The Warhammer 40,000 universe's descriptive tagline - "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war" - does not sound like a cheery fantasy many of us would like to find ourselves in.
But Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is designed to fulfil the fantasy of taking control of the fiction's hulking machines of war, to put players into the hundred pound boots of the titular Space Marine. Relic Entertainment, the developer of the third-person shooter Space Marine and, previously, real-time strategy series Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, will take you there.
Space Marine trades the distant bird's eye view of the Dawn of War series for battles more intimate and excessively violent. The PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game will focus primarily on one man, not hundreds, as he charges through hordes of Orks, blasting them to bits, slicing them into chunks.
We recently had a hands-off preview of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine at THQ's headquarters to see how Relic is turning a 23-year-old tabletop game into an action-packed blockbuster shoot 'em up.
Our demo started without gameplay, but with an introduction to the Warhammer 40,000 brand of Space Marine. Described as serious and devout, highly disciplined and bound by honour - not to mention massive in size and encased in flashy, bright blue space armour - the heroes of Relic's game are familiar but also unique.
They've inspired countless other space travelling soldiers, but they behave differently. In Relic's game, they prefer to charge forward in favour of taking cover. There is no "snap-to cover" system in Space Marine. The preferred method is to clear the room by killing your enemies, not hiding from them.
We saw that in action later, but our first impression of Space Marine started with something rarely seen in grim war games - comic relief.
As the demo kicked off, Space Marine forces approached a massive war factory on an even more massive Forge World. This was a planet designed to create the weapons of war needed to fight the universe's battles. Billions of workers lived here. It was currently being invaded by Ork forces. During the initial flight of the Valkyries - Space Marine transports and gunships - flying Orks attacked. The bright green and unintelligent-looking monsters had a low-tech approach. They attacked with cartoonish rockets strapped to their backs, while our heroic Space Marine, Captain Titus of the Ultramarines division, shot them down with a mounted turret and, later, his own rifle.
The Valkyrie ship we were following was eventually taken down - a flying Ork caught caught in the engines, delightfully - crashing onto the Forge World's surface. It was a mostly seamless transition into the on-foot segments of Space Marine.
What followed was a lone wolf attack on an Ork-occupied factory. That structure was colossal and future-gothic in its design, filled with a variety of grunting green enemies. Titus forged ahead, killing waves of approaching Orks, mixing up the run and gun action with hand-to-hand combat. There were exploding barrels, Ork limbs littering the ground and no lack of targets to shoot.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine producer Raphael Van Lierop says that the game's mix of distant and up close combat was "like making two games at once", and that Space Marine's melee side required lots of iteration. You'll be encouraged to experiment with both sides of Space Marine's battle system through a progression system. As you use more than a dozen weapons, you'll unlock new abilities, new ammunition types and other skills. You'll be able to use Titus' chainblade to grind through the metal armour of Ork Nobs. You'll be able to charge up a plasma gun for a vicious blast of energy.
There will be exotic weapons, like the chunky Heavy Bolter, a futuristic mini-gun. It's just one of the weapons drawn from Games Workshops Warhammer universe that has rarely been explored in the way that Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine does.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is due for release sometime in THQ's fiscal year 2011, meaning it should be out before March of next year. Relic promises to talk about its "robust" multiplayer and cooperative offerings for Space Marine before then, with its gunplay and melee in tact, sometime soon.