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Warhammer 40K: Space Marine Hands-On

A third-person shooter set in the Warhammer 40K universe, developed by the team responsible for the Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War series… why has someone not thought of doing this before now? Warhammer is popular; Relic Studios are popular with the Warhammer crowd; third-person shooters are popular, perhaps too popular.
If Relic and THQ can get this one right then they’re looking at money. Cash money.
However, one thing that consistently causes the masses to turn their noses up is the idea that a new game is trying to piggyback on the success of another by merely copying what has come before. This seems to ring especially true where visuals are concenred – it is the easiest part of a game to gain info about, after all.
As such (no matter how much Relic may pretend to ‘welcome’ the comparison) it’s probably not a good sign when most people’s image of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is of it as a Gears of War clone. Hence the Gears of War-hammer moniker.

There’s no doubting the fact that Space Marine, at first glance, resembles Epic’s own take on Space Marines; it plays from the same ‘over-the-shoulder’ third-person perspective, big armour is involved, big guns are involved, the flow of testosterone is untapped, movement is slow/deliberate and there’s even a chainsaw plus ‘standard’ weapon mash-up.
But, that’s about where the similarities end. Space Marine and Gears of War are not all that alike in their approach to gameplay. Where Gears is about taking cover, selecting the right weapon and facing off against a squad of challenging foes, Space Marine is about running headlong into the fray with whichever weapon comes to hand and making mincemeat of the enemy hordes.
The game plays at a furious tempo; aggression, speed and in-your-face combat very much the order of the day. Indeed, you’re forced into such an approach because of the way the health regeneration system works. Health is regained by dealing damage upon the enemy, meaning that sitting back and taking pot shots at the seemingly endless flow of fodder will only result in a slow, uneventful death.  This creates an odd flow to gameplay in that while you’re attacking you’re not really at risk of death but while you’re not in the thick of it you are (especially if someone’s aiming a gun your way). Shooting is rather haphazard, the default weapon machine gun more of a spray ‘n’ pray than a headshot-in-one shot, so sticking close to enemies seems to be the best tactic.

In a rather out-of-the-ordinary move for the genre, Space Marine’s melee system is treated as an equal to its shooting mechanics. Your ‘Chainsword’ (chainsaw + sword, get it?) is probably the most effective of the game’s weapons we’ve seen thus far, able to chew Orks into a mass of flesh resembling a pre-cooked, pre-formed hamburger – the McDonald’s variety, not the good stuff.
Successful attacks not only build your health, they fuel your ‘fury’ meter. Once built up you can unleash special attacks that dispatch of the enemy in a flamboyant, slow-mo display of visceral blood-letting. The most satisfying of which involves slamming your Chainsword into the dark green neck of an Ork and forcing it through their body until its shoulders are laying either side of your feet.
Far be it from me to want to proliferate the comparison further, but, the carnage on show has got nothing on the chainsaw chomping glory offered by Gears of War. It’s not just the camera angles, blood spray and uncompromising, masculine brutality that elevates Gears’ take on violence above that of Space Marine, it’s the manner in which it’s served.
Gears’ carnage is satisfying because it represents a fitting reward for a hard fought encounter against a comparatively intelligent adversary. Due to Space Marine’s insistence on throwing countless enemies your way (at least during the levels we’ve played), no one kill holds much value or satisfaction. One Ork rolls into the next and into the next; they’re characterless in terms of their actions because they pose so little threat and die so quickly as individuals.

That’s not to say that wading into a sea of Orks and hacking them to bits wasn’t fun for the duration of our demo, it’s just that it’s difficult to see how it can remain appealing over the long term to the same extent as facing off against foes that make you think.
Set on what was apparently the ‘normal-to-hard’ difficulty setting; Space Marine certainly wasn’t an easy game, the number of enemies made sure of that.  But difficulty through well-programmed A.I. and difficulty through quantity are two very different things… Then again, a Space Marine is over 7 feet tall and weighs as much as a small truck so – in order to stay true to the source material – providing any single Ork with the potential to do much damage is probably somewhat blasphemous.
One brief moment of the four levels we got stuck into pitted us against Chaos, an altogether more menacing proposition, capable of doing greater damage and teleporting from place to place. We didn’t have much chance to test out their effectiveness in combat, but what’s clear is that they’re a whole lot more dangerous than the Orks, their teleporting ability forcing you stay on your toes and make good use of your dodge/roll skills (an act that seems rather at odds with the sheer size and bulk of a Space Marine).

Visually, the flair and skill we’ve come to expect from Relic (especially when Warhammer is involved) is very much present and correct. Character models – both pre- and post- dismemberment – are detailed and smooth, even though the amount of blood can often make them difficult to tell one from another. While Relic has certainly not held back on the ‘Gore-Scale’ (patent pending), there’s nothing here that’s at all disturbing or particularly affecting.  Everything feels as though it has been designed with a cartoony mentality in mind, whether that’s down to the nature of the universe and the races themselves or whether it was something Relic always aimed for (or both) is unknown.
The thing that stuck with me must vividly though was the world itself. Space Marine takes place on a ‘Forge World’, a planet turned factory where the Space Marines and their buddies construct giant, mechanised instruments of war (Dreadnoughts and the like). As such, environments features of epic cranes, power stations and various other tools of mass-construction set in front of a back-drop of a sepia-hued (presumably polluted) sky – providing a glimpse of the detailed back-story, lore and world the Games Workshop creative team have designed.
Of the levels we played it was those set in these industrial zones that stood out head and shoulders above those set in rocky mountain canyons and other ‘natural’ locations. Here’s hoping that Relic see sense and keep the majority of the missions/levels firmly rooted in the dilapidated vision of the future symbolised by the mega-factories.
Space Marine is looking interesting for anyone with a taste for constant action and adrenaline. Those that prefer the tactical side of things are likely to be less impressed. Despite coming from the hallowed hallways of the Relic offices, I struggle to see how fans of the developer’s prior output (largely RTS titles) are going to be sold on such an approach to the Warhammer 40K universe.
Then again, this is Warhammer and apparently it’s pretty popular.


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