A big middle finger to Gears of War
Refreshingly old fashioned. Boldly simple. Confident in its own humility. Space Marine is a game without any confusion. It does exactly what it sets out to do and nothing more. Gamers looking for a frenetic, testosterone-fueled take on the third person shooter need look no further. It looks just good enough. It plays just fast enough. It feels just bad ass enough.
The Warhammer 40k universe is probably the most appropriate setting for a mindless bloodbath ever, and Space Marines are appropriate protagonists. Eight foot tall super humans, covered in armor, armed to the teeth, semi-spiritual in their pursuit of violence, they are emotionally and ethically unaccountable. In short, they are the most traditional, archetypal video game heroes you could think up. For the uninitiated, Warhammer 40k is a dark satire of science fiction. First developed by the British company Games Workshop in the 1980's, it serves primarily as the backdrop for a table top miniatures game but has been embellished over the years through books, comics and video games. It is a setting where instead of making technological and social progress a la Star Trek, mankind has devolved into a violent and futuristic dark age where superstition, xenophobia and paranoia are the norm. All manner of nasty aliens threaten to wipe out mankind, and the only thing that can protect us is a totalitarian theocracy whose overwhelming military force is the appropriate response for everything from demonic invasions to political dissent. What makes the setting work is that it knows full well how ridiculous it is and makes not qualms about it. It is blatantly self aware and fully invested in its own over-the-topness.
But as you know, a game's setting is not everything (see Firewarrior). Space Marine backs up its legendary pedigree with a very slick third person shooter/brawler hybrid. Take the firepower of Gears of War, add mobility and close combat power of Kratos, throw hundreds of enemies against the player at once, and you have the basics of the gameplay. It isn't groundbreaking by any means but it feels great because the player has just the appropriate amount of invulnerability while being able to dish out devastating power with guns, chainswords, grenades and all manner of weaponry. Rather than needing to hide behind cover, the player is free to negotiate a battlefield however they see fit with the stipulation that you can only regenerate health by executing dramatic finishing moves on enemies. This gameplay mechanic is at once an injection of adrenaline into the action as well as a huge middle finger to Gears of War. While Marcus Fenix has to hide like a rat behind barrels and cement blocks when his health gets low, the Space Marines will go to work with their chainswords. The game is also prone to do things which "take it to the next level" like giving the player a jet pack which more or less turns them into a dive bomber. It's all tremendous fun.
Everything is not perfect however. There are a few levels that feel like filler, and some tacky moments like lone kamikaze enemies dropping out of the ceiling with no purpose besides startling the player. Because its story is bare-bones, the game's momentum is in the introduction of newer, exotic enemies and guns. That's mostly ok because the weapons and enemies are all very well designed, with distinct capabilities and styles. While the pacing of new material is mostly spot on, there are a few levels where things feel repetitive. Some might also be underwhelmed by presentation. The graphics and art design are minimalist, to be kind. While the player's avatar and enemies are all done up very well, environments are somewhat bland. Although this does run in theme with the ruined factories and hab-blocks that cover a human planet, it is also not much to look at. Ultimately, the player just needs to plow through the more repetitive moments as something new will pop up soon enough.
Multiplayer pits players against each other with Space Marines on one side and their more death metal cousins the Chaos Space Marines on the other. You unlock weapons and equipment like in Call of Duty, and pick your load out as well. Unfortunately, the effect of fighting against enemies who are your equal is that everyone just shoots at each other and there isn't a whole lot of close combat. When you do get a chainsword or power axe kill, it's generally because you snook up on someone, and there really is no mechanic for dueling folks. The whole system works well enough, however there is a major imbalance when players unlock both the jet pack and the thunder hammer. They are then able to launch themselves into the sky and crash into players at improbable speeds which is an insta kill. The main reason this is a problem is that they fly across the screen so fast that your joystick has trouble tracking them, making near impossible to shoot down. In short, the multiplayer is fun for maybe a week or so, but won't keep you for long.
The final analysis is that the game is great. Unlike too many of its contemporaries it doesn't insult your intelligence by trying to get you emotionally invested into one dimensional characters. These guys don't get PTSD, they don't have families, they don't care about collateral damage, they aren't here to save the civilians. They know they are in a video game and are not trying to re-define story telling in the digital age. They realize that you are here for carnage and single-mindedly set themselves to deliver. That they do so with some tongue and cheek is a bonus.