My father has always been quite weird in his choice of gifts. That’s why I wasn’t all that surprised, back in 1988 when I was little less than eleven years old, to find a large book written in English, a box of some sort of sci-fi metal toy soldiers (little did I know…), and another one full of little cans of acrylic paint under the Christmas tree.
That was my first contact with Warhammer 40,000, a tabletop wargame that I played for the best part of my life, and a dark, fascinating setting that has grown in time to send most of the other science fiction IPs crying in a corner in terms of complexity and appeal.
The setting itself is very difficult to condense in a few paragraphs, as it spans an immense literature made of several tens of rule books, source books and novels. Thirty-eight millennia in the future humanity expanded in the galaxy, creating the mighty Imperium of Man, an immense entity in which the single individual is an inconsequential drop into a sea of trillions, and led by a superhuman messiah that has already transcended death and is now a motionless, but still sentient, corpse ruling with a steel fist from the Golden Throne of Terra.
During it’s expansion, the Human race discovered that the universe didn’t like them and that no allies or friends were to be found anywhere. Only enemies populated deep space and more enemies appeared from within every day, with the spreading of the demon-worshipping Chaos cults.
The Imperium reacted by turning Xenophobia into a requisite for survival and by creating armies of billions ready to be sacrificed in nightmarish wars on remote planets. Enemies within or outside were to be ruthlessly purged, and the best warriors were genetically engineered to form a small but all-powerful elite of Space Marines, built to the image of the Emperor himself.
Despite the military might of the Imperium, the borders are far from safe, as many of the enemies that lurk beyond them, or even inside, wield an amount of power of nightmarish proportions. The brutish Orks didn’t yet obliterate humanity just due to their inability to really unite in a single empire. The traitorous Space Marine legions that turned to the Gods of Chaos possess the same battle prowess as their loyalist brothers and a warped wisdom that comes from immortality and thousands of years of ruthless warfare. In the meanwhile the looming threat of the enormous Tyranid fleets coming from outer space might be able to swallow the whole galaxy. The worst thing is that, as terrible as they may seem, those are only a few between the many enemies that the Imperium of Man has to face.
Despite it’s grim, complex charm, and probably even because of how hopelessly grim it is, the Warhammer 40,000 setting never reached mass appeal. It counts hundreds of thousands of extremely dedicated fans, but if you ask your average Joe (including many gamers) what it is about, he very possibly won’t know the answer.
In the video gaming world the popularity of the IP has grown very, very gradually, from the early days of Space Crusade by Gremlin, moving to the first and shaky steps by the dearly missed SSI with games like Space Hulk, Final Liberation and Chaos Gate passing by the (just as shaky) debut of the IP under THQ with the nearly unknown PS2 shooter Fire Warrior, and, finally, the wider appeal of the well received RTS series Dawn of War.
Despite the many games released, none of them ever managed to really hit the jackpot. The Dawn of War series is fairly popular, but if your name isn’t Blizzard, it’s hard, nowadays, to turn a RTS into a massive success. In addition to that, the genre isn’t really suitable for a console port.
The first attempt at an FPS didn’t come at the right time or on the right platform (at the time first person shooters weren’t really the be all, end all of console gameplay), and Fire Warrior‘s protagonist, belonging to the Tau alien race, wasn’t exactly the best choice to make the game popular.
To be brutally honest, while impersonating an alien to fight against humans may definitely be a novel and original idea, it’s not exactly the best way to push an IP to the masses. Given the possibility of letting players in the role of a massively charismatic Space Marine, choosing a Tau as the protagonist must have been the result of a prolonged drunken stupor. The fact that the game wasn’t that great to begin with didn’t help as well.
With the announcement of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, Many fans of the setting rejoiced, many others — me included — actually wondered why it took so long to finally create a formula that not only seems very solid, but that also includes so many marketing no-brainers that it should have been attempted years ago.
The genre is finally spot on. The Warhammer 40,000 IP looks great in a RTS, but it’s even more fitting to the nitty-gritty close quarter action of a shooter/melee hybrid. The fact that third person shooters are all the rage nowadays doesn’t hurt for sure, while the RPG elements contribute to widen the audience further.
The game is multiplatform. I know that many love exclusives, but releasing the game on all the current generation platforms (the Wii doesn’t really count as one, at least in horsepower) is for sure a big asset to pushing the popularity of the IP to the masses.
The game has the full production values of a true AAA title. Great looking graphics, an epic soundtrack recorded by a live orchestra, a cinematic story line inspired by Hollywood blockbuster, and a big budget being burned behind the scenes. As sad as it can sound, that tends to be almost necessary in order to sell multiple million copies nowadays.
THQ is really putting all the available resources in marketing this title. A game can be as great as possible, but, without the right marketing support, it’s almost impossible for it to reach mass appeal. While the Dawn of War series is very, very nice, it still received a rather mild advertisement, that wasn’t sufficient to really create a big hit. This time THQ went as far as creating a small downloadable prequel in the form of Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team in order to build the hype, and it ended up proving a very good game in it’s own right.
Last, but not at all least, you can finally play a Space Marine to shoot aliens in the face. My apologies to the fans of the Tau race, but playing a fish-faced blue race of aliens blabbering about the “greater good” isn’t exactly the wet dream of the average gamer. On the other hand, playing an eight-foot-tall, grim-faced, hulking space marine that happens to be the climax of the human race, wielding a hybrid between a sword and a chainsaw, and a massive rifle that shoots 19 mm-wide self-propelled explosive bolts… Now that works, doesn’t it?
Of course, there still is a rather sizable hurdle to overcome, and that’s the actual quality of the game. All the elements I listed above won’t do much good if the game won’t actually be great. What we’ve seen so far is definitely promising, but we still didn’t put our greedy hands on the final release, so we’ll have to wait to pass final judgement (an expression that sounds delightfully Warhammer 40,000-ish). That said, the preliminary elements are all in the right place, and this is the first time since Gremlin’s Space Crusade.
THQ must be very aware that Space Marine could be the turning point for the IP towards mass appeal, and that’s why they’re playing all the cards they have in hand in order to reach the success that it’s predecessors didn’t manage to touch.
A strongly positive result could start the self-feeding process of popularity that would create very positive conditions for the future, especially in the light of the incoming Warhammer 40,000 MMORPG, Dark Millennium Online, that should hit the shelves in 2013. There’s still plenty time for a Space Marine 2 and a Dawn of War 3 in the meanwhile, but Space Marine needs to turn that key and open the door, leaving a strong impression on a lot more people than the usual dedicated fanbase of the IP.
Will it manage? No way to know for now; but the chessboard is in place and the pieces are in sight of the black king. We shall see if Space Marine will finally bring the much awaited checkmate.