRP is a complete RPG, it contains everything you need to get going and playing in a broad variety of scenarios and set ups. Dark Heresy isn’t, and doesn’t. It is extremely tightly focussed on one mode of play - one that should be familiar to players of the half-arsed pseudo-rpg Inquisitor. This is basically Inquisitor with brass-knobs on and a fresh coat of paint, moved away from the miniature figures set up. In Dark Heresy you ARE servants of the Imperium, you ARE human (no abhumans) and you ARE the retinue of a Mary Sue Inquisitor, running around as his dogsbodies. You’re also restricted to a very tight career path, limited in equipment and hemmed in and railroaded on all sides.
The layout and artwork is stunning, I can’t fault it on any level but it does lack some of the grand flair we’ve seen other companies being capable of in their presentation. When you compare Dark Heresy to something like Qin or Cadwallon it no longer looks quite so accomplished or polished and, I would say, even lacks some of the brilliance of the old Rogue Trader, alas. That said the actual artwork is all up to modern standard with the Clint Langely pieces being particularly stand-out. There’s still something ‘missing’ a bit though, it’s just not quite as ‘crazy’ or quite as gothically baroque as many of the old Warhammer art pieces were, not that it isn’t good, but there just isn’t quite as much coherence of vision.
The writing is clear and workmanlike, so no complaints here. It does what it needs to do capably and well and, other than a few hard to read typefaces, the actual physical writing is clear and the book doesn’t succumb to ‘Ostentatious Border Syndrome’ (OBS, which is an affliction I just made up that affects many RPG companies).
The rules… well, what can you say about the rules really? If you know Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay then you pretty much know what you’re going to get in Dark Heresy so far as combat, skills, abilities and so on are concerned. It works well, the combat is fast enough, deadly and gory and the Psi Powers stand in - pretty much - for magic. All well and good, proven system, perfectly capable and great for a more gritty sort of game. Huzzahs all around and back home for tea and medals then.
Rather than the wide open nature of WFRP the character creation and career options Dark Heresy has a ‘class’ based system where you’re locked into a career type from the moment you’re out of the gate, all you can do is specialise and select sub-classes, you can’t swap around and you don’t get the same wonderful background progression that you got in WFRP. Look, the comparisons are inevitable and, frankly, Dark Heresy falls down on this one. It actually manages to accomplish LESS in 400 pages than WFRP does in 250. Less options, less understanding of the universe, less character creation options, instead largely replaced by 40 pages of an adventure, 40 pages of background on the Calixis sector - which we don’t need and more specifics on the Inquisition, which are part of the problem of the constriction of the game.
That 100 odd pages would have been of far more use giving a more complete career system, one with a lot more options, some details on playing Abuhumans or expanding the bestiary to include some of the better known Xeno races.
The character paths etc are a massive leap BACKWARDS for RPG design without even a saving grace of ‘multiclassing’ which even D&D has made just about standard. From the inspiring possibilities of WFRP we’re pared down to a handful of ‘character classes’ all of whom have to play second fiddle to an off-screen Inquisitor and it will take a hell of a lot of work for anyone to salvage the game to be a truly open RPG again. Of course… that’s the hook to sell you their upcoming ‘games’ in the same line, including a Rogue Trader one - but each of these seems to fall victim to the same problem. Each game book details a particular specific instance for a character group, but it doesn’t look like any of them will be open enough to be a truly open RPG.
I’ve nothing against specifics in certain games, SLA Industries has you - in a standard campaign - as being operatives to SLA. But it doesn’t take much tinkering at all in that game to run different campaigns. Dark Heresy is hardwired all the way through to constrict, confine and channel and that’s like being railroaded even before you start playing.