Game: Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 3, PC, Xbox 360 (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
It is the dream of marketing men everywhere to convey the true magic of their products in the fewest words possible: Just Do It, Vorsprung durch technik, Australian for Beer, but few advertising campaigns have ever captured the principle pleasure of their product as succinctly as that Warhammer 40k: Space Marine.
Visible, Violent Death. Yup, that about sums things up.
However, if we are going to give Relic Games credit for delivering on their promise of a brilliantly visceral Warhammer 40k action game then it is also important to ask the question; is blood and guts all there is to Space Marine? Is it simply a one-trick pony in Ultramarine clothing?
STORY: Regardless of anything else, it is impossible to question Relic Entertainment’s passion for the 40k universe. The developer has been working with the franchise since the 2004 release of Dawn of War but Space Marine is Relic’s first step away from the RTS genre that they are so comfortable in. Space Marine’s story is soaked through with 40k detail, and it is really the clearest window into the love the developer has for the universe.
The player controls Captain Titus as he attempts to protect the factory world of Graia from an invading Ork army. This simple premise serves to put a small band of Ultramarines on a planet absolutely overrun with Orks and is little more than an excuse to whip out your Chainsword and Bolter and start killing as many “green-skins” as come into sight.
In addition to this main story, players can search for Servo Skulls that add further texture to the universe, the battle and the people of the industrial planet. These smartly acted soundbites do an effective job of explaining the society and composition of the planet, and will add plenty of context for those not familiar with Warhammer.
It is unfortunate that there aren’t more skulls available to provide background though, as Relic pulls no punches with their telling of this tale. The language, characterisation and background of the story is steeped in 40k lore and many of the story’s finer points, rivalies and dramas will be lost on players who have no knowledge of the universe. It is certainly refreshing to see a developer not pander to the middle ground and rather make a game that truly celebrates the fandom of one of the most underrated sci-fi universes ever imagined, and it doesn’t damage the core of the story, but some players will inevitably be put off as the game talks early and often about The Inquisition, Xenos, Chaos and the like without a sniff of help for those uninitiated. A 40k-ipedia might have been a valuable inclusion.
For that reason, the game’s straightforward story suits it perfectly. Space Marine’s overarching tale chugs along very happily and demands little of the player to fully understand it. It keeps a good pace, changes things up when necessary and creates some brilliant gameplay scenarios. In fact, some of the best sequences in the game come after twists and turns in the plot. Whilst there will be no big spoilers here, suffice to say the story draws inspiration from many different parts of the Warhammer 40k universe and is the perfect fluffy complement to a universe denser than a neutron star.
GRAPHICS: The forge world of Graia is a very sandy place. Very sandy, and brown. Probably because it has been torn to pieces by a million-strong invading army of violent, green wrecking-balls with teeth, but still, it is very brown. The world that Relic has created for Space Marine looks harsh and violent with sharp edges, crumbling rock and stonework defining the majority of the landscapes. Character models are chunky and and faces look good, with all the trappings of Warhammer achingly authentic and immediately recognisable: the oversized armour, the impossible heft of the marines and deathly roman-cum-religious aesthetic are all present and all serve to create a totally believable 40k world. It is the character models that add a splash of colour to what would otherwise be quite a one-tone world. When the vibrant greens of the orcs, standing out against their red or yellow armour, square off against the deep blue of the Ultramarines, claret spraying everywhere, Space Marine looks at its best; a fight straight from the pages of a comic with the player at the helm.
The OTT effects of the execution moves will certainly raise a sadistic chuckle as the Space Marines start using ork heads like golf balls and forcing enemies to deep throat a chainsword, but it is the humble headshot that is the most brutal, accompanied as it is by a satisfying pop, splash of red blood and a number of particles that must, one would assume, be brain matter. Luvverly. All these visual moments are morbidly enjoyable and certainly fulfills the “violent” part of Relic’s promise.
There are some very occasional glitches with the execution animations that happen near to environemnt edges and changes of elevation, with orks detaching from your blades mid-kill, but for the most part animation is solid. The camera does have a tendency to wander off in close combat, particularly in multi-player, often belligerently pointing away from the enemies as the player frantically tries to turn around and see what is going on, and because the combat is frantic and pressurised, these moments where the camera limits precise control can be hugely costly.
Space Marine isn’t a superb visual package, but it is also not a poor one. Importantly, the visuals do justice to the source material and provide an attractive 40k playground for both fans and initiates to the universe.
SOUND: The audio of Space Marine, like the visuals, are solid if not spectacular. During gameplay, character and enemy barks are varied and well voiced, adding plenty of atmosphere to the fights. Equally, the sound effects of battle are solid with, as already mentioned, the grisly pop of an ork’s melon as you perforate it with a Stalker-Bolter round being a particular highlight. The game easily accomlishes audible, as well as visible violent death.
Handling of the surround sound is accomplished with the audio giving solid clues to the enemy’s location if and when the camera unhooks itself from the player’s shoulder. However, cutscene audio lacks punch and save for a beautiful opening sequence, the music and audio doesn’t build the emotion that should be attached to a space epic where, from the opening seconds, millions of innocent people are coming to a very violent end.
GAMEPLAY: Relic forced the “visible, violent death” slogan onto everyone with the subtlety and force of a Thunder Hammer but, credit where it is due, they might have actually succeeded in under-promising and over-delivering when it comes to the barbarity in Space Marine. But it isn’t the simple over-the-shoulder third person shooter a player might expect. It is certainly a hybrid but the early “Devil May Cry meets Gears” comparisons are woefully inaccurate. This game feels far more like a beat-em-up, an descendent of Streets of Rage and Fighting Force, than it does a conventional shooter.
This feeling comes from the game’s central mechanic: health is recharged by executing enemies, achieved by dealing damage to them until they can be stunned using a specific move, then executing them using the B button. Avoiding fire for a time can recharge a player’s shield, but the only way to recharge that health bar is by executing orks. This forces the player forward, into the fray, relying on melee weapons and hand to hand combat as the primary means of taking down the the green-skins, reminiscent of the scrolling beat-em-ups of years gone by. This, combined with the ability to look down the iron sites of the weapons, gives Space Marine’s combat a unique tempo and rhythm which gels perfectly with the monstrous badassery of the Ultramarines. As the player slices through another line of orks it is impossible not to notice what a perfect marriage of gameplay design and character Space Marine can be. It’s is visceral, tongue-chewingly immersive all-or-nothing action and, in short bursts, it grabs the player by the throat.
Space Marine isn’t perfect, however. There are a couple of large difficulty spikes when the game introduces new types of enemies that require specific tactics and in the face of boss battle (of which there are a couple), where the player has to change strategy entirely, protecting their health bar and attacking sparingly, antithetical to the spirit of the majority of the game. Frustration has a nagging habit of creeping in too, and often the payer will be sniped or mortared to death by an enemy that is out of range of an execution, and therefore unable to provide you health. These enemies certainly add to the challenge of the game but can often make it feel cheap, using tricks and unbalanced areas to slow the player’s progress.
Despite these blemishes, there are few games that are so unapologetically enjoyable and so unpretentiously comfortable in providing a simple, exciting gaming experience as Space Marine.
MULTIPLAYER: Space Marine’s multiplayer comes in two distinct parts. The first part is the bit you play. The second part is the bit you fiddle with for hours.
The bit you play is split into two parts: a standard team deathmatch and a mode called Seize Ground, the aim of which is to hold a number of positions on the map until they are secured, with secured bases providing points until a set number has been reached and the winner declared. The avatars feel the same as they do in single player, with turning circles like tankers and ruthless accuracy. It is solid fun, but hardly the most expansive set of multiplayer options, especially when compared with other 3rd person online games like Gears of War 3.
The highlight of the multiplayer is the customisation suite which is a spectacular way of chewing up vast amounts of time. Once the player has reached level four in the multiplayer game, they gain access to the customisation options which allow them to tweak the armour, weapons and perks of all the different Space Marine and Chaos clans, creating their own particular character that they can take online. It is fun to dip into the 40k universe even deeper and turn a perfectly painted model into a perfectly sculpted killing machine by adding the balance of perks and weapons that mirror the player’s own style.
It is here that the customisation options, and their importance to the game, can really be felt. Every player online will have different built-in strengths and weaknesses that will require different tactics to exploit and repel. It makes every match a tactical affair and in the same way as the single player campaign, gives the online experience its own tempo and rhythm, as players explore opponent’s strategies and undermine them whenever possible.
There are sadly some weaknesses to the Space Marine multiplayer which crop up way too often. Games are often riddled with lag, with opponents teleporting around the map whilst the player is left shooting at moments from the past. There is also quite a learning curve. The different classes of marines play quite differently so learning the relative strengths and weaknesses can take time. This would be less of an issue if matchmaking pitted the player against opponents of a similar level. It is an all too regular occurrence to see teams with three players below level ten squaring off against a number of players with levels over twenty. Not only is there a skill deficit, there is also a perk deficit as the better equipment is earned by levelling up.
It is hard to see anyone other than diehard fans and those seeking a change occupying the multiplayer world of Space Marine very long because, despite it being a fun diversion with huge customisation rewards for levelling up and perseverance, there are too many issues that stop the good times in their tracks.
LONGEVITY: Whilst the story and pacing in Space Marine are solid with just enough twists and turns to keep the player in their toes, the gameplay does become a little bit samey over extended periods of play. It is possible to upgrade Captain Titus with new powers and weapons but none of these give him new moves or tactics to learn. The basic combination attacks will see the player through most situations irrespective of the challenges thrown at you.
Additionally, despite three difficulty levels, the player is given very little motivation to go back into the campaign mode with only the handful of missed Servo Skulls, a couple of unlockable multiplayer items and a couple of mission specific achievements to grab the player’s attention.
Multiplayer, when it is running lag free, is certainly entertaining but its lack of modes and small scale battles might not be enough to really hold the attention in the log run.
VERDICT: Relic have certainly delivered on their promise. Space Marine is a visceral, violent riot of a game which absolutely cherishes the Warhammer 40k world upon which it builds its tale. The worlds looks not so much ravaged by war, but accustomed to it, even inspired by it. The Ultramarines speak in solemn tones of honour, duty and respect, all whilst ripping to shreds any Ork they can lay their hands on. The gameplay embraces the conflict that has scarred the galaxy.
There are niggling imperfections and the multiplayer aspect of the game, aside from the customisation options, can’t hold a candle to the current industry benchmarks but despite it all Space Marine is pure pulp entertainment, that almost everyone will get a huge kick out of.
Visible, violent death, and a little bit more.