In the Grim Darkness of the 41st Millennium there is only….. waist level cover but no cover system. In the Grim Darkness of the 41st Millennium there is only…. God of War without a block button. In the Grim Darkness of the 41st Millennium there is only…. two halfs of a good game that don’t quite make a whole.
Space Marine is set in the fantastically dark and ridiculously over the top universe of Warhammer 40,000. It’s a future with space Orks (note the K), robot Titan’s (which look like castles on legs), chain swords and English accented warriors in giant suits of armour. As a setting for a game it is perfect. With a rich back story and a well drawn universe influenced by every fantasy and sci-fi novel and movie of the last 25 years, Space Marine had the potential to be great. The 40K franchise has had a lot of missteps though and only Relic has come close to realising its potential with the Dawn of War series. With Space Marine, they haven’t quite got it right, but that’s not to say that slicing the Xenos hordes to pieces on an Imperial Forge world isn’t fun.
From the start Space Marine makes a good first impression. For fans of 40K the references to the different races and factions in the universe are exciting. In particular, the green flickering computer screen that eventually lets you know that use of the “Adeptus Astartes” has been authorised is brilliantly done.
The game starts out strong, with your somewhat stilted but well voiced protagonist (Captain Titus) jumping out of a ship with a jetpack, thus breaking the rules of engagement normally strictly followed by the Ultramarines Chapter (the Codex Astartes). Thus Titus is established as a serious but at times somewhat maverick Space Marine Captain. The jetpack makes guest appearances as the game goes on, and its perhaps the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the game as a whole. It may be simplistic to fly high above the enemies before smashing a hammer down on their heads, but its great fun. All too soon after getting it, your character will exclaim “out of fuel” and discard it though. It’s a shame as these sections have a vertically and openness that’s completely absent from the rest of the game.
The meat of the game is carving through legions of enemies, mostly Orks, with your sword/axe/hammer. “Meat” is a good term in this case; you chop through the enemies vicerally, tearing them to bloody chunks. The executions in particular see you remove heads, disembowel, stomp and eviscerate your opponents. This looks good, but the animations quickly become stale as they are repeated literally hundreds (thousands?) of times throughout the game.
They may be samey, but the executions are essential to survival. They are the only means of restoring health (as opposed to armour which regenerates). There must be a good reason for this mechanic. Presumably the developers thought it would make you more aggressive when your health is low, but as enemies can still hurt you during these animations it works poorly in practice. In the end you almost always die while performing an execution that takes control away from you while hoping you get your health back before the enemies shoot you to pieces – a frustrating experience each and every time it happens.
Added to this frustration is the sheer lack of variety in the combat. With nothing more complex than a four hit combo available (which you will use from the start of the game to the very end) defeating enemies is utterly mindless to the extent that you enter a trance-like stupor as you play. I may see slash, slash, slash, stomp in my dreams after seeing it thousands of times throughout the campaign. Eventually I figured out that as soon as I saw enemies I should start swinging my sword so that I would be ready for the fourth hit (the stomp) just as they got to me which would knock them all down. I am sure a highly trained, super human Space Marine is not supposed to spend most of his time swinging his sword at thin air as if attacked by bees.
The worst parts of the game occur when facing large, tougher enemies. These encounters involve little less than both you and your enemy swinging at each other like drunken bar brawlers till one of you dies. As you have no way to dodge their long slow swings, and with no counter or block button you end up either swinging away while hoping for the best, or running away to hide somewhere. For the Emperor!
The shooting is equally puzzling in its execution. When enemies are of the ranged variety its feasible to shoot them, but the slow drain they make on your health means you need to eventually engage them up close for executions to get your health back. Worse, the ranged Orks make fairly decent use of cover while you can’t use it at all. Of course you end up trying to anyway, manoeuvring yourself into awkward nooks and crannies so that you can see the enemy but the AI can’t shoot at you. The fact that you end up doing this speaks volumes for how the developers have failed the gamers. Would it have been so difficult to include a rudimentary cover system? You end up taking cover to recharge your armour anyway, why not accept this and support it in the game?
Therein lies the problem with Space Marine. You are supposed to be fighting a mindless horde of charging enemies, but its you who must charge mindlessly. You are supposed to have the highest levels of martial prowess of any human alive, but you cannot block or dodge a slow lazy attack from a lumbering monster. Finally, while the Space Marines are most famous for their ability to stand fast and hold their nerve while rapid-firing their bolters, you end up running around in the open before scuttling away to hide while your opponents use cover and strategy. If the way you played the game was integrated into the lore of the Space Marines think how good the game could be. What it have been so terrible to ape the counter system of Arkham Asylum to create an agile, lethally effective Space Marine? Could the Space Marine not gain bonuses to his bolter damage if he stood firm against charging enemies, or God forbid, could he not use cover?
All of this may sound rather damning, but the truth is that there’s a great deal of fun to be had throughout Space Marine too. Played in small doses, the site of thousands of enemies being carved up is glorious and the game is satisfying to play. During large battles there’s shades of Dynasty Warriors and the action never slows down even during the busiest moments. The slow motion is used well during the executions and there are some brilliantly over the top effects throughout. The character models are big and weighty and everyone from the Orks to your fellow Space Marines and Imperial Guardsmen look great in action if not so much in cut scenes. Some of the set pieces are good too and although most of the environments are ugly or dull, it occasionally offers up some impressive vistas filled with such 40K sights as Thunderhawk Gunships and Imperial Titan’s.
As well as the campaign there’s a fairly substantial multi player mode to the game. It’s initially horribly unwelcoming as you will be quickly slaughtered by jetpack powered, hammer wielding ninjas. You begin with the awful default weapons, but there’s a clever option to copy the weapon load out of the person who killed you. This helps you choose what to go for when you eventually level -up your puny marine. Although its fully featured, you get the feeling that’s it a bit of an experiment and although the characters still look good and the action is smooth, the environments are unbearably dull. With basic capture and deathmatch variants, its better than you might expect but worse than what you might hope.
Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine is a hard game for me to review. I am a massive Warhammer fan, so my expectations were high. That being said, the final product here disappointed me despite the efforts made by the developers to live up to the license. Being a Space Marine will always hold appeal, but this is a game that fails to take any risks. For every great idea there is a derivative one. The jetpack is fun, but there are explosive red barrels everywhere. The enemies look good but there are terrible, lambent-style enemies that run at you and explode. Relic has copied whole parts of Gears, but left out the ones that make it work, and done the same with titles like God of War and Dynasty Warriors. In the end, it feels as much like War For Cybertron as any other title – filled with big chunky enemies stomping around in a satisfying way, but quickly becoming repetitious.
In the Grim Darkness of the 41st Millennium… hopefully they will create a sequel that lives up to the license.
In the meantime…
6 beheaded Nobz out of 10