How much do you know about marine biology? Now, I’m not talking about that creepy subset of real-world science where you learn how clams can get depressed or how sea urchins mate (the answer is “carefully”). I’m talking about Space Marine biology. Because whether or not you’re excited about Relic’s upcoming 3rd person action game could probably come down to how clued up you are.
Thanks to extensive genetic augmentation, each Space Marine is 7’6” tall and weighs 700lbs before you put the armour on. They have a third lung and a second heart that’s capable of pumping steroids or adrenaline into the first. They’re implanted with something called Larraman’s Organ, a high-tech liver that allows them to survive by eating dirt. Their salivary glands allow them to spit poison or chew through iron bars. And when they choose to sweat, they secrete a waxy substance that can protect them from extreme temperatures or even a vacuum.
They are superheroes hand-designed to protect humanity. They’re also quite literally heavy metal fascists. Many Space Marines feel the need to protect “mortals” gets in the way of their job of eliminating the enemies of the Imperium.
None of this really comes across in Relic’s Dawn of War series of RTS games. There, Space Marines are kept at a distance, both physically, by the game’s airborne camera, and through the need to balance them with all the other races. God, the marines would be furious if they knew. If, y’know, they could feel fury. Or emotions in general.
It’s not the case here. Space Marine is going to make a lot of nerds very, very happy.
The focus of the preview event I attended recently was competitive multiplayer, but I also played the first half an hour of the single-player campaign. Oh, man. There are tutorials and then there are tutorials.
The campaign opens with a long shot of a Forge World. Specifically, it’s a Titan-production facility, Titans being the skyscraper-sized bipedal robots of the 40k Universe. Ice-cold text flashes up on the screen, communication between far-flung sectors of the galaxy.
Orcs have invaded the planet, it says, a world with “Strategic value: Absolute”. “Exterminatus?” it asks, cheerily, referring to the common Imperium practice of bombing a captured planet back to the stone age. “Negative,” it says. “Strategic value: Absolute”. This continues for a while, before finally, with all other options exhausted, the decision to send in the Space Marines is sent in. Yes, you are such a valuable badass that sending you in is only considered when blowing up the world isn’t an option.
Cut to your character, Captain Titus, leaping from a dropship and being thundered down towards the planet like some act of God. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, an orc ship carrying hundreds of the greenskins happens to be between you and the ground. Space Marine’s tutorial sees you battling the ship’s entire crew and attempting to crash the vessel armed with nothing more than a pistol and a massive knife.
Having accomplished this task, the game proper starts as Captain Titus emerges from the wreckage of this ship, punching crumpled girders out of his way. A late title card flashes “SPACE MARINE” up on the screen as Titus stands back up to his full height. I peed myself a little at this point, and you will too. And I hadn’t even got to the point where Imperial Guardsman fall to their knees as they see you.
But yes, that multiplayer. Space Marine is shipping with co-op, but also with 8v8 competitive multiplayer that sees Space Marines and Chaos Space Marines (marines who’ve been seduced by dark gods) picking one of three classes before battling it out in one of two game modes, Annihilation (team deathmatch) or Seize Ground (Battlefield-style point capturing). That doesn’t sound like much, and it doesn’t particularly generous either, but there are a couple of hooks worth noting.
The first is Space Marine’s combat. Where Halo first slotted a greater emphasis on melee combat into the shooter and Gears of War pushed this even further, Space Marine is almost 50% melee combat. Where Gears is all about flanking, Space Marine is about either closing in or keeping your distance.
The Tactical class is adaptable, being able to shoot or stab with equal amounts of gusto. The Devastator gets an enormous gun but no melee weapon (though he can stomp about like a Broadway dancer), and the Assault gets a terrifying jetpack and melee weapon combo. The end result is Devastators and Assaults slinking around the map, trying to stay safe but also get the better of one another, while the Tacticals run around in packs, overwhelming everything they meet.
There’s a really nice play to how it works. Fundamentally, it’s about knowing when to charge. Because hacking at an enemy with a chainsword, thunder hammer or whatever else is so much more effective than taking shots at them, the most effective way to kill any enemy is to tap the sprint button, unleash a ram attack (or ground-pound them from the air if you’re an Assault) and finish them off with a few quick slashes. The problem is, not only can enemies shoot you as you’re running over, they can roll out of the way of your charge attack, swap to melee and cut you down themselves.
The end result is a constant, weird tension; you’re all already fighting, but in any scrap you’re constantly nervous about whether another player’s going to go all in and come barrelling up to you, at which point you’ll have two options: gun them down or get cut up. Actually, you do have a third option. Point the camera in a random direction and hit the sprint button yourself. But at that point you might as well hand in your Space Marine badge, your gun, and your nineteen gene-seed internal organs.
The second hook is that most fashionable of features these days- persistent unlocks. Space Marine has 41 levels of progression for you to get through, unlocking everything from perks and weaponry to new armour segments, allowing you to piece together your own hideous, day-glo suit of power armour. Make no mistake, these screenshots you’re seeing are nothing like the multiplayer will actually look a week after launch. The customisation options are much too in-depth for that. Everyone will be either jet-black, an effeminate rainbow of an ubermensch or they’ll be the default colour of the other team. One of the three.
But it’s co-op that I’m sure will see the most play in Space Marine, so here’s hoping that the reason for THQ’s silence on that front is for no other reason than they’re saving the best till last, and not something untoward. I know I said before that Space Marines could feel no fury, but that might be cause for an exception.