The Warhammer 40,000 universe's descriptive tagline—"In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war"—does not sound like a cheery fantasy in which many of us would like to find ourselves.
But Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is designed to fulfill the fantasy of taking control of the fiction's hulking machines of war, to put players into the hundred pound boots of the titular Space Marine. Relic Entertainment, the developer of the third-person shooter Space Marine and, previously, real-time strategy series Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, will take you there.
Space Marine trades the distant bird's eye view of the Dawn of War series for battles more intimate and excessively violent. The PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game will focus primarily on one man, not hundreds, as he charges through hordes of Orks, blasting them to bits, slicing them into chunks.
We recently had a hands-off preview of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine at THQ's headquarters to see how Relic is turning a 23-year-old tabletop game into an action-packed blockbuster shoot 'em up.
Our demo started without gameplay, but with an introduction to the Warhammer 40,000 brand of Space Marine. Described as serious and devout, highly disciplined and bound by honor—not to mention massive in size and encased in flashy, bright blue space armor—the heroes of Relic's game are familiar but also unique.
They've inspired countless other space traveling soldiers, but they behave differently. In Relic's game, they prefer to charge forward as opposed to taking cover. There is no "snap-to cover" system in Space Marine. The preferred method is to clear the room by killing your enemies, not hiding from them.
We saw that in action later, but our first impression of Space Marine started with something rarely seen in grim war games—comic relief.
As the demo kicked off, Space Marine forces approached a massive war factory on an even more massive Imperial Forge World. This was a planet designed to create the weapons of war needed to fight the universe's battles. Billions of workers lived here. It was currently being invaded by Ork forces. Its massive Titan war machine needs to be protected, lest it fall into Orkish hands.
During the initial flight of the Valkyries—Space Marine transports and gunships—flying Orks attacked. The bright green and unintelligent-looking monsters had a low-tech approach. They attacked with cartoonish rockets strapped to their backs, while our heroic Space Marine, Captain Titus of the Ultramarines division, shot them down with a mounted turret and, later, his own rifle.
The Valkyrie ship we were following was eventually taken down—a flying Ork caught caught in the engines, delightfully—crashing onto the Forge World's surface. It was a mostly seamless transition into the on-foot segments of Space Marine.
What followed was a lone wolf attack on an Ork-occupied factory. That structure was colossal and future-gothic in its design, filled with a variety of grunting green enemies. Titus forged ahead, killing waves of approaching Orks, mixing up the run and gun action with hand-to-hand combat. There were exploding barrels, Ork limbs littering the ground and no lack of targets to shoot.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine producer Raphael Van Lierop says that the game's mix of distant and up close combat was "like making two games at once," and that Space Marine's melee side required lots of iteration. You'll be encouraged to experiment with both sides of Space Marine's battle system through a progression system. As you use more than a dozen weapons, you'll unlock new abilities, new ammunition types and other skills. You'll be able to use Titus' chainblade to grind through the metal armor of Ork Nobs. You'll be able to charge up a plasma gun for a vicious blast of energy.
There will be exotic weapons, like the chunky Heavy Bolter, a futuristic mini-gun. It's just one of the weapons drawn from Games Workshops Warhammer universe that has rarely been explored in the way that Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine does.
But Van Lierop and THQ's Sean Dunn put a great emphasis on the game's melee combat, which in the build we saw, wasn't as deep as it's eventually planned to be. According to the men making this game, players could play it primarily as a melee attack-driven game, forgoing much of its gunplay for up close and personal action.
Later levels that Relic and THQ demoed showcased a massive waste management area, filled with sludge, Orks and techno-wizard Weirdboys and a runaway transport train that Orks were attempting to use as a battering ram. They showcased some of Space Marine's set pieces, big events that involve massive waves of Orks and huge war machines that can only be taken down with super powered weapons.
Relic and THQ are hoping that Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine's blend of forward-rushing action, seamless shooting and melee, and its "momentum and compulsion" will separate it from some other third-person shooters starring oversized men battling aliens due next year.
The people behind Space Marine don't seem too concerned with the competition, however, nor do they worry that Warhammer fans won't take to a third-person shooting game. This Warhammer 40K game puts players in the driver's seat of a Space Marine, a fantasy many fans of the fiction have been waiting to fulfill.
"There's a lot we can do with an action game that we couldn't do with an RTS," Van Lierop says, noting that the Dawn of War games have given Relic a good player base. That they've also won over some of Warhammer's most hardcore fans with eyes-on demonstrations of Space Marine is also reassuring.
For new fans, Relic says they don't need to be invested in the decades-old lore of Warhammer to understand its tropes, tone and treatment. This is an action game starring a bald space marine, after all, only with an injection of not-too-much-comic relief and a different approach to combat.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is due for release sometime in THQ's fiscal year 2012, meaning it should be out before March of 2012. Relic promises to talk about its "robust" multiplayer and cooperative offerings for Space Marine before then, with its gunplay and melee in tact, sometime soon.