Warhammer 40K Space Marine multiplayer preview: Class warfare

We've seen THQ's Warhammer 40K: Space Marine a few times now, and it's shaping up pretty well as a sort of "Gears of Warhammer 40K." The Space Marines are a huge part of Games Workshop's Warhammer 40K lore, and Relic Games has placed them into a third-person shooter, skillfully combining run-and-gun and melee combat with lots and lots of Ork killing.

Last week, THQ finally showed off the game's multiplayer at an event in Santa Monica, and what we got to see there was an interesting, if a little shallow, class-based shooter. It features some really careful class balancing, and an armor customization system, fittingly called "The Customizer," that should make even the most ardent of Warhammer 40K fans happy.
%Gallery-128623% Associate producer Otto Ottosson is first to admit that with only two game modes to play with, the multiplayer side of Warhammer 40K is more focused than a lot of other shooters with big expansive multiplayer modes. "It's just the reality of creating a new IP or a new franchise," he says. "You have to pick what you're going to focus on. And the focus for us was the single-player campaign."

For that reason, Space Marine's two modes may seem a little limited. Annihilation is the game's Team Deathmatch, pitting eight players against eight in a race to 41 kills (one of a few sneaky winks to the "40K" setting). And Seize Ground is a Domination-style mode, with a few different command points on the map (I saw maps with both three and four points) that must be fought for and held by either team.

The basic gameplay revolves around the three classes, all of which come right out of the Warhammer 40K setting. Everyone plays a Space Marine, which is a genetically engineered and technologically enhanced human warrior with a bad attitude, though one team works for the Loyalists and the others play Chaos Marines. Each player, however, chooses to play as a Tactical, Devastator, or Assault Marine, and that choice determines what weapons and perks players have access to.

Tactical Marines are sort of the standard assault characters, able to use mostly machine guns with a few sniper rifles and explosive weapons here and there. They're the first class you start out with in the multiplayer progression (which goes up to level 41, of course), and they have access to abilities like seeing player health at a glance or enabling other players to spawn on their positions.

Devastators are the heavy characters of the setting, stacking more armor and equipping big, long range weapons like the Heavy Bolter or larger artillery. But Assault Marines are probably the most interesting development choice for Relic -- they're basically a third-person shooter class built, of all things, around melee combat.

Melee plays a big part in Space Marine's single-player game. You're able to switch between ranged weapons and hack-and-slash combat at a moment's notice, and all of the multiplayer characters have a melee attack. But the Assault Marine class also gets a jump pack on his back, and that lends itself to a very different kind of gameplay than the standard shooter combat.

"He's actually weaker, he's got less shield than the other characters," says Ottosson, "so he's easier to take out, he's more exposed, he dies more frequently. But if you're tactical about it, you can jump in and jump out before you're dead, so there's a sort of different playstyle there."

The Assault Marine definitely feels different -- with practice, you can use the jump pack's boost in a few different ways: Drop down from a huge jump above on top of your prey, boost in and take them out with a few swings of your melee weapon, and then boost jump away and out of danger before getting killed. Melee isn't super precise (and it's hard to line up swings in the middle of battle sometimes), but Ottosson says that "we got it to a point where we're pretty happy with it."

Finally, outside of combat, players can use The Customizer to build and develop their own Space Marines. Customization (and character painting) is a huge part of the Warhammer 40K universe in the minis game, and Relic's Customizer offers a lot of very different options, all unlocked through multiplayer progression and challenges.

Once you hit level 41, you can choose from a large number of official armor designs straight from Games Workshop's setting, and then customize those armors with colors or extra patterns as you see fit (you can customize both a standard and a Chaos Marine, and obviously the team you're on will determine which one's used). The system offers a lot of options, and even veteran WH40K players will probably find their favorite sets included.

Ottoson didn't rule out even more customization sets in the future via DLC, though of course it's still relatively early in development to make an announcement there. "Multiplayer is the long tail end of the product, it's the part of the product where people can keep playing," he says. "So obviously that is the best avenue to release DLC. I'm sure we'll talk about more DLC in the future."

There's no question, even after seeing quite a few multiplayer matches being played, that the emphasis for Warhammer 40K: Space Marine is on the single-player version of the game. It's not that multiplayer's been tacked on at all, but the real draw on this one is living in the Warhammer 40K universe, and experiencing the thrill of cutting down hordes of Orks. But Relic's definitely put a lot of thought into the multiplayer classes, and that side of the game should allow you to have some fun online, along with your very own, personally designed Space Marine.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.