Nowadays, it can feel a bit fatiguing to be exposed to so many games based on the premise of big, bulky intergalactic military forces. More often than not, they’ll be carrying guns that are proportionally big and bulky, and battling enemies that are as big and bulky as you are. And, despite your inch-thick armour, chances are you’ll still have to take cover and flit from waist-high concrete block to waist-high concrete block, ducking out to pop shots at your enemies who are also taking cover, tantalisingly exposing their heads like little exploding bullseyes.
Space Marine attempts to break at least part of this heavily entrenched pattern, but it doesn’t quite deliver the experience that we were all expecting.
Titus Maximus Pontificus Magna Cum Laude
The single-player campaign puts you in the power armour of Captain Titus of the Ultramarines, one of many Space Marine chapters sworn to protect the Empire of Man (and allegedly a chapter that can throw its weight around on the tabletop). Titus and his aides are tasked with investigating a Xenos presence on a forge world specialising in the production of Titans, and along the way they encounter a seething Ork horde and a few Chaos nasties.
If you had to stop and ponder about any of the terms here, you may be in for a long storyline. The game presumes that you’re at least familiar with the universe of Warhammer 40k, and it doesn’t pause to offer any explanation for the uninitiated. “How can a machine have a God?” “Why are there Evil Space Marines?” “What the fuck is a ‘Warp’?” If you have to ask, you don’t need to know, apparently.
For fans, this is pretty much a big slice of fan service pie. The lingo, the characteristics of the races, the insignias, the modelling – all of it is considerably faithful to War40k lore, and I gave it several nods along the way.
Given the amount of depth the universe has to offer, even in terms of races to interact with, the single-player campaign is woefully short, no matter how long you try and stretch it out. The ending offers a half-hearted attempt at closure, stopping just shy of displaying “The End” after the final cutscene and fading in a question mark at the last second.
The Upgrade Railroad
THQ originally touted this as an Action RPG – the “action” is certainly present, as we’ll get to in a minute, but the RPG elements are non-existent. One would expect that an RPG would allow some control over how a player’s character progresses and what kind of talents they should possess in the form of abilities and whatnot. This would suggest that characters would be better suited to some situations and put at a disadvantage in others, thereby allowing some variety in gameplay and even the possibility of replay value.
However, Space Marine seems oblivious to this fact and railroads players into a predetermined upgrade path, unlockable by opening drop pods (which are glorified chests). There is no gaining of experience, no new and unique abilities to discover, and certainly no sense of controlling the character’s progression. The game drip feeds abilities and weapons to you, attempting to pace it so that you don’t get bored too quickly. This design decision could possibly be attributed to the short gameplay length – the campaign would’ve ended by the time you get a solid character up and running.
Single-player inventory is limited to four weapons, two of which can’t be swapped out. There is no variety of wargear to equip, no alternative grenades, and only a set number of upgrades (which can be found in those glorified chests).
Happiness is a loaded Melta Gun
Having said all that, the actual gameplay is satisfying. Space Marine does have a regenerating shield element, but a Marine’s health doesn’t regenerate. This can result in some hairy situations if you’re under suppression with a sliver of health (since there is no cover mechanic). The primary method of regaining health is to execute an enemy with your melee weapon. These moves are pleasingly brutal (now I know what sticking a chainsaw in an alien’s face looks like), but the number of animations are limited, and can feel monotonous. Players can also trigger Fury after killing a number of enemies, which regenerates health and increases damage output (because getting into a battle frenzy does wonders for one’s wellbeing).
The weapons are truly the best part of the whole game. Bolters actually feel like they’re firing gyrojet explosive-tipped rounds; lascannons vaporise; melta-guns disintegrate; heavy bolters suppress; and plasma guns superheat and explode with impressive effect. Melee weapons are limited, but great fun – swinging a chainsword through a mob of Orks and crushing the breastplate of a Chaos raider with a Thunder Hammer shouldn’t be this much fun. Switching between melee and ranged combat is effortless and results in some epic skirmishes, especially given the number of Orks that can appear on screen.
Having said that, there was so much left untapped that it was frustrating. I wanted to see Dreadnaughts crush Orks in their claws before pounding them into the dirt and immolating them. I wanted to see Terminator Squads, decked out in heavy wargear, cutting a path through Chaos ranks. I wanted to see Librarians (or the Inquisitor that’s already in the story, at least) unleash some psyker smackdown.
Your AI comrades are fairly adept and can handle themselves in a pinch (most likely because their invulnerable), whereas the enemy AI has the poor sense to completely disregard cover and, most of the time, simply stand out in the open. Granted, we’re dealing with a race obsessed with mindless violence and another race full of twisted, insane armoured warriors, but battles often come down to who has the bigger gun.
Bolt and Grind
Space Marine attempts to make up for its humble 6-hour campaign by providing some multiplayer capability. Three classes are available – the Tactical, which is the standard grunt; the Devastator, which wields heavy weapons in favour of mobility; and the Assault, which favours melee and jet packs in favour of ranged firepower. Each class has unique wargear to unlock as players grind through the levels (capped at 41 – 41st millennium, geddit?), and there are also plenty of traits to work for.
However, the package only offers two game modes – point capture and deathmatch – and the number of maps is pretty limited. I presume that the three classes was an attempt to provide a rock-scissors-paper dynamic (presumably Assault can flank Heavy, Heavy can mow down / bombard Tactical, and Tactical can wear down Assault on the ground?) but battles simply boil down to how many XP you can grind out of a match, rather than putting an emphasis on teamwork and cooperative gameplay. Given how much War40k material there is available to work with, there’s potential here for something far deeper than what we’ve been given.
As a fan of the War40k universe I had been waiting for a quality War40k action title, and while THQ delivered a well presented package, Space Marine delivers in some areas yet sorely disappoints in others. The gunplay and portrayal of the universe is solid, but a short campaign, lack of RPG elements, and a shallow multiplayer fail to pull this up any higher.
It’s not all bad, but it could’ve been a lot better.