Space Marine's greatest potential banana skin was always going to be the timing of its release. In a year that will see no shortage of epic, cinematic action shooters, it faces a tough gig to stand out from the crowd while conforming to expectations.
At a preview in Dublin this month, we're given a change to see how this rather charmingly over-the-top take on the genre is attacking the problem, and the answer is that developer Relic is taking the game's adopted nomenclature of 'Gears of Warhammer' in good humour and with no small amount of pride.
Certainly, as Gears of War works its way towards a boldly apocalyptic finale in a genre not known for its belly laughs (unless you count the GIANT WORM), a little unashamedly light yet violent relief will likely turn out to be a welcome addition to the release schedule.
We're given the opportunity to sample four of the game's levels. In the first on show, 'Best Laid Plans', we're tasked with accessing the control room of a towering crane, spanning the sky and acting as the key to control of the awesome weaponry produced on this factory planet.
It all starts predictably enough with an introduction to combat basics, seeing off the first few waves of the Ork invasion force as you trudge across the landscape. But what begins as a typical run-and-gun through swarms of enemies shifts abruptly as the floor collapses, taking you deep into an underground complex littered with broken metal and twisted shards of glass. We're in tetanus hell.
The combat in general is sharp and tactile, with finely tuned rumble feedback. Enemies are dispatched with blood-bursting ferocity and a continued onslaught increases the player's fury meter. Once you've filled this it's possible to unleash a particularly messy barrage of body blows.
Several corridors and relentless firefights later, we reach a group of lieutenants and what follows is a teasing glimpse of the potential for Space Marine. Rocket-launching Orks appear on the railings while your squad members report directional fire. From north, east, south and west, endless hordes of invaders congregate on your camp. It's a cackling, adrenaline rush of relentless action and proves very appealing.
But at this point it also becomes clear that there's some fine-tuning to be done around player awareness of the less exciting details – ammunition levels, for example. At the moment it's all too easy to find yourself too focused on the relentless action in front of you rather than the logistical disaster looming in the bottom-right of your screen.
Death, when it comes, is more often than not a result of an unexpected wave of rabble-rousing Orks coupled with a reload mechanism that's brutally unforgiving if neglected. Likewise, the health system smudges between green, amber and red while sat some way outside of your forward-focused tunnel vision.
And so while the checkpoint system is generous, it's also necessary at this stage of development. With a little tinkering, the pace of the action will match the developer's clear intent – to provide a rollercoaster experience, rather than the usual series of punishments designed to artificially extend a game's length.
While the game is currently in alpha, the frame-rate is astonishingly steady given the activity taking place on the screen: the invading Ork warriors, the delicate lighting and shadowing work that plays across the environments, and the excruciatingly complex dismemberment that hallmarks the action.
The game will ship with 15 different weapons and in 'Factory Approach' we get the chance to sample the Plasma Gun. A sticky, splashy method of dispatch, it nevertheless carries the same powerful sense of feedback as the other weapons, it's overheating mechanism rumbling ever more urgently in your hands.
The 'Adeptus Mechanicus Vengeance Launcher' allows the player to subtly plant up to five explosive devices on a group of enemies before drawing fire on the group, detonating the charges and switching to more reliable burst weaponry to finish off the stragglers.
It's here that we get a moment to savour the animation work. As the remaining pack charges you, they assume a character that goes beyond an allergy to your reddening reticule; they look and feel like charging barbarians, their faces twisting and contorting with hatred as they clamber towards you.
Throughout the level there's a wonderful feel of industrially gothic architecture, high-reaching roofs and an almost tangible smell of grit in the air. The music is tribal and the ambience is deadly.
Despite their bleak but detailed beauty, it comes as something of a relief to break away from the more industrialised areas of the game and embrace the cold, dusty desert canyon that forms the next level. Purple plasma glows over the hilltops while flashes crackle in the sky. Beautiful smoke effects ebb and swirl overhead as you work your way towards the first encounter with the Chaos forces of Warhammer.
Where the Orks lumber and snarl their way across the landscapes, very much filling the grunts-with-guns role, the Chaos forces dart with a flammable blur from spot to spot, a style of fighting that comes as a shock to the system after the more traditional corridor crawl through the factory areas.
The Psykers in particular bring a welcome change of pace to the fight. Crackling with magical, electrical malevolence, they teleport across the landscape, spawning new packets of enemies and forcing a more frantic, nerve-tightened response from the player. There's only the briefest moment to locate each Psyker at their current position and unleash a few volleys before concentrating on the fresh wave of evil summoned from the skies.
As well as pin-sharp dedication to the finer points of the Warhammer universe, Relic's reputation for attention to detail in voice-acting is once again on extravagant display in Space Marine. Notably, the Orks are brought to chuckling, dumbfounded life with the same talent employed for the developer's other franchise releases.
In the role of Captain Titus, Mark Strong delivers a wonderfully British, stiff-upper-lipped take on the ass-kicking marine – a refreshing change from the growling doom that pours from the mouths of Marcus Fenix and friends. In moments of high-drama there are even hints of Withnail in his delivery, as though at any moment he might begin frantically musing over his next drink as he edges closer to alcoholic panic.
It's true that he struts familiarly around the industrial floors like a man with something excruciatingly uncomfortable in his trousers, and his lieutenants possess the same air of outraged British sensibility. They're not quite at the level of shaking their fists angrily at the kids playing football outside, but my goodness these chaps are jolly cross.
Even despite the overly dramatic dialogue, it's an interesting point that these well-heeled commandos are more engaging and far less hammy than their po-faced, yippee-ki-yay genre contemporaries.
Back inside an industrial complex where skulls adorn the metallic railings and pillars, you find yourself fighting solo to relocate your squad. Delicate use of the evade system is required here as a fumbling Ork rocketeer fires explosive charges at you. Slow to turn as he is, the timing of your movement is critical in order to catch him mid-aim and vulnerable and offer a response of your own.
Space Marine is shaping up to be a rare gem. On the one hand, it is familiarly visceral in its explosive, breathlessly violent action. Yet at the same time it kicks the crutch away from developer dependency on one-dimensional, brooding war heroes and embittered veterans – a shallow portrayal that's mistaken all too often for an unspoken depth of character.
With that in mind, if development continues at its current pace and approach, this tribal tale of survivalist extermination won't so much compete as co-exist happily with its more traditional brothers-in-arms when it releases in summer this year.