In the grim darkness of the far future, there is nothing but war. But in the nicely decorated offices of Relic in downtown Vancouver, there is nothing but love. Love for Warhammer. Plastic and lead space marine miniatures are carefully arranged on almost every desk, monitor and cubical divider; there are entire rooms set aside for lunchtime games of 40k; and the lobby's home not only to a giant Blood Raven space marine whose sawblade we all diligently pose our necks against for photos, but a nine-foot statue tribute to the god-emperor of mankind.
So while it's something of a surprise to discover that the largely PC-focused studio is developing a Warhammer 40,000 console action RPG in a similar vein to God of War, it's really no surprise at all.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is a third-person, over-the-shoulder action game with RPG elements. In the grim darkness of the far future, Relic's writing a new story, in which a space ork army has taken over one of the Imperium's Forge worlds - where it manufactures everything that makes up the imperial war machine - and it's up to you, playing as a single space marine in a squad from an as-yet unidentified chapter, to go in and take it back. This you do by taking a blade or a bullet to everything that's green with a pulse.
During the in-game scenes shown at Relic's offices, space marines from the Ultramarine chapter (placeholders for now) chomp through masses and masses of orks, using jetpacks to propel themselves into the thick of them and spread them out by crashing down with a splash damage attack, before wading in with sawblades and hammers. Up against larger Nobs and Warbosses, they grind their blades against limb armour, or crash them into midriffs. From distance, they rely on their guns, emphasising their versatility, and Relic explains that the control scheme (although, again, just a placeholder) currently spreads melee attacks over face buttons and ranged ones onto the shoulders. Using Relic's new Phoenix engine - custom-built for the game - the enemy numbers, model quality and scale are every bit in-keeping with the 40k image that Games Workshop so valiantly asserts.
One genuine surprise though is the vantage point. Flying out to the studio with scant information to go on, I expected something closer to Diablo III, diverting off the route taken by Dawn of War II's single-player campaign in Blizzard's direction. On the contrary, producer Chad McFarlane almost bristles at the suggestion, and THQ's Sean Dunn emphasises the discretion. Dawn of War II and Space Marine are not seen as two sides of the same coin. "Diablo III is all abstracting combat," he says. "You click your mouse on a guy and your character goes and does his combat moves. Whereas this is a console action game where you're controlling every swing of the sword."
One thing Space Marine will have in common with DOWII though is the latter's newfound love of wargear, and that's where the RPG elements come in. "Definitely we're going to have progression and customisation be a big part of the game," says McFarlane. "So you're going to be able to upgrade your armour and weapons and gain powerful abilities."
Probing the footage Relic's showing, one screen sticks out: a portrait of a marine with three attribute bars, a level count, and various other notes. But Dunn is quick to close that off to immediate interpretation. "The whole purpose of that is just to point out the idea that there are RPG elements," he says. "The design is not complete at this point, so which attributes are being upgraded and which pieces of wargear you're going to have aren't [set], but the idea is that through the canon, through the universe, the idea of the space marines and upgrading their armour and their weapons and the customisation of the gear for your character is really important within that universe, and that's something that's really important to this game as well." Whether you start off with a character and then mould him, or roll your own character, is unknown.
The nature of the combat is also a secret at this point, beyond what you can see for yourself. I ask about combo systems, special attacks and level design, among other things, but McFarlane and Dunn are guarded. "This is not like a Rainbow Six kind of squad or strategy thing," McFarlane will say. "It's high action. We call it 'RPG lite', you know - heavy on the action."
With four characters in the on-screen squad, Space Marine is obvious fodder for drop-in co-operative play, although Relic will only say that it's experimenting with multiplayer options - competitive and co-op. "We want this game to be playable with friends," says McFarlane. "It's a big focus."
One thing it's not doing though is a PC version, and Dunn gives the impression that in the same way THQ didn't feel Dawn of War was a good enough fit for console to warrant a port, it doesn't see Space Marine as a game fit for PC. "It's like, if God of War was on the PC, what kind of an experience would that be?" says Dunn. "And I think it's our idea that it wouldn't be the ideal experience. You could probably make it work, but it's not where the beat is and where the strength of the platform is, so instead of washing the game out so it's appropriate for multiple platforms, it's about building the game to the specific platforms that we want."
And for the moment, that's it. Our first glimpse of Space Marine ends as the orks set off a nuclear weapon on the horizon, hyping their troops in the foreground into a frenzy. The Ultramarines brace themselves against the onrushing wind and raise their weapons under the imperial standard, before diving back into battle and splashing ork blood into the waves of rolling dust. "What we really wanted to capture with this game is the violent, gritty nature of the Warhammer universe," says McFarlane. "This universe is constantly at war."
Although the vast majority of details are still to be revealed - and perhaps even still to be decided - the footage so far attests to that, spilling blood with abandon. And even with so many unknowns, Relic's devotion to the canon, and past work on Dawn of War, will write Space Marine onto a lot of most-wanted lists.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360. There's no release date yet, but THQ told us "not this year".