Making the Space Marine Cool Again
Warhammer 40K Space Marine has no right to be as much fun as it is. Every time I saw the game before its release, I couldn't help but find the premise generic and the gameplay redundant. Now the game is finally in my hands, and although those complaints still ring true, they are mitigated by the sheer elegance of the gameplay. This is a game that transitions between ranged and melee combat with a grace that few others can match, and while the Warhammer name might be enough to draw in the ardent fans, it was this melding of two disparate gameplay styles that kept me coming back for more.
Space Marine follows the misadventures of Captain Titus and his band of titular marines as they try to fend off a massive Ork invasion. The Forge World Graia is under siege, and the hulking Space Marines are the last hope for a planet in turmoil. The story is easily the game's weakest link. The last half of the game tries to throw in a few twists to shake things up, but none of them are particularly revelatory (hint to game developers: if the big twist in your game involves a presumed good guy turning bad, don't make him look so obviously evil.) Especially in a post-Halo industry that has seen so many space operas come and go, the plot of Space Marine just comes off as generic. Warhammer fans will be quick to point out that the franchise practically invented the concept of the Space Marine, but regardless of who came first, this is well-worn territory.
Luckily, what Space Marine lacks in story it makes up for in pure, testosterone-drenched action. This is a classic example of superb gameplay carrying a story that would have failed in any other medium. The shooting feels all at once heavy and satisfying, but also breezy and fast. Brutal melee attacks fit snugly between all of the gunplay. Titus isn't encumbered by any cover systems or ammo limitations. His armor is his cover, and his pistol has infinite ammunition. He has a fucking chainsword. Like a tank, he bursts onto the battlefield and carves a path of blood to the objective. The sheer number of enemies that will lie dead at Titus' feet by the end of any given checkpoint is enough to make anyone feel powerful.
Even the HUD contributes to the machismo. The objective marker, a simple dot or square in most games, is a clenched first. When Titus' shield recharges, the screen is bathed in a golden glow, as if to suggest a God-like power resonating from his body. And speaking of recharging health, Titus doesn't gain his back automatically over time, like most modern game protagonists. The only way to regain health in Space Marine is to stun an enemy and then perform a brutal execution move on him. Not only does this emphasize the Space Marine's almost barbaric lust for battle, but it also serves to add an element of strategy into battle. Titus will die if he doesn't time his execution moves strategically.
Like in God of War, it is also possible to engage a fury mode after getting a certain number of kills. This mode has two permutations, one which increases Titus' melee prowess and the other which acts as a sort of bullet time mode, and both of which regain health with every enemy killed. Again, it adds to the feeling of power when every slash of the sword and shot of the gun not only leaves the enemy in pieces, but also regains some health.
Still, as much as the raw gameplay shines, there really isn't that much of it to be spread out over the 8-10 hour campaign. Shooting and hacking through Orks makes up the majority of the game, and while this action is broken up by a few on-rails turret encounters and a couple of jetpack sequences that are a ton of fun, by and large the game is all about throwing hordes of enemies at Titus and letting him sort them out. It struck me as a sort of marriage between Dynasty Warriors and Gears of War. The action is paced better than in Koei's samurai series, but it still starts to wear thin by the time the game ends. It doesn't help that, with all of the buildup towards the final encounter, the last boss ends up succumbing to a quick-time event. And while the plot is generally pretty thin, I felt that it wrapped up in a really unsatisfying way. I guess it's become standard practice in the industry to set every new IP up for a sequel, but that doesn't make the practice any less gross.
There is also a full multiplayer suite, complete with the now standard leveling systems and class upgrades, but there are only two modes and a handful of maps. The gameplay translates pretty well into an online throwdown, but it lacks the depth of many modern shooters, and with only two modes I wouldn't expect to see this take off in any significant fashion.
Despite these complaints, Space Marine is still a shockingly good game. If Relic didn't have so much love for the universe, this could easily have been the mindless hack 'n' slash that I had always assumed it would be. Nowhere is this love more pronounced than in the art and sound direction. Space Marine runs on the same engine as Vigil's Darksiders, and the art has a similar stylized feel. Technically, the graphics aren't gorgeous, but the unique art aesthetics pull it all together. The same goes for the sound, which tends towards the deep and base-y. Every step of the Space Marines sounds like it shakes the Earth, and every shot fired sounds like it has a real impact to it. In terms of sound design, this is up there with the best of them.
All of these elements come together to make Space Marine quite a lot more than the sum of its parts. Sure, this could have been a brain dead shoot 'em up, and at times it veers dangerously close. But thanks to the care that Relic has taken in immersing players in the world of the Space Marines, this game is so much more. I really did feel powerful as I mowed down dozens of Orks with my grenade launcher, before chopping still more enemies apart with my chainsword. It is a feeling of strength that few games can deliver on, and if nothing else Space Marine is worth checking out for that alone. The smooth gameplay and fantastic audio design are just icing on the bloody cake.