The universe of Warhammer 40,000 wasn't the first to give us the Space Marine, but its particular brand of off-world warrior, the bulkily armoured 40K ubertrooper, is a hefty touchstone for the trope. Though the proliferation of the Space Marine in games has made the term itself all but generic, Games Workshop, the publisher of the original tabletop wargame, has the trademark on it. James McDermott, marketing manager at Relic Entertainment, also traces latter-day Space Marines such as Marcus Fenix and Master Chief back to their 40K roots. "They all have a lot of the same tones and emotional appeal that I think stems originally from Warhammer 40,000. [40K] Space Marines are the original archetypes."
As maker of the Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War strategy games, Relic has plenty of experience with the gameworld, if not with third-person action shooters such as this one. But the studio is raring to bring the archetypal interstellar infantry to an up-close, not top-down, adventure. "Violent, visible death," is the phrase McDermott repeats in the presentation ahead of our hands-on: Relic's mantra for a burly, bloody, melee-heavy romp around in the world of 40K.
The game is set on a Forge World, a factory planet given over to war machine production. Our hulking hero, Captain Titus of the Ultramarines Chapter, is brought in to purge the planet when it is invaded by Orks--green-skinned, brutish hordes queuing up to meet Titus' chainsword (chainsaw sword), bolter (assault rifle), and grenades. The bolter pistol, plasma gun (with a single and charged shot), and grenade launcher also appeared in the demo; the latter launched five remotely detonated sticky grenades that could be triggered individually or en masse.
Space Marine is emphatically not a shooter with the odd edged-weapon execution. The combat system is a melee-shooter hybrid that is intended to balance gunplay with hack-and-slash action from the centre of a pack of baddies and allow quick switching between the two. We're also told melee isn't intended as a defensive last resort, as is sometimes the case, and it is powerful enough--and ammo seems scarce enough--to keep it from being so.
Titus swings his chainsword with a light or heavy attack, conjuring gore and severed limbs wherever it makes a kill. The light attack is fast and targets a single foe; the smallest enemies can be swatted into a bloody cloud with one such hit. The heavy attack is slow but strong, tearing through a number of targets. Though the chainsword is the only melee weapon we spent time with, the power axe and thunder hammer apparently featured later in the game. Kills fill up Titus' fury meter, which, when full, lets him perform a fury strike--a sweeping area-of-affect melee maneuver enacted in cinematic slow motion. Or he can perform ranged fury, which slows down time for more easily picking off targets when shooting.
Titus feels as weighty as he should, being a several-hundred-pound supersoldier; we're told having him "firmly planted in the world" was a focus for the feel of the controls. His momentum is tangible when he picks up speed--there's a convincing ramming sprint attack--and for the most part, the sense of weight is achieved without making him feel sluggish. That said, slower melee attacks leave Titus mightily cleaving thin air for perhaps a moment too long when they don't make contact. There's no cover system for you or your enemies, though there is a dodge move, and those enemies without ranged weapons close in fast. But even without a cover system, Gears of War comparisons are unavoidable and apt, which Relic acknowledges. McDermott says they take the "Gears of Warhammer" label "as a real compliment."
Our demo, which was composed of four segments from an eight-to-10-hour game, led us through a mix of environments on Forge World. We took in a factory complex, a destroyed city, and a desert canyon, where we met the game's second enemy faction, the forces of Chaos. This faction has been stage-managing the Ork invasion for its own ends. Described as the Sith to the Space Marine's Jedi Order, the Chaos forces include corrupted humans and demonic warriors. We encountered a psyker--a psychic, shamanic type, who summons red-skinned, teleporting bloodletter demons.
The factory levels were the most impressive in design, with a part sci-fi, part gothic, part industrial style. Attention to detail in the environment was most apparent here, with skulls adorning the walls and switches of the towering, cathedral-like factory chambers. But Titus' blue-and-gold power armour was the real design showpiece, painstakingly detailed and pleasingly larger than life.
The code we played for our preview was pre-alpha, with a smattering of obvious bugs that will be no doubt remedied. Time will tell whether other niggles will change before launch. Those aside, Space Marine might be an action adventure to do justice to the archetypal Space Marine. Keep an eye on the site for more on the game--and its so-far unseen multiplayer--ahead of the game's summer release.