Review: Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

November 15, 2011, Author: Andy Corrigan

I’m going to put this out there before I go in-depth with this review: I know shit-all about Warhammer and even less about Warhammer 40,000. I know that Warhammer as a brand is a fantasy table-top game, sold in Games Workshop stores around the globe, and I know that people spend hours meticulously hand-painting the figurines to play with. I know that there are some games on the PC that are related to this franchise and that they’re mainly RTS games. That’s where my knowledge ends.

So, it was a huge surprise to me when Relic Entertainment’s Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine took my fancy following the demo. Still not entirely sure what the hell was going on but eager to learn, I volunteered to tackle the full release…

Knowledge is power; guard it well
When the game kicks off, you’re treated to a gorgeous cut-scene in which we are introduced to our protagonist, Captain Titus of the Ultramarines. An important planet to the human forces, the Forge World Graia (a planet dedicated to the mass-production of the Ultramarine’s most powerful weapons, the Warlord class Titans), is under heavy bombardment from Orks.

Titus watches the oddly beautiful sights of Graia under attack (which looks not unlike a war-torn Coruscant when viewed from above), when he decides that the only course of action is to deploy to the ground and take the fight directly to their green-skinned enemy. He jumps from the ship, using a jetpack to navigate his way to the ground. He lands and dispatches some Orks, before meeting up with his most trusted companions: a surly Sergent called Sidonus, and an unrelenting do-gooder called Leandros. Here the trio try to prevent the Orks from destroying their remaining Titans…

The story is thoroughly enjoyable with a fantastic atmosphere, and in spite of their cold approach to what they face, there is actually a lot to like about the characterisation in our core trio of characters. The dialogue between them is intelligent and grown-up, and somehow managed to evoke in me fond memories of the movie Gladiator, which in hindsight isn’t much of a surprise, as the ethos and values of the Ultramarines comes across as very Gladiatorial throughout. It was also deeply refreshing to hear British accents accompanying Space Marines for a change, and it really added to the atmosphere.

I have to say at this point, as someone who’s not a big fan of typical high-fantasy settings, it was both weird and refreshing for me to see the classic Humans vs Orcs scenario played out with a futuristic twist and managing it so well. I’ll be honest; I still don’t fully understand the lore behind Warhammer 40k and even though I’ve barely scratched the surface, I could tell that this is a universe with a rich tapestry. To me on the outside at least, it comes across that developer Relic Entertainment have a lot of love, respect and understanding for the source material.


Life is the Emperor’s currency; spend it well
It’s easy to glance at this game and label it a Gears of War clone, and while yes, there are some fleeting similarities, it’s very much more than that. What Space Marine does is effortlessly blend solid shooting mechanics with simple but satisfying hack n’ slash action, while keeping a lovely flow and rhythm to it.

The shooting is handled as you’d expect in this type of game; left trigger aims, right fires, while a press of the A button can see you dodge and dive out of the way. In fact it’s this which reminds the most of Gears of War, although there is no cover system. The feedback on your weaponry feels great too, with satisfying audio and visual cues when your aim is on the money, resulting in a glorious explosion of red liquid goodness.

The thing is, you will often find yourself overrun with Orks, so mastering the mêlée side of things is paramount. It’s simple, but tons of fun. You have an attack button and a stun button. Tapping the attack button leads to glorious-looking combos that look and feel powerful, while successfully landing a stun attack will open up the enemy for a brutal execution (which differs, dependant on the mêlée weapon that you’re brandishing), and brutal they certainly are. This is a game that’s not afraid of lashing out the claret, and following battles, Titus will be soaked in it. Although you have an over-shield, it’s through these executions that health is managed, as performing them is only one of two ways to refill your health gauge in the heat of combat. This adds a nice risk/reward balance to proceedings; there’s no medi-packs or recharging health here.

The enemies come in all different types of classes, from your small but plentiful mêlée grunts, to big, rocket-launching generals and everything in-between. While there’s lots of different sizes and shapes, the character models don’t quite feel varied enough, but it’s never really too much of a problem as the action is so fast-paced. For the most part, they’re not that intelligent. The ones with ranged weapons will still aimlessly charge at you and ignore all cover once all their mêlée specialist compatriots are down, leaving you to easily gun them down from a distance.

Still, for what they lack in mental and tactical efficiency, they make up for in sheer numbers; they can be overwhelming at times, but it’s that which keeps the gameplay challenging and enjoyable. Later on, another faction comes into play, but while I won’t cover them in great detail through fear of spoilers, they are tough cookies, with abilities more similar to your own.

This gun'll melt your face off.

The game regularly drip-feeds you with new weapons and power-ups in weapons caches dropped around the levels, some permanent, some temporary; all are fun and make for a nice, flowing combat experience. For example, you’ll see new pistols and sniper rifles, which all handle and behave differently. Some sections will restrict you to particular weapons, but for the most part, once they’re all available you can pick and choose your favourites.

Another example of this evolution comes in with the mêlée weapons, as you start with a short blade but upgrade to the Chainsword and Power Axe later on. At a few points in the campaign, you’re given a Jump-pack, which allows you to jump great distances in the air, cover your squad from high up and then crash to the ground with devastating effect.

You’ll also unlock something called Fury Mode early on, and this progresses in abilities in much the same way. Initially its only purpose is to make you temporarily invulnerable and recharge your health, but part-way in you’ll also be able to use it as a bullet-time when aiming, and its duration and strength will also be extended over the course of the game. This is a great get-out-of-jail feature for when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew in combat.

The game is strictly linear in its approach, but somehow it manages to give off a feeling of humongous scope. Buildings are amazingly huge in stature and grandly designed, and when you see a structure in the far off distance, it feels like it’d be possible to get there, even if it isn’t. The linearity is rarely an issue, but it can make the game feel a little repetitive at times, in a ‘go to new room, beat enemies, go to new room’ manner, but the combat is so much fun that it doesn’t sour the experience too much.

Some of that grand design does go to waste, though. There are tons of areas that you’ll go through where a lot of effort has clearly gone in to make it look war-torn, with cover and large open spaces that would make them awesome combat arenas, but you’ll pass through unimpeded. It’s fine to have these quieter moments of downtime in between the action, but you’ll enter an area and expect something massively exciting to kick-off, and disappointingly come out the other side without so much as someone looking at you funny.

With that, comes my one minor complaint. In terms of pacing and variety, Space Marine does its one trick a little too long, and in spite of Relic trying to change things up with some on-rails sections and the Jump-Packs, the campaign feels a little overcooked. Thankfully, it’ll do enough to make you want to see it through to completion, and at no point does it feel a chore. It may move to just one beat, but it does so very well.

The Chainsword is immensely fun!

The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Imperium
Without being a graphical powerhouse, Space Marine looks very polished and great in motion. The Space Marines are spectacularly modelled, but the other NPCs and the more generic enemies don’t seem quite as visually striking. The environments can be a little on the bland side (especially early on), but the general design looks great, and the beautiful architecture really comes into its own the further you get into the game.

It also performs very well, as there wasn’t one instance of slowdown as a result of the high number of enemies and the gallons of blood flying in every direction on-screen at the same time. A solid visual experience that, from my limited experience, keeps in tight with the classic design of the Warhammer 40k universe.

He who keeps silent, consents
The highlight of Space Marine’s audible pleasures comes in the form of the voice-acting, and no more so is this strongest than with Titus being voiced by the excellent Mark Strong. Everyone does a great job, though, with some decent English talent leading the way, making the game stand out in a very American-oriented market. Even the Orks speak cockney English, which was a major surprise, but totally added to the atmosphere.

Elsewhere the sound effects gratify, with awesome but unusual effects for the guns, which then result in a nice impact noise on the enemy. The overlaying orchestral music dramatises it all nicely, adding a real Hollywood vibe to proceedings, while feeling as gladiatorial as the rest of the game’s presentation.

Gang mentality!

Cowards die in shame
Packed in with Space Marine comes a surprisingly brilliant online mode that allows 16 players to do battle. I will warn you; it’s not a place that’s at all welcoming to newcomers, but if you can persevere for a few matches you can find a bit of an underrated gem.

You have two main modes. Seize Ground has you battling for control points; winning and holding them will earn your team points. The first to reach 1000 points wins the round. Annihilation, on the other hand, sees the first team to hit 41 kills win.

Both these modes are fun, but it’s easy to see that Seize Ground is the most popular, and that’s not surprising given that it’s the one that brings out the most teamwork. There appears to be a very hardcore little community here, one that’s way ahead of you in every way. As long as you can stand up to getting a few ass-kickings early on, though, you’ll find an even ground sooner rather than later.

As is always the case with online shooters these days, there are levelling and unlock systems in place. As you get kills and capture areas points, you’ll earn XP that goes towards your level; as you level up and complete some of the weapons challenges, you’ll earn cool stuff. It’s that simple. When you first start, though, you’ll have access to only one of the three standard loadouts and it’s very limited, but you’ll unlock the other two pretty damn quickly. After that, you’ll earn the ability to create your own to best suit all the new, powerful weapons you’ll pick up.

When you hit level 4, you unlock the Customiser, where you can tinker with the skins of your Space Marines. There are a ton of options here, allowing you to pick base designs from factions from the 40k universe that aren’t even in the game, and then customise them further. Aside from changing the colours and logos (which captures the customisation of the table-top game perfectly), you can also change the breast plates, shoulder pads and other pieces of armour as you unlock them along the way. There are lot of options here, and seeing all these unique designs battling it out in the game is something of a marvel.

The combat itself is practically unchanged from the single-player game, however I did find some ballsier weapons in the multiplayer. For example, there are heavy versions of the standard weaponry. The Heavy Bolter is a bigger version of the standard assault rifle, however using it means you can’t duck and roll as you can with less powerful guns, and you can’t carry a mêlée weapon with it. What you can do is tap the RB button to ground it, making it doubly powerful. You can’t move when doing this, but it’s a great leveler against some of the higher skilled players, and certainly helps when defending areas at range.

Lastly, the game is still being well supported. THQ recently added in a co-op horde mode called Exterminatus as free DLC, which sees you pitted against waves of increasingly difficult enemies. As it wasn’t part of the core package, I haven’t spent a great deal of time in there, but it’s worth a look for free, especially since the levelling system actually spans the competitive mode and this free slice of extra content.

For those who seek perfection, there can be no rest on this side of the grave
I must admit, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine surprised me greatly. I expected it to only cater for a very small market in Warhammer fans, but it’s a game that I found very easy to get into, even as a rank outsider.

It’s true, I’m still not entirely sure on the finer details of the lore and probably never will be, but I felt immersed and entertained throughout thanks to a refreshing setting and an addictive combat system. While it’s not an entirely perfect experience in terms of pacing, when you throw in a more-than-competent multiplayer mode and free DLC, you’ve got a game that deserves a lot more attention than it’ll ever get.


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