Version tested: PlayStation 3
Say what you like about Dawn of War and Company of Heroes - and if you're anything like us then what you will say is "they're awesome", in any case - but you can't deny that Relic knows and loves Warhammer 40,000.
Space Marine, a third-person hack-and-slash/shooter hybrid, is the latest example of that wonderful, contagious affection. Spend a few minutes with the multiplayer customisation suite - unlocked when you hit level 4 online - and you will probably find yourself rapt.
There are hundreds of possible combinations of pre-authored armour sets depending on the Space Marine chapter you favour, or you can come up with your own by choosing from dozens of colour and pattern variations. You can also customise your loadout with familiar weapons like the chainsword, melta gun and several different bolters, and choose from a range of perks, like Blast Off, where your jump pack engine exhaust causes damage on lift-off.
It all fits snugly together, allowing fans to recreate their perfect vision of a Space Marine for Relic's first third-person shooter in the 40k universe. For everyone else, it uses the tabletop game series' vast history as the basis for an interesting and intelligently assembled collection of loadouts, perks and classes.
Throughout the single-player campaign, too, you can feel the depth and proud history of the nearly 25-year-old 40k universe rumbling in the background. It's in the awed expressions of Imperial Guard as they first behold a Space Marine on their planet, and in the divisions within your Ultramarine squad about applications of the Codex Astartes, the sacred doctrine of the Space Marines.
Indeed, whereas science-fiction shooter developers often tell us there are "many more stories to be told" in a universe we've spent two or three games plugging with bullets, thanks to Relic's fine detailing, Space Marine intuitively feels like just one story in a vast universe of many more, and we don't need to be told so.
Another handy thing is that, whereas most shooters ask us to believe that a random soldier can be a one-man-army and save mankind from certain doom, in Warhammer 40,000 the Space Marines are one-man-armies designed to save mankind from certain doom. So when you step into the chunky battle armour of Titus, an Ultramarine captain sent with a couple of squad-mates to the Forge World of Graia to defend its Warlord-class Titans - massive robots, basically - against a million-strong Ork invasion, it makes perfect sense. It's also a great setup for a game.
In this case, the game owes a lot to the first Gears of War. Framed from close over the shoulder, it follows you through strictly linear nests of trenches, corridors, tunnels and elevated walkways, frequently ballooning out into arenas where you are set upon by Orks and, later, the forces of Chaos, before narrowing again after they are all dispatched.
Your broad mission is to secure the Titans, but along the way you meet a few people - a Lieutenant and an Imperial Inquisitor, most notably - and you chatter with them in person and over battle-comms as your objectives evolve.
Helping to fill out the backstory of Graia, which has been in the grip of invasion for just over a week, are a series of voice recordings you find lurking in corners and side rooms along the way. As is often the case with this sort of thing, some are interesting and others quite dull, but within 15 minutes of the start you won't be able to stop yourself looking around for them out of habit.
The big difference between Space Marine and Gears is that there's no cover system. Ranged weapons function much as you'd expect - iron sights with the left trigger, fire with right, and you can hold four at a time - but the majority of the time you will be going in hand-to-hand after firing off a few rounds to set things off.
There's a chainsword, a power axe and a thunder hammer to use close up with a range of basic combo attacks, as well as a Fury meter, which amplifies damage once you've filled it with basic attacks, and contextual execution moves that recharge your health.
There are no vehicles to master - a shame, although given that you only play as Titus it wouldn't make much sense to control a dreadnought or what-have-you - and oddly, given Relic's vast experience with Dawn of War, there are no strategic squad controls. But you do get occasional use of a jump pack, which gives you a temporary jetpack boost into the air for reaching high platforms. You pick one up every couple of hours for a few minutes of variety.
Variety, though, is something that Space Marine soon starts to lack as you dig into the campaign. The initial combat sequences where you hack away with one or two buttons look fantastic and threaten to evolve as new weapons come into play - but they never do, thanks to a dull collection of enemies and rather bland level layouts.
Instead, the game simply increases the difficulty by swarming you with adversaries up close while pecking away at you from range with eerily precise machinegun rounds, grenades and rockets. The melee combat is prosaic, but at least it's gloriously violent and impactful - yet you can't enjoy it because you're frequently whittled down to a corpse by distant enemies you haven't got time to shoot.
This is all exacerbated by another misjudgment. Sometimes you can regain health by entering Fury mode, but the majority of the time you need to execute enemies to build up your life bar again, and you quickly discover that you are exposed to additional damage for several seconds while the execution animation plays out.
This is fine early on in the game when the going is relatively easy, but before long it becomes the principal cause of your many deaths as you hurry to stun and execute an Ork only to receive a fatal bullet from miles away just as you are about to receive your health bonus. Talk about grabbing defeat from the kerb-stomped jaws of victory.
This is less of a problem in multiplayer, at least, where health regenerates automatically. Online there are two modes - Seize Ground, a form of capture-and-hold, and Annihilation, a team deathmatch mode where the winning team needs to amass 41 kills. Seize Ground feels like the better of the two, with the action moving between several fronts and the loadouts more relevant to success or failure.
However, the combination of the close camera angle, a lack of visual feedback from the enemies you strike and unpredictable network conditions mean that hand-to-hand combat - the best thing about the game, despite its flaws - is much less immediate and visceral. There are no clean kills and the abundance of jump packs means projectile combat - which already feels like the weaker part of the game offline - is even less agreeable.
Overall, when you strip away our automatic affection for the universe, you're left with a simple story full of thin characters and predictable twists, where the combat quickly descends into a repetitive war of attrition, and a small suite of online modes that can't compete with the bigger boys in the genre.
In campaign and online, all of this is buoyed by beautiful visuals that really capture the scale and artistry of the Warhammer universe - right down to the way the Space Marine armour is textured to resemble the finish you get when you paint Citadel miniatures - and the customisation suite is wonderful.
But then we already knew Relic could build likable and authentic things out of Warhammer 40,000, so it's no surprise to find we like the trimmings in Space Marine. What we now know, sadly, is that Relic isn't quite so comfortable doing a third-person action game for them to fit around.
6 / 10