Even amongst the general gaming populace, table-top gaming suffers some fairly rough – and quite unfair – stigma. As the pin-up boy of the Games Workshop crowd, Warhammer games have always typically been shoe-horned into RTS and RPG titles, and yet with the recent Kill Team and now Relic Entertainment’s Space Marine, we see a slightly different take on the famed fantasy universe – shooting, slashing and generally kicking ass from a single marine’s perspective – very hands-on, and with gloves firmly off. Leave the jibes about 20-sided dice and model paints at the door, and join us as we see how it fares.
Game: Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Your introduction is a wordless one, as a computer screen begins analysing a situation on a ‘Forge World’; a planet chock-full of weapons and technology, currently facing an Ork invasion. Running through the possibilities, and taking into consideration the rather pressing nature of the situation, it decides to send in the Ultramarines – your cue. As Captain Titus, and with your two brothers in arms at your side, you are thrown in at the deep end, with a mission to disrupt the Orks whilst a larger fleet makes its slow and steady way in to clean things up. Naturally, things are never as simple as they seem, and without giving too much away, as well as new foes, you can expect to meet some friendlier faces as you attempt to complete your mission.
Even with no prior knowledge of the Warhammer universe, it’s very clear that these Space Marines are intended to carry quite some gravitas. Orks fear them, humans revere them, and inbetween brutally dispatching their foes, they speak of honour and duty with a poetic grace. It’s an interesting contrast, and although perhaps not especially believable as characters, they’re certainly very empowering – provided you can handle your lead characters dripping in gentlemanly machismo. More irksome is the pace at which plot points develop however; some time to establish a scenario is a given, but as there is a fairly interesting plot to follow, it’s a shame that it takes nearly half of the game to reveal this and really get going.
The nature of the quest lends itself to brown, desolate, war-torn environments for the most part, with grey industrial complexes doing little to break the tedium of this much overused range of locations. Whilst there are some breaks from this pattern they are but brief, and even though these are all well realised, there’s nothing particularly eye-catching about the ground you tread. However, the Space Marines themselves have an impressive solidity about them, and move around in fluid and satisfying style, in spite of the heavy armour they wear. Once you unlock and start playing with the customisation features in multiplayer, you can truly begin to appreciate the finer points of these designs too – parts can be upgraded, emblems can be swapped, paint jobs can be tweaked… it’s a miniature studio in digital format, and will no doubt appease fans of the series greatly.
Enemy designs are often interesting too – it’s almost a shame that there’s little opportunity to take them in before they are ushered back out. The variation between these is a tad stale though, with increased volumes of cookie-cutter enemies being used to overwhelm you rather than many particularly interesting and unique types – but again, there’s often little time to even acknowledge this. Thankfully, even with dozens of enemies advancing on you, the action stays fast and furious, with the framerate remaining strong and keeping the tension up nicely.
Whilst some of the music and voice work is quite enjoyable – if a touch melodramatic – some is not quite so. Let’s do what the game does, and pick on the Orks; your standard, green-skinned, slightly dopey, cannon fodder. Whilst at some point I’m sure it seemed a sound idea – if you’ll excuse the pun – to have a number of these foes proclaim “Space Marine!” in shock and awe, the frequency with which you hear these two words is thoughtlessly irritating. It doesn’t help either that human NPCs in your presence are also often reduced to a slack-jawed uttering of “Space Marines…”, albeit with a slightly less mockney-sounding drawl.
To put aside the bad for a second, it’s worth pointing out that these frustrations are distractions at best, and don’t detract from the more serious tone found in cut scenes. Lead characters are free of any major annoyances, and the sound effects in a more general sense all fit nicely alongside the effects happening on screen. The orchestral pieces that accompany you are often a little overblown, but again, feel in line with the wider themes of the game.
Space Marine plays from a third person perspective as a hybrid between shooter and brawler, with commendably seamless switching between the two. Whilst immediate impressions may scream ‘Gears of War’, the lack of a cover system and the sheer numbers of minions coming your way means skirmishes are more of an exercise in crowd control than tactical stand-offs. Understanding how to manage these situations is fundamental to how the game plays, and despite little complexity in controls there is a fine art to melee combat. Whilst you do have a shield that automatically regenerates, your health does not, and requires you to recover either by executing stunned foes, or using your guage-controller ‘Emperor’s Rage’ ability. Executing foes locks you into an animation, typically involving their rather grizzly end, and whilst the health boost is appreciated, the 2-3 seconds of vulnerability as you perform this often outweighs this benefit if used at inopportune moments.
Alongside an array of melee choices, you also carry grenades and 4 ranged weapons at a time. Putting aside the fantasy dressing, these fall into some pretty familiar categories – mine launchers, sniper rifles, shotguns, assault rifles and the like. A few sections also grant you access to turrets, and on top of this are some brief moments where you don a jetpack and swoop down on your foes with a two-handed hammer, causing devastation and great amusement in the process. In simple terms, the swift and visceral nature of the combat is the undisputed pull of the single player, and is undeniable fun throughout. Even despite the rare moment of helpfulness, your comrades largely feel like space fillers as opposed to Space Marines, and getting the job done is down to you alone, and quite rewarding for it. Surprisingly there are very few attempts at boss set pieces either, and whilst this is one way of avoiding poor encounters, it does leave you with little in the way of variety.
Even when approached cautiously, players shouldn’t expect Space Marine’s quest to last into the double digits of hours. Whilst completionists will have some incentive to re-visit the campaign to collect a series of backstory-revealing audio logs, it’s clear that the long term plans for the title lie in the multiplayer. This has lead to THQ putting up a pay wall for this section of the game, where second-hand gamers without an ‘Elite Pass’ (found in new copies of the game) are charged if they wish to take their multiplayer exploits beyond player level 4 – which is to be expected after roughly an hours worth of play. Two modes are available at present and revolve around two teams of eight players; one, a deathmatch race to 41 kills, and the other where scoring is based on capturing and occupying pivotal locations on a map.
Whilst beating a number of weapon and armour challenges can unlock additional perks to tweak things in your favour, you have 3 base armour classes – Tactical, Devastator, and Assault – that split things up fairly evenly. In general, whilst enjoyable enough, the multiplayer seems to have taken a few too many leaves out of the book of FPS titans, and finds itself losing the identity it carved out in the game’s campaign – and one would expect that any attempts at populating the servers on a more long-term basis will be in vain, given how closely it apes these bigger titles.
The campaign could’ve easily been improved with a bit more variety, and some smarter pacing – and although the core gameplay remains fun, it’s not doing anything new enough to bowl anyone over. Multiplayer is fun enough but feels rather bare-bones, especially considering the paywall involved, and although Warhammer fans may applaud some of the fanservice and attention to detail in the finer details, at heart this falls sadly short of realising the potential it shows when you first dive in.