Warhammer 40K: Space Marine Review
When it comes to sci-fi franchises, few are as criminally under-appreciated by mainstream nerd-type culture as the Warhammer franchise. After years of Relic Entertainment's excellent Dawn of War RTS games on PC garnering only decent (but not amazing) success and the disappointment that EA/Mythic's Warhammer Online turned out to be, I was beginning to wonder if this long-running tabletop gaming franchise was ever going to get the attention it deserved. But when THQ and Relic announced a move to bring action gamers into the Warhammer 40,000 universe, it became clear that this was their big chance. Now, we get to see the fruits of those efforts, as Warhammer 40K: Space Marine is here for PC and consoles.
Many gamers that don't understand the history of sci-fi will look at Space Marines' chainswords, gear, Orks, and other enemies and think that it's ripping off Gears of War, Starcraft, or any number of action games. And in at least the standard action-game conventions, nearly all of which seem to have been followed by Relic in the campaign, that can often seem very true. But it was actually Games Workshop, creators of the Warhammer universe, that invented many of the fantasy and sci-fi designs and conventions that game developers over the last 20 years have been borrowing from. Anyway, that's not to say that Space Marine itself is not entirely derivative, as it picks up on plenty of stereotypical things that action games do, including combo systems, bosses, linear storylines, big arenas full of monsters that have to all die before one can progress, that video-game-y way to introduce new enemies, and more.
The story has you playing as Captain Titus of the Ultramarines, down on a planet where a superweapon was developed - but the whole place has been invaded by millions of Orks. (Yes, the Orks from the medieval fantasy Warhammer universe - in Games Workshop's universe, this race has survived across millennia.) You're pretty much like the even-more-elite versions of a class of warriors that's already been genetically bred and trained for war since they were born. You're wearing armor that resembles a tank more than anything remotely like a protective suit - seriously, these things make Fallout's Power Armor look like a cut-off shirt and jeans. And sometimes the marines that you control can feel a bit like a tank, as they're not exactly the most agile warriors on the battlefield - they can sprint and roll but are unable to jump or duck, although the few wonderful (but tragically short) campaign sections involving a jetpack make you much more light on your feet - but you'll still be able to dish out huge amounts of damage as the armor can soak up massive amounts of punishment and you'll get to keep swinging and shooting.
You see, one video game convention that Space Marine proudly refuses to take on is that of cover. Simply put, you can not press a button to take cover in this game; instead, you have to get out there and fight if you want to restore your health and do well. Sure, you can simply walk behind a wall or around a corner, and even though whole arenas, combat systems, and gunfights are designed in such a way that you're not supposed to have to run for cover, I found myself doing it fairly often - I imagine things would be different on a second play-through, though. Either way, if your armor runs out and you don't have an easy way to gain back some health, it just makes good combat sense to put something between you and your enemies until your shields recharge. But with some accurate shots on Orks and other enemies, along with health-refilling melee executions, you'll be able to stand out in the middle of a battlefield and usually do just fine.
Speaking of execuctions, Relic Entertainment has done a couple of things to hopefully make you feel more like a badass than many military/action games do. Captain Titus is pretty much the commanding officer of the Imperium forces on the whole planet, so while his subordinates give him suggestions, he also dishes out plenty of orders - it's a nice change to play a game where the level design guides you rather than having your grunt of a soldier be given orders constantly from beginning to end. Beyond that, though, the combat allows you to mix together both ranged and melee attacks with quite a bit of elegance, and it is intensely satisfying to come out of a huge fight with full health and armor - and it's entirely possible since every execution you do refills a chunk of your health. In fact, your only real way to regenerate health (as opposed to armor, which recharge just like Halo's shields) is to execute enemies - and you'll have plenty of chances to do that, since you're going to get mobbed by Orks and other beasties nearly constantly.
Unlike many recent games, Space Marine gladly throws you into combat with 20 or more enemies, often pulling in the best of a good beat-em-up and the frantic shooting of Serious Sam or Doom. Unfortunately, modern games need to be paced properly, so we expect the action to ramp down just a bit and still keep us interested, and that's where Relic sometimes falters, especially at the beginning of the game. When the blood is flying and my chainsword or power axe are feeding, I was absolutely thrilled with Space Marine, but it took a while to get into the campaign's story - especially since Titus and crew, along with the player, are arriving on the planet long after the primary fighting, where the wonderful architecture has already been mostly reduced to rubble.
If this seems a little similar first Gears of War, it should, and while I don't fault Relic for sticking with the signature Games Workshop character and item designs that Epic Games clearly cribbed back in 2006, the whole structure of Space Marine, including the tone, clearly borrows other stuff back from Gears. Overall, the campaign won't take you long to beat, even if you scour every nook and cranny for audio logs, and the lack of any RPG systems during the campaign makes for a very linear progression. The only choice really given to the player is the occasional option to switch out one gun for another in one of your four slots. Eventually you stop caring and the campaign ramps up the tension and action nicely, but even then Relic and THQ still have a ways to go towards gaining the kind of console-gaming following that major franchises like Halo have. The built-in tabletop gaming fanbase, or even the RTS-playing Dawn of War fans on PC, aren't enough to make Warhammer a household name - hopefully Space Marine is successful enough to spawn a sequel, though, and we can get there at some point.
Jumping online, I was actually pleasantly surprised by Space Marine. The lumbering hulks of the single player game become only one part of the online action, as you start getting into mixed battles with snipers and agile jetpack-using scouts in some fun, if slightly unoriginal, competitive multiplayer modes. Seize Ground is a capture-and-hold variant that I found to be the best way to play, although good ol' Team Deathmatch is included as well, and everything is set up in a progression system similar to what Call of Duty 4 innovated. You'll gain new perks and unlock soldier customization options as you level up, and can customize your space marine but never really make him terribly more powerful than someone coming in to play online for the first time. I am doubtful that many gamers will still be playing Space Marine's multiplayer much once the new year rolls around - especially on PC, where the competitive online action game genre is particularly crowded - but not every game needs to last for years to be well worth the entry fee.
Space Marine gets off to a sluggish start and it never really reaches the lofty heights that long-time fans of the tabletop games probably hoped for, but Relic has still done an admirable job in making their first AAA-level action game - and the online play is a definite fun distraction if not entirely unique or long-lasting. This fall season is absolutely jam-packed with highly-anticipated RPGs, shooters, and innovative indie titles, so if you're thinking of getting Space Marine, do it now before October rolls around - after all, it's hard to go wrong with a game that lets you chainsaw Orks into little pieces a half-dozen times in nearly every firefight.