The caretakers of the Warhammer 40K franchise over at Relic Entertainment are in sort of a tight spot. They've been in charge of producing games based on Games Workshop's vaunted 20-year-old science fantasy series for a while now, but before they got that chance, other developers had already come along and implemented some of 40K's most notable aspects in their own games. How many other popular game franchises can you think of that include some combination of ethereal psionic aliens, swarms of vicious, monstrous aliens, and burly soldiers in thick robotic armor all fighting their way across the galaxy? I bet it's a lot.
But Warhammer 40K can at least make the claim of having originated most of that stuff. Until now, Relic has been representing 40K entirely with the Dawn of War real-time strategy franchise, but now it's bringing the camera angle down to battlefield-level with Warhammer 40K: Space Marine. Publisher THQ announced Space Marine with a short teaser trailer at E3 in 2009, but it's pretty much been radio silence on the project since then--until Drew and I got to head up to Vancouver-based Relic last week and see the game in action for the first time (not to mention some of their crazy tabletop setups).
Not surprisingly, Relic is designing Space Marine as a cover-based third-person shooter--but the surprising part is, there's no cover system. You can certainly move behind objects in the environment to avoid getting shot up, but don't expect the sort of stop-and-pop, shooting-over-barricades action that you get in your Gears of Wars. Relic says that kind of fearful, methodical approach isn't characteristic of the nine-foot-tall, genetically engineered space marine, who's unflinchingly loyal to the emperor and will stop at nothing to carry out his will. So you don't take cover. You stride into the middle of the fight and start laying waste with your heavy weapons and fancy chainsword.
The game puts you in the role of a member of the Ultramarines, the Imperium's best of the best space marines, as you investigate the occupation of one of the empire's forge planets by 40K's slightly comical green-skinned antagonists, the orks. These forge worlds are where the Imperium's furnaces churn out the machinery and technology of war, so they obviously aren't too keen on their enemies getting access to this kind of stuff.
In the demo I got to see, the orks were already pretty deeply entrenched on the planet's surface, having dug in with towers and other armored positions that the game's bald main character Captain Titus had to fight his way through. The demo also included a rail-shooting sequence where orks with jetpacks were attacking the Ultramarines' dropship, and a fight on a speeding train where the player had to jump on a turret to bring down a ramshackle-looking ork ship. Between those sequences, there was a whole lot of shooting and slashing orks in the face and other sensitive parts. The forge world has the sort of noble, futuristic Roman-looking architecture that I think helps set 40K's version of spacefaring humanity apart from most of the others you see in video games these days.
On the other hand, the shooting in Space Marine looks pretty darn familiar: pull into a tight, over-the-shoulder view when you want to aim and shoot at things. But you'll be able to develop your abilities with the bolters, plasma guns, and other 40K weaponry you find along the way. Relic didn't go into specifics about how this will work, but they did say that the more you use a given weapon, the more you'll be able to do with it. For instance, that plasma gun that initially only fires small blobs of energy can be upgraded so you can charge it up and let loose a devastating blast that will destroy everything in a small area.
That upgradeability goes for melee attacks, too, since you'll start out equipped with the space marines' traditional chainsword and then gain access to a powersword later as well. The melee combat in Space Marine looks deeper than the one-hit-kill attacks you typically spam in Gears of War, since there are actual multi-hit combos at your disposal here (and you'll be able to flesh those combos out, as well). Don't think space marines are above throwing an ork to the ground and giving it the ol' curb stomp, though. Because they aren't.
I have to assume the orks aren't the only thing you'll be fighting in Space Marine, but Relic clammed up as soon as I asked. But how do you make a Warhammer 40K action game and not include some of the other iconic factions from that universe, like the tyranids and the eldar? I assert that you cannot. You also can't make this sort of game without multiplayer, which is confirmed to be in the game, but again, no details on that just yet. Space Marine isn't out until next year, and publishers love to stretch their PR out languidly over a period of month, so we'll certainly be seeing more of the game soon.