If you’re unfamiliar with the Warhammer franchise (and given how many times in the last week I’ve had to explain the universe, I’m going to assume that most of you are), this is the granddaddy of fantasy and sci-fi tabletop games. While Warhammer is by no means the first in that field, its sci-fi offshoot, Warhammer 40,000 has inspired dozens of games from StarCraft to Gears of War. If anyone says to you that Space Marine is ripping off Gears, you can firmly say that there were Space Marines swinging chainswords long before Marcus Fenix was a twinkle in Cliffy B.’s eyes.
Now that we have that out of the way, we can get down into the nitty-gritty about Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, a third-person hack-and-slash/shooter hybrid developed by Relic Entertainment, perhaps best known for their Dawn of War (set in the same universe) and Company of Heroes RTS games. As Ultramarines Captain Titus, you’re tasked with securing a valuable strategic asset known as a Titan during an Ork invasion of the Forge World Graia. If you’re already raising a skeptical eyebrow, don’t worry; there are much more obtuse terms that will be in this review.
It’s taken this long to get a proper game from the perspective of an individual soldier, but how does it hold up against other similar titles? Does Relic’s skill with strategy games cross over into shooters?
Most of your time during the single-player campaign of Space Marines will be spent wading into the thick of your enemies, dealing the Emperor’s justice with bolter and chainsword. The game isn’t strictly a mindless spam-fest; you have to actually plan out your assaults tactically or you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer number of foes you’re facing. Thinning the enemy ranks with ranged fire before you plunge in with whatever melee weapon you currently hold is always a smart idea, and once you’re stuck in you have several combos you can pull off in order to ensure that you maintain the upper hand. A lot of these end with you stunning large groups of enemies, but preforming the hits has a nice weighty feel to it and Captain Titus controls smoothly in both ranged and close quarters combat.
Most of the foes you’ll be facing won’t take much effort to kill with either class of weapon, but throughout the game there are larger enemies that will take a combination of guile and grit to bring down. Ork Nobs (the Ork counterpart to Space Marines) must be stunned first before they can be executed, and even then you’ll need to duel them to the death in a button mashing contest. Later in the game you’ll fight several different types of Chaos forces, including Chaos Marines who behave a lot like you do and even have their own regenerating armor system.
Despite the fact that Space Marine might look simple at first glance, there is depth to the combat here, and this has to be some of the most satisfying shooter and brawling I’ve ever done in a game. Orks explode into blood fountains when you hit them and the most basic ranged weapon, the bolter, fires tiny self-propelled rockets, so every shot shakes your controller and makes your targets fly backward as they blossom their internal organs. Killing also build up your Fury meter which you can unleash in order to regain health and shields and gain a damage boost. There are also a few parts in the game when you’ll gain access to a Jump Pack and a Thunderhammer which will enable you to leap high into the air before crashing down amidst your adversaries and start dealing the pain left and right with a giant hammer that crackles with lightning.
As deeply gratifying as the fighting is in Space Marine, I do have an issue with how you accrue health when you’re not able to use Fury mode. As I mentioned above, you have the ability to stun the various creatures you’ll be facing and while they’re reeling you can swoop in and execute them to regain a good chunk of your vitality (small enemies like Gretchens and Traitor Guardsmen don’t need to be stunned before you can execute them, however). While this is fine in practice, you’ll still be totally vulnerable to other enemies during the lengthy execution animations, meaning you can die while you’re in the process of healing yourself. If you play it smart and don’t run into the middle of twenty dudes who have ranged support expecting to emerge unscathed this isn’t usually a big deal, but when you’ve struggled through a particularly hard encounter and you’re stabbed in the back by a guy you didn’t see, this can lead to some rage inducing moments.
On the whole, Space Marine’s single player campaign is a lot of fun, even at its short seven hour length (complete with the requiste sequel hook). The game swaps enemy types from Ork to Chaos a little to late for the fighting to keep feeling fresh, and the final boss fight is a God of War quicktime event, but for the majority of the time you’ll have a blast stomping around in the huge boots of an Ultramarine. As you might expect from a company so deeply involved with bringing Warhmmer to the electronic mediums, Relic took great care in making the game and the world look amazing, even if it is mostly urban and factory environments. There are several vistas in the game that are particularly impressive and the game itself is top notch graphically, especially if you’re running it on a high end PC. The story and voice acting are also pretty cheesy, but that’s par for the course for Warhammer.
Space Marine also features a multiplayer mode where you either take on the role of a loyalist Marine or a Chaos Marine and duke it out in one of two game types, Annihilation and Seize Ground. There are three classes to choose from: Tactical, a jack-of all trades type, Devastator/Havoc, a heavy-support specialist and Assault/Raptor, a melee-oriented class with a Jump Pack. The game is fairly well balanced from the outset, but Tactical Marines may feel outclassed by close combat troops until they can access some perks and weapons at higher levels that offset the massive advantage that the Assault/Raptor class has close in. As of right now there’s a good mix of play styles in multiplayer and no single perk or weapon seems to stand out as the crowd favorite. The Assault/Raptor class does get a Martyr style perk that allows their jet pack to explode shortly after their demise, ensuring that most of the time their killer will join them in the afterlife. There is a tell-tale high-pitched noise that accompanies this perk, but it’s usually too little too late.
True to form, Relic also included a very deep armor customization suite with a whole mess of custom pieces like shoulder pads and helmets to keep you busy tweaking your appearance all the way up to level 41. In addition to the pre-loaded Space Marine Chapters and Chaos Warbands, you can also make up your own color scheme. Do you want a Marine with every single piece of armor sporting a different color? Go for it. Relic went all out on this aspect of the game, and it really shows.
As surprisingly engaging as the multiplayer is, there are, just like the single-player, a few rookie mistakes holding it back from true greatness. The multiplayer uses a peer-to-peer matchmaking system which functions well most of the time but occasionally lapses into bouts of unplayable-ness with latency abound. Microphones are also permanently in the “on” position, meaning you have to indivually mute everyone; there is unfortunately no blanket option for that. Both of these carry over to the PC version which makes the multiplayer feels like it’s got a severe case of console-itis.
If you’ve been a long-time Warhammer 40,000 fan and you’ve been hoping against hope that Space Marine would hold up to the seemingly impossible expectations, rest easy because the game comes damn close. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long for the sequel, because Relic has shown that they’re very capable of delivering a finely-tuned expereince. A few tweaks here and there and Space Marines will be a credible franchise.
Has anyone else played Space Marine? What did you think of the gameplay and the story? Are you trying out the multiplayer?
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