No one should question Relic’s passion for the Warhammer: 40,000 universe. A venerable tabletop war game by Games Workshop, Warhammer: 40,000 is more science fantasy than science fiction. It proposes a grim and superstitious future wherein humanity is under constant attack by multitudinous alien species. The embattled Imperium of Man is also rotting from within under a tyrannical regime and the subversive powers of the malevolent Chaos gods.

In Space Marine, the player controls a captain of the fabled Ultramarines, the Templar-like super-soldiers that are mankind’s greatest asset in its unrelenting battle for survival.

Captain Titus and two of his battle brothers are dispatched to Graia, a Forge World where the Imperium builds its mighty war machines, the gargantuan Warlord-class Titans. Graia has been assaulted by a millions-strong Ork horde.

Relic’s understanding of the Warhammer 40,000 lore shines. The rank-and-file conscripts of the Imperial Guard revere the Space Marines. The Space Marines themselves freely refer to the Codex Astartes, a kind of monastic rule that prescribes the actions and tactics of the Ultramarines, and in turn defer to the Inquisition, an order that takes a scorched earth approach to rooting out Chaotic heresy and propagates the cult of the godlike Emperor. Space Marine rightly feels as if it’s just one tale in a universe that has as many stories as it has stars.

But if Space Marine alludes to the depth of the license, the story it tells is underwhelming. The characterisation is wooden and the plot is predictable. In spite of Graia’s function as a manufacturing planet, there are no labourers or civilians who can convey the terror and human cost of being caught in a warzone. Instead we’re asked to invest in Titus and his brothers, Leandros and Sidonus, all of whom are all one-dimensional clichés. As such, the narrative in Space Marine fails to have much emotional impact.

Space Marine is Relic’s first attempt at creating a third-person action game using the Warhammer: 40,000 license and the results are mixed. The game focuses especially on sanguine melee combat: as Titus’ chainsword roars to life and is brought to bear on the jugulars of the Ork and Chaos hordes, blood spatters generously across his armour. Titus can also perform a handful of combinations and particularly gory executions, the latter of which is necessary to replenish his health.

But the teeth-bearing brutality of the combat, while initially stimulating, is ultimately stymied by a lack of variety. Once he’s done enough damage, Titus can also enter a Fury mode that increases his damage output and regenerates his health. Titus will be able to swap out his chainsword for a power axe or thunder hammer, each with their own handful of animations and executions, but as Titus will be performing more executions than a South American Generalissimo, familiarity finally breeds contempt.

The difficulties with Space Marine’s combat are heightened by the game’s insistence on performing these lengthy and repetitive executions in slow motion. The game adheres to the “more enemies with more hit points” policy in order to increase the difficulty over its duration. Usually that means Titus is swarmed with melee foes while ranged foes riddle him with bullets. Titus is also vulnerable to attack when executing a foe, meaning that more than once he’ll be killed from afar just as the life-giving blow was about to land.

Meanwhile the ranged combat hides few delights. Bolter rounds sound pleasingly heavy and explode upon impact. Those wanting to see the red mist will be catered to. However, a minimum of visual response from foes when hit with ranged weapons is another disappointment.

The tight third-person perspective of heavily reminiscent is Epic’s Gears of War, and so too is the level design. The battle for Graia is fought in a linear procession of trenches, tunnels and corridors before opening up briefly to present larger engagements. The player could occasionally be forgiven for wondering whatever happened to the planetary invasion as large expanses are bereft of combat, or indeed non-player characters of any kind and simply charge the player with walking across them.

The game offers two multiplayer modes, Annihilation and Seize Ground. Annihilation is a team deathmatch mode. The first team to accrue 41 kills wins. Seize Ground is King of the Hill by another name and is better suited to the gameplay in Space Marine. However, neither mode is likely to keep the attentions of the multiplayer set for particularly long.

One aspect of the multiplayer shines, however. Once players reach Rank 4, they will be treated to a suite of character customisation options that will allow them to tailor their Marine down to the minutiae. Those who enjoy Games Workshop’s tabletop games take great effort to paint their figurines and create a unique look for their armies and will surely delight in being able to adapt their Space Marine to their preference.

The attention lavished on the multiplayer character customisation and its appeal to fans of the universe underscores Space Marine’s pitch. Here is a game that Warhammer: 40,000 players should well appreciate. Peel back the license however, and we’re left with a generic third-person shooter. There’s potential in expanding the Warhammer: 40,000 license beyond the strategy genre – something Relic has done with great success in its Dawn of War series – but there’s also clearly a lot of work to be done.