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Relic - Trying to please various factions with Space Marine

VG247 got its hands on Relic-developed Warhammer 40,0000: Space Marine in Dublin last week. Associate producer James McDermott talked us through it.

Space Marine, if you don’t yet know, is a third-person fantasy action-shooter featuring implausibly huge musclemen from the future. Yep, very much like Gears of War. Except this is the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

While THQ reps are quick to argue that “Games Workshop invented these types of characters first,” the bottom-line is that Relic’s new Warhammer shooter has a hell of a lot to live up to, with the hardcore table-top gaming fans on the left and the legions of Gears fans on the right both lined up to knock it, both for very different reasons.

The key question: “Can it possibly please both factions?”

Overall, first impressions were great. We were pleasantly surprised at how much fun the game was and that, despite staying utterly true to the geekier-than-thou Warhammer universe in almost every detail, the developer’s core fantasy “concept” of visible, violent death left us wanting more after an all-too-brief preview playtest.

Your be-muscled future warrior, Titus, is a space marine charged with defending a planet that belongs to the Imperium of Mankind.

Half an hour or so into one of the first of four preview levels, two things became immediately clear. Even though your instinct might tell your fingers to start looking for it, there is no form of cover mechanic in this game. This is not a stealth-and-hide, strategic shooter. Instead, this is a glorious, balls-out, ork-slaying free-for-all in which you can switch between a wide array of massive, futuristic rocket guns, grenade launchers and laser cannons or your more “traditional” close-combat melee weapons such as the chainsword, power axe or thunder hammer. Either way, the hack-and-slash meets mildy-strategic shooting gameplay is going to appeal to almost any fan of the genre. Mainly because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

If you don’t know much about the fantasy universe of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, then all you really need to know is that your be-muscled future warrior, Titus, is a space marine charged with defending a planet that belongs to the Imperium of Mankind which is under attack by a never-ending tide of Orks. If you are a Warhammer-obsessive, you will probably want to know loads more about the other different types of space marines, Orks, other “Enemies of the Imperium”, weapons and how this all fits into the bigger universe and the longer-term storyline.

If, like me, you not are a Warhammer-obsessive, you will likely be happy enough to find out that it is quite easy to get to grips with slaying the evil green men, whether or not you opt for one of the many cool ranged weapons such as the “meltagun” or stick to local melee combat with your trusty chainsword. There is only one combat tip: always try to take their leaders out first and don’t focus (too much) on the evil green horde rushing towards you at every stage of the game.

The four levels we saw at the recent preview event were beautifully-designed, for sure. But they were also pretty easy to play through, so whether or not the game might need some play-balancing before it releases this August remains to be seen.

Building a combat-based, single-player shooter experience

Space Marine has been in development for just over two years. We first recall first hearing about it back at E3 2009, and according to associate producer, James McDermott, the game has changed direction a little bit since then, as things do. Relic used the time since the announcement to hone what it wanted the core experience to be as the game went through the development cycle.

"Pretty early on, a lot of the material was directed towards the game being a lot more RPG-orientated, in terms of its progression and how the combat worked and, also, it was going to be a little bit more squad-based, in that you were going to have a little bit more control over squads," McDermott explained.

"We wanted to build more of a single-player experience which was more combat-based."

"That was something that, as we moved through the development cycle, we felt wasn’t really the right setting for this game and wasn’t really where we wanted to be in terms of genre and category. We felt like we would be better positioned going into the shooter categories and to compete with titles such as Gears of War, Black Ops, Halo and so on. We wanted to build more of a single-player experience which was more combat-based, more encounter-based, more about your personal journey of being a Space Marine, because that is what really resonates with fans of the franchise. That is what they have always wanted. And also from a gamer standpoint, that just seemed like the right fit for us."

Relic, known mainly for developing strategy games on PC,  had to "really invest," console development because traditionally, this is not where it has had its greatest success like with Company of Heroes and Dawn of War.

With Space Marine, the studio wanted to expand and break into the console market and build those titles, so it first looked at the talent already in the studio. Relic found that bringing over the audio and art developers from the PC team was very easy as they had already worked on the Dawn of War series.

"Where we had to fill gaps, and where the majority of the team has come from, is building out areas such as animation, combat system, control mechanics, building epic set pieces… we had to go outside of the studio for all of that kind of talent," said McDermott. "And actually, in fact, some of those guys were ex-Relic guys who had gone off and worked in doing stuff in film or worked on games such as God of War and have now come back round to being part of the Relic family again."

Despite the game coming to consoles as well as PC, the PS3 version will not contain 3D tech for those with 3D televisions, as the way the game engine has been built and the way the game’s animations work, 3D was something the team could look at.

"It’s just not viable," added McDermott, who also said not to expect the game on Sony's forthcoming NGP - at least for now.

"It’s not anything we’ve considered at this point in time," he said. "We’ve just been focused on getting this product right.

"But if the franchise is successful, I wouldn’t see why we wouldn’t explore different platforms and opportunities to expand to different audiences."

Pleasing the hardcore Warhammer fans

Warhammer fans are known as a fairly demanding and hardcore bunch, who are totally enamoured and in love with the Warhammer universe. Wanting as much of the concept and world brought to life from the Games Workshop table-top games as possible, is not an easy undertaking by any means.

Space Marine E3 2009 announce trailer

However, what is exciting, is that the videogames in the series are able to bring to life things that can only be imagined in our heads, or in the fantasy and literature.

"There is only so much that Games Workshop can bring to life through the table-top games," said McDermott. "So videogames are a really great way to expand that to an almost infinite level.

"For the first time they see things come to life like, for example, nobody has so far really seen how a Space Marine would move and how he would physically get into combat. And you start to see that in our game."

But what about those who are neither into strategy or Warhammer? There are many of those out there who, despite not knowing much about this particular fantasy world, may still really like the game, purely because it feels like a fun, full-on, visceral action shooter.

Relic's intent with Space Marine, is to appeal to all sides of the coin, so that the hardcore fans will be pleased, while at the same time expanding the audience with newer inductees.

"It is just really about us taking a very rich sci-fi fantasy which we feel has a lot of depth and a lot of interesting characters and a really unique look and feel – and then we bring it to life with a combat and gameplay experience which is something different in the shooter genre and, we think, will resonate with a larger audience," said McDermott.

"These are exactly the type of gamer that we are trying to build the game for, in order to reach that larger audience. Obviously, Warhammer guys are very important to us, but we are also trying to bring new people into this world and we hope this is the type of game that can do that."

The key to this, though, is balancing the needs and wants of those two extreme types of gamer. Relic is aware of this, and are staying authentic to the IP in what Space Marines look like, how the world operates, and what the lore entails.  The only difference, is that it is bringing a narrative into as a way to make the game more “consumer-savvy,” by "creating a type of Hollywood-style blockbuster experience."

Working with Games Workshop

According to McDermott, Games Workshop is " very, very protective of their IP," and rightly so.  The company is very mindful that they have a very strong fanbase, who expect things to be done a certain way as they actually live and breathe the universe and are very passionate and interwoven into the world.

Understandably, it doesn't want to rock the boat too much when it comes to news ideas being implemented into a Warhammer videogame.

"They are very careful with who they partner with and what they do to extend the IP," said McDermott, "but the unique position that we are in as a studio is that we have done the Dawn of War games for a very long time now and they’ve been both very true to the IP and also very good gameplay experiences - solid RTSes that have done very well.

"[Games Workshop] are very careful with who they partner with and what they do to extend the IP.”

"So there is a good level of trust and understanding there, which means that we are able to do some types of interesting things that other publishers might not be able to do working with Games Workshop.

"An example in this game would be the main character Titus, himself – because the chapter that he is part of, the Ultramarines, are normally considered to be like the boy-scouts of the Space Marines. They do everything by the book, they are very puritanical, they don’t bend rules, they are very straight-line. So for some people they might not seem that interesting enough, because they don’t have enough depth and darkness.

"Whereas Titus does. He doesn’t necessarily have darkness within him, but it surrounds him. There are some things in the world that are trying to manipulate him. Things that they wouldn’t normally address in the IP, in the lore, but that we are able to do in the videogame. So Games Workshop has given us the freedom to push the boundaries a little bit there. So by the end of the game there is a set-up which will be quite interesting for where we decide to take the second game. A lot of fans of the franchise will say: 'wow, this has never really happened in that universe!'

"And then we also have other things such as new weapons like the Adeptus Mechanicus Vengeance Launcher that doesn’t truly exist in the IP and has purely been invented for the game. So the idea is that it is a new weapon being constructed on the Forge World planet.

"Working with Games Workshop, we have been able to give it unique characteristics and decide what it looks like and how it operates. They are really good with that."

The future of Space Marines and replay value

For the moment, Relic is unable to dicuss its future plans for the space Marine series other than to say that should this one prove to be successful, there is every intention to continue the franchise for a good number of years. They way Space Marine is set up, McDermott said there is "definitely going to be an interesting end to the game," which he promises will leave people wanting more and wondering were things will go next.

The single-player storyline in the game will last around the 10-hour mark, and to add more playtime, a multiplayer and DLC component as well as full progression and levelling-up system is included in the game. A co-op multiplayer experience is also included, and apparently, there are more features as well, but these are something McDermott said will be discussed at E3 in June.

Going up against the competition

Space Marine is out in August, barring any scheduling changes, and this pits it against other triple-A title - Deus Ex: Human Revolution. A month later, it will have to contend with Gears of War 3 and McDermott plans on making sure Space Marine is out ahead of Epic's long-awaited trilogy conculsion.

Space Marine E3 2010 trailer

"Deus Ex is out around the same time, Which is probably the biggest just from a 'noise' standpoint that we will be up against," said McDermott. "But then you have Gears of War 3 about a month afterwards. And this Christmas holiday season is going to be one of the busiest in the games calendar for a long time. You wouldn’t want to be in that Christmas window with a new IP.

"We are very interested in getting our game out early in front of Gears – and we think we have an interesting title and a point of differentiation… but they have been around for three years, so… we wouldn’t want to go head on with them."

That being said, McDermott said Relic fully intends for Space Marine to appeal to Gears fans, because in his eyes, there is "definitely room for two."

"While being referred to as 'Gears of Warhammer' makes us happy, we just hope that consumers understand that we are doing something slightly different in that great genre," he offered.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is slated for August on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

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Adam Hartley