There was a time when Warhammer 40k was a franchise cherished by Games Workshop and guys who hung about wearing a dragon t-shirt, boring people with anecdotes about a doodle Tolkien once did on the back of a beer-mat. Back when it was a table-top war game, Warhammer's ability to appeal to the mainstream had been limited. It's 3am in 1988, you're knee-deep in pot noodle and your friend Ken is rolling a die to determine if he's successfully hit a Tyranid or not.
But fast forward a good decade and the Warhammer universe had already expanded to computer games, with its world becoming re-interpreted for that niche group of turn-based and RTS fans. Between 1998's Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate and 2010's Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II - Chaos Rising we had at least half a dozen strategy-based computer games rolled out onto our PCs, in an act that took the franchise out of the basement and made it as polished and respectable as a strategy game about Orks could manage to be.
Similarly Warhammer 40K: Space Marine is another step in taking an old fantasy franchise and re-shaping it until it becomes palatable for the normal everyday player. It's an attempt to take the 40K world off the hands of strategy fans and feed it to the everyday gamer by making it an accessible over-the-shoulder action title.
So you're a Space Marine, or an Ultra Marine more specifically, an elite human soldier who has been modified to have superhuman abilities. And you're massive, making an American Basketball player look like he has the stature of Ben Stiller. An imperial forge world is being invaded by streams of Orks and your task is to deal with it. Along with a small team you make your way through areas infested with baddies and essentially spray bullets for a period of minutes until the waves of Orks subsist and what you're left with is a blanket of Ork limbs strewn about the ground.
It might seem like mindless gameplay when compared to the rest of 40K's history as a hyper-strategic series, and it is if you make that comparison, but Space Marine isn't entirely built to follow the traditions of its franchise. This is a game that emphasises cool gameplay as opposed to encouraging smart strategy. Bullets explode like rockets, lobbing off heads and limbs. Any shot can be a kill shot.
You're allowed two range weapons at a time, that level as you do and become continuously more powerful the more they are used. Step out into the droves of Orks with a level 2 unlock plasma gun, press the trigger and a charge shot will explode in a mass of plasma, flattening baddies like waffles. You can try out melee attacks, using a Power Fist: a large metal gauntlet surrounded by energy that gives every punch the force of a tank.
The fact that there is no snap-to cover system is enough of an insight into how the game actually functions. There isn't any real cover system because there doesn't need to be one; you're a bloody Ultra Marine. You don't need to cower behind a bit of barrel that's lying about the room. Instead you're given a charge mechanic, letting you burst your way through a pack of baddies and making them tumble over like pins before you start your massacre. Instead you're given ultra-powerful context-specific weapons that wipe out wave after wave of Ork until your ammo runs out.
But beyond the gunplay the game can look incredibly good. The first level I had been shown threw you into an enormous moving set-piece that plopped you in a Valkyrie and had you shooting down Orks in jet packs as they attempted to take down the surrounding aircrafts. The look and feel of the environment had moved outside the reaches of the Warhammer franchise and into something more cinematic, with the scene set against a fast moving back-drop of smoke and sky. In the next level you were set up against a time limit, attempting to prevent Orks from taking over a train as it sped through an underground rail.
But this isn't a fan-service. In fact they had shuttled in writer/director Danny Bilson as scriptwriter to attempt to make this more cinema-like, and fatten the narrative. The story, I'm told, goes beyond a simple battle plot and instead has been developed into a narrative split between your character and your fellow marines. Warhammer 40K: Space Marine is an example of taking a good environment, giving it a cinematic polish and bringing it to the mainstream gamer in a format that they can easily digest. Expect less actual Warhammer canon and more Space Marine.
Space Marine is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in 2011.