Space Marine preview: epic shoulderbarge

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The demonstration opens from within a dropship, flying above an unnamed planet. On screen, we can see a single soul. He's wearing bright blue power-armour and carrying a bolter. On his shoulders we can see an upturned white crescent.

The carrier is moving at high speed, delivering an invasion force to an Orkoccupied forge world. We're not alone in the sky. There are multiple carriers, each carrying multiple marines. Through the clouds come Orks. They're rocket-propelled kamikazes, pulling up alongside the airship and firing off a few rounds from their submachineguns before jumping onto the bulkheads, trying to tear the metal apart. No one's going to survive this.

First the marine tries to fend off the onslaught using the heavy bolter that's welded into the door frame, but there are just too many, too relentless. He pulls back and starts firing from the hip, ducking to the back door. It's not enough. More and more Orks are on the troop carrier. It's going down. One Ork falls off the edge, and is quickly sucked into the dropship's engine. The view shifts. The dropship is now a fireball. It smashes into the ground. A lone figure, our hero, emerges from the wreckage.

He is a Space Marine.

Into the melee

For the first time, the incredible studio behind the Dawn of War games is putting us in the power-shoes of gaming's ultimate warriors.

Orks charge him. He fires and fires. They close in. He discards his bolter for a chainsword. Then, with one movement, he grabs an Ork by the scruff of its neck and plunges the blade deep into its belly. Blood and viscera fly everywhere. Only a ball of gore is left. Oh yes, this is a Relic game.

Since 1997, Relic have delivered some of the world's best strategy games. They were formed with the idea of making one game: a space-strategy effort that crossed Battlestar Galactica with Command & Conquer. It was innovative, brilliant and beautiful. It was Homeworld. Since then, the studio have delivered a steady series of critical and commercial hits: the two Dawn of War games and their countless expansion packs, Homeworld 2, and the legendary Company of Heroes. All their games emphasise two things: smart tactics and relentless violence. Relic made strategy games hurt, as anyone who's weathered a V2 barrage in Company of Heroes, or watched a Mek eviscerate a Scout will understand.

But now they're making an action game, and they're going about it in a big way. A team of around 100 full-time professionals have been recruited, and the game is well into production.

Andy Lang has been with Relic for a long, long time. He was the art director on the original Homeworld, and has been with the team on and off ever since. But making a game where you're thrown directly into the shoes of a Space Marine? It's the opportunity the studio have been waiting for.

“You know we have that camera – where we zoom in and pretend we're really close?” asks Andy. “Well, we can leave it there now. Making Space Marine was a no-brainer for us. We wanted to get the player into that battlefield, do what Relic do best and create that explosive environment around it. It's been a dream for so many of the people on the team to start working on this game.”

You can see why: Space Marines are the ultimate fighting force within the Warhammer universe. “They're highly trained,” says Raphael van Lierop, Space Marine's producer. “They're disciplined. They're seven feet tall, encased in 1,000 pounds of ceramic armour. They're created for one job only: to fight and kill the enemies of humanity. They take that job very seriously, and they do that job better than any soldier has done, ever. You get to be that guy.”

So, you're a Space Marine. To start with, you have a chain sword, a bolter and a suit of power armour. You have crash landed on a forge world, a place that's been overrun by Orks. This forge world is a factory for the Emperor's war effort and losing it would be a problem, not least because this place builds Emperor-class Titans. The game is, ostensibly, a third-person shooter – a Warhammer take on Gears of War – but there are two significant differences. One: Space Marines don't take cover, so this game won't have a cover system. Two: Space Marines like to get dirty, and attack with knives, swords and spikes. In Space Marine, Relic are emphasising melee combat – attempting to mix deep action mechanics, such as combination attacks and sync kills (extra gruesome special moves), with raw shooting.

Cover to cover

These are both brave moves. “The cover system's been a big debate at Relic,” Andy explains. “We're big fans of Gears. It's just that, when you know the fantasy of the Space Marine, they're not based on US Marines or black ops or whatever. They're based on medieval knights, so they're designed to stand out in battle – they're designed to intimidate – so we couldn't have them cowering behind cover. It just wouldn't feel right.”

And the melee combat? “What we really want to do is push the players and force them to get into the battle, so we've designed encounters that take advantage of our melee system and that give the player a fresh experience of the shooter genre. It was a conscious decision to move away from it. In our game, if a bunch of Orks are behind cover, instead of trying to pick them off at range, you can use a bull rush and charge right through the cover, sending them flying, and then hit them with the melee.”

The melee looks to games such as God of War for inspiration. It's about combination timing and interrupting – breaking shields or defences with one attack, then pushing forward with another. The transition between shooting and melee is seamless – one minute you're over the shoulder pouring lead into green, the next you're up close, slicing the Orks in two.

The demo shifts to a new level. The Space Marine needs to fight through a sewer pit, but he's blocked by Orks. This is going to be a recurring problem. They pour in (some burst through the doors, leaving physics objects dangling) and charge right into the melee. The Space Marine rapidly switches between sword and bolter, tearing through the Orks. Then an officer type opens a pipe and holds it up for the little gremlins. They jump in, and the officer drops the lip and charges after them. Their enthusiasm for dying at the business end of a chainsword is hilarious.

There are multiple types of Orks. Gretchen come bounding in and are turned to mush instantly. They're pure cannon fodder. Big Boyz carry shields and try to match you hand-to-hand.

However, there's a problem. Relic have long been famed for PC games. This is a different step. It's an action game – a riotous third-person shooter. Isn't this an entirely new discipline?

Perhaps not. The team at Relic have staffed up dramatically in recent years, pulling in console veterans from throughout the industry. One of them is Raphael. “We don't want to just be very good at making PC RTS games,” he explains. “We want to be very good at making entertainment. For us, it's an amazing challenge.”

And just because Space Marine is coming out on the consoles, it doesn't mean the PC version is any less important. “Relic are PC developers,” Andy says, “and we don't want to throw away that lineage moving to console. The PC build will have custom design and specially tuned controls, which have been through rigorous usability testing to make sure the game feels awesome. We're definitely not going to “Relic are PC developers, and we don't want to throw away that heritage” half-ass it and stick it on the console. That would be terrible for fans of the Relic brand, and for us as gamers. We don't want it to suck, you know?”

Rail enquiries

It doesn't suck. The demo shifts locations to a speeding train, where the Space Marine is chasing down an errant Inquisitor. The Inquisitor has the plans for a Titan, but he's nowhere to be found. If he falls into the paws of the Orks, there will be trouble.

The train is under constant attack from a flying Ork dropship. The Space Marine fires back, but his bolter is ineffective. He darts between the cargo, making his way to a heavy, heavy bolter – the most powerful variant. He fires and the dropship is torn apart. In a last-ditch attempt to take him down, the pilot puts the engines to full and places the ship on a kamikaze path. It crash lands, but builds up speed as it skids along the tracks, catching up with the train. Carriages are punted left and right – the Hollywood physics as brutal and violent of anything we've seen - easily the equivalent of Half-Life 2: Episode 2's incredible bridge collapse.

I have some slight criticisms of the demo, and there are risks associated with where Relic is heading. The demo right now is one-note, as you'd expect from a universe in which there's only war. All we see in it are Orks, and their AI amounts to 'run at the Space Marine until he falls over'. Relic's previous MO is to reveal the Orks, then layer in further races and more interesting AI as development progresses. That's how Dawn of War and its sequel progressed, and I'm hoping that's what will happen here. I want to shoot at Chaos Marines and have chainsword fights with Eldar. But Andy isn't giving anything away. “You can read into our history whatever you want. Orks have a great variety and they're a great way of introducing the game to a broader audience. They're green, they're fun to kill, they explode, we've got lots of them on-screen, and the humour of them contrasts with the seriousness of the Space Marines.”

And I'm curious about playing Space Marine in a multiplayer environment. As the demo draws to a close, I catch a glimpse of the interface. There are two options visible: cooperative, and online multiplayer. Coo.

Whatever route they take, Relic are wading into a huge battle. Now they aren't just competing for the strategy market, they're competing with some of the world's biggest PC and console gaming franchises: Gears of War. Halo. Killzone. It's one hell of an ambitious project. “There's no glory in playing it safe,” Raphael laughs.