Some game universes are fleshed out well enough that it's easy to fantasize how a specific game world would look from the perspective of a genre fans aren’t used to. While we never did get StarCraft: Ghost, we at least have been treated to the likes of Halo Wars and the Metroid Prime Trilogy. When you have a world like Warhammer 40,000, giving this RTS franchise an installment inspired from Gears of War does warrant some attention even if the gameplay fundamentals might feel a bit derivative.
When Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine was recently presented at a THQ media event, developer Relic Entertainment wasted little time in reminding us media guests how its franchise, one that originated as a table-top game, featured the “original” space marine IP. Bragging rights aside, the premise of this latest installment doesn’t diverge much from past titles: humanity is on the edge of extinction, and its only hope for salvation lies in the hands of these warrior-monks known as the Ultramarines.
One-hundred-and-fifty-year veteran Captain Titus is one of these soldiers, standing seven-feet tall and weighing exactly a ton. It’s easy to get a sense of how imposing a warrior of his stature can be, heavily armored with an intimidating helmet to boot. With all that metal, it was of little surprise that once I got to play the game, Titus moved less like a human and more like an agile mech, not that there's anything wrong with that.
I guided him throughout settings and art styles that should be familiar to any Warhammer 40K follower. The metallic twist given to the Roman Gothic-inspired architecture would be worth admiring if everything weren’t so trashed from countless wars. The overall mission for Titus is a standard issue “hold the line” directive, one that might very well last the entire span of this estimated eight to 10 hour campaign. Of course within each chapter are a series of more specific objectives ranging from activating switches to meeting up with misplaced platoons. The one mission type that really brings out the meat of the combat was when I had to stand my ground against waves of enemies. Think Halo’s Firefight mode with a plot.
The one gameplay element that the Relic spokespeople insisted I take advantage of is to approach battles proactively. It's the classic cinematic dueling armies setup, and that opportunity to charge into the thick of battle. So yes, you might sense a bit of Dynasty Warriors in Space Marine but there's definitely a lot more to the gameplay than that. It encourages you to mix up ranged attacks with close-up melee combat. While you can hide behind objects for protection, I didn't feel encouraged to rely on cover, and this is another way that the game tries to dissuade Gears of War comparisons.
As a third-person gamer used to playing conservatively with long ranged attacks and cover reliance, this aggressive approach to Space Marine was an obvious change for me. I initially experimented to see how long I could get away with distant, precise shots, but the game wouldn’t have it. Soon the first, second, and third waves of Orks were charging right at me.
So when I did trust Relic’s recommended gameplay style, I could see what they were trying to convey: a sense of chaos that you have every opportunity to control. I got used to playing exterminator, popping a few Bolt Pistol rounds into one low ranking Ork while slicing another with my Chainsword, the starting melee weapon that is pretty much a glorified and adorned chainsaw. Given the right situation, I’d find myself in a literal weapons clash against an enemy, which then prompted a button spamming mechanic, nothing that one can’t handle with these entry level enemies. While such bombastic cleanup jobs do not need much in the way of many abilities or moves, there was this sense of wanting more ways to kill. Perhaps years of creative killing from Devil May Cry to Bulletstorm have spoiled me.
The weapon selection is an unsurprising arsenal of assault weapons, pistols, as well as a laser, 15 weapons in all. It was surprising to see that the grenade launcher has a very high firing rate compared to other games. Then there’s the plasma gun, a firearm with an effective charged-up attack although I had to be sure to not let it overheat as it would actually injure Titus if it reached a certain temperature.
The final touch to giving this realized world a sense of character are the speaking accents. It's so refreshing that the good guys (assuming we are the good guys) for once have British accents. The guardsmen who address Titus call him 'milord' in a very Darth Vader-inspired manner. It’s a lightly humorous approach and certainly adds to the world of Warhammer.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is due out August 2011 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.