Warhammer 40k: Space Marine Preview
THQ hasn't really had much of Relic's third-person shooter, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, to show over the last year. Relic has only made one real action game so far, and it was met with general disappointment, but this time around things look much more in order. And considering this studio's history of having delivered some of the industry's most well-reviewed games (with only a scant few bombs over the years), it seems like it might be Relic's time to shine as a top-tier, multiplatform studio. Considering what we saw of Space Marine, that time might be coming up pretty quick.
You'll play as Captain Titus, one of the elite fighters in the Space Marines, and your goal is to hold off an assault of Orks and the devilish forces of Chaos to defend a planet that's key to the humans' continued survival. Your Space Marine is a highborne noble with titles and distinction, not some forgotten prisoner or nameless war veteran. He's been bred for this role, having gone through trials and genetic modifications to make him huge, powerful, and yet agile at the same time. His suit of power armor can absorb ridiculous amounts of enemy fire, but he's still nimble and capable of quickly moving around the battlefield.
You're going to need that fleet-footedness, too, because while Space Marine is clearly attempting to build on the third-person shooter pedigree that Gears of War perfected, it plays entirely differently. Shooting is done out in the open, man to Ork, and the only way to really take cover is to actually move and put an object between you and your enemies. You're given the health pool and the power to do battle is out in the open, with aggression and confidence - the exact sort of fighting style that gets you killed in most games, the ones where you're forced to cower behind a low wall for the majority of a firefight. You stand out in the open, rush into battle with pistols and rifles blazing, and if the enemy gets too close, you rip them into pieces with the motorized teeth on your chainsword. (And before you ask if it's a Gears of War ripoff: Warhammer 40,000, in tabletop form, had these weapons nearly 25 years ago. Actually, it turns out that the Warhammer universe has created a lot of innovations in sci-fi storytelling and lore, much of which has been borrowed by video game developers.)
Our demo consisted of four sections of the game from various parts of the single player campaign. Some missions had us fighting solo, others alongside regular soldiers, and one alongside a pair of beefy Space Marines like Captain Titus. Learning the controls is quick and easy, as the bumpers and triggers aim, fire, and reload your guns, and the face buttons unleash melee attacks. Setting up and mixing between ranged and melee attacks is easy with this control scheme, and the fury meter that you build from killing stuff can be unleashed either as slow motion for setting up accurate long-range shots, or as special melee power attacks. Of course, boldly charging into battle is bound to get you hurt eventually, and while the illusion of Space Marines being invincible is alive and well, you can die if you stand out there long enough. That's when you retreat to get "cover" and avoid incoming attacks to regenerate armor and health.
Still, the whole game feels vastly different because of the change in focus away from constantly firing from behind cover to standing out in the open. You'll find that smart tactics can allow you to draw some enemies away from the pack, and the maps are designed in such a way that you'll have chances to pick off enemies without exposing yourself to enemy fire from all angles. Still, when the Orks come and mob you - two or three taking potshots with their crude guns from above, and eight or more surrounding you, hacking at you with crudely-built axes - it's nice to be able to handle them readily. Pick off the pot-shotting Orks from a distance, use a couple of melee attacks to hack a gap into the surrounding force, then pop through the gap and take on a few at a time, even as more enemies pour in. That was one of the things mentioned by Relic: the Orks swarm in numbers when they attack, and making a game that can only handle a few enemies at a time, like you often see in many shooters, just wouldn't cut it. So while Space Marine doesn't have jaw-dropping visuals or vast amounts of polygons, it does maintain solid frame rates with wide-open views and plenty of characters (be they friends or enemies) on-screen at a time. And for our demo all of this was delivered with a two-month-old, pre-alpha build, with plenty of optimizations and improvements to go. Not bad!
The last level in the demo we tried introduced Chaos, a race of space-demons that hit and run with deceptive attacks. They don't swarm in mass numbers, but they pull tricks on you, dashing in and out of combat with their fiery swords, and firing from afar while teleporting around. It was tough going taking these guys on, mostly because they knew how to redirect the Space Marines' aggression - if you charge in with your chainsword flailing, they'll instantly dodge out of the way and counter-attack when you're stuck in your big swing's follow-through. Instead, I found that picking them off with ranged attacks worked best, and only swinging in melee once they had teleported in would often guarantee a hit.
It's been a long time coming, seeing such a rich universe like 40k finally poised to hit the mainstream, and we can't think of a better developer than the guys who have delivered many top-notch RTS games in that same universe. I'm still a bit skeptical as to whether they've got the talent and cohesion to go up against the big boys, especially in such a busy year for blockbuster games. Space Marine has a ways to go in the polish department in order to ensure its place amongst this fall's biggest names, but the fundamentals are certainly there. Now it's just a matter of the final stages of execution, as the game is set for release late-summer-ish for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.