Article written by Jim Hargreaves.
Published on 10/07/2012 at 09:00 AM.
Say what you will about THQ, but for the last eight or so years they have stood by one of the biggest, most treasured sci-fi icons in history. For those in the dark, Warhammer 40,000 is a strategic tabletop game with millions of acolytes stationed worldwide, having only recently crossed over into its sixth generation (characterised by the release of a flashy, updated rulebook.)
With a lineage of twenty five years, Warhammer 40,000 is said to have inspired numerous traits and aesthetic properties we consider to be commonplace in contemporary sci-fi, especially in the realm of gaming. Some are more subtle than others, though the broad-shouldered, superhuman “space marine” archetype is immediately identifiable, as is the universe’s tendency to combine outerworld technology with gothic architecture.
2003’s Fire Warrior was the first THQ game under the Warhammer 40,000 banner, and a forgettable one at that. Developed by Kuju Entertainment, the first person shooter was centred around the Tau Empire, a risky choice of perspective that was ultimately hampered by primitive FPS gameplay that tried too hard to emulate the sudden success of Halo for PlayStation gamers.
What may have been a poor start to the relationship between THQ and Games Workshop’s beloved sci-fi icon was soon turned around, however. Returning to the franchise’s strategic roots, THQ and Relic cooked up a winner with 2004’s Dawn of War which is still regarded as one of the best RTS games to date. Since its award-winning debut, the series has delivered numerous expansions as well as a fully-fledged sequel, with Dawn of War 3 said to be in the works.
Wanting to branch out even further, 2011’s Kill Team and the subsequent release of Space Marine highlighted THQ’s intentions to turn Warhammer 40,000 into a major player in the console market, and who can blame them. Despite the ever-growing hegemony of behemoths such as Call of Duty, FIFA etc. gamers are always willing to try something new, especially if that certain something has been bestowed with a timeless, well-wrought license.
Having sold in excess of 1.2 million copies just two months after launch, Space Marine has been a success for THQ, no doubt further galvanised by 2012 sales and its recent appearance on Sony’s PlayStation Plus service. However, from a critical perspective, the game left much to be desired. Some, like our very own Dan Lee, were enamored with the Relic third person shooter, though others detested it. Personally, I found myself agreeing with the recent verdict of TheSixthAxis community. Though fun and sometimes inventive, it definitely wasn’t the AAA experience some were hoping for.
Even as a former hobbyist with deep connections to 40K throughout my early/mid teens, I could only appreciate the game at arm’s length, my stint as a game critic having absolved me of personal bias.
The Horus Heresy is often considered the zenith of Warhammer 40,000 fiction. With more than twenty books under its wing, the series has achieved venerated status, helping to outline the origins of GW's grim sci-fi universe.
Whether an oversight or a firm commitment to its design philosophy, Relic Entertainment opted out of the tried and tested template, taking on-board a new formula that combined long/mid-range gunplay with a heavy emphasis on close combat encounters.
The end result was an experience that felt incohesive and unsatisfying at times, despite the gameplay’s surprising transition into multiplayer.
Branding it as limp would perhaps be a little harsh, though the game’s accompanying narrative wasn’t perhaps what it could have been. Space Marine’s ending may have raised a number of interesting questions, but every other aspect of Captain Titus’ journey left little to the imagination, even more so if you are well-acquainted with the IP’s rich lore.
Looking ahead, there are already a number of serious changes taking place at THQ, though there is evidence to suggest that a Space Marine sequel isn’t completely out of the question.
THQ is still reeling from heavy losses during a period of financial crisis. With multiple studio closures, cancelled projects, and lay-offs, it has been a wake-up call to say the least, though with the recent appointment of Jason Rubin as president, the publisher could soon make a comeback.
Rubin, of Crash Bandicoot/Jak and Daxter fame, has already been making headlines. The former Naughty Dog clearly has a vision for THQ, a vision that is built around a commitment to triple-A gaming experiences, whether they be completely original IPs or branch from the company’s remaining stable of licenses. Rubin doesn’t seem like the sort of gaming exec who is all talk; one of his first pivotal decision for THQ was to scrap the only recently-announce standalone expansion for Saints Row: The Third, Enter the Dominatrix. In truth, it came as a quite a surprise, considering the chances of it turning a quick profit.
However, if the expansion came to fruition, it will have no doubt led to further exchanges over game publishers trying to wring as much wonga out of their products before being forced to innovate.
Instead, Volition are now fully-committed to the development of Saints Row 4, a game with the potential to see this generation of hardware out with a bang if it happens to arrive before the next wave of consoles. This pre-emptive business decision, as well as recent comments from Rubin, have given us a clear insight into his philosophy. In his eyes, THQ doesn’t have to match its competitors, it has to beat them, and the only way in doing so is with a diverse yearly line-up that accentuates nothing but quality.
Whatever good comes out of Rubin’s tenure can only help the Warhammer 40,000 brand. Next to WWE, it’s one of THQ’s oldest acquired licenses, and one that has the potential to go just about anywhere. The loss of Dark Millenium, the ambitious MMO being developed by Vigil and Relic, was a blow to fans. However, in response, THQ announced that the project was being re-shaped into a “premium experience with single and multiplayer gameplay, robust digital content and community features.”
Whether or not this is a follow-up to Space Marine has yet to be confirmed, however the timing of THQ’s Dark Millenium announcement suggests that the publisher’s lack of faith in a fully-fledge MMO wasn’t the only reason why they ditched the project. As iterated before, Relic’s punt at sci-fi shooter had its highlights and surpassed expectations as far as sales were concerned.
It really isn’t that difficult to visualise what a Space Marine sequel would entail. In terms of gameplay, it would either have to abandon its gung-ho approach to firefights and tip more towards Gears/Uncharted or simply refine it. In early interviews, the reason behind a lack of cover was also to put across the iconic image of the Space Marines, devoted superhuman soldiers who are devoid of petty emotion. They are as smart as they are strong, though dipping into cover at every given opportunity strips them of their dignity and devalues the potency of their highly efficient wargear. A balance has to be struck, as in the original Space Marine, though both halves of the gameplay formula need to be varied, responsive and equally applicable in a number of combat scenarios.
With such an expansive universe, the team behind Space Marine 2 would need to devote itself to a substantive, meaningful storyline. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of writers acquainted with the franchise either: Black Library, Games Workshops’ dedicated publishing branch, has produced countless epics, a number of which could easily transfer into video game form. Warhammer 40,000 houses a variety of factions, from the xenomorph-like Tyranids and space-mummy Necrons, to the Tau Empire and Space Wolves, all of which have their own stories to tell.
Though another run-in with Chaos seems inevitable (seeing an advancement in Titus’ character) Space Marine 2 wouldn’t necessarily be another deadlock between the Ultramarines and a rabble of Orks.
Having worked on the original, Relic Entertainment would seem like a fitting choice. However, with Dawn of War III supposedly on its way (also developed by Relic) duties could be passed onto another (perhaps internal) studio, Vigil’s previous work on Dark Millenium making them a sensible second choice once Darksiders II launches next month. This would allow THQ to mount a two-pronged attack with the 40K license, keeping PC-only gamers and their console counterparts happy.