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Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine E3 2011 Hands-On Preview

The Warhammer 40,000 universe has played host to a wide variety of games over the past decade. Fire Warrior, Squad Command and, perhaps most importantly, Dawn of War have all put this rich setting into the minds of gamers. Can Relic Entertainment repeat the success of their RTS titles working with a new genre in Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine?

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

Choosing to develop this game as a third-person shooter seems like a wise decision. During our hands-on time with the title we were occasionally made to feel like a grizzled Space Marine veteran fighting overwhelming odds. Particularly impressive during our playthrough was the camera, which didn’t seem to suffer any noticeable problems as it switched between ranged and melee combat. This was a godsend as the action was frequent, prolonged and pretty hectic.

The background to Space Marine sees you take on the role of humanities specially armoured defenders. Tasked with repelling an enormous invasion of Orks on a strategically important Forge World planet, you must fight your way through hundreds of the green skins every few minutes. It promises to be an intense experience and the developers have been keen to emphasise that changing from shooting to close-combat carving is as easy as possible. There was little time for plot in our time with the game, eschewing story in favour of death-dealing and that was probably a good choice.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

However, with the richness of Warhammer 40,000 fiction and the released screenshots showing off the appearance of Chaos later in the game, it remains to be seen if the plot can deliver. Too often in third-person shooters the narrative takes a backseat and exists only to move you from one location to the next. Indeed, from what we have seen of the game so far, Space Marine seems to have a checklist of the best things about the universe that they want players to experience. It is not necessarily about creating an involving story that grabs the player and draws them into the twisting conflicts of the many warring races. Yet, hopefully we may be pleasantly surprised when the game releases if Relic can raise the main story above typical action clichés.

Our mission saw us taking the role of Captain Titus, the player character, flanked by a couple of other Space Marines. No sooner than we had begun the playthrough than our squad was set upon by hordes of Orks who piled in and surrounded us. Thankfully the controls were easy to grasp and are typical third-person shooter fare with one stick to control movement and the other to govern camera movement and aiming. Wading into the swarm of enemies, we equipped our trusty chainsword which has been animated beautifully and is great to use as a long-time 40K gamer. This can be utilised to cleave through weaker enemies something which builds your fury meter.  

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

The fury meter is an essential tool that can be used in different ways. When activated in close combat it does extra damage and throws enemies backwards, buying you extra time to pick off more of your foes or to gain some distance. This can be essential, as your health and armour need time to regenerate when you aren’t taking damage. Fortunately this seems like a well balanced mechanic and often getting stuck into the fight will help you, giving you extra fury that you can utilise. This more aggressive gameplay makes a refreshing change from being crouched behind a concrete wall for minutes at a time.

While the chainsword was satisfying in melee combat, we’d have liked to try out some of the more impressive melee weapons, such as the devastating Thunder Hammer or the Power Sword. Due to the rather default nature of the chainsword we tended to favour ranged attacks and use the melee weapon to push back the smaller enemies that would mob around us from time to time. However, Relic was certainly true to their word at the seamless swapping between close-combat and shooting, something which incorporates some nice animations.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

The shooting felt a lot more conventional in nature, although this was not necessarily a huge drawback. Ranged combat was solid, if uninspired, and only a few of the Space Marine arms felt truly unique. Both the Bolt Pistol and the Bolter felt like the standard pistol and assault rifle of every other action game from the past decade. They were the go-to in our arsenal and rarely was it necessary to switch away from them to mow down the enemies. With some forethought and tactical movement, you could largely avoid any melee combat and retreat to whittle down enemies using these firearms.

Thankfully the Plasma Rifle was a bit more rewarding and could truly obliterate standard Orks and Gretchins that were unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end. The remainder of the weapons that have been confirmed for the game such as Heavy Bolters and Lascannons will undoubtedly be more important to get right. They have a long history in the tabletop game and will have to be as fearsome and satisfying to use in this title, so fingers crossed that Relic can really nail that sensation.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

Your opposition were fairly limited in the playthrough, with only Gretchins, Orks, Shoota Boyz and Slugga Boyz to dispatch. The Shoota Boyz were an inconvenience and forced you to either take cover to dispatch the swarms of normal foes until you could take a shot or prioritise them early in the battle and take them out. However, there were only a handful of them in the demo and they felt rather underused. We encountered a few Slugga Boyz who wear armour, are much tougher than their weaker brethren and wield enormous “choppas” that will be instantly familiar to 40K fans.

These mini-boss encounters were much more satisfying and required you to use your skills more. Not only did you have to avoid the attacks of these larger foes, but the attacks of the numerous other Orks that were busy trying to swarm you. We chose to heavily damage the Slugga Boyz from a distance until we could get in close enough to initiate a truly brutal execution move. These were immensely gruesome and involved eviscerating the damaged enemies by plunging the spinning chainsaw into their midriff. It was pleasingly brutal and seemed to really evoke the dark violence of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

Our time with Space Marine was mixed. The pedigree of Relic as a developer seems strong and there is certainly a faithful recreation of the fiction they are working with. But the gameplay felt rather underwhelming and didn’t always give us that almighty sense of superhuman strength the Space Marines possess. Although at times you do feel overwhelmed fighting off hordes of opponents and subsequently defeating them in a shower of gore was very satisfying. However, we would have preferred to spend more time with the really powerful weapons to get a feel for them. Equally, the forces of Chaos that have been emerging in screenshots would have also no doubt proved to be much more challenging.

This is by no means a bad game but our demonstration makes us worry that it might not live up to its full potential. The portion of the title we played seemed to come from early on, so no doubt Relic wants to save the real action for release date. However, it did mean that Space Marine felt a little cliché, bland and predictable. Hopefully with the emergence of greater numbers of enemies, more opponent types and some of those really meaty weapons, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine can really deliver on the promise of its licence. Our time with the title has us fairly excited and we are hoping to see more of the later portions before its release in September.

evilgiraffeman | 20th June, 2011
Dead Alive's picture
I think any game that has 'Space Marine' in the title these days is a pretty big walking cliché. However, I do love the 40k lore, so I'll be looking forward to it, even if it does sound to me like Gears of War with decent melee.
azrael316's picture
TBH< I really dont want another 40K shooter.

I have been let down too often in the past, look at Fire Warrior as an example of how to mess up a potentially awesome 40K licence.

Stick to the RTS genre with Warhammer 40K, its better suited due to the nature of the IP itself.

It really does just look like every other 3rd person game ever just with a few 40K armour skins thrown in.

Think I'll be giving it a miss.

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