When early previews of Space Marine surfaced last year, one line in particular caught my eye: a response from a Relic rep to a question from Rock Paper Shotgun about whether or not the game - looking so much like Gears of War as the writer felt - would contain a cover system. To which the answer was, memorably, 'cover is for pussies'. They've been so many shooters placing you in the hands of...well...a space marine, that to finally have a game on the horizon aiming to be the very Platonic form of a space marine game might seem to herald an enormous facepalm. But fret not - having snuck in a brief hands-on session at E3, I can confirm that the rep was right, and this is shaping up to be a gory delight.
You play Captain Titus - voiced by Mark Strong (even the Space Marines' actors have to have badass names) - deployed with the Ultramarine second company on a forge world with the objective of sticking a spanner in the works of the latest Ork Waaagh (think the Crusades, but with monstrous beasts, less discipline and more alcoholism - if anyone has seen the South Park episode 'The Red Badge of Gayness', you'll have something of an idea...but much bigger). The Ultramarines have one real consideration: to fight and uphold the glory of the Imperium of Man...and the Imperium is is danger. It transpires that not only is the forge world used as a factory base for the Imperium's largest war machines - the Titans - but, as an Imperial Inquisitor reveals, there's something else on the planet's surface that cannot and must not fall into Ork hands.
That all sounds pretty epic, and the rep I talked to promised lots of twists and turns when I pressed for more information, but really that had absolutely no bearing on my demo whatsoever. There were a few objectives - mainly falling into the 'go here, press this button' category - but it was only a short demo, so I figured I'd try and wade as deeply into battle as I could and see if Relic have managed to capture the essence of what it means to be an Ultramarine.
Let's get a few comparisons out of the way right now. The game handles a lot like Gears of War (or should that be Gears of Warhammer...hurrr), in that everything feels rather weighty and powerful indeed. But then, you're a nine foot tall Space Marine with a tonne of ceramic armour strapped to your body; if you were pirouetting about like Natalie Portman in Black Swan there'd be issues. The colour palette is also rather reminiscent of Epic's third person shooter epic, all washed out hues, glimmers of colour provided by the blue and gold Ultramarines and blood you end up liberating in large quantites from the bodies of your enemies.
Relic have done two things very well in the past: really satisfying RTS games with a pleasing level of tactical depth, and violence. Lots of it. Anyone suggesting that this is particularly new territory, or that Relic are a bit of an unknown quantity when it comes to getting stuck in and delivering meaty action clearly hasn't played a Relic game before. That said, it's not as easy as it sounds, and these guys are the most legendary badasses science fiction has ever really delivered. They're practically god-like soldiers, each one a match for over a thousand Orks.
It is fitting, then, that the combat system is intuitive, well-laid out and deeply satisfying. Imagine if Gears' shooter mechanics were combined with the hack and slash qualities of God of War, sounds good right? It is.
Your ranged attacks are mapped, as you might expect, to the triggers and the bumpers, the D-pad providing ample opportunity for juggling between your Bolter and other weapons such as plasma guns, lascannons and an awesome, mine-spewing instrument of destruction called the Vengeance Launcher. The feedback is reassuringly solid, the sound design excellent. It's the face buttons, though, that will almost certainly have you shouting out exclamations of bloodthirsty euphoria. Playing with an Xbox controller for the demo, A offered up an evasive roll, X yielded fast and light attacks, Y hammered home heavy hitters, and the B button triggered cinematic finishers that made me unconsciously shout my approval rather loudly. I've never really been one for the numb journalistic response to everything - if I like a game, if it really grabs me, I'll let people know - and, having dealt with the hustle and bustle of E3 for 48 hours already, I think something about Space Marine must have struck a chord.
The transition from ranged to melee combat is seamless, which is crucial. But you can be inserting bullets into an Ork one second before rolling into the fray, carving up a few mindless grunts with a mix and match of heavy and light attacks before rolling back out of range, stunning the big, fat heavy Ork gunner at the back with a few rounds of the plasma cannon, leaping forward and hammering 'B' at the reeling beast. Out comes the chain-sword, in zooms the camera and it's off with his head. The executions differ depending on the enemy, and where you're stood in relation to them, but they're all mightily cathartic.
In terms of visuals, the game doesn't look bad as such, but it won't exactly dazzle your optic nerve either. It's serviceable and smooth, which will be far more important in the long run, with small crowds of enemies onscreen and plenty of viscera flying about the last thing you want is slowdown. There were one or two glitches here and there, but nothing major. There are dangers, too, associated with Space Marine that could only really be inferred from the demo - short that it was - but predecent would tell us to be wary of one trick ponies and a lack of variety. As I say, the 10-15 minute demo was a perfect snapshot of some exhilarating, frenetic combat, but all we fought were Orks. No sign of the Forces of Chaos just yet.
I want to see more, though; I feel like I have to. The demo was pretty much exactly what I'd wanted to see: sheer escapist power fantasy at its best. Yes, there are perhaps reservations over just how sustainable that feeling of satisfaction might be over the long term, and they're hardly reinventing the wheel here. But if Relic can manage to keep things relatively fresh and entertaining throughout, they have the foundations of a game that truly captures what it means to be the ultimate fighting force in the universe.
WH40K: Space Marine lands September 6th on PC, PS3 and X360.