E3 2011 hands-on: Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

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If you’re expecting to read about a real-time strategy game, you’re going to be disappointed. Like the ill-fated Starcraft: GhostSpace Marine is THQ’s attempt to bring the Warhammer board game and RTS series into the modern world of action games. Very obviously modeled after the Gears of War series (most every shooter is these days), Space Marine has a very clear idea of what it wants to be, and it succeeds. I spent a lot of time with the game at E3 this week, and found myself consumed with its tight controls, fun atmosphere, and clever combination of melee action and shooting controls. This isn’t Dawn of War, but it may be the beginning of a great new franchise.

Lets get right into the demo. Space Marine shoves you in the middle of a war between a number of different factions. You are the Space Marines, a group of eight foot tall, genetically modified super soldiers who are loyal to the Emperor of Mankind. The demo has you facing off against hoards of big green orks and occasionally a race of humanoid enemies known as Chaos. The two levels shown at E3 have you charging through a series of decimated industrial buildings in a dash to defeat the orks that seem to have infested the whole facility.

Controls are pretty familiar. On an Xbox controller, the R trigger is used to shoot, the R bumper reloads, X is used for melee attacks, A is for jumping and combat rolling, Y is for a special fury attack, the D-Pad lets you hotswap between weapons, the L trigger zooms in, the L bumper is for grenades, and the B butten lets you execute enemies during melee attacks and do things like open doors. I have never been particularly great at aiming in console shooters, but Space Marine has a really nice default balance to its analog control stick aiming as well. Overall, the setup feels snappy and natural, a welcomed trait that lets you concentrate more on killing orks than figuring out how to play.

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While many shooters these days rely on hiding behind objects and cover systems, Space Marine seems determined to encourage you into combat as fast and recklessly as possible. Shooting hordes of orks is fun, but there are rewards for bringing your saw-like sword out as often as you can. In fact, the only way you can get health (from my experience) is to perform a brutal B attack on your opponents while beating the crap out of them. This charges your suit armor up (a necessity) and is quite fun to watch.

I enjoy a good action-shooter, but they usually aren’t the first games I turn to when I’m looking for a quick fix. Space Marine may change that. It isn’t the most original third-person shooter I’ve seen, and it certainly won’t win any innovation awards this year, but it was one of the most immediately enjoyable and satisfying games at the show. Better still, the more I played it, the more I wished to continue. On the last day of the show, I found myself trying to find a way back to THQ booth just to give it one more go. There’s something to this game. Hopefully the final product will live up to the demo when it hits PC, PS3, and Xbox shelves on September 6, 2011.

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