This article first appeared in PC Gamer magazine issue 379 earlier this year. Every month we run exclusive features exploring the world of PC gaming—from behind-the-scenes previews, to incredible community stories, to fascinating interviews, and more.
Warhammer 40K: Space Marine has a cult following almost as devoted as the game’s zealots, and those poor loyalists have been waiting a decade for a sequel to the hack-and-slashing third-person shooter. As the faithful no doubt knew all along, the time is finally upon us, and Space Marine 2 is set to deliver unto thee a scale never before seen in the series. But how will it fare against the new wave of Warhammer games, especially the likes of Darktide?
To get a sense of how the sequel is shaping up, I sat down to speak with creative director Oliver Hollis-Leick, who was more than happy to dive into how they aim to build upon the original, and what’s special about telling stories in the Warhammer 40K setting. “What’s most important about this universe is that it’s epic,” Oliver tells me up front. “Wars don’t take place in cities or countries, they take place on planets, solar systems, and even local groups of stars. So what we want is for the player to feel embedded in one of those great Warhammer 40K wars.”
A bug’s death
Bigger, is definitely the key word. Bigger than its genre brethren, and bigger than its predecessor, promising hundreds of foes on screen as the sequel confronts returning protagonist Titus with waves and waves of the bug-like tyranids. “We have our own proprietary engine at Saber which allowed us to do things in World War Z that you couldn’t get from any other engine, things like 500 enemies on screen at the same time. Without compromising the graphics.”
Space Marine 2 is delivering on that same front, throwing massive alien armies at your chunky warrior. It’s truly a sight to behold, and reminds me of the era when games like Ninety Nine Nights were a thing, putting loads of lads on screen in a bid to capture the feel of the battles from The Lord of the Rings films. “Our engine has allowed us to give an authentic Warhammer experience with hundreds, if not thousands, of enemy tyranids assaulting you and your allies. This war isn’t just taking place in front of you but all the way up to the horizon.”
All those enemies wouldn’t be quite as impressive if they were just part of the background, but you really are in there carving through them with a big chainsword. Continuing the tradition of the first game, which eschewed cover in favour of rampant aggression, Space Marine 2 will have you sprinting and swinging through these armies, up close and personal. “The first game was very popular because of its avoidance of using things like cover systems, in fact the player was incentivised to always be attacking. We’ve definitely remained true to those popular mechanics and we’ve tried to, where possible, add additional incentives.” Players can look forward to wielding a more diverse arsenal of iconic weaponry from brutal chainswords and thunder hammers to devastating boltguns and plasma rifles.
Space to grow
As well as bringing back the style of shooter that earned the original game such a following, Space Marine 2 continues the story of main character Titus. “At the end of the first game Titus was arrested by the Inquisition and taken away, probably for interrogation. I mean, anyone who knows anything about the Inquisition knows that they are ruthless in their methods.” Oliver encourages players to use their imagination to picture everything Titus might have been through between games, but does say that some hints of exactly what occurred can be seen. “People found it [in our trailer], that Titus now wears an Inquisition symbol on a chain around his forearm.”
It’s not just Titus who’s a little different these days. If anything, he’s not changed nearly as much as the world around him as Space Marine 2 reflects various larger events in the 40K setting—something that Oliver and the team have made an essential part of the story. “We can see from the service studs on his head that many, many decades have passed. A lot in the universe has changed.” Oliver talks about the destruction of Cadia, an important planet for the Imperium of Man which was destroyed by the forces of Chaos. The result is a great storm in space that divides the empire in two. Desperate times for humanity. “In their darkest hour the Imperium were able to resurrect one of the primarchs, Roboute Guilliman. One of the most powerful figures in the universe and the leader of the Ultramarines.” Something which will have a personal effect on Titus, who was challenged and ultimately arrested for his interpretation of the space marines’ laws, the Codex Astartes, a tome written by none other than Guilliman. “Now the author has returned, so what does that mean for Titus? How are his views and opinions interpreted?”
Titus will also have to contend with young blood as he is slowly becoming a relic of the past. His ranks have been superseded by the Primaris Marines, bigger and more powerful upgrades. “Titus is not one of them and so he’s been converted to a Primaris, he’s had to go through agonising surgery to do so. And so for me, the story is about how does Titus deal with his past? How has his journey affected him? How is he going to reintegrate into a very different Imperium, and how is this veteran space marine going to fight alongside much younger, Primaris Marines? So it’s about a hero who has returned home to find his home has changed quite dramatically.”
Are we the baddies?
For all the drama, 40K’s Imperium of Man is far from the good guys. The fanbase has been plagued in recent years by neo-Nazi fans who idolise the dystopian faction. Games Workshop has tried to shake off those kinds of fans the last few years. For Space Marine 2, how does the team approach delivering on the fantasy of being this all-powerful space marine while not glorifying the things they represent? For Oliver, it’s about trusting the audience to see that world for what it is. “My personal approach is to present things as they are and allow the viewer to make their own decisions,” Oliver explains. “We present the universe very much from a space marine’s perspective because that’s the story, but the universe is evident. You can’t look at a hive city, that’s built on top of 50 floors of poverty stricken individuals living short lives, without thinking, my god, what kind of universe is this?” Certainly, there’s very little of the world we see in Space Marine 2 that looks like it’d be pleasant to live in.
So what’s the appeal of this grim, relentlessly bleak universe? Why tell stories there? Oliver cites two major reasons. “The universe itself is just so vast, and so the potential for storytelling is almost unlimited. You can choose all of these different factions, you can tell a story at all these various points in this vast history. Games Workshop have always been somewhat vague about the details in the universe. Which is deliberate because it allows players to create entire campaigns that don’t conflict with the history.” For Oliver the setting is an open playing field for them, where their stories have no limits. Yet there is also a personal draw to this world.
Patron of virtue
“Speaking from my own perspective, being a teenager was a difficult experience at the best of times,” he tells me. “Being able to step into a world that is shared by lots of other people, going through the same thing, a world in which you can take on the role of these incredibly powerful warriors… and it’s great to see that Games Workshop have added many more female hero characters now, opening up options for many more people… to step out of your ordinary life as a teenager or a young adult, into a world where you’re empowered to fight alongside, in the case of the space marines, your battle brothers—and I’ve stood in the Games Workshop stores around these tables rolling dice, experiencing that first hand—it is a great experience. I would look forward to it each week.
“I think the games, wherever possible, have tried to stay true to that experience. To play alongside others. And I think that is what a lot of young people really look for. A lot of people my age as well, because I’m enjoying playing this game and a lot of people who remember those days also have such a good feeling about this universe.”
Oliver couldn’t confirm or deny whether co-op was a part of Space Marine 2 but it seems safe to assume that at the very least, Titus won’t be alone in facing these impossible odds. Camaraderie will be the bright spot in this world for players. Feeling a part of something larger is key to selling Space Marine 2’s scale, as much as any number of foes and vast vistas. It’s a busy time for Warhammer games at the moment, and while that may make it harder to stand out, Space Marine 2’s roaring, explosive take on the universe certainly won’t be lost in the crowd.