Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine Updated Impressions

We pull on a tin can and swing our chainsword with our first look at Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.


If Space Marine's vision of the future is anything to go by, then humanity has plenty of bloody battle to look forward to. The game builds on Relic's success of bringing the Warhammer 40,000 universe to the PC but trades in the long-range distance of its Dawn of War real-time strategy games for an intimate, visceral third-person shooter experience. We recently had the chance to visit the Vancouver campus of the studio, speak with the team behind the title, and get our first solid glimpse at the Space Marine game live and in the flesh.

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The studio attributes much of the success of its previous games--and indeed the projected success for this latest outing--to a couple of key tenets: its close relationship with Warhammer licence owner Games Workshop and the studio's track record shipping new intellectual property. While Relic is already known as a developer behind quality PC games, to make the rocky transition to console development the studio expanded its team, borrowing core members of its existing internal PC unit and fleshing out gaps with hires from Electronic Arts, Microsoft, and Rockstar Games. As the walls adorned with concept art, the desks covered in miniatures, and the tank bursting through one of the studio walls will attest, this isn’t just another project; it’s an extension of the dev team’s own personal interests. And with more than 5 million copies of the Warhammer-themed games sold to date, it’s clear there’s a very healthy market patiently waiting for a chance to don the famous metallic suits of their fantasy heroes.

Even with such a large and rabid Warhammer fan base ready to throw down cash for a game like this, the team is determined that Space Marine will be more than just a game for existing fans of the universe. Relic hopes to sate existing fans and at the same time attract third-person action game players with its “action blockbuster” feel. Producer Raphael Van Lierop said it’s all about capturing the sense of scale, telling us, "Everything is big. Weapons are big. Explosions are crazy."

The game takes place as humanity is on the verge of extinction at the hands of hostile alien hordes. An Imperial forge world responsible for building some of the most powerful and technologically advanced weaponry (including the emperor-class titan, the most powerful war machine in the Imperium arsenal) is under siege after being invaded by Ork forces. Your job is to protect it from the Orks. Unfortunately, while the Imperial navy is in the process of mobilising a liberation fleet composed of hundreds of ships and millions of troops to counteract the problem, forces that large require planning and deployment time, making you, a Space Marine of the Ultramarine chapter, the first and final defensive force in the interim.

So much blood in that ugly green head.
So much blood in that ugly green head.

Our demonstration of a work-in-progress build for the Xbox 360 joined the fight midair, where our valkyrie forces were being attacked by Orks and their homemade flying devices. The little green creatures dash ahead with giant red rockets strapped to their backs as they fire on us. Manning a mounted gun to handle the waves of attackers on our flanks, our character, an unnamed Space Marine captain, demolishes our aggressors. An Ork ship, looking suspiciously like something that was built from bits and pieces found in an intergalactic junkyard, pulls alongside filled with troops. Once again our Gatling gun makes short work of them, but we’re forced to rethink our strategy when a ship begins to tail us and we can’t manoeuvre to shoot it. Switching to our bolter, we let fly with a flurry of shots as the ship bobs and weaves to avoid the gunfire. An Ork manages to board our ship from the rear and attempts to hijack the cockpit. We lean out the doorway precariously, and a single shot from our weapon hits him with catastrophic results, as he tumbles forwards and is shredded in our engine blades. Our aircraft catches alight and sets an express course to Earth. We cling on for dear life as thick smoke billows and the haze parts to reveal the waiting ground. A last-minute jump, and accompanying combat roll, puts us safely back on land as our bird sails past and explodes just out of the frame.

Back on solid soil, we radio for alternative transportation, but are told that due to a nearby autocannon, the landing zone isn’t safe enough for extraction. It’s here that we receive a distress call from an Imperial inquisitor, a scientist who has been experimenting with weapons research in the area. We are eager to defend his safety, and the knowledge he possesses, so our mission becomes to locate and protect him. A nearby Ork warboss has also caught wind of the inquisitor’s presence, making it a race against time to see who can get there first.

Bow to your Sensei!
Bow to your Sensei!

Our guide is quick to point out the gothic-inspired architecture of our surroundings, a mainstay of the 40K aesthetic and an aspect the design team has worked hard on to do justice to the original source material. Large ornate arches dot the landscape but are tough to appreciate, as even after a short stay on the planet, the Orks have trashed the place. Walkways are littered with boulders, smashed panelling, and a smattering of obligatory exploding barrels.

It’s here that we’re introduced to Space Marine’s brutal melee combat. Lightly armoured targets rush at us, but their bodies provide little resistance as they fall at the mercy of our chainsword--green torsos cleft in twain by the razor-sharp teeth of our blades. Flesh is torn from bone as we get a detailed look at the cross-section of our foes and their exposed innards. The X button acts as our melee attack, switching effortlessly between shooting and swinging our blade. A variety of death animations show us cutting Orks in half, slashing violently, and knocking targets over for a follow-up curb stomp. Bloody mist fills the air as we barge our way through their rapidly thinning ranks.

The powerful relentlessness of the Space Marines dictates that they’re not the type to back down from a fight, even with the odds stacked against them. For this reason, while the game will include a basic cover mechanic behind barriers and crates, there’s no snap-to cover system. Regenerative health sees the screen bleed as you take damage, while audio becomes rocked and distant, necessitating that you find somewhere safe to lie low briefly. Cover doesn’t mean safety, and destructible environments are designed to keep you moving instead of digging in. An adherence to Space Marine core fantasy means you’ll spend most of your time duking it out with all comers in the open. Slow, deliberate walking is the default method of travel, but you will be able to sprint. The slow-paced strut matches perfectly with the badassery image of being able to take a bevy of gunfire without batting an eyelid.

AI squadmates provide additional firepower and will serve as an important way to deliver narrative, but this is a primarily solo experience. Though they will accompany you on your missions, you won’t ever take direct control of them or give them orders to undertake.

the Wright brothers would be rolling over in their graves... or wishing they'd thought of that.
the Wright brothers would be rolling over in their graves... or wishing they'd thought of that.

Our day goes from bad to worse when it’s revealed that an Ork warboss has managed to get his hands on some nifty experimental weaponry. Keen to shut him down, we head to the Undercity, the zone’s sewer system, in search of action. If the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have taught us anything, it’s that drains provide ample places to hide, and we’re quickly pounced on by Orks who spew out of access hatches like rats. Fellow Space Marines yell encouragement such as "No Ork can stand against you, brother!" as we mow our way through the green roadblock. Lone Orks sneak around, heard but unseen, their long, inky shadows dancing gracefully against slimy, dimly lit walls and helping to heighten the suspense. Orks carrying crude axes aren’t much good for ammunition replenishment, and while your trusty bolt pistol will provide you with unlimited ammo, powering anything bigger will require resources from elsewhere. Chests scattered throughout levels give you a chance to refill your collection.

While locating a fallen comrade we’re introduced to one of the game’s more powerful weapons: the heavy bolter. Shortly after picking up the weapon, it becomes evident what happened to our buddy, as waves of Orks are warped into the room. Our guide fires in short, controlled bursts, forced to manage both the weapon’s propensity to overheat and the limited number of rounds in the magazine. We were told that the final game will feature around 15 weapons, with the more exotic devices like lascannons and thunder hammers being doled out at specific intervals as part of set-piece battles. A weapon upgrade system running in the background tracks each item’s usage, and though it appears you won’t be able to choose specific abilities from a tech tree, each weapon has a unique upgrade path adding modifiers, upgrades, and alternative fire modes. You will be able to carry only a set number of weapons with you at any time, but you continue to earn upgrade points while the items are used. Our demonstration included a look at an upgraded plasma gun that, when the fire button was held, unleashed a mighty volley of power, obliterating the target.

Be kind to your toaster, this is the kind of thing we will need to worry about once the robots overthrow humanity.
Be kind to your toaster, this is the kind of thing we will need to worry about once the robots overthrow humanity.

The third and final level of the game put us on a moving train as we hurtled towards an unknown destination. Radio communications indicate that we are on a collision course with six minutes to impact. Rather than brace and await the inevitable, we stomp onwards. Navigating through a maze of wooden boxes towards the front carriage, we snake our way up a ramp and take control of a conveniently placed turret. After shelling a few ships attempting to drop in reinforcements, we rip the gun from its base, firing it from the hip as we attempt to bring down a fortified vehicle. Luck is on our side, and as the flying fortress crashes onto the tracks, it takes down the other sections of the train with it.

A booming orchestral score accompanies the build-up to the heat of combat, while heavy, metallic feet pound the ground as you shuffle along. All the voice acting we heard was top-notch and delivered in heavy British accents.

Relic is aiming to ship the game with eight to 10 hours of single-player campaign on the disc and to include as-yet-unannounced multiplayer support. While the team was staying quiet on the exact details, from what we’ve seen so far, the squad-based nature of Space Marines makes it fertile ground for cooperative split-screen and online play with friends. PC gamers will also be pleased to hear that despite rumours that the game was console exclusive, a PC version of the game will ship alongside its Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 counterparts.

Even from our brief first look at the game running, we walked away impressed by the quality and faithfulness to the series it is drawing so heavily from. It’s clear that the team at Relic is living and breathing the universe it's attempting to re-create, with plenty of fan service going into the game. Melee combat looks like a blast, and we’re eager to get our hands on the controller to cut up some Orks ourselves in the coming months.

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