Grim, Dark, Great
Warhammer 40,000. The venerable science-fantasy franchise, 25 years old and counting, finally receives a big-budget action game worth playing. However good that recommendation might be on it's own, though, know this: as good as Space Marine truly is, it's also beset by a surprising variety of smaller problems that take a little away from the grandeur of what Relic has built.
At it's heart, Space Marine is a basic third-person action game that emphasizes fast, brutal ranged combat as much as it does heavy close combat. Were I to compare it to contemporary games, this almost seems like God of War smashed head-on into Gears of War and created a hybrid of the two. Space Marine does away with taking cover entirely, something that becomes a bit of a mixed blessing as the game goes on but is, at the very least, a fresh change to see. In the single player game, you'll go from area to area facing varying groups of enemies with but a sole objective: killing them all and moving on. The ranged weapons available are powerful feeling, true to the lore of Warhammer 40,000 (more on that in a bit), and the close combat is very simple but fairly effective in it's own right. This is important, as although you have a regenerating armor bar, your actual health does not regenerate on its own. You'll have to execute your enemies in close combat, with delightfully brutal animations, in order to earn the right to stay alive during battle. Once again, it's a neat system that works most of the time, but it also brings some unneeded frustration at times.
Space Marine manages to be a pretty good looking game most of the time, with some especially impressive work done for the main character models - the space marines themselves - and some of the artistic design in the areas you'll see. Warhammer 40,000 is depicted as a very dark, very grim future for humanity and the world you'll fight your way through manages to reflect this very well. Up close, some of the textures don't hold up so well (only during ingame cutscenes), but this is a minor complaint. Sound design, as well, manages to really impress, with suitably heavy noises for almost everything the massive marines do along with excellent gunfire sounds and impacts. Voice acting throughout the game is relatively simple, but reasonably well done, once again featuring a single especially impressive performance from the main character - Captain Titus, voiced by Mark Strong of cinema fame. All these factors combine to create a pretty impressive world, both for the Warhammer 40k veteran and the newcomer learning about this setting for the first time.
The 6 hour single player campaign is a pretty standard, but gratifying, affair depicting Captain Titus' struggle to save a strategically important planet from an alien attack. These aliens, the hilariously bizarre Orks (not to be confused with Orcs), will be your main fodder for most of the game until an even greater threat emerges for you to fight. The storyline is extremely basic, but functional, and manages to end with a somewhat interesting twist. This is pretty much the best I can say for the largely predictable journey you'll undertake; the action manages to make this weakness largely irrelevant and the game true aesthetic are the visuals, sounds, and overall feel of the world this violence takes place in. For Warhammer 40,000 fans, this is nothing short of a dream come true. There are bolters, meltaguns, and plasma guns. There are jump packs, thunder hammers, and even an Iron Halo upgrade. This is probably the best realization of the franchise's fiction yet made, right down to the smallest of details.
However impressive these Space Marines, their weapons, and the locations are, you'll pretty quickly see something that occasionally compromises a scene. These are the executions; they're great on open ground, but as soon as a wall or obstacle gets nearby there's a good chance you'll see floating, inconsistent animations. Sometimes Titus isn't even touching his enemy, other times he's floating above a ramp with a levitating corpse. It's not game breaking but it certainly comes up often enough to damage what is otherwise a fantastic looking addition to the game. Still, as good as they look, they sometimes manage to repeat a bit too frequently for some enemies and weapons. Repetition is a common theme throughout Space Marine; even the locations, although well realized, are almost all industrial and lack substantial variety. If you love concrete, this isn't a problem, but otherwise don't expect to see many trees or much greenery during the game.
Combat itself is great fun but it's also tinged with some frustrating elements. To get your health back, you'll need to execute an enemy... this can only be done in close combat, and several segments of the game are focused entirely on distant ranged enemies. The only way to attack these guys is to expose your marine, as there is no cover system. This works fine until your armor runs out, and then you have a limited amount of time to defeat the rest before your health runs out entirely. In hectic melee situations, executions to get some health back can actually work against you because you can still get hurt during the animations. Although learning to deal with these situations is 'part of the game', it sometimes comes off as feeling a bit cheap or unfair for the player. Still, a smart application of ranged gunfire, close-combat stun attacks, and grenades will carry you through every encounter you'll find in single player.
Multiplayer is a rather different experience, although it carries over most of the same systems used in the single player game. Space Marine's online component is pretty strong, featuring level progression, perks, several weapons, and multiple classes (including custom ones). It clearly lifts pretty heavily from Call of Duty in terms of player specialization, but the game still manages to keep a lot of it's unique charms intact along the way. Tactical Marines are the most versatile class, featuring a good selection of weapons and traits for a wide variety of situations. One of multiplayer's most interesting features is the customization you can perform on your Marine, bearing a very welcome similarity to the army painter used in Relic's Dawn of War series. You can change colors, patterns, and all sorts of different individual plates and styles to change your look. This, like the weapons and traits, is a gradually unlocked feature that adds a strong incentive to playing matches and makes for something to look forward to as you level up.
The matches themselves are hectic, action packed, and a lot of fun. Teamwork is certainly possible, and can quite readily pay off, but like any online game if you play with strangers it's likely going to become an indiscriminate whirlwind of kills and assists. Devastators/Havocs (depending on your side) are the heavy weapon class, carrying huge guns that are extremely powerful but generally limit mobility or versatility. Assault Marines/Raptors are the jet pack class, focusing on close combat and very high mobility. All three are uniquely fun to play, and online you'll see a pretty good representation of all of them in the game's modes (annihilation and a control point variant being the main two). Although there currently aren't very many maps, the ones that are there tend to be pretty spacious and allow for some clever maneuvering and flanking to occur. An upcoming, to-be-released game mode is supposedly going to be co-op; it's going to be free, which is a plus.
Space Marine is fundamentally a well made, fun to play action game. It comes with a very solid single player game, and a thoroughly enjoyable multiplayer mode as well. I'd readily recommend it to anyone interested in this sort of title, as it does it's job as a third-person action game perfectly fine... but it truly becomes a great game for those already familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 setting. There are a couple issues - animations and repetition being among them - that do hold it back in some ways compared to its peers. But for every weakness in Space Marine, there's at least one other element that's impressive if not downright inspiring about its design. It's a good start for a new game franchise, because even though it's pretty strong, it also leaves some room for improvement in areas. Relic has something special here, and any 40k aficionado will feel the effort and care put into the experience.
Keep in mind, as objective as I can try to be for this game, I am biased by my love of the source material. This is the point of view of someone who really appreciates the setting, and the score reflects that.