Reviewed: September 6, 2011
Released: September 6, 2011
I'll put it right out there from the start: I was biased towards Space Marine from the get-go. I've been immersing myself in the Warhammer 40,000 universe for nearly fifteen years, always sticking with the setting even as I fell out of the tabletop game, and Relic making what could possibly be the first good 40k shooter pretty much made my day. At the same time, though, I was ready for another letdown on the scale of Fire Warrior. I'm happy to say that, while not entirely unblemished, Space Marine manages to capture the over-the-top, grim reality of life in the 41st millennium while still providing a strong hybrid between third person shooter and button-mashing melee gameplay.|
Space Marine puts you in the shoes of Captain Titus of the Ultramarines, the chapter of space marines that literally wrote the book on how they're meant to fight. Forge-World Graia, a planet devoted to producing weapons for the Imperial war machine, is attacked by a millions-strong Ork WAAAAGH!, members from every clan looking to loot an entire world's worth of Imperial equipment, including an army-killing walker known as a Titan, not to mention murder its inhabitants for sport. In response, Titus and his marines are sent in to contain the situation until the Imperial Guard can arrive en masse to purge the aliens from the planet. Along the way, Titus meets other agents of the Imperium, who lead him and his squad through a story full of twists and turns, with action and betrayal around every turn. Space Marine's story matches up to some of the better 40k novels, and should appeal to fans of the lore for a close look at life and war on world beholden to the Machine God.
As you can tell by that description, Space Marine doesn't take much time to explain itself to people unfamiliar with the game's world. The lack of an in-game encyclopedia might prove daunting to people whose first experience with 40k is stepping into Titus's enormous boots, but for people more experienced with the lore, being able to pick out the political factions Inquisitors belong to, or telling apart Ork clans by the war paint they wear into battle can give the thrilling sensation of insider knowledge.
The game's sound effects and voice overs support this rather well. The Ork warriors stand out well, shouting gleefully when they manage to kill a space marine, or defiantly announcing that it takes more than that to kill an Ork as you pop one of their comrades' heads like an overripe melon with your boot. Similarly, the PA system manages to be a running source of dark humor and foreboding announcements regarding the state of Graia, whether it's reminding you that good citizens join corpse-removal crews, or announcing that wounded workers should stay in their barracks during the Ork invasion rather than evacuating, trusting the Emperor to provide. All in all, it does a great job of building the world around you.
Going through the game, the sense of scale is amazing. Even as an eight foot tall space marine, powerful Orks can tower above you, even as you loom over the humans of the Imperial Guard. The factory-cathedrals and manufactoria of Graia are truly immense, highlighting mankind's insignificance in the universe, while the Titan, hundreds of feet tall and kitted out for apocalyptic warfare is a genuinely impressive sight when it marches to war. One of 40k's core bullet points has always been a sense of hugeness, and Space Marine certainly hits that nail on the head.
Of course, all the background and story and hugeness in the world wouldn't make up for a lackluster game, and fortunately, Space Marine delivers. With an array of weapons and equipment from the tabletop war-game and RPGs, Captain Titus and the Ultramarines can swap from melee to ranged and back again just as easily as holding down your controller's triggers and letting them go. Fights will often go between both, seamlessly, as you charge in guns blazing, execute a stunned enemy to regain health, soften your opponents up with a few swings from your massive power axe or thunder hammer, and then duck away to finish them off from afar. The smoothness of the combat is astounding, and once you get the hang of it, even fighting off larger opponents, like the massive Ork Nobz flows smoothly.
With the weapons drawn from the tabletop, their level of satisfaction can vary pretty dramatically. The tank-killing lascannon takes several shots to down larger enemies, and mostly functions as a sniper rifle, a strange departure from its traditional role as a super-heavy anti-armor weapon. On the other hand, feeling much deadlier, the storm bolter and plasma rifle are can respectively unleash withering hails of miniature rockets, spraying an area with sixty in seconds, or charge up to vaporize entire groups of foes, both living up to their reputation from other games. The meltagun fires a cone of superheated concussive force, knocking groups of enemies back even as they're set on fire, while the new addition to the stable of weapons, the vengeance launcher, lets the player shoot remote-detonated mines, which can be greatly satisfying when you stick them to an enemy's face, or mine a corridor that enemies are charging down. And that's not even touching the heavy weapons that you can pull out of emplacements, with heavy bolters, autocannons, and plasma cannons doing shocking amounts of devastation and turning the tide against hordes of alien scum.
On the melee side of things, players can choose between the quick chainsword, the balanced power axe, and the absurdly powerful storm hammer, which swings slowly and prevents the use of all weapons save for your pistol and basic bolter, but destroys pretty much every enemy it touches. While the variety of melee weapons isn't quite as exciting, it makes up for it with a combo system of strikes and stuns, and being able to execute enemies mid-fight to restore your health and thin the horde is nearly as exciting as mowing down hordes of Orks or chaos cultists.
Speaking of which, the enemies in the game might set the gold standard for AI in a shooter, remaining true to the behavior of armies in the tabletop. Orks attack en masse but break when cut down, running back towards remaining allies to be mob up and go at it again, and are rarely dissuaded from combat once they've seen a target, charging ahead in a frenzy even when you manage to flank them as they assault Imperial Guard lines. Meanwhile, the forces of Chaos are far craftier once they arrive on the scene, with traitor guardsmen led by the Chaos Space Marines of the Chosen of Nemeroth. They form firing lines, use cover, and will break if you kill the marines. The use of enemy morale goes a long way towards making you feel like one of the fearless killing machines that make up the Space Marines.
Multiplayer is fast-paced and enjoyable, but doesn't break any new ground. With a setting as fertile in lore and history as Warhammer 40k, it would have been interesting to see scenario-based matches focusing on events like the siege of Terra during the Horus Heresy, or the battles for Cadia during the Black Crusades, but instead, we're given team deathmatch and point control. It's very well done, and fits into the game's narrative, but it would have been nice to see more experimentation. On the upside, the character creator for multiplayer is very well-made. The vast array of armor, and the color patterns you can apply, lets you replicate practically any official or homebrew chapter or legion.
It's not all great, though. While the controls are usually tight, it can sometimes be a pain finding the sweet spots for objects, especially the heavy weapons which you need to man before ripping off their mounts. It can lead to definite lulls in the action as you fiddle around, trying to find exactly where the game wants you to stand before you can arm yourself. Additionally, with difficulty spikes in some areas, there doesn't seem to be any way to reduce the difficulty to pass by the game's harder moments. And, as one of the nittiest of nit-picks, for a world that housed billions, which were slaughtered by the orkish horde, it seems odd that you don't run into civilian corpses when the planet should be a virtual abattoir. Still, these are relatively minor issues, considering the broader quality of the game.
All told, Space Marine is a very well-made game, and perhaps the first that truly lives up to THQ's promise of blockbuster-quality cinematic games. With wall to wall action, an excellent plot, and characters that are well-drawn through their actions and the audio logs throughout the game, Space Marine is a hell of a ride. My only complaint is that I just plain want more; more vehicles and aliens to fight, more places to go, and more of Captain Titus's story. I can only hope that Space Marine does well enough to warrant a sequel.