The Warhammer 40,000 science fiction universe is older than a lot of gamers who will play Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. Warhammer 40,000 dates all the way back to the late 1980s; it was a pen-and-paper game popular among serious RPG players of the era, based on an even earlier table game, Warhammer Fantasy Battles. The pen-and-paper 40K games are still played today, in addition to spawning a long list of well-received video games, particularly the Dawn of War real-time strategy series for PCs, also developed by Relic.
Console gamers without gaming PCs have long wished for a Warhammer 40K game that suits their hardware. Because of the limitations in implementing RTS mechanics for console controllers, few tolerable attempts at the genre have been released, and even fewer could be called good. Relic made a wise design decision for its first console 40K title, setting the game in the familiar universe, but discarding the RTS gameplay. (Blizzard made a similarly good call with console title StarCraft: Ghost, but development has since been abandoned.)
On the whole, Warhammer 40K: Space Marine is a treat, especially considering the perils inherent in transcribing a precious game fiction to a very different genre. Presented as a third-person shooter, with both over-the-shoulder and FPS aiming mechanics, and cast with heavily armored characters who stomp rather than sprint, Space Marine is clearly influenced by Epic's outstanding Gears of War games — sometimes unabashedly so. Though inspired by the COG-versus-Locust saga, the game doesn't plagiarize the established franchise. Notably absent is a sophisticated cover system. There's plenty of cover around, but no way to stick behind it; in this case, I'd have preferred Relic borrow from Epic a little more. Slippery cover against tough enemies often makes for some tricky battles.
In Space Marine, you play as Ultramarine Captain Titus. Showing its roots in traditional swords-and-sorcery games, the Ultramarines are science fiction versions of valiant warrior knights pitted against evil ax-wielding Orks in a distant war-torn future. In Space Marine, those Orks are invading a manufacturing planet.
Available weapons, quite diverse by the end of the campaign, range from chainswords to laser cannons to plasma pistols. The various flavors of Ork foes also tote close-quarters and ranged weapons. Enemy rocket launchers accurately fired from hidden positions are particularly nasty. Perhaps owing to Relic's experience developing 40K games as RTS titles, paying attention to your weapons load-out at resupply points makes the difference between handily dispatching hordes of varied enemies, or struggling to stay alive while dodging ranged weapons, energy blasts from super-enemies and ax swipes from Orks looking to maul you. In most scenarios, other than the final boss battle, there is a save point shortly after you choose weapons and restock ammo and grenades. Once you've made up your mind, you often can't go back; you'll have to figure it out with what you're carrying, one way or the other.
I think the finest design element of Space Marine is the significance of the weapons load-outs. For example, one of the melee weapons, the Thunderhammer, while almighty powerful in close-quarters combat, limits the number of other weapons you can carry. Heft the Thunderhammer, and you're down to a futuristic assault rifle and your infinite-ammo pistol. For battering beasts that attack close in with melee weapons, you can't beat the Thunderhammer for a good time. But if you're facing snipers and rocket launchers across cavernous spaces, you'll really miss those scoped weapons. In my experience with the campaign, and further proving clean game design, there's no battle sequence completely impossible with a weak weapon load-out. However, in certain circumstances, your poor choices may have you pounding your head against the wall before you push on through. Space Marine does somewhat subtlety provide hints for weapons selection: If a scoped ranged weapon is available at a resupply point, you can bet it'll probably come in handy within a few minutes. There are numerous supply stations and very regular checkpoint saves, so opportunities to change back to preferred weapons come quickly.
Health regeneration is also a game design standout. Your over-shield provides ample protection and must be depleted before your health degrades. The shield regenerates while you're away from combat, but health doesn't. There are no health packs or medical supply stations, so health is replenished in a couple of ways. You can charge up your Fury meter by attacking and killing enemies, and triggering the Fury mode enhances your combat skills and regenerates health at the same time. This not a "god mode," though, you can still take damage while Fury is active. The health meter is also refilled by stunning and executing enemies in melee combat, rather than just killing them straight out. Relic has created a very serviceable way of using metered health in a game without making you scurry all over the place hunting up every last health-pack.
There are several encounters throughout the campaign that are tantamount to boss battles, but only two meet that definition by the strictest standards. One comes halfway through, and the second wraps up the game. The boss battles are both relatively easy — some may find them laughably easy — but in the case of Space Marine, I welcomed the uncomplicated progression. You face some pretty rough times against numerous high-level enemies right before you step into those boss arenas.
Space Marine's animations and graphical presentation aren't the best or worst of this console generation — they're strictly average. The focus is not on eye-popping visuals, but rather on exciting and engaging gameplay that's challenging enough to keep you pushing through the campaign but not so frustrating that you'll consider giving up. This contributes a lot to an impression that the game is quite short. You'll likely play in lengthy sessions, cutting through chapters and acts like Ork hide. It's not really an exceptionally abbreviated campaign. Space Marine runs eight hours on normal difficulty; that's par for contemporary shooters. I took over 10 hours to complete the campaign, having a good deal of fun trying out full-on berserker charges contrasted with more circumspect approaches.
The audio production is good, with stirring background music at appropriate moments and satisfying weapons sound effects. Some of the Ork bellows are downright harrowing. Particularly good is the dialogue and voice-acting, whether it's your own squad of Ultramarines somberly discussing their situation, or the factory planet's public address system admonishing tired, scared workers to stay put or prepare for evacuation.
Relic takes a solid stab at creating a class-based competitive multiplayer experience with persistent player progression earned via XP. Unfortunately, I found multiplayer far less compelling than the solo campaign. Online, I lost almost all sense of the tactical element that made the campaign so addictive. Of course, across the board, competitive XBL matches are merely mayhem distilled; I'm not sure what Relic could have done differently to imbue the online experience with the standout traits of the single-player game.
There are three soldier classes: tactical, assault and heavy. They play in two match types, Seize Ground, a control-point game, and Annihilation, which is standard team deathmatch. Leveling up, along with weapons and class perks, add to the overall depth of the multiplayer experience, but I couldn't immediately attach to Space Marine's online modes like I do Gears of War titles, or even Call of Duty multiplayer, which I find utterly plain, yet often irresistible. What I'd really wish for Space Marine is co-op, in split-screen and online. In campaign, you most often fight with your squad of Ultramarines, so two-player co-op wouldn't break the story as it sometimes does in shooters with loner protagonists. There's talk of future DLC implementing some flavor of co-op mode, but it's not available at launch, and how exactly it will play is still unknown.
Publisher THQ requires a code for playing multiplayer online, to any extent greater than what amounts to a mere demo. As usual, there's a free code with new copies of the game. Less usual, it's one code per console, not one code per gamertag. Any gamertag on the console where the code was first activated can play the full online game.
While credit for Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine's interesting backstory is due a long list of people over almost 30 years, the sharp, smooth gameplay is all Relic. The studio has done something in this title a lot more difficult than it may seem: They've formed a very good game of genre staples and straightforward shooter mechanics, dabbling in enhancements that succeed. I have notions about elements that could have been better, but mediocre games inspire disdain, not wish lists.
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