Preview: Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

Even at this early point in the game's production, it's probably already clichéd to refer to Relic Entertainment's Warhammer 40,0000: Space Marine as "Gears of Warhammer," but man is it an apt description. Despite its innovative RTS roots (working on the acclaimed Homeworld and Dawn of War series), Relic is diving headfirst into the third-person shooter genre, and all of the conventions are here: Gruff-voiced space marines (literally), big shoulder armor, big guns, huge explosions and production values, and there's even a gosh-darn exploding train.

I got to see the game in action for the first time this week at THQ's headquarters in Agoura, California, and while the influences from other shooters are very clear, Relic producer Raphael Van Lierop wants you to know that Space Marine is Relic's big opportunity to step outside the genre they've become known for. "It's about putting our foot down and making a statement," he said. "And saying we're not just really great developers of RTS games, we're great developers of entertainment."%Gallery-99237% Because the game is so similar to Gears of War and other titles of that ilk, let's focus on the differences instead. First of all, there's no cover system. Relic producer Raphael Van Lierop said that Warhammer's Space Marines aren't the kinds of soldiers who hide behind rocks -- they charge ahead with everything they've got. The entire game is based on forward movement, carrying a squad or just your lone character ahead through Ork fortifications and encampments. And while these guys can handle a bolter as well as the next Marine, they're also big on melee.

Which leads us to the next big change: Warhammer fans will know that Space Marines carry around a chainsword in the game's universe, and Relic has implemented a full melee system to go along with all of the third-person shooting. There are heavy and light attacks, and as you move through the game's "more than a dozen" settings, THQ creative director Sean Dunn said that the melee system really differentiates the title. "That combination of shooting and melee and to make it such a seamless experience, it kind of becomes its own combat model," he said. "It's something that you won't get in any other game, and that's kind of what makes Space Marine special."

Those are the two big differences off the bat, but Van Lierop promises that we'll see more as the game's story is unveiled. "For us, it's about finding our own unique voice," he said. "And we think that the core fantasy of the Space Marine in particular -- ironically, you might not expect it, because it's 'another space marine' -- but he is a very different Space Marine."

"There's a whole cast of other characters that we're fleshing out that we'd like to explore in other games."- Raphael Van Lierop

The game revolves around an Ork invasion of an Imperial Forge World, and a Space Marine named Captain Titus is tasked with repelling the invasion as best he can. While Van Lierop told me that most of the game's assets come directly from the tabletop game ("You'll get to experience the fiction firsthand"), Captain Titus is a Relic invention, and Van Lierop said that "he's going to be our franchise hero. There's a whole cast of other characters that we're fleshing out that we'd like to explore in other games and other media as much as possible. So it's really a big play for us."

That doesn't mean Relic is stepping away from RTS for good -- there's still "a big portion of the studio that's dedicated to RTS," but its hope is to innovate in the third-person shooter genre just as it innovated in the RTS space. "RTS is one of those genres that's not really open to a lot of people," said Dunn. "It's not really friendly genre to bring people in. Whereas an action shooter is very friendly. And we think that Relic is poised to deliver a fantastic action shooter that's set in this universe with love."

I asked Van Lierop what he thought of Blizzard's recently released StarCraft 2, which surprisingly went more traditional in the RTS genre even after Relic's innovations in the Dawn of War series. Van Lierop said it was actually indicative of what Relic hopes to do with Space Marine. "I have a lot of respect for Blizzard in the fact that they always execute and polish very highly. On a personal level, I was disappointed to not see a bigger step forward," he told me. "They always have good reasons, but I hope it's a good example of what you will see in the third-person shooter genre after Space Marine comes out. We will introduce new tweaks and conventions on the established genres that, when you've played them for a while, you'll sort of wonder like, 'How come other games haven't done that before?'"

Space Marine is due out for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in financial year 2012. Relic wasn't yet ready to talk about the game's co-op and versus modes ("All the love that we're putting into single-player is going to get extended over into multiplayer"), or a puzzling menu choice called "The Customizer," but promises that we'll be seeing a lot more as the game moves forward in development.

It's still very early, but it'll be interesting to see what Relic decides to do with the well-traveled third-person shooter genre. If nothing else, Warhammer fans should appreciate the chance to see their beloved universe from a different perspective.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.