If I have one takeaway from the Space Marine 2 preview build, it’s that 60 minutes is not enough. The demo build playable this week at Gamescom is an onslaught of explosive set-pieces, vicious combat, and unfathomable numbers of alien enemies, and lasts just long enough to get me hype, but not long enough to judge how good this game is going to be.
Make no mistake, the spectacle is jaw dropping. This is the best the Warhammer 40k universe has ever looked in a video game, without question. The demo opens in an Astra Militarum outpost on a jungle world under siege from ravenous hordes of alien Tyranids. When I say hordes, I mean hordes. The sky ripples with flocks of gargoyles, while tides of hormagaunts and termagants boil over the hills and throw themselves at the Imperial lines.
This is the first time I’ve seen a game portray battle between Warhammer 40k factions on anywhere near the right scale. The sheer mass of the Tyranid horde is incomprehensible. The playable battles where you’ll pit the three Space Marine protagonists against the xenos see you fight more restrained numbers of foes, dozens at a time rather than thousands, but careful level design means the separation between background and foreground bugs is just not visible.
The level progresses from the Militarum base, through infected jungles, then through a vast bunker complex choked with mountains of alien and human dead, on towards an orbital defense laser built to a mind-shattering scale.
There are set-pieces throughout; blasting back scrabbling swarms of Tyranids as they form pillars of their own bodies to scale a defensive wall, defending a Leman Russ battle tank so it can blast aside an impeding fortress gate, raising the petals of the orbital laser’s targeting sensor by spinning an electromagnetic turbine by hand…
The preview build is disjointed, with longer loading times between segments suggesting that segments are missing, either incomplete, or excluded. What remains is 60 minutes of adrenaline that sells the spectacle of Warhammer 40k better than anything I’ve seen before.
But what’s it like to play? Space Marine 2 is a third person action game with a mixture of both melee and ranged combat – a crowded genre, but it feels unique. Lieutenant Titus moves like a Gears of War protagonist, heavy and relentless, but don’t expect a cover system. You’re up against hordes of foes that quickly close into melee range, but don’t treat this hack and slasher.
It’s perhaps closest to the Batman: Arkham games. As well as regular attacks, enemies will leap at you with special attacks, which must be dodged or parried respectively. The right response leaves your foe open to a gory execution, or a quick dispatch with a bolt pistol shell to the cranium. Executions restore both your health and your shields.
Suffering damage and pummelling foes builds up your special metre. The demo put me in charge of Lieutenant Titus, who flies into a berserker frenzy when he unleashes his special, but the two supporting characters – available in co-op – each have their own abilities that involve a lot of fun lighting effects.
I struggled to get my head around the tempo that combat expected from me. Despite facing hordes of foes, there was no way to turn into a human meat blender like Kratos in the older God of War games, but neither is there the precise ballet of strikes and counters from the Batman Arkham games. What’s needed is a constant state of mindful aggression, taking every opportunity available to execute foes and keep my health bar full.
It chimes with my memories of the original Space Marine, and I eventually mastered that, so I have my fingers crossed that this coalesces into something satisfying once I tune into the tempo. As it was, I spent my time with the demo feeling like I was dancing out of time with the beat.
As a teenager I daydreamed about imaginary Warhammer 40k games that might one day pit Space Marines against hordes of Tyranids – my daydreams did not look as cool as this demo. Whether the full game can sustain that density of choreographed set-pieces throughout, and whether the combat makes the experience enjoyable even when it’s not blasting the mind open with spectacle, remains to be seen.
If you want a fast-paced Warhammer 40k action game right now, check out our Warhammer 40k Boltgun review: it’s an absolute old-school blast. We even spoke to the creators to find out the secrets of their high-tech low-fi gore system, and what it was like to waste voice actor Rahul Kohli’s talents completely.