Is Warhammer 40k Overpowered? And Does It Matter?
Every now and again people (usually on Reddit) will begin a discussion of which fictional world is the most powerful, the most overpowered, the most destructive. And the fact of the matter is that Warhammer always wins. Warhammer 40k is the most overpowered fictional universe bar none*.
(Notice that little asterisk there? We'll get to that later.)
Whenever compared against other science fiction universes (Star Wars, Halo, Star Trek) Warhammer 40k mops the floor with the other guys in virtually all areas--from individual soldiers and weapons, to vehicles, to starship fleets, to psychic abilities, to everything else.
Let's start with soldiers: the standard unit in Warhammer 40k is a Space Marine, and a Space Marine is not just a dude in power armor (ala Starship Troopers--the book, not the movie) but is actually a genetically modified human who is almost so distantly related to humans that they're their own species.
Let's look at the biology of a Space Marine, and , because this is modern, let's look at the biology of a Primaris Marine as they seem to be systematically whittling the old school Space Marines down to nothing and pushing them off the battlefield.
A Primaris Space Marine has, first and foremost, the gene-seed of its Primarch, and that gene-seed came (directly/indirectly) from the God Emperor himself, who is the most powerful psychic being in the Imperium, if not the galaxy. So, they've got that going for them, which is nice.
Now, there's a whole section of lore dedicated to what makes a Space Marine a Space Marine, but here's just the highlights:
A second heart
Bulletproof bones (made possible by the Ossmodula)
Increased muscle growth
Implants: Sinew Coils (greatly enhance strength)
Implants: Magnificat (increases body's growth functions)
Implants: Belisaurian Furnace (an organ connected to the heart that can reboot the heart in case of severe trauma)
Better blood (made possible by the Haemastamen)
Immediate healing and scarring (made possible by the Larraman's Organ)
Ability to go without sleep for as long as two weeks (thanks to the Catalepsean Node)
Tolerant of ingested toxins and poisons (through the Preomnor)
Ability to learn the memories of their enemies by eating their flesh (made possible by the Omophaegea). (Also: gross)
Better hearing AND better inner ear balance
Can enter sustained suspended animation (thanks to the Sus-an Membrane)
Can adjust melanin in the skin to deal with harsh weather and light conditions (thanks to the Meannchromic Organ)
Can filter toxins out of the blood (thanks to the Oolitic Kidney)
Can taste and identify chemicals (thanks to Neuroglotis)
Can sweat material that makes the resistant to extreme hot and extreme cold (thanks to the Mucranoid)
Can spit acidic blood (due to Betcher's Gland)
The Progenoids are a gland which allow the new gene-seed to be captured and preserved should a Space Marine die.
Black Carapace is like an armor that is under the skin. It makes the Space Marines incredibly though (as if they didn't need it already).
Now let's compare that to some of the other warrior, poster-boy races in science fiction literature. Do Stormtroopers compare? Not hardly. Aside from their on-again, off-again ability to hit something with a blaster, they're just humans in relatively weak armor. (Think about a Star Wars movie and think of any time that a Stormtrooper has taken a shot to the chest and not immediately died. It's like the blaster bolt went right through it.)
What about the Star Trek Universe? Their primary bad guys used to be the Klingons, who are essentially a very strong and resilient race with a deep sense of honor and a desire to duke it out in one-to-one combat. They'd get flattened, no question. Romulans? They might give them a little bit more trouble, primarily because they use weapons that are more devastating, like disruptors, but a disrupter versus a bolter wouldn't be much of a fight. Cardassians will stab you in the back, which might make them troublesome allies to thee Imperium as a whole, but in one-on-one combat (or even nation vs nation war) they'd be wiped out.
Halo is, admittedly, a universe that I'm only tangentially aware of, but my understanding is that their poster boy, Master Chief, was larger, tougher, and smarter than the other recruits (by quite a bit) and that he spent eight years in military training to become the elite of the elite. He underwent the SPARTAN-II Augmentation, which made him the equivalent of an Olympic athlete with nearly unbreakable bones, increased strength, and improved eyesight. But, unless I'm missing something, is the extent of Master Chief's special abilities.
But Space Marines Are Only the Beginning
Space Marines, being the poster boys for the Warhammer 40k universe are, admittedly, much tougher and stronger, and powerful than any Stormtrooper or Klingon or Master Chief. But Space Marines are just the *base units* of the Space Marine armies. Terminators are the same thing except better. Lieutenants and Captains are the same thing except better. Centurions are a whole different ball game. Death Company are ravenous, frenzied Space Marines. Wulfen are Space Marine werewolves. It just gets so intense when you start moving up the food chain and realizing that the Space Marines are at the bottom.
Well, no, let's be fair. At the bottom are the Imperial Guard. Are they really overpowered? In the Warhammer 40k universe, an Imperial Guardsman is not going to beat a Space Marine man-to-man unless luck is *really* on the Guardsman's side. But let's compare that Guardsman against our Klingons and our Stormtroopers and our Master Chiefs: Guardsmen are tough, and their lasguns (which are jokingly referred to by some as flashlights) can actually penetrate any thing in the 40k universe with the exception of Power Armor. So while one Guardsman might not beat one Master Chief, a full army of Guardsmen with combined firepower can easily take on even a Space Marine force. What the Guardsmen lack in strength they make up for in manpower.
But You're Forgetting About Magic, Psykers, and The Force
Yes, I'm getting to that. Can a Space Marine take on a Jedi? That's an interesting question, and my gut feeling is to say that, while the Space Marine would give that Jedi a run for his money, the Jedi and his lightsaber would come out victorious.
But what if that Jedi isn't fighting any old Space Marine? What if that Jedi was fighting a Librarian, and what if that Librarian was carrying a force sword? That's a much stronger comparison. A Librarian is a master psyker who has all sorts of tricks up his sleeve, and a Jedi can move things with his mind and--the most powerful--fire force lightning. But honestly, firing force lightning is kind of a given for Librarians. Smite is effectively shooting force lightening, and it's considered among the most basic Librarian abilities. Storm of the Emperor's Wrath is like force lightning turned up to 11.
And let's abandon the Imperium for a moment, because we're not merely saying that a Jedi is fighting a Space Marine. We're saying Star Wars is fighting Warhammer 40k.
Let's take Star Wars' biggest magic user, Yoda (or the Emperor) and compare him to Warhammer 40k's biggest magic user, The Lord of Change. Obviously, episodes II and III show Yoda really has combat moves, but can he go up against a massive Greater Daemon who is born from magic of the Warp? I just don't think so. An acrobatic lightsaber battle with occasional telekinetics and force lightning are one thing, but a massive monster who can disrupt time and space and lightning is literally his weakest default power? Come on.
What About Star Ships?
Well, what about star ships? Just take a look at the scale of the ships in Battlefleet Gothic and compare them to the ships in Star Wars and you'll get a good idea that an Star Wars Empire's ships are seriously outgunned by the Battlefield Gothic ships.
But, you say, what about the Death Star with it's ability to kill a planet? What about the Star Destroyers from Episode IX that are nearly as powerful? Please. Warhammer's Battlefield Gothic ships have been bombarding planets into oblivion forever. Yes, it's usually not through one single laser blast, but the combined bombardment of even a small fleet of ships is enough to blow a planet (take Caliban, for instance) into an asteroid field.
And if you want to bring in lesser worlds here, look at Star Trek: while, yes, the Federation is not in the business of waging wars, how many times in movies have we seen their ENTIRE fleet massacred and the Enterprise has to somehow rescue the entire Federation on its own. In Warhammer 40k, you could blow up a LOT of ships, and even a lot of planetary systems, and the Imperium would brush it off. The Horus Heresy was the closest that we ever got to a single event taking down the entirety of the Imperium, but rather than one plucky ship saving the day it was nine loyalist Space Marine Legions and the massive power of the God Emperor himself.
What About the Size of the Galaxy?
We know that the Imperium comprises literally millions of worlds. We don't know how many are in the Star Wars, Star Trek, or Halo worlds, but if the death of a single Death Star can seemingly cripple the entire Empire and leave them in ruins (somewhat) until they are reborn as the First Order, then how big could they possibly be?
We've also never seen a mass of ships bigger than that at the end of Episode IX (both the mass of Star Destroyers and the mass of small rebel craft). But that's peanuts compared to the space forces of Warhammer 40k's Space Marines (and that doesn't even mention the forces of the Orks, the Imperial Navy, the Adeptus Mechanicus, Necrons, Chaos, Aeldari Corsairs, Aeldari Craftworld, Drukhari, T'au, and Tyranids. In other words, Warhammer 40k does everything bigger and badder.
But Does Warhammer 40k Being Overpowered Even Matter?
Here's the real point: unless you're writing crossover fanfic about Space Marines meeting Captain Kirk, the fact that the Warhammer 40k universe is so overpowered is never going to be important. And this is due to the fact that ALL of the factions in the 40k universe are overpowered. Imperial Guard are just regular humans with lasguns, but put them on the tabletop against Space Marines, 2000 points vs 2000 points, and the Imperial Guard are going to hold their own. Because the Imperial Guard are overpowered: they have Baneblades and Basilisks and Ogryns. The Space Marines aren't overpowered against the Tyranids because they have Carnifexes and Hive Tyrants and Tervigons. The Space Marines aren't even overpowered against the lowly Genestealer Cults, because they have Goliaths and Aberrants and Atalan Jackals.
The deal is: Warhammer 40k is made for competitive play, so whether you're balancing the game with 2000 points (or a combat patrol of 500 points) or using Power Levels, the fact that EVERYONE is so overpowered means that everything is still fair. To quote The Incredibles, Elastigirl tells her son: "Everyone is special." And he replies "That's the same thing as saying no one is."
So, yes, if you want to compare one fictional world to another, Warhammer 40k is going to come out on top every time. But if you're going to compare one Warhammer 40k faction to another, it's a wash.
*You Thought I Forgot About that Asterisk, Didn't You?
Yes, I can think of one fictional world that is more overpowered than even Warhammer 40k, a world that sends Space Marines, Necrons, and Orks all screaming to hide.
That world is the realm of H.P. Lovecraft, aka Cthullu. The Great Old Ones are so incredibly powerful and overwhelming that simply looking upon them is enough to send the bravest soul incurably insane. There is no fighting the Great Old Ones. The Chaos Gods and the power of the Warp would not disturb them.
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.
What do you think? Is Warhammer 40k overpowered? And if so, does it matter?