Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine Preview

Walking into the Vancouver headquarters of famed RTS developer Relic Entertainment immediately showcases the studio's pride. Sitting in the foyer stands a giant statue featuring a character from the famed Warhammer 40,000 universe -- a universe it gave new life in its Dawn of War franchise -- along with a life-size American tank bursting through a corner of the office, paying homage to the Company of Heroes series.

Although it's known for its critically and commercially acclaimed RTS franchises, Relic opened its doors to select members of the media to showcase something different: the third-person shooter, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.

It's been four years since Relic Entertainment has stepped away from the real-time strategy field. In 2006, the Canadian developer released the Xbox 360-exclusive title, The Outfit. Although some look back fondly on the title, it received mixed reviews (a Metacritic average of 70), something Relic isn't keen on reminiscing about. "We're bitten by it," Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine producer Andy Lang told me. "Relic is not proud of The Outfit. We made a point to try to make a new [intellectual property] and make it stand but a 70 percent rated game is not a Relic game. We want higher quality than that."

Built upon a new engine, with team leads from previous Relic titles, as well as a former employee of Valve and Rockstar, Relic Entertainment's Space Marine is about putting players in the shoes of a sci-fi, fantasy legend. "This is the original Space Marine," Producer Raphael Van Lierop tells those in attendance, reminding us that the Warhammer 40,000 soldiers were first created 25 years ago.

In Space Marine, players will contend with a massive ork army that have swarmed an Imperial forge world; a world designed to develop weapons for the remaining human race. "If it gets destroyed or falls into ork hands, it could end the war," Van Lierop tells us.

The first mission in our guided demo featured a collection of Valkyrie gun ships on their way to break through the fortified ork army. Taking control of the ships side-mounted chain gun, Captain Titus -- the Ultramarine classified 'chaptered' protagonist in Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine -- begins to chip away at swarms of rocket-pack wearing ork minions, attempting to thin the human army's line of offense. As more swarms of flying enemy orks emerge, Titus blasts them out of the sky before they can bring down friendly Valkyrie gunships. When one ork gets sucked into the engine of his own gun ship, Titus is forced to jump from the aircraft moments before impact. On the ground, Titus immediately goes to work, decimating the a thick ork horde who stand in his way as he inches begins to inch downward toward his fallen ship.

The character pops in his blue armor against a canvas of broken down structures and red enemy blood. There's weight behind every step. His suit is heavy and it shows as the character lumbers through narrow alleys of debris fighting off orks with his bolt rifle. When the swarm becomes too great, Titus can lunge forward with his futuristic chainsword -- essentially a sword with the cutting ability of a chainsaw. The melee is seamless, according to Relic, it can be accessed with one button press.

Swinging the sword isn't Titus' only ability. He can grab enemies and saw through them in one of multiple devastating one-hit kill moves, another of which allows him to curb-stomp enemies into a fine red mist.

Although its style allows for comparison to Gears of War, there is no cover in Warhammer 40,000: Space Marines. "You're not the kind of guy who takes cover," Van Lierop tells us. In fact, Van Lierop says the concept of cover contradicts with the melee system within the game. If players are stuck behind cover, they cannot quickly access their chainsword, which, to Relic, was a problem.

Enemies can take cover behind debris or behind hulking shields. Titus, however, can counteract this by bull-rushing through those pieces of cover, smashing through them to face the enemy head-on. As Titus takes damage the edges of the screen go red and the sound drops; however, it will take more than a few ork minions to end this Captain's quest to save the human race.

In the second level in the demo we're introduced to another set-piece moment. Finding a downed Space Marine with a heavy bolter chaingun by his side, Titus makes quick work of orks rushing toward his A.I. controlled allies that are being spawned in by a shaman-like warrior. Space Marine will include many set-piece moments like this, and the preceding Valkyrie level.

Progression in Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine focuses on Titus' own abilities -- like his bull-rush maneuver -- and the weapons he discovers throughout the world -- like a devastating plasma rifle he briefly toys with during the demo. The persistent progression allows players to upgrade these items and abilities to unlock more devastating attacks and combos. Players gain experience for killing enemies, hitting milestones and achievements and reaching goals throughout the game. "We want to reward players on a micro and macro scale," Van Lierop explains.

Although the game stuttered throughout the demo, what we see is an early version of the upcoming game. Running on a PC, but played on an Xbox 360 controller could lead some players to worry about the game's control options on PC. According to Lang, mouse and keyboard players will have nothing to worry about.

The demo ends with Titus on-board a moving train. Orks flood the area and an overhead ork battleship makes progression difficult. Titus slowly makes his way to the front of the train, finding a turret capable of destroying the menacing ship. After multiple shots, and removing it from its placement and taking it as a portable weapon, Titus is victorious and the ship crashes into the train cars behind him.

During the demo we caught glimpses of the main menu featuring multiplayer and co-operative modes, sadly, Relic isn't sharing any information on those components at this time.

I've never had much interest in the Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine series; however, from the amount of detail shown it looks like this game will resonate with those who adore the franchise. This is the opportunity to do what you've been imagining during epic games of the famed table top experience. Although Dawn of War gives players some of these abilities, never have fans had the chance to step into the shoes of an Ultramarine.

It may share similarities with titles already available but its setting and abilities look wholly original. The question is whether or not the game can pull in fans of the genre who have yet to paint their first pewter figure. From what we've seen, it has potential to do just that.

According to THQ, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine will now hit the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 in THQ's 2012 fiscal year, which only begins on April 2, 2011. It was originally scheduled to hit in early 2011.

Xav de Matos was previously a games journalist creating content at Shacknews.

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