Interview: Space Marine director Raphael Van Lierop

After spending some time playing a couple of hours worth of Relic's upcoming Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, I had a chance to pick director Raphael Van Lierop's brain for some more details and insight about the project. focalbox Among other things, I asked him about the (seemingly obvious) decision to leverage what has traditionally been an IP driven by real-time-strategy titles into a third-person perspective, and sussed out some more top-line details about the game's story. Van Lierop also spoke at length about some of Space Marine's deliberate design decisions, and how Relic intends to deliver a top-notch experience that plays quite a bit differently than other third-person shooters. Van Lierop describes Space Marine's story as an "action blockbuster," with "more going on under the surface, for people who are looking for it."
In our story, we've got a Forge World – which is a planet-sized factory that makes war machines – and about a million Orks land on it and just devastate the place, basically slaughtering everybody. And an acceptable response to that is to send in like thirty Space Marines. That's the kind of relative power that you’re playing with. You get to be that guy.
Existing fans of the 40K universe will likely appreciate more of the narrative subtleties, but Relic has no intention of leaving newcomers out in the cold. "I think we’ve found a good balance between keeping it a 40K story, but also making it more accessible to those who aren't familiar with 40K," he said. Van Lierop continued, delving a bit deeper into how Space Marine pulls players into the action.
You get sent in with the Ultra Marines. You arrive with your strike crew, and immediately start trying to take back strategic locations that have fallen to the Orks. It’s been almost two weeks since [the Orks] arrived, and you don’t expect any survivors. But you come across a small contingent of Imperial Guard who have managed to hold out. So that starts bringing you into the bigger story.
Pretty early on, you come across a distress message from an Inquisitor that needs help. And then it becomes sort of a Heart of Darkness story, where you’re trying to get deeper into the city and find out what’s going on.
In the end, it is an action blockbuster. It's definitely got a story that would be comfortable in any blockbuster movie. And there's more going on under the surface, for people who are looking for it. 40K fans will get a little more out of it, but I think we’ve found a good balance between keeping it a 40K story, but also making it more accessible to those who aren't familiar with 40K.
I told Van Lierop that, in retrospect, a 3rd-person action title based on the Warhammer 40K canon seems like an obvious thing to do. I asked him to talk about how that decision ultimately came about.
Like you say, looking at it now, it feels like an obvious thing. And in a lot of ways, I think it is. I think that one of the unique advantages that we have at Relic is that we have eight years of experience working with Games Workshop since we started working on the original Dawn of War. And we've had a lot of success with those games, and have built the relationship and trust with [Games Workshop] – who tends to be very protective of their licenses. It's a very valuable IP. There's 25 years [worth] of fans that have loved it and don't want you to mess around with it.
I think that was really pivotal to our ability to deliver Space Marine – specifically the experience we provide with the game. We sort of pushed the boundaries of what has historically been acceptable, or what GW [Games Workshop] has been comfortable with in the past.
The Space Marine hero is such an iconic character in that IP. And in a lot of ways, [this game] is a more accessible entry point [than Dawn of War]. He just looks like a badass, and I wanna be that guy. So there's this sort of aspirational element too it, as well as the notion that humanity is surrounded by enemies, and you're one of they guys that can help that light from getting snuffed out. That's a pretty cool fantasy to be part of.
When you’re a Space Marine, you’re not hiding behind stuff. You’re doing the exact opposite. You’re putting yourself in the middle of the battle, and that just fits in with the sense of being that confident hero and being super-human, and being almost godlike in your fighting prowess.

Hardly a fair fight (for the Orks).

Van Lierop also explained how the 40K design ethos informed the visuals in Space Marine, which are delivered from a much more intimate perspective than the Dawn of War series.
You know, since it's 40K, there are certain aesthetic pillars that are part of that world, like the Gothic architecture. And there's space-faring technology, and advanced weapons and things. But there's also this notion that it's pseudo-magical. Like people forgot how a lot of this stuff works, and there are secret societies that keep it running. There's this whole sort of techno-medieval thing going on that's very unique to that IP. So we express those ideas as much as possible in terms of how the world is set up, and how you interact with it.
And, of course, it wouldn't be a proper Warhammer experience without throngs of savage Orks to fight. With the exception of one level where I faced off against Tainted Psykers and Bloodletter Daemons, the majority of my time was spent battling the savage green-skinned warriors that came in all shapes and sizes. Van Lierop explained that besides their iconic importance to the series, the way that players will engage them in combat helps highlight the line Space Marine straddles between brawler and shooter.
In picking from all the different enemies that we could pick from, [we chose] the ones that we thought would give us the best opportunity to showcase the combat experience we wanted to give to players.
We started with Orks, because Orks, you know, they’ve got the mob-like thing, the brutal, animalistic thing. We wanted to get across this idea that when you’re fighting them, it's like being surrounded by a pack of wild dogs. And that’s kind of what we want you to feel like. Like there’s something biting at your heels while you’re fighting off this [other] guy – like this sort of mob crushing against you. And that really works well because instead of being the wave against the rocks, you're like a rock coming in and hitting and smashing guys, and killing them and knocking them around. Again, that makes you feel very powerful.
One of the things that most pleasantly surprised me during my time with Space Marine was its lack of the ubiquitious cover system employed by most modern shooters. I asked Van Lierop about the decision to steer away from the cover-based approach, and how that plays into the game's combat system, as a whole.
We played around with it, but we knew right away that one key pillar of our combat system was pretty much incompatible with a snap-to-cover system. Actually, two things: Immediate switching between melee and shooting was very difficult to do, and that responsiveness of being able to jump into combat and swap instantly, and have it feel seamless, was not compatible with the idea of being stuck to something.
We've made some very deliberate decisions in terms of how the different pieces of our combat system fit together, to encourage players to stay in battle. To give you a concrete example, in almost every that you've ever played, when your health is low, your reaction is to run away. Take cover. Get out of the field of fire so you can regenerate. You can do that, but in Space Marine, the better option is to execute a guy. Pick a guy that's close to you and saw him in half, or stun him and get him exposed so you can do that, and that's going to give you health. So, it's like, "Ok, I'm running low on health. I'm going to do something even more aggressive than what I'm already doing.” So instead of, "Oh, now I gotta hide, and I don't feel very Space Marine-y right now because I’m hiding behind a pillar," you’re just like, "Fuck yeah, I'm just gonna get in there and kick some more ass, otherwise I’ll die."
Fury is another system that again, really reinforces that more aggressive action. That’s not to say that you be strategic about how you fight in the game, but that really comes down to the encounters are set up – what guys you’re facing, where they come from, how you prioritize your targets. If you focus only on the guys in front of you, you’re probably going to die. You’ve got to have good situational awareness, and you can’t really let your guard down at any point.
It creates a very intense combat scenario and system, but again, I think it's a very true expression of that fantasy. You walk into an arena with thirty to forty Orks, and more coming when you kill those guys, and you’re like “Ok, this is a lot of shit!” [Laughs.] And at the end of it, you’re like, "Wow! I just did that!" There are dead bodies everywhere; the environment is all destroyed... I think that’s going to be satisfying for people.

Theater (of death) 'in-the-round'

The combat scenarios present duing my hands-on time with Space Marine certainly seemed to indicate that Relic is on the right track. We talked a bit more about how the game lets players switch fluidly between ranged and melee combat. I told Van Lierop that in most situations, I'd begin by taking out guys at range, but when enemies began closing the distance, I'd quickly bull-rush into the pack, chainsword a-flying.
That is absolutely deliberate. That's exactly what we want. There's nothing saying you can’t shoot those guys, so there's still a choice. But it's like learned behavior, right? You've played shooters for years that have taught you things like "Take cover when you can," and "Take guys out before they get close to you," and all of these learned behaviors. And a little bit of what you're doing here is combating learned behavior. We're trying to educate people about a different way of fighting.
I can't think of too many games where you have that much flexibility in how you choose to fight something. You get to be so in control of how that combat situation is going to play out.
During a pre-demo presentation earlier that day, Van Lierop had touched on the early days of Space Marine's development, and its loose relationship with an earlier Relic project called Carnage that never saw the light of day. I asked him how they finally decided on Space Marine's core gameplay mechanics, and how, if at all, those mechanics were inspired by Carnage.
I think the important legacy of Carnage was the desire to find a different way of exploring or expressing the ideas of this IP.
Early, early in Space Marine's development, there was the notion of it being more like an action-RPG. So, there was some fooling around with genre-blending. In the process of creating a game, there's this sort of evolution that happens, and there's also kind of a winnowing-down as well, as you focus on things. I think we had a little bit of a kitchen-sink thing going on early-on, where we wanted to be a lot of different things. Like we're going to take elements of this and elements of that and kind of blend them together. I think you see the best expression of that in how the combat system works right now, but all the rest of it started feeling like a red herring and a distraction.
Some people are like "You've got these two other guys in the world. How come there's no squad control?" Because what we want you to be doing is running into combat and messing with Orks. I don't want you to be thinking about ordering that guy to go over there and "Make sure you lay down covering fire." There's lots of other games you can do that in. That's not this game.
Relic also knows that it has something to prove as a studio when it comes to providing a well-received third-person action experience on consoles. Van Lierop was very clear in pointing out that Space Marine is a title they're positioning to compete with other big players. He's very much aware of how Relic's first console offering, "The Outfit," was received, and asserts that Space Marine will deliver a much better experience.
There was certainly a feeling of unfinished business from The Outfit. I think a lot of people forget that The Outfit was a launch title for [Xbox] 360, from a studio who had never made a console game before. New technology, a new action-RTS type genre. Very ambitious. And we ended up certainly not getting the Metacritic that we were satisfied with. Proud of the game, but not satisfied. Proud that we did it, and that we learned something, but not happy with it. So there's that sense of having to prove ourselves.
Early on, though not as much anymore, there was some skepticism. Like, "Oh, yeah. Sure, guys. We played The Outfit, and we know what kind of console games you can make." So that's been part of what's driven us to do something special, and with humility, to be competitive in the most competitive genre out there. You can't really come into this [genre] with a C-class game and expect to get anywhere.
So it started there, with the understanding that in order to be competitive in third-person action - the bar is already very high – we had to do something to stand out. You've got to work really hard to get to that bar, and then you’ve got to do something different. For us, it wasn't so much about trying to be different, we just knew that in order to deliver on that core fantasy we were aiming for, we needed to do something different. That same cover-based shooter that everybody is doing just doesn't work [for Space Marine], because that's not who you are.
BOOM video 8737 Based on what I got to see and play, Space Marine looks like it could very well turn out as Relic hopes. Van Lierop told me he wants players to really latch on to the flexibility afforded by the game's unique and seamless combination of ranged and melee combat. He wants players to feel powerful, and able to approach battles as they see fit.
If that's what people feel when they play the game, then we've succeeded. Because we've given them something that really makes them feel like they're in control. It's not like the game is forcing behaviors on you. It's like you're looking at a situation, and based on what you've learned, you're able to use the tools and make those split-second decisions that make you feel powerful. With that balance of "I might die any second!" with "Fuck, I'm having a good time. It doesn't really matter!" And in the end, you'll get through it and be like, "Whew!"
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is due out this August for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.