September 13, 2011
Once upon a time, Warhammer 40,000 to us denoted kids in Games Workshop prodding around figurines with little red sticks, or painstakingly painting tiny miniatures, or reading White Dwarf magazine. Since playing Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine however, we're happy to associate the Games Workshop universe with third-person action games, as Relic Entertainment's first foray into the genre having forged itself a solid reputation making Warhammer RTS titles for the PC, is surprisingly competent stuff. The crux of Space Marine is its seamless integration of melee and ranged combat, which combines to create ' visible, violent death', and lots of it too.
When an Imperial Forge World is under threat and an Ork invasion amasses to commandeer the Ultramarines' strategical resources, protagonist Captain Titus drops in to clean up the influx of greenskins, which is essentially a perfect excuse to stomp your merry way into enormous swathes of Orks swinging a chainsword or plugging them with white-hot lead from a Bolter. Being able to effortlessly switch between your guns and melee weapons on the fly is Space Marine's headlining trick, and it's something that the game does exceedingly well, which is fortunate since it's pretty much the entire game in a nutshell.
Variation isn't really something that Space Marine does, as you'll find yourself shooting Orks from distance before wading in to finish off the stragglers with close-quarters attacks and repeating this ad nauseam. What little variety there is comes into play with the range of weapons on offer that you'll find peppered around the game's locations by supply dumps, where there's always ammo and munitions to pick up. That is unless like us, you settle upon a set of four weapons that you'll probably stick with for the duration of the game. Your arsenal consists of an infinite ammo pistol, a heavier version of the same thing, a long-ranged or heavy gun and an explosive weapon. You can mix and match somewhat within reason, so you can ditch the sniper rifle-style Stalker Bolter for a rapid-fire, medium range Storm Bolter, but you risk leaving yourself in a tight spot should you require that extra range.
More often than not, you may find yourself resorting to fighting at distance, picking off Orks with long-range headshots, when really you want to be sprinting into the middle of the action, dismembering greenskins with complete impunity. This can be suicide in exceptionally large groups however, unless you manage to master the art of thinning the numbers, then targeting an Ork to stun before finishing him with a brutal execution. Stunned enemies are marked out by a translucent blue bubble around them, which presents you with a temporary window to get in and hammer the B button for a gratifyingly gory kill, which also grants you a welcome health boost.
This is one of two ways of regaining health, which itself is two tier, consisting of a recharging Iron Halo shield and a traditional vitality bar. The only other way to replenish your health is to unleash Titus's Fury Meter, which fills up as you tear your way through the Ork hordes. Once activated, the speed and ferocity of your attacks is amplified, and you acquire chunks of health as you go. When aiming a gun, time slows down during the Fury state, enabling you to accurately line up headshots, and like the core combat mechanic, you can use Fury for both weapons in one dose if you like. It's a neat system, and rewarding executions and Fury-based slaughter with health is a clever way to do away with health packs or another such contrived device, preserving the innate power and strength of the Ultramarine.
Still the lack of variation is a bugbear, which extends to the game's environments in some instances, and while genuinely epic in scale and detail, the locations invoke a slight feeling of deja-vu, as they're primarily comprised of dirty brown corridors, dank subterranean tunnels and rust-ridden, destroyed concrete scrapheaps. There are some astonishing vistas to behold, with the blend of once-opulent cathedral structures, vertiginous spires and abandoned warehouses providing some grand architectural sights, while other regions are less inspiring and a bit generic. The character models and facial animations are fantastic though, with the Ultramarines looking fittingly chunky and weighty, almost like the miniature models themselves.
Visuals aside, tedium soon creeps into Space Marine's campaign though, and swapping the chainsword for the power axe or thunder hammer does little to spice up the button-mashing swinging through swathes of Orks with their shouty cockney brogue. The selection of guns help mix things up a bit, with plasma weapons like the Melta Gun, Plasma Cannon and Lascannon burning through armour with glowing death-dealing projectiles. There's also the Vengeance Launcher, which throws out small limpet mines that attach to any surface then detonated. Intermittently, you'll don a jump pack to reach otherwise inaccessible heights too, able to ground pound enemies and swiftly evade sticky situations, but these segments are all too short-lived and infrequent.
There's also a lack of any real memorable set-pieces, and even the game's final boss proves to be a bit of a damp QTE squib and an anti-climax. Towards the latter chapters of the game, you'll encounter the Forces of Chaos, presenting more challenging enemies like Bloodletter Daemons and Chaos Marines, giving you a welcome break from wanton Ork-slaughter, but these sequences don't really require you to change your tactics too much. In fact, we tended to stick with the same four weapons for much of the campaign once we'd found an arsenal we were happy with.
Multiplayer offers more lasting enjoyment than the campaign, despite there being only two competitive modes to choose from, with Annihilation being a straightforward Team Deathmatch (first team to 41 kills, wins) and Seize Ground, tasking two teams of eight to capture and retain control points. There's three classes to choose from, with Tactical, Devastator and Assault offering different perks and weapons, although getting to the good stuff means sinking hours into unlocking bonus abilities and so on. Prepare to get your ass handed to you if you're a latecomer to multiplayer, as you'll find that most players will destroy you with their pimped Space Marine or Chaos Marine, until you accumulate enough XP to gain access to better gear for yourself. It's still good fun though, and customising your own Marine with new armour pieces and colours will please ardent fans.
Achievements are a balanced mix of single and multiplayer, with some provided for levelling up your online Marine and most single-player achievements awarded for progression and kills. The 'True Son of the Emperor' achievement gives Gears of War's 'Seriously' cheevo a run for its money too, asking that you bag a total of 40,000 kills across all game modes, which should take a very long time indeed. Overall though, this is not a bad list and there's a few nice challenges to complete and yes, there's collectible audio log Servo skulls to look out for too, if collecting items is your bag.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is a competent first go at the action genre for Relic, and successful for the most part. What lets the game down is repetitious gameplay and a severe lack of variety, despite an excellent combat system. Large environments fail to disguise the linear nature of the game too, but if you're a die-hard Warhammer 40K fan, you'll no doubt overlook all of these flaws and have an absolute blast slaying Orks and Chaos Daemons till the cows come home. For the Emperor!
A blustery orchestral score fits the action perfectly, while the voice-work featuring Mark Strong in the lead role is mostly good, though parts sound a little phoned-in at times. The rasping chainsword and Bolter gunfire also sounds nice and meaty.
Space Marine's environments are a mixed bag of incredible exteriors with gothic spires and stunningly detailed towers, alongside less spectacular and rather drab underground locations. Character models are superb though, and the game looks excellent on the whole.
Despite a fantastic core combat system, Space Marine can become somewhat repetitive and tedious at times, and attempts to inject some variety with jump pack sections are all too brief. Carving through armies of Orks and Chaos Daemons can be enjoyable, but only in small doses.
Though comprised of pretty much the same gameplay mechanic throughout, the campaign is a good size, consisting of five lengthy acts and a passable enough story. Multiplayer is decent and has adequate depth, but it's somewhat lacking in game modes. Previously announced DLC will help here, but as far as on-disc content is concerned, it feels a little light.
A solid achievement list that's made up mostly of campaign progression tasks and kill count challenges, as well as multiplayer levelling up targets to reach. Some of it is fairly by-the-numbers stuff, but there's the odd achievement here and there that encourage you to play the game in a different way, which is nice.
Relic Entertainment has done a solid job on Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, taking the studio's knowledge of the IP working on the Dawn of War series for PC, and putting it to good use. With some better thought out set-pieces and more variety in the gameplay and visuals, this could have achieved greatness. As it is though, Space Marine feels like the foundations for a barnstorming sequel, and goodness knows it deserves one, as there's massive potential here. Warhammer 40K fans however, will probably love Space Marine unconditionally.