Game Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 universe has been around longer than some gamers have been alive. Starting in 1987 as an offshoot of the British developer's fantasy tabletop line (which itself started in '83), WH40K has endured nearly a quarter of a century of changes and additions. With its Latin-inspired lexicon, hardcover rulebooks of meticulously detailed art and lore, and gothic, sci-fi grittiness, it has captured the imaginations of would-be warlords everywhere.
Getting it into video games, however, has not been an easy road. Even with classic favorites like Space Hulk in '93, early RTS attempts such as WH40K: Chaos Gate, or even an FPS like Fire Warrior, they didn't hit the mainstream with as much fury as the tabletop series.
Relic Entertainment then took its own stab at the property, having snagged the license to develop 2004's WH40K: Dawn of War, an RTS series that has introduced millions of players to humanity's darkest age. As something of WH40K's standard bearers because of that success, Relic wanted to bring players closer to the fight with the third-person adaptation, Warhammer 40K: Space Marine, which does justice to the setting, but takes a few small liberties to keep things fun.
Space Marine casts players as the dutiful Captain Titus of the Ultramarines; his soft-spoken demeanor stands in contrast to the berserker brutality that he regularly mashes into the enemies of the Imperium. In this case, they're Orks that have invaded a Forge World — a planet dedicated to the production of weapons for the defense of humanity.
From the opening cinematic to the ruined vastness of the factory world Graia, even the well-acted, English-accented voice-over work carries the torch of WH40K's detail-saturated roots. The visuals won't make your graphics card sweat, but they do the job of bringing into the fight WH40K's anachronistic mix of worn-down tech, factories, flying starships, and chainsaw swords.
Players won't need to know much about the incredibly deep history of the series to get a grasp on the game. The story is straightforward, though tabletop fans will appreciate many of the finer touches (e.g., chapter names, words on a great seal for the Adeptus Mechanicus) that recall the game's PnP origins. Having an in-game glossary of terms to explain things to newcomers — such as why the Orks travel in giant asteroids called Roks — wouldn't have been a bad thing to see.
As for the Space Marines themselves, they're huge, hulking, genetically modified humans dressed up in colossal armor, and they're able to take damage and dish it out in kind. They're the best at what they do, and the PC controls make it somewhat easy to help them do that.
Stomping Orks with the keyboard and mouse takes a little practice, though I wish I could've changed shoulder perspectives. Titus can only carry four weapons at the same time, including his irreplaceable — but upgradeable — pistol type sidearm. Shrines verbally affirm Titus' genetic purity before releasing exotic death dealers, such as the Melta Gun that belches a shotgun cloud of vaporizing fire and the huge Thunder Hammer, which restricts you to a pistol and assault bolt rifle in exchange for its pulverizing power.
Later on, these are found atop ammo caches before you're hazed by heavyweight Orks or worse. On occasion, Titus can even don a jump pack that allows him to fly high into the air before dazing and crushing his enemies. It adds a new twist to the action, but the scripted linearity of the main game can't be ignored when he tosses off the jump pack, citing that it's suddenly out of gas.
Dodging is handled with the space bar, though there is sometimes an odd delay when doing so, and there's no cover system aside from standing behind something large enough to hide Titus. There's no jumping, and it can occasionally be annoying to get stuck against an ankle-high obstruction when dodging, but it's manageable without breaking the game. With the exception of the pistol, weapons are limited in ammo — though ammo caches are spaced just enough to keep favorite weapons fed. On the other hand, checkpoints can be iffy and lead to a few minutes of repetition as you fight back to where the Orks had their way with Titus.
Space Marine doesn't try to do anything new or revolutionary — its third-person action is cut-and-dried stuff — but it excels at cooking up an entertaining slice of WH40K without pressing the player to know any series history. The action and the levels vary enough to keep players from falling asleep from the mouse mashing and offer enough challenge to keep things from becoming a rehash of the last hour. In one level, Titus holds his own against a horde of Orks while in another, he might be manning a gun to defend a flight of Valkyries on their way to the next objective.
Relic is known for grueling encounters in its RTS titles, and it's brought those lessons to Space Marine. Wading into battle with a chainsaw sword might sound like something any self-respecting Ultramarine chapter member would do after lunch, but the Orks have the advantage in sheer numbers, easily stripping away the regenerating armor shield in seconds.
Executing stunned enemies with a flourish, a move that requires a little Quick Time Event on the player's part, replenishes health, so Titus can turn most any enemy into a walking health pack, though it can still leave him open to attack when he's going through the motions.
He's also got a Fury gauge that fills up with kills. Unleashing it regenerates Titus' health as it depletes and turns him into a blue-armored blender on two legs. It doesn't make him indestructible, though. Titus can die with Fury on his lips as easily as without.
Titus' AI-led companions are hit-and-miss for most of the game. They'll often kill something that's standing next to them or trying to perforate their armor from a tiered balcony, but they can also ignore enemies that come up to them and start whaling on their breastplate. It's a good thing that they're indestructible.
Raging through Ork hordes using a power ax, sniping at Rocket Boyz, and crushing limbs and popping heads with the Thunder Hammer was as fun as it was in following where the game was taking me next. Playing through Space Marine's single-player campaign took a little less than 10 hours, though some of that time was spent in trying to find the hidden voice logs that added some behind-the-scenes material to the story.
Multiplayer is set up using eight-versus-eight teams split into Space and Chaos Marine factions across Annihilation (team-based deathmatch) and Seize Ground (conquest). Fans of WH40K will find a lot to pore over in this mode because of a character customization system that allows them to tweak their Space Marine's online appearance. Armor sets based on WH40K's lore are available with insignias, or players can cobble together whatever they want from unlocked pieces.
Online-based experience levels unlock perks that can also be used for goodies or to custom-tailor classes. Experience is awarded through kills or achieving objectives, such as claiming territory for your side in Seize Ground, and finding a match is fairly automated making me miss having a server browser, but it works. The downside is that there are only five maps and two basic game modes right out of the box, but it does a decent job with what little it has.
All of the weapons available for you in single-player are also available in multiplayer, including jump packs and Thunder Hammers. Only one class is available at the start, but two more — one that favors heavy weapons and another that comes with a jump pack — unlock with additional experience. In addition to being able to customize your class later on and picking a preset favorite, you can temporarily "steal" the loadout of whoever had killed you last, and you can use it until you die again.
Online play has plenty of frenetic energy, partly due to the jump packs, meaty melee and brutal kills that can drop unwary players in seconds. Seize Ground was every bit as exciting as it is in other FPS titles; teams of Space Marines and corrupted Chaos Marines war over control points for their side. With the vertical aspect that the jump pack provides and how devastating it can be in the right hands, it's important to keep eyes in the back of your helm given the quickly shifting balance of power on any map.
Warhammer 40K: Space Marine takes solid third-person concepts and uses them to create an atmospheric piece of WH40K that boasts the same care and meticulous attention to detail that Relic has bestowed upon its RTS titles. The third-person shooter setup is more satisfying than RTSes because you get to step through the bodies of Ork foes on the ground rather than gazing down at your troops from above.
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