The Ballad of the Waddling Fridge Men
It's no secret that my relationship with the modern shooter scene isn't so hot. I absolutely loathe "modern warfare" games like Battlefield and Call of Duty, while I'll happily play cover-shooters like Gears of War (see: Deus Ex: Human Revolution), with the Half-Life 2 inspired shooters that continue to roll out (games like Duke Nukem Forever, Metro 2033, Crysis) among some of my favourite games of all time. But it is the old-school spectacle shooters like Serious Sam that truly resonate with me - hilarious, gory, tough-as-nails FPS games that deliver on delivering enough lead-based carnage to make John McClane blush.
So when a game like Space Marine comes out, you'd hardly expect it to be a day one purchase for me. Indeed, I was hotly anticipating Space Marine ever since playing the demo. But it is, admittedly, a game about space marines. It's a game where the top speed of the main character matches a brisk walking pace. It's a gritty, brown-coloured "realistic" science-fiction experience, where main characters growl at each other with all the emotion of a pile of grass clippings, and about half the likability. But stop the presses if Space Marine does just enough different from its peers that it pushes it well over the edge of originality. Space Marine is genuinely refreshing, and it pushes so many right buttons, it's impossible not to enjoy. What has Space Marine done to stand out so? It's combined the shooter and the hack and slash.
In Space Marine, mouse 2 isn't tied to anything important like aiming. It's tied to "swing massive chainsword". This simple control scheme - mouse 1 to shoot, mouse 2 to carve - dictates everything the game is built around. Shooting and carving. The enemies in this game - hordes and hordes of greenskins (Orks, Gretchins, what have you) - come at you quickly, carrying bludgeoning tools, cheap guns, meat cleavers, what have you. The true joy of the game comes in picking the best moment to wade into the thick of it. For the first few seconds of a fight, you'll be pulling off headshots and spraying bullets through the vicious crowds, but eventually you'll weigh up the odds, hold down the sprint button and start cutting up the enemy into tiny, blood-stained pieces.
Well, alright. That's a lie. The true joy of the game comes in the spectacle of shooting and slicing. For those who don't know the Warhammer 40,000 universe, it is a wonderful, bliss-filled place filled with ceaseless war. Earlier attempts by developer Relic came in delightful RTS form, the Dawn of War series. It was a great way to duplicate the atmosphere of themassive battles from the tabletop game, and as good as a direct adaptation of the original source will ever get. But it never felt like war, because beyond the sheer number of units in the game at any one time, something was missing.
In Space Marine, they've finally nailed the atmosphere of being in a war. Though your Space Marine squad is only three strong, and the fields of battle aren't excessively huge (they're quite narrow, and linear), the sound design, weapon handling, look and feel of this game is WAR. It's everything Warhammer 40k stands for - brutality, death, scale. InSpace Marine, every weapon feels so powerful, every enemy is so menacing, every level is so decrepit and blood-stained... it just feels right. It feels like a future in which they have known no peace for centuries, a future in which this is commonplace, and it's fantastic.Space Marine's world - the Warhammer 40k world - has been done a great justice by Relic.
To give an example of the sheer power this game's arsenal has. In Warhammer 40k, the human armies use weapons called "bolters" (I can picture Warhammer fans shaking their heads as I start my inevitably poor explanation here, but just roll with it). They fire bolts... giant, piercing rods. No bullets here. They're great, big sticks of molten, living metal. A bolt pistol - the starting weapon in the game - is as large as a Space Marine's head. If this were a game like, say, Call of Duty, the sound of this weapon would be that of a pea shooter. In Space Marine, the sound of a bolter is that of a thousand suns exploding at once and wiping out the known galaxies in a single, thunderous burst. Well okay, that's pushing it a little far. But you get my point - the weapons in this game feel menacing in your hands. The recoil, the projectiles flying across the screen, the entrance into the brutish Orks' green, thick flesh, the explosion as it rips off limbs and separates legs from torsos... it's amazing. Firing a weapon in this game is tremendous fun, and considering you're doing it against hundreds of enemies at a time, this game is a true spectacle to behold. And that's just with the starting weapons.
The gameplay holds up, then. However, the progression of the game falls at the first hurdle. It's all quite linear, painfully so, and while linearity obviously isn't a bad thing, it's sort of disappointing. The combat benefits from a sort of... tactical edge. Like I said earlier, choosing moments to switch from twitch-aiming bullet spewing "mode" to a less tactical, more more Orkish "mash mouse 2 and hope everything dies" mode is a key factor for success in Space Marine. There no healthkits or regenerating health systems inSpace Marine - you regain health by eliminating (read: executing, in staggeringly, creatively, excessively violent ways) stunned enemies - and the process takes a while, and other enemies can continue to lash at you while you do so. Picking key targets and locations to do such things would be much easier if the levels were slightly more open - most levels involve walking through corridors or trenches as the baddies come through open doors or from the other end of the level. It's a minor gripe, but it would have improved the intelligence of the combat system without sacrificing the satisfying punch it packs.
Then there's the story. I wasn't expecting anything brilliant from a game about Space Marines. The Warhammer 40k universe is a massive, varied place though, full of insanely creative real-world parallels, creature designs, worlds and locations. Which is why it's a massive let-down that the whole game takes place on a dusty, brown Forgeworld planet - basically a massive factory. The plot might equate to nothing but "Captain Titus and his scowling Space Marine squad looks for missing plot-specific McGuffin, then Chaos show up, surprise (faux-spoiler warning)" but even Dawn of War took place over an expansive selection of varying planets. Forest planets, snow planets, desert planets - Warhammer 40k is a lot like Star Wars in that every planet seems to serve a function, and has an interesting back-story and locale. So that Space Marine takes place completely on an arid, industrial wasteland is a confusing predicament. One could argue that they wanted a more tightly contained story, or they're saving the other planets for sequels and what have you. But if they've sacrificed level variety for this nonsensical, go-nowhere plot, that's a downright shame.
The thing is, the presentation of the world and plot is really quite lovely. Downright impressive, even. The graphics engine is the same one used for Darksiders (the original developers were Vigil games, who made DarkZeldas), and it's beautifully rendered. There are some really impressive set-piece moments (though only brief ones, and a handful), and one in particular takes place high in the sky defending airships from Stormboyz (flying, jetpack-wielding Orks that, in Space Marine, have been repurposed as kind of vultures that pick apart and dismantle flying dropships in mid-air and watch in glee as they are destroyed in a cloud of billowing smoke). It's really freaking cool, and an excellent example of the imagination inherently found i the Warhammer 40k lore at large. If as much work had been put into the script as was put into the moments, this game would possibly be the best game of the year - painfully, stupidly fun and well-written. That's a combination very very rarely seen in videogames today.
As it stands, though, Space Marine excels at two key features - relentless, brutal combat, and astounding spectacle. The combat isn't so shallow that there's no strategy involved, and the spectacle of exploding Ork limbs and heads, combined with the sheer joy involved in taking control of the plethora of weapons in Space Marine's arsenal really does combine to create a blissfully enjoyable experience. Grenade launchers that create tiny pocket dimensions and explode foes, plasma launchers that melts the skin off the faces of enemies - even the occasional jetpack segment that sees Captain Titus thrust into the air gracefully before slamming back down Super Mario style to flatten foes beneath his giant, hulking, metal feet. In that respect the game is perfect. In the respect of storylines - though most importantly, plot and level progression - the game is an overly-familiar, unvaried game that only just stands up on its own weak foundations.
There is multiplayer, though. Usually I don't dip into multiplayer, but just like the Dawn of War series, there's a magnificent character builder/painter that lets you paint up your Space Marine/Chaos soldier any way you see fit. Fans of the tabletop game's level of customization will appreciate this system, and while the capture point-based style of the multiplayer is staggeringly uncreative and bland, there has been added quite recently a four-player co-op survival mode that goes a long way in rectifying some of the issues with the survival modes of modern times. The survival maps are split up into "arenas," and as you complete waves, you'll be moving from arena to arena as the hordes get larger and larger. The greenskin army gets really vindictive towards the end, and true teamwork seems to be the crux to getting a good score. Occasionally, also, a secondary objective will open up - something like "capture the control point," or "20 kills in 20 seconds" that offer generous score multipliers, which means that getting the highest score means not just wiping out the enemy, but actively partaking in the match. It's reinvigorated the game's online system just enough to say that it's worth playing, which is an astounding achievement, because initially, online was a tacked-on, abysmally glitchy failure.
the final say 8.5/10
Space Marine is dangerously enjoyable and a wonderful genre-mashing science-fiction experience in a creative licensed universe... if the story had been crafted with the effort as the rest of the game, this would be the best Warhammer game to date. As it stands, it's merely a faithful representation of the creativity inherent in the 40k universe's bloody, violent conflicts. Definitely check this one out. Oh, and um... *clears throat* KILL DA SPACE MARINES!! ...had to get that out of the way. Bloody greenskins.
review for Space Marine (PC, X360, PS3), 1- 12 player action, out now
This review is ripped from the original over at my gaming blog, Andy Plays Games. Check it out if you enjoyed this!