There was a time when being into Warhammer 40k demanded that you spend £30 on a box of lead nuggets, an afternoon of experimentation with aerosol fumes, and an excuse for your mum as to why you'd covered your bedroom floor with rock-hard patches of acrylic paint. Then, and only then, would she go to the shed and fetch the magic stuff that could liberate your superglued hands.
These days Warhammer's video games presence is arguably as significant as its tabletop one, and Relic's Dawn of War series has played a hefty role in nurturing this popularity. But where the DoW games offer epic RTS battles, albeit with a generous smattering of RPG mechanics, Space Marine is very much a hot-headed action outing. Forget the subtle intricacies of suppressive fire and flanking manoeuvres; your aim here is to charge straight into trouble and to mince the opposition with guns and a chainsword.
Did you know that Space Marines have two hearts? No, neither did I. In addition to allowing them to eat as much KFC as they like, this anatomical anomaly means they can be equally reckless with more directly aggressive threats to their wellbeing - like hordes of rampaging Orks. In light of this, it now makes a bit more sense that Relic has declined to include a cover system. Space Marines aren't in the business of hiding from anyone, and given the sheers number of opponents they tend to face at any given time - especially when squaring off against Orks - the sensible approach is to simply kill as fast as they can. Most of the time you'll find individual greenskins are quick to die, and your biggest danger stems from the possibility of being overwhelmed.
When it comes to crowd management, your best friend here is the Fury. As you cut and blast your foes, you'll fill a gauge that eventually allows for a powered-up attack - in the demo you could either go for an area-of-effect melee spin, or a short-but-useful burst of bullet time. In addition to light and heavy slashes, you've also got a button for performing sync kills, elaborate finishers that polish off the enemy in gruesome ways. While it's certainly fun to hack an Ork completely in half with the chainsword, the real advantage of the Sync kills is that they add a massive chunk to the Fury gauge. As a result, you soon fall into a habit of performing these moves as often as you can. There's such an emphasis on style here that you almost feel that the game would benefit from some kind of scoring system, but presumably that would clash with Games Workshop's protective ethos.
Relic says that it's designing Space Marine in a way that'll attract newcomers, but on current evidence it still seems as if it'll be the hardcore fans who get the most out of the package. This is the first Warhammer 40k title in quite some time to focus on the Ultramarines, rather than the Blood Ravens; from an outsider's perspective this might just seem like the developers have got bored of drawing red-armoured men and decided to go for blue ones instead, but if you're invested in the universe you'll no doubt appreciate the change-up. The plot setup follows Captain Titus - voiced by that Mark Strong chap from off the telly - as he and his squadmates attempt to defend an important Forge World from a massive invasion. It's not just Orks you'll be fighting, either: at some point in the story you'll go up against Chaos troops too, although sadly the Tyranids have been ruled out. On the "good guys" side you'll also get at least a supporting cameo from the Imperial Guard, so there's a decent spread of races taking part.
Given that Relic is almost entirely known for its RTS work, you'd be forgiven for questioning whether the Canadian studio is cut out for producing a hectic action title. The studio's last attempt at the genre - and its only previous one to date - didn't exactly turn out that well, but the alpha code I played two weeks ago is more promising. The game happily throws crowds of foes your way at regular intervals, and when you get down to the sloppy business of murder the violence feels reassuringly solid and substantial. Meanwhile Relic's long experience with the 40k universe is plainly evident in the detailed presentation of the character models, so on this level at least there should be some parity with the Dawn of War series.
One possible concern is that by limiting its plot to a single location the game may end up being a bit samey, especially given that the Forge World itself is essentially a giant factory. The demo I played offered up four sequences culled from various moments throughout the campaign, and three of these were set in familiar-looking industrial ruins. All the same, the opposing force had the decency to show up in spread of various shapes and sizes, with Gretchen and Squigs joining various flavours of Ork, including the occasional Nob. The fourth section also spiced things up a bit by pitting Titus and his men against Orks and Chaos troops at the same time - the two factions seemed to be fighting each other when we stumbled across them in the shadow of a purple-tinged marine. The red Bloodletter daemons seemed to be twice as high as anyone else on the battlefield, and with their massive swords and resilient nature they also felt like a welcome departure from the Ork fodder.
What remains to be seen is whether or not this will be enough for Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine to compete with the big boys of the genre. It seems like a tall order, but it also looks like there'll be plenty to like here if you're a fan of Games Workshop's extensive sci-fi lore. And at the very least, it won't result in you gluing your hands together.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine will be released in August on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.