Warhammer 40,000 has had a good run of things in the video game arena thus far. The famed Dawn of War RTS series has (with the unfortunate exception of Soulstorm) been expertly made and managed to bring Warhammer 40k into the mainstream. However, with the recent release of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, Relic Entertainment has tried to bring the player down from their position as commander right into the shoes of the titular superhuman defenders of the Imperium. How did Relic handle the transition to third-person shooter with hack-n-slash action, and more importantly does it live up to the quality of its forbearers?
Space Marine’s protagonist is Captain Titus of the Ultramarines, and is joined by his battle-brothers Sidonus and Leandros on their quest to defend the forge world Graia against all comers. Their enemies are legion, ranging from barbaric ork invaders to the twisted servants of chaos. The Ultramarines are aided by Imperial Guard Lieutenant Mira and Inquisitor Dragon as they battle their way across the world and attempt to stem the tide of the Imperium’s countless foes. The story fits the grim spirit of Warhammer 40k, and there are a few twists and turns. The hidden servo-skull recordings do add some more viewpoints and flavor, but overall it’s not going to grab your attention. The characters can come across as flat, Mira in particular. I don’t think I ever saw or heard an ounce of emotion break through her stone-faced expression and calm monotone through the entire game.
But playing a game like Space Marine is like watching action movies; you don’t do it for the quality of the story. You do it for the gunfire and the explosions… Which leads to a very important question: Does Space Marine deliver in the adrenaline department?
The answer is an undisputed yes. From the very first minutes of the single-player campaign Titus is hurling himself into the jaws of death with near reckless abandon or well, it would be reckless were he not an armored superhuman powerhouse and perfectly capable of carving through the enemy ranks like a buzz saw. There is a palpable sense of weight and strength when controlling his movements and the unique combat system nails the bull’s-eye for the feel of Warhammer 40k combat. The player must learn to swap between ranged and melee combat at a moment’s notice with the turning tides of battle as they shift from ranged firefights, to visceral hand-to-hand brawls, and quite a bit of the time to hectic mixes of both.
One of Space Marine’s stronger assets is that it is built to encourage the player to throw themselves into the thick of things. While ranged combat is sometimes required for taking out enemies who are out of reach and is useful for softening up the enemy, the player will regularly draw their weapon of choice and slug it out up close. The health system is dual-layered, with a rechargeable shield bar as the player’s first line of defense with the second layer being Titus’s life bar. There is only one way your life bar can be refilled however, and that is by charging into melee combat and making use of the execution mechanic. One tap of a button near a stunned enemy will prompt a tense clash of blades and with some button smashing for powerful foes the animation will end with Titus slaying the hapless foe in a brutal, gory display that regains a measure of lost health with his foe’s death. It is a system that rewards aggressiveness instead of forcing the player to pause the action to hide behind cover when damage is taken. Space Marine allows you to wade into a horde of enemies and keeps the action hard hitting and fast paced while bringing the fury of the Emperor to your foes.
For this task, the player has at their disposal a multitude of weapons which constantly expands with the progress of the campaign. Weapons range from the (comparatively) humble bolter pistol to the mighty lascannon. There’s a lot of variety to be had, and the satisfaction gained with attaining a new weapon is something that rarely gets old. It is great when you can get your hands on a heavy bolter and blast foes to gibs with a righteous hail of gunfire, or incinerate an entire group of orks bunched up close with the meltagun. I personally fell in love with the Thunder Hammer within minutes of getting my hands on it; the feeling of power is singularly gratifying. I was able to go toe-to-toe with ork nobs, a move which would ordinarily result in a quick trip to the game over screen, and smack them around like bowling pins. Combine that with the jump pack, which gives the player a sense of vertical freedom with a burst of flight that can end with a shattering impact attack, you will feel invincible.
The single-player makes for a fun romp, and on the hard difficultly setting it can provide a challenging but not impossible contest for those who consider themselves skilled in a similar fashion to legendary mode of Halo fame. The jump pack sections and setpieces are well interspaced, and prove to spice things up while keeping the standard combat from getting stale. The soundtrack helps keep the blood pumping with its dramatic and inspiring overtures playing in the background to sharp gunfire and battle cries. The character design is also excellent but while the massive scale and destruction do make for a spectacle, the environments in which they take place are one of the weakest elements of the game. While the level design and surroundings shift through the campaign, the muted grays and browns can’t help but appear in stark contrast to the colorful characters.
The quality of the character design becomes even more apparent in multiplayer. With a level of customization that goes even further than the army painter of Dawn of War, the player can fine-tune his avatar’s appearance to their heart’s content. Loyalist space marines are pitted against chaos marines in team deathmatch and capture-and-hold modes, and with the recent Exterminatus DLC setting a team of players against wave after wave of NPC enemies there is a wealth of content to enjoy. Space Marine uses a class based system much like that of Call of Duty, with the equipment split between three classes. The first; assault/raptor, dual wields a set of pistols and has access to the jump pack. With the added melee weapon the assault/raptor favors aggressive rushes and ambushes. The next is the devastator/havoc, which lugs around the heavy weaponry, such as the heavy bolter or lascannon. The devastator/havoc is more defensive, and while he is vulnerable to surprise attacks and close range battles, he is more than capable of mowing down anyone in his sights. The last class is the tactical marine who has access to the rest of the game’s weaponry, and has the greatest range of available strategies, from close shootouts with the meltagun or storm bolter to longer-ranged firefights with the plasma gun or stalker bolter. Perks add extra abilities and bonuses, increasing the available range of play styles. All in all, there is a great deal of content to be found.
The downside is that it just takes an annoyingly long time to get to it all. One big flaw I see in the multiplayer is simply that it starts a new player with barely anything. Leveling-up gives only one unlock with each level, and accordingly it takes a great deal of time and effort to gain access to all the weapons, equipment, and perks. Worse, higher-level players, with extra perks and perk slots unlocked, have an explicit advantage over newcomers. Even with the ability to copy the loadout of your killer on your next respawn when you fall, the balancing issues can be frustrating to deal with.
Overall, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is an enjoyable game. Relic Entertainment did well in transforming Warhammer 40,000 over to the action genre and has made it a fitting addition to their franchise. While the current news about the likelihood of a sequel is disheartening, I still hold out hope that Relic will refine what they have done even further and create another fine homage to Warhammer 40K.
Final Call: With solid mechanics, excellent character design, and fun content for both single and multiplayer, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is an action-game worthy of the Warhammer 40K license and despite a few wobbles, is a solid experience. For the Emperor!