The concept of a “space marine” may have been popularized by movies like Aliens and in games like Starcraft and Gears of War. But before either of those games were in development, Games Workshop, a company known for their tabletop games, had already created a universe in the far flung future where humanity has monstrous heroes known as “Space Marines” protecting them from the horrors of deep space. This universe has been portrayed in the popular Dawn of War series of strategy video games, made by Relic studios, but there had yet to be a real up-close action game that took place within the universe, until Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. But has the wait been worth it? Or have the other games, which may have taken inspiration from the series, made the idea of a space marine less inspiring?
If you wanted to view the game strictly by the quality of the story, then you would likely feel that the idea has lost its inspiration. The story is not great and it doesn’t feel entirely innovative, even within the universe it exists, but, for the most part, that negative view is restricted to the storyline. After games like Starcraft and Gears of War have shown how a Triple-A budget being applied to a game’s storytelling and direction, it’s difficult to hold Relic accountable for not being able to tell an epic tale by comparison.
It’s not just the budget that would make it difficult, but the scope of the universe as well. Anyone familiar with the Warhammer 40K universe will tell you, there’s a lot of ground to cover in order for you to really appreciate the scope and scale of your actions and how they impact the world in this game. To the average gamer who just wants another action-shooter, seeing a giant robot called a Titan is nothing more than something to compare to Voltron, but tell a 40K fan that something like that is featured in the game, and the reaction will be significantly different. There is simply far too much information spread across countless books and lexicons that explain the universe in such detail that to attempt to pack it all into a game would be a foolish endeavor.
It’s in this way that the game suffers and succeeds at the same time. The game does not attempt to fill you in on the backstory; it just feeds you the necessary info, gives you weapons, and tells you to kill things. By the end of your journey you may not understand why the Space Marines tower over the regular guards or why they have powerful futuristic technology with terms out of a Latin dictionary, but you’ll have killed thousands of enemies in a brutal fashion and saved the day. For this reason, it’s best not to bother telling a synopsis or focusing on the plot in the review. This game asks you to leave your brain at the door, not to bother asking questions, and to just get on with the slaughter. Within a minute of gameplay, you will be in the fray killing hundreds of Orks and goblins without any hope of someone telling you why.
The story ebbs and flows in quality and pacing. Other Warhammer games seemed to really show off the action and cinematic sequences better than this one, despite it being much more up close and personal with the battles. It’s somewhat disappointing, considering how Relic has created some really gripping storylines for their other Warhammer game, but at the same time it’s good they didn’t focus too much on the storyline. In fact, the moments when the characters are talking or even the scenes when the game takes over to show you a ship crashing and giant explosions are less interesting or exciting in comparison to the action that you are directly involved in while playing as a hero of the empire. Even if you’re getting all the references and know the importance of an Inquisitor, the game just doesn’t quite pull you in enough to care about the story. It’s not necessarily bad or boring, it’s just not as exciting as it could have been; it makes it easier to just disregard it and keep fighting. After all, do you really need a good reason to go around killing thousands of Orks or Chaos Marines? If you’re interested in the Warhammer 40,000 universe and want to play a game that gives insight into its lore, check out the Dawn of War games. Otherwise, focus on what this game does well: Gameplay.
On the surface it may seem like a Gears of War clone, but it won’t take long before you realize you’re playing an entirely different game. Space Marine uses a mixture of mechanics that focus on both melee and ranged combat. This works, not only to help characterize the Space Marines more as masters of different weaponry and style, but also in providing a variety of combat mechanics for players to use; it forces resourcefulness and skill in your ability to survive an onslaught of enemies.
You start off with just a pistol that has small clip capacity, limited fire-rate, and infinite ammo, but very quickly you start getting variations of assault rifles, sniper rifles, and grenade launchers. You also start out with a knife that can then be upgraded to an axe, or a chainsword that chews up its victims as you slice through them. The ammo for the guns can run out quickly in a battle, as the Space Marine never carries too much on him. However, ammo boxes are never in short supply in between each squirmish so you are pretty much encouraged to go nuts and unleash your arsenal on the enemies and finish them off up close.
The melee combat is where gameplay mechanics are really focused. You are meant to get up close and in the middle of the action when playing Space Marine. The developers at Relic made no apologies about their style in this game and admitted to wanting to force the player to jump into the fray. One method was by making ammo limited in each battle sequence, another was by not including a cover mechanic, something that is pretty much blasphemous by modern standards of 3rd person action-shooters; even Resident Evil recently forced this mechanic into their most recent iteration.
The main mechanic that the developers used to make sure players were always in the thick of it was the recovery system. There would be no health packs to be found on the battlefield and no automatically regenerating heath, which is what most gamers have come to expect from these types of games. The character’s armor regenerates on its own, but if it hits zero, it doesn’t mean certain death. Your health, meanwhile, does not regenerate unless you perform a fatal execution on your enemy. This requires that you hit your enemies with enough heavy attacks to stun them before performing the execution. They are stylish and gory, if not repetitive. They did a good job at making those kills satisfying and keeping the game’s melee exciting to say the least. You will see all of these executions very frequently, so it’s a good thing they’re so cool to look at each time. The downside to this is that while you are in the middle of your animation performing this action, you are open to attacks. You may not be knocked out of the animation, but you can still die, you have to play smart with your use of resources and health.
Health becomes an issue more often than you would expect in a game where they intend for you to be constantly in the middle of the fight. It doesn’t take long for your armor and health to drain to zero on the normal difficulty. While this forces you to be resourceful and smart in your tactics, it does diminish the feeling of being a 7-foot tall unstoppable killing-machine; in God of War, Kratos was average height and in the middle of taking a brutal beating within the endless hordes of enemies and had he the ability to heal with the personal execution of each enemy, the game would have been far too easy. In other words, it’s a creative mechanic that works pretty well and forces you to fight as intended, but it’s far from perfect.
One of the few games that have proven to have truly satisfying multiplayer lately, Space Marine is a satisfying experience online, for the most part. There are plenty of times when it feels like you’re completely outmatched by those around you, or the game becomes extremely frustrating due to the way some weapons don’t feel as responsive as they should, but this is pretty typical of most online experiences and doesn’t deter enough to completely give up trying to get to the same level as everyone else.
Online differs significantly from the campaign in that your character is no longer a jack of all trades. You will have different presets to choose from that come with their own abilities and perks. There is the general assault type, the juggernaut heavy weapons type, and the melee-focused rocketeer type. The general class is focused on rifle weaponry and has the ability to carry two main types of long range weapons. They’re very average in their abilities and statistics. The heavy types have weapons that tend not to be as accurate but deal heavy damage. They are less mobile and their melee is limited. The last is the melee driven rocketeers who have only a pistol and melee weapon of your choice (eventually). They have the rocket packs allowing for temporary flight and bombing attacks, making them the most mobile of all the classes.
To make the experience a little more personal for each player, you also have a plethora of customization options. Most of these are unlockable and require a fair amount of time to earn. There are also an obscene number of DLC packs with customization options available, which can be a little annoying for those who wish their favorite faction was in the game, but at the same time, most of the packs are extremely cheap on their own, so it’s not too much of a hassle.
When you finish customizing your loadouts and looks of your marines, you can finally jump into the game. The modes themselves are all pretty typical with the ‘domination’ mode of capturing and protecting control points being the more satisfying and experience boosting of modes available. Unlike other online third-person shooters like Uncharted, this game takes a little getting used to, so be prepared to die a lot. By sticking to the modes that encourage teamwork, the experience rewards will help in your online training.
What the multiplayer does will is dangle the treat in front of you. Using the leveling system found in almost every multiplayer game these days, your profile is constantly gaining experience and leveling up. Even after reaching higher levels, it never quite feels like the next one is far out of reach. With each new progression comes a new perk or weapon for you to use against your enemies online. The fact that there always feels like there is something to work towards and that it won’t take forever to get there helps make the experience more rewarding, it’s just too bad so many of the weapons you would expect to have from the start don’t become available until sinking some time into the multiplayer.
In the visual department, the game is hit or miss. Though the universe is meant to be a rather bleak and dismal one, the environments seem rather scarce, even with those expectations in mind. Much of the campaign involves traversing through trenches and corridors. It’s not bad for a game to be linear, but to feel funneled through the storyline can take away some of the adventure involved with saving the galaxy. While fighting through these corridors, there just doesn’t really appear to be a whole lot going on. The worlds seem empty and there simply aren’t enough details in the world to indicate a great deal of life on the planet.
Regardless of the barren feeling of the environment, the art design is still present and the space marines come across as the hulking behemoths they’re intended to be. And despite a few points where the frame rate slowed down, it’s still impressive how many Orks can appear on screen at a time as you tear through their defenses. The developers likely expected players to be more focused on the action than the backgrounds and thus put their effort into making sure the enemies animated, moved, and died in dynamic ways. Not to mention, the execution moves are consistently cool.
In terms of sound, the game does a good job at portraying the chaos that is happening all around you. Turn the volume up on your speakers and rush into the battlefield if you want to hear what a war sounds like in your living room; albeit a war with soldiers who have the tendency to repeatedly scream, “Space Marines!” In other words, the sound effects of the weapons and explosions work well to the game, but prepare for repeated dialogue and some obvious shortcuts to be made in the sound department. The music that plays underneath the chaotic battle is relatively forgettable, but occasionally swells up at the right times to give that sudden adrenaline rush needed when destroying the endless horde of Orks.
While GameWorkshop’s Warhammer 40,000 franchise may have been revolutionary when it first appeared and has lead to the inspiration of many different forms of space war, there have been plenty of other games before this one that have given players the opportunity to play as genetically modified space warriors. However, that doesn’t mean that this game should be overlooked. While this game may not appeal to the vast majority of gamers, it still appeals to two very prominent markets: the fans of the Warhammer universes and people looking for third-person action. The developers did not feel the need to dwell on the things that fans already know and new people could care less about; they focused on the gameplay and that is where this game shines. While that isn’t necessarily an excuse, it at least lets you know that the team focused on the aspect of the game that mattered most. If you are interested in running through hordes of enemies as a giant among men or a different type of 3rd person action game to play online, check out Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.