The Warhammer franchise, despite its long history of success in the world of tabletop gaming, has had a relatively lukewarm chronicle of video game releases. Despite many attempts to feature either the original gothic-fantasy setting (most notably 2008's Warhammer Online MMO) or the grimdark future-fantasy world of Warhammer 40K (as it's often abbreviated, standing for the "40,000," as in the number of years in the future the setting is meant to be staged in,) many games have have been well-received by fans but lacked popular support by the gaming public ... while others were simply downright awful. Relic Entertainment proved that they have the chops to make 40K titles, as proven with their two Dawn of War games - but wait, weren't those RTSes? And now they're making a third person shooter that emphasizes a balance between great shooting AND great melee combat? And it's available for home consoles? Really, guys? From the moment the game was announced to the day I put the disc into my console, I kinda figured someone was trying to fool me.
It wouldn't be the first time I've been fooled by Games Workshop.
As an outsider looking in - that is, someone who's familiar but not intimately familiar with the Warhammer 40K universe - I find that a lot of the things that make the universe so appealing to its fans are unfortunately the things that make it so difficult to hook the general public. It truly is a grim world, with no real hope or salvation against the endless war that ravages outer space. It has a wide range of antagonists, all of them with different origins, motivations, and aesthetics. It presents themes of humanity and determination against a backdrop of heavy metal brutality and highly-faceted but oft-misunderstood technology. If you're the kind of person that loves the huge amount of detail available within the 40K universe, great. If you find even the smallest fragment of what I've written thus far a little scatterbrained and kinda overwhelming - as many people rightfully do - then odds are good you've never really spent a lot of time with a Warhammer product. It's like picking up a sea urchin - It's not that bad once you take the time to do it carefully, but rush into and you're going to make a damn fool of yourself at the aquarium's touch tank, and you probably won't ever try to do it again.
Thank goodness the franchise's artwork has done such a good job clearing up the finer points of the fiction!
So, given all that - perhaps the first thing to mention with Space Marine is that it feels from start to finish like an authentic Warhammer 40K experience WITHOUT overwhelming the player with detail. This was a very real hurdle for the game to overcome, and it would've been really easy to err on one side or the other. Too much detail and new players will feel shell-shocked; too little detail and the hardcore fans will scoff at the experience as a poor outing for the series. I think one of Space Marine's greatest triumphs is to present a gameplay experience that caters well to both sets of fans. I'm sure more diehard Warhammer 40K fans would appreciate more side content, back logs of data, or other such miscellaneous content, but the truth is that the core campaign is what really matters, and that feels like 40K every moment that you're playing. The future is a grim place, full of terrors, and it's up to you and your merciless pair of Space Marine brothers to bring an end to an invasion of Orks on one of Humanity's important factory planets. There's not a whole lot else to the story, but at least this time around, I don't think there needed to be much more there. The elements that do come up - the antiquated names of the humans, the multi-layered heirarchy that all men fall under in service to the Emperor of Mankind, and the overwhelming brutality of the planet-smashing Orks - all of this comes across as clearly as the inevitability of death.
The actual gameplay is the game's other great triumph. Many would-be journalists took one look at the game's stocky marine protagonists and the over-the-shoulder view and pegged Space Marine as a Gears of War clone, but the truth is that the two games have about as much in common as a spider and scorpion - clearly related, but creatures that move and kill in completely different ways. Space Marine features shooting combat more akin to Mass Effect 2, and I mean that in the most positive way possible - it's a fun shooter experience that relies on "classes" of weapon (pistol, combat rifle, sniper rifle, shotgun) for different battlefield situations. Both your squadmates and the enemies move and act intelligently, and there's enough variance in the enemy types to keep you on your toes.
Every gun has a time and place for its use, and the game does a good job giving you appropriate signals when it's time to change up your tactics - from VO from your squadmates, to conveniently placed weapons caches.
Space Marine features no cover-based shooting, and although at first glance it seems like a suspicious decision to have made, it quickly becomes clear that cover and its use would've hindered Space Marine's gameplay rather than helped it. That's because in order to feel like a Space Marine within the Warhammer 40K universe, you have to be just as at ease tearing through your foes at melee range as you do from a distance. The melee combat is a ton of fun and ultimately a necessary part of the experience, given the number of foes and their tendency to race into close quarters with you given the opportunity. The player can stun opponents, and a stunned enemy is open to a deathblow. Deathblows not only look cool, but they're one of only two ways that the player has to restore their health. While the player's armor layer will regenerate over time, the player has to master melee combat if they hope to survive against the endless waves of Orks that oppose him. Cover mechanics would only slow down and frustrate the experience, providing little advantage to a character that attempted to use them. Thankfully, the game also offers Fury, a high-power mode unlocked by charging up a gauge over time. Fury has the advantage of not only making you stronger and faster for a short period, but regenerating your health as it goes. It does NOT make you invulnerable to damage, however. Even on normal difficulty, many fights will give you pause as your Space Marine hero takes dirt nap after dirt nap as he's trampled by enemies.
Pictured: World's worst massage therapist.
While the core experience, the pacing of the game, and the variety found within each mission is great, the tight scope of the game begins to show when you creep into the third or fourth hour of the experience. While the planet your mission takes place on is well-crafted and suitably moody, a lot of the environments begin to look like all the others before too long. The Orks, too, as your primary opponents for most of the game, begin to wear thin - although with at least 8-9 variants of Ork, the combat is never dull, it gets tiresome to hear them rumble through the exact same voice clips over and over gain. An all-new enemy alien race makes an appearance, but not until pretty late in the game. Space Marine feels like a game that was kept in-scope to the very end - which is probably for the better, honestly, but it's hard not to notice.
The game features fast and furious online multiplayer that feels more like Call of Duty than anything else, and again, that's meant to be completely complimentary. Call of Duty has some of the best - if not THE best - online multiplayer, and it's definitely who I'd try to emulate if I was making an online MP experience, especially a shooter. To Space Marine's credit, it lifts the mechanics of COD where it needs to (matchmaking, match management, game objectives, and player feedback) and fills the rest of the experience with its own material. Players wage war as customizable Marines, with experience levels and unlockable bonuses and classes. What portion of the MP I played felt like a lot of fun. Life was cheap and the action was intense, and there seem to be a LOT of different ways to build your character. Intelligently, one of the starting classes is a basic class with the ability to steal the build of a character who killed you, allowing even first-time players the chance to use all of the toys in the toy box.
Overall, I was really surprised with the quality workmanship in Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. As someone who both plays and makes games, I approved of a lot of the decisions that were made making this game, and I think it represents what's hopefully a big next step for Warhammer 40K as a license in the video game world. While the tight scope and need for accessibility to first-time players necessitated that Relic hold the reins firmly on some aspects of the universe, I hope that this game is a big success for them so that they can really let loose with a sequel that goes to more worlds and features more of the races and villains that the franchise is known for.
Although that could easily slip into another opportunity for the fiction to prove how weird it gets. Not pictured: Angel wings.
For some reason, the entire time that I was playing this title, the first Star Wars: The Force Unleashed title was rooted pretty firmly in my head. I wasn't sure why - although they're both sci-fi experiences that tread new ground for big name intellectual properties, the games didn't have a whole lot to share as far as experience went. While I'm still not sure what made my brain make the original connection in my head, I think that Space Marine and TFU share a lot in common ... and a lot in difference as well. In many ways, the two games almost stand exactly opposed. Star Wars games take it for granted that they will be loved by all simply for being Star Wars games, and TFU overstepped its bounds in huge ways as it tried to make the video game to end all video games. While many individual moments of the game were a lot of fun, the overall experience felt stretched over too much of the galaxy, with too little time given the polish the individual areas of the game simply because it underestimated what it was capable of. Now consider Space Marine - a game from a franchise that has had a rocky past with games, and knows it, and so treads as carefully as possible, keeping things to a drastically accomplishable scope and making sure that they polish as much of their single-mission experience as they can. While both games are drastically different in style and degree of success, I think that at the end of the day I had roughly as much fun playing each title, in light of both games' successes and failures.
It's a more accurate comparison than saying the game ripped off Gears of War, anyway.
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