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Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine Review

Warhammer predates our digital age. For decades, geeks have crowded around tabletops with a handful of miniature figures, pitting ork against Ultramarine and fighting the evil chaos demons. And for a few years now, they’ve been building their digital armies in the real-time strategy versions of Warhammer 40,000. But sometimes strategy and tabletop play aren’t enough. Sometimes you need to get down and dirty and there’s no one better suited for a third-person action game than the Space Marine, one of the most recognizable characters from Warhammer. Time to hunt some ork.

I have a love/hate relationship with Space Marine. I love to play it because the gameplay mechanics are fantastic, but I hate the game’s endless reliance on the old tactic of putting me into rooms with more and more orks until I snap. There’s a lot of good in Space Marine, but if and/or when its sequel comes out (and hopefully there will be), gamers are going to expect Relic and THQ to iron out some of its obvious kinks.

Great visuals

The first thing you will notice about Space Marine is how good it looks. Relic, which is a skilled developer of real-time strategy games before this (including many Warhammer titles) has done a superb job bringing the Warhammer 40,000 characters and world to life using a modified version of the Darksiders engine. It feels something like Halo meets melee meets Gears of War, which is fitting, since Gears appears to have taken a lot of cues from the art style of the long-running Warhammer 40,000 series to begin with.

As an Ultramarine, you are part of the most elite class of soldier in the galaxy and considered royalty to the common soldiers. As such, Ultramarines are outlandishly tall, wear a bunch of ridiculous armor–but hardly ever with a helmet. Your main opponents, the orks, are the Covenant of this game. They come in big numbers, are always angry, but usually carry knives or clubs to a gun fight. Like the Ultramarines, the orks seem to retain their look from the Warhammer series. They’re pretty barbaric, but fun to kill, much like the aliens in Halo.

And that, in a nutshell is the story. See ork, kill ork.  Repeat. A deep plot was low on the list of priorities for this game, but it really doesn’t need much of one.

There is a surprising amount of gore and skull bashing to be had, but somehow none of it tends to offend. Though blood shoots about every which way it quickly disappears, and all that’s left is usually fairly non-grotesque–but very dead–greenskins.

The locations are mostly washed out, desolate, abandoned areas, but they service the gameplay well enough. Areas range from a desert filled with rusty buildings to huge rusty underground tunnels and factories filled with orks. If you’re looking for a lot of lush greenery, you’ll have to settle for a pile of dead gretchins. Still, this game looks better and has a gloss that about 80-percent of big titles don’t have. The graphics do their job.

Great control

After you take in the polished graphics, the second thing you’ll notice about Space Marine is how tight, yet simple the controls are. This is one of the first games to effectively merge a layered melee combat system with robust shooting controls. Relic’s solution is quite elegant. The X, Y, and B buttons are dedicated for Melee attacks while the shoulder triggers are all used for grenades, zooming, reloading, and firing of guns. If you want to switch guns, you tap a direction on the D-pad. It’s simple, easy to learn, and it works.

You may ask yourself, am I really going to need to fight hand-to-hand? Why not just shoot everyone? Trust me, you’ll be glad you have your combat knife (which later becomes a chainsword, power axe, and sometimes a gigantic hammer). Enemies spring out of nowhere and quickly get too close for guns. In addition, if you lose any health, the only way to get it back is to stun an enemy with Y and pull off a fancy decapitation and/or head smashing with B. Yes, you have to fight more to heal yourself. Strange, right? In the world of Space Marine, the solution to all problems is to kill more orks.

Too many orks, not enough gameplay variation

Orks orks orks. After the first two hours of Space Marine, I saw every type of Ork there was. Weak little Gretchins, Slugga Nobs, Shoota Nobs, Slugga Boys, Shoota Boys, Bomb Squigs, Deff Dreads, Weirdboys, ‘Ard Boys, and the good ole’ Warboss. Basically, orks usually come as grunts with clubs, bigger grunts with clubs, armored grunts with machine guns, bigger armored grunts with machine guns, armored grunts with explosive anger, armored grunts with shields & explosive anger, little rats with TNT tied to their back, and grunts that shoot missiles at you. It’s fun fighting them for a while, but unfortunately, on Normal Mode, these guys are too accurate for their own good and they keep coming in greater and greater numbers. At times it’s overwhelming.

Here’s the problem: even if you’re awesome, these guys will hit you and wear you down. First they tear through your Master Chief-like recharging shield and then they take your health down, fast. If you pull a finishing move on one ork in a bundle, prepare to lose health while the other Greenskins continue to pummel you. While Space Marine seems to want to be a beat-em-up game, it’s enemies do too much damage too quickly. Instead of running from room to room, you’ll find yourself dreading stepping on the next ork trigger because you can’t handle a dozen more guys converging upon you.

Space Marine also tends to cheat by tossing cruel combinations of enemies at you. And converge they do. I don’t know what it is about orks, but they must be able to smell ultramarines from a mile away. If you’re nearby, they will come after you whether you’re quiet or hidden. There is no stealth in the life of a space marine.

The difficulty began to wear on me after a few hours. I am not a model player by any means, but I’ve been playing these types of games since they were invented and I rarely get so frustrated on what should be “normal mode.” Mostly, you enter an area, get attacked by orks, then move 20 feet, fight more orks, and so on. There were a few diversions, like a fun flying game with crazy orks that strapped rockets to their backs and a section where you only attack hidden turrets, but these diversions are few and far between. Mostly, you fight orks. It’s fun at first, but gets old fast when you realize that you’ve pretty much seen every Greenskin there is to see.

Linear levels, dumb teammates

The other thing you’ll eventually notice is that, though there are plenty of weapon upgrades throughout the game and the levels look quite pretty, they are static and linear. There’s only one path to get anywhere and the only hidden pickups in the game are floating skulls that release audio tracks, usually from dead soldiers coping with their fear of the oncoming orks. Aside from that, there isn’t anything to do. The invisible walls look detailed and show a lot of areas beyond them, but they’re all walls.

Your teammates will also get stuck in those walls from time to time. Orks may be accurate and deadly in Space Marine, but your two teammates often won’t fire at one even if he’s a couple feet away. These guys never die, but they provide no cover and no help whatsoever. Honestly, the in-fighting between the orks and chaos demons later in the game helped me more than my own teammates ever did. It’s like Relic finished the game and then hired an intern to toss two more guys in there at the last minute. You can’t order them to do anything or communicate with them at all and they don’t to anything. Nope, nothing at all. I hope this is fixed in a sequel.

Multiplayer

The multiplayer is fun, but limited. There are two game modes currently, and more are promised as downloadable add-ons in the future: Annihilation (team deathmatch) and Seize Ground (a domination variant). Basically it is just the red Ultramarines against the yellow Ultramarines–one team are Chaos soldiers, but it is just a skin difference. There are three classes of characters to choose from, but skilled players tend to destroy noobs because of their access to the coveted jetpack, which is a particularly deadly asset in the single and multiplayer games. We have to wonder though: where is the co-op campaign mode? Gears of War 3 allows four players to team up. If there’s one thing I could have used in this game, it’s better teammates.

There is a horde-like survival-based co-op mode called “Exterminatus” promised for sometime in early October that will be free to download, but why it wasn’t included–even if they had to delay the game–is odd.

Conclusion

When a game is so good in some areas, its shortcomings become more evident. There is a lot of inspiration and passion behind Space Marine and it has better core gameplay, controls, and graphics than most big releases. What it lacks is gameplay variation. In its quest to make a game that combines some of the aspects of the Gears of War and Halo franchises, Relic didn’t mix and match properly and borrowed some of the worst qualities of the Halo series (go into a room, fight waves of guys), and failed to borrow one of the best traits of the Gears series: it’s constantly shifting gameplay scenarios. But it is still a fun game to play.

All in all, this is a great first effort from Relic and a very fun title to play, but it tends to get a bit tedious and repetitive due to some small issues. Most of these issues probably could be ironed out in a sequel, and maybe a story could actually be added as well. This one has a narrative, but hardly. Still, there’s something so pleasing about hitting a half-dozen Orks with a megaton hammer. I can’t get enough of it.

Score: 8 out of 10

 (This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by THQ)