In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. Or more accurately: In the grim darkness of the far future, everything is done because it’s awesome. Seriously, if Warhammer 40,000 had one rule, it would be everything is done because it’s cool.
Are things like chainsaw swords or giant robots the size of cities practical? No, not really. How about giant cathedrals on top of star ships the size of continents? Not particularly. Fire lines of plasma rifle wielding soldiers that can kill their enemies long before they get in range to hit them with their chainsaw swords? OK, maybe, but the Tau Empire is different. A shame they’re not in this game.
However, while this game may not feature the best faction in the Warhamer 40k lore, it is still one of the best games to carry the Warhammer 40k title. At the very least, it’s the best shooter to carry that title. Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior may have actually featured the Tau, but it still wasn’t all that good.
But I digress and I’m probably confusing any readers who aren’t familiar with Games Workshop’s game and lore.
Warhammer 40,000 started off as a tabletop miniatures war game that takes place in the 41st millenium with a very long and complex history. In fact, the history is so complex, my first draft of this article spent an entire page with a very basic explanation of the setting. Luckily Space Marine’s strongest appeal is not built on it’s story.
Sure, there is a story that explains what Captain Titus and his command team are doing, but it is a very basic story that has been done countless times in the 40k setting. The long and short of it is that the Ultramarines chapter of Space Marines have been called to the Forge World Graia to stop an Ork invasion to protect the irreplaceable Titan weapons (IE, giant robots that the Imperium of Man doesn’t know how to rebuild). Add in a mystery about Captain Titus and an invasion by the daemon corrupted Chaos Space Marines and you’ve got a pretty formulaic Warhammer 40,000 storyline.
No, the appeal of Space Marine lies in the fact that it is just a hell of a lot of fun. The fact that those already familiar with the setting get one of the most loving tributes to that setting is secondary.
What we could have gotten from this game was a generic shooter attempting to ride on a popular license to move copies, like we got out of Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior. Not that trying to ride on the license would have worked, seeing as the game was only modestly successful. A shame, too, as the game is a joy for pretty much any shooter fan looking for something that rejects modern ideas like cover and realism.
From the very first moment we see Captain Titus, the game sets itself apart, with the Captain and his squad mates strapping on jump packs and jumping out of their transport and onto an Ork gunship. The very first thing the player does when getting control of Titus is fight their way through the deck of the gunship with nothing but a Bolt Pistol and combat knife. After getting to the ship’s primary weapon battery, he manually pushes it to turn it around on the ship.
At every step of the way, Titus does something completely over-the-top and insane. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Warhammer 40,000 runs on awesome. And this game fully embraces that. From the combat to the level design to the weapons, everything is done because it’s awesome.
Forge World Graia is awe-inspiring to look at. The massive buildings and factories are larger than life to the already larger than life Space Marines with the gorgeous Gothic architecture. It doesn’t try to even pretend that it’s practical. It’s built to be awesome.
The weapons our Space Marine heroes wield are the same. The game’s shotgun analog, the Melta-Gun, fires superheated and super pressurized air. The Storm Bolter may eat through ammunition faster than Sonic the Hedgehog through a chili dog, but it also shreds the Orks it’s pointed at.
Even the basic weapon and assault rifle analog, the Boltgun, is a fully automatic rifle that fires self-propelled slugs the size of an average adult’s fist filled with high explosives. This is all done for the sake of being over-the-top and awesome.
The other weapons follow suit. The Thunder Hammer is a massive two handed hammer that smashes through everything. The Lascannon is a colossal laser designed to bust tanks, usually crewed by two Imperial Guardsmen. It’s the sniper rifle analog and is carried by a single Space Marine.
The best part? It’s all as accurate to the tabletop game and the game’s lore as it can get. Sure, a Captain and two Space Marines isn’t going to get through an entire army of Orks on the table, but the aesthetics look like Relic took Games Workshop’s models and put them on the screen and the feats Captain Titus accomplishes in the game are mundane compared to some of the feats Space Marines have accomplished in the fiction surrounding the setting.
Of course, while being familiar with the setting will greatly add to the player’s appreciation of the game, at it’s core, Space Marine is simply a hell of a fun shooter.
At first glance, Space Marine looks like it wants to be Gears of War with its huge player characters (wearing the shoulder pads to end all shoulder pads) and over the shoulder camera. The control scheme doesn’t exactly help matters, being a near copy of Gears of War’s control scheme. Luckily, the similarities begin and end there.
There is no focus on cover. In fact, one of the marketing taglines for the game was “cover is for the weak” coupled with the image of an Ultramarine crashing through a waist high wall some Imperial Guardsmen were hiding behind in Gears of War poses. A cheap shot, for sure, but it is a perfect description of the entire design philosophy behind this game.
You see, Space Marine is not just a shooter. It’s also a third-person action game. Titus doesn’t just wield strange over-the-top awesome guns, he also carries a melee weapon into battle. Whether the player chooses the trusty Chainsword, the heavy Power Axe or, when the option is presented, the devastating Thunder Hammer, melee combat is just as important to the game as the shooting.
Success in Space Marine means knowing when to stop shooting and start swinging. Switching to the Chainsword is done at the touch of the X button (or Square if you’re on PlayStation). It is vital to get the right balance between ranged and melee combat because there are only two ways to recover health: Activating Fury Mode, which only builds up as Titus slays enemies, and executing enemies in melee.
In short, if you can’t bring the pain with both gun and sword, you won’t survive the Ork onslaught. In keeping with their dedication to keep cover from being any sort of focus, Relic chose to not have regenerating health. Instead, they decided to make the hundreds of Orks you need to deal with anyway into what are basically soon to be dead and splattered on the ground health kits.
This makes Space Marine into a fast paced and appropriately chaotic game. And it’s coupled with one of my favorite shooter multiplayer experiences in recent memory. It’s nothing complex or even particularly ambitious, but it is still a surprisingly balanced competitive experience.
There are three player classes to choose from: The Tactical Marine, who wields light weapons like the Bolter and Plasma Rifle, the Assault Marine, who is equipped with a Jump Pack and melee weapons, and the Devastator, who brings the ranged fury with Heavy Bolters and Lascannons. With the Chaos side of things, replace Tactical Marine with Chaos Marine, Assault Marine with Raptor and Devastator with Havoc. Both sides play the same, just with different skins.
Each class has its advantages and disadvantages. The Devastator excels at dealing heavy damage from a distance, but a Chaos Marine or Raptor getting him into melee will wreck his day. The Tactical Marine can adapt to most situations, but can’t compete at range like a Havoc or melee like a Raptor. The Assault Marine can close distance quickly cleave through the enemy, but his pistol just doesn’t have the fire power for him to compete at a range.
Add to this some fun maps and a very robust character customizer (including the ability to paint your armor however you want. I prefer to color my armor based my Space Wolf models), plus the fun as hell co-operative Exterminatus mode and you’ve got a hell of a fun multiplayer game. A shame that it was more or less dead last I checked and, as I don’t have my Xbox 360 connected to the Internet at the moment, I can’t see if it’s any more active now. Still, manage to get a game going (or better yet, bring friends) and there’s a lot of fun to be had.
Of course, the game isn’t perfect. There are far more interesting Space Marine chapters than the Ultramarines, as they’re intended to be the generic Space Marines. Hell, the gameplay would have lent itself to a Space Wolves, who are basically werewolf space Vikings wearing power armor (yes, that is completely absurd, but it’s awesome), with the focus on seamless transition between melee and ranged combat being extremely similar to how the Space Wolves are designed to be played in the tabletop game. The characterization and storyline feels like it might have spent a short amount of time intended for the Deathwatch, the Space Marine answer to special forces, taking Marines from a variety of chapters, including the aforementioned Ultramarines and Space Wolves.
In fact, had the game been about the Deathwatch, not only would the story be perfectly viable, it would answer why only a three-man team was sent into a war zone alone as those are the kinds of missions the Deathwatch exists for.
Beyond that, the storyline of “fight one invasion until Chaos shows up” is extremely tired and was even the plot of the painfully mediocre Fire Warrior (except with some roles reversed. The player was a Tau Fire Warrior fighting Imperial forces until Chaos shows up). Mark Strong as Captain Titus may be one of the most awesome casting choices in gaming history, but even his fantastic performance does little to help how obviously generic the story is.
Even the Orks are old hat as enemies. Sure they lend to a pretty solid variety of things to shoot at, but they’ve appeared as major enemies in so many games and novels that it would have been nice to see factions like the Dark Eldaar or Necrons show up, instead.
Still, the long and short of things is that Space Marine is a giant love letter to the Warhammer 40,000 setting. Relic shows their love of the franchise here and it is a shame that we’re not likely to get a sequel. I guess all we can hope for is that Warhammer 40,000: Eternal Crusade manages to bring this kind of awesome 41st millenium action to an even greater scale. This game isn’t perfect, but any 40k fan will find a lot to love about it, as will any shooter fan looking for something that isn’t a dime a dozen brown and grey military shooter.