Space Marines Do It With A Chainsword (Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine Review)
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
Most tabletop games, in my experience, require use of miniatures which mandates a great deal of effort be applied before you can play or your strategic brilliance can be set loose. This quickly mutes my interest, and in the case of Warhammer 40K, leaves me far more enthralled with the game world than the game itself. So when I heard Relic was bringing a 40K 3rd person actioner to market, my interest was immediately piqued and a slew of questions shot through my head. Will this be the medium to bring the world of 40K to a wider audience? Would it be a Gears clone? Will the game just rely on the license to carry it? Let’s find out!
Space Marine is fan service in spades. First and foremost, you obtain access to an enormous suite of well-crafted armor pieces, with more that unlock as you play, allowing you to create your own custom Space (or Chaos) Marine for multiplayer use. With dozens of chapter-specific color sets preloaded and an entire palette to choose from, the miniatures crowd will be in heaven. On the single-player front, I found a multitude of references to the source material with regrettably little background, proving fan service can be a double-edged sword. This applies opacity to Space Marine, as devotees of the 40K franchise will fall in love with the references, while the attention to detail is likely wasted on newcomers. It’s a shame; Relic obviously took care to craft a game world very faithful to its roots, but it’s all too easy to see a player going, “Okay, alien invasion, super soldier, 3rd person, executions. Halo meets Gears, got it.” A game with a background as deep as the 40K franchise deserves a Mass Effect-style codex just so new players can understand what the hell everyone is talking about. Thankfully, I know enough about 40K to appreciate the bulk of it, but that doesn’t help someone new to the game’s universe. Relic seems to have made a losing bet in this particular arena.
Infinitely detailed models abound and are a testament to the art team, with environments performing their duty of showcasing the action. The animations are very well done, but with some misgivings regarding their implementation. The sound effects are marginal and the background music is forgettable. The storyline fits right into established canon and does a fair job introducing (and only introducing) folks to the big, BIG world of 40K.
Gameplay is a mixed bag, with a distinct difference between single- and multiplayer (which we’ll expand on later). Ranged combat is pretty vanilla, but for the fact object geometry tends to get in the way while shooting from close to an obstacle, like cover. Likewise, grenades have an unfortunate tendency to end up at your feet when thrown from behind cover, even when the line of fire seemed clear. The enemy didn’t appear to have that problem, and was accurate enough to make charging in a particularly bad idea. Being caught out in the open with a number of ranged enemies around was a quick way to get reintroduced to your last checkpoint. Also, most surprising is that the Allied AI is actually effective. Rather than the all-too-common brain-dead AI that are more hindrance than help and usually instil in me a sense of deep, unbridled rage, this AI actually feels like a counterweight to the many aggressive enemies you’ll encounter.
Melee and movement also raised some questions. On the one hand, allowances must be made for the fact that you’re playing an eight-foot-tall humanoid encased in powered armor. On the other, it’s hard not to suspect that the ponderous inertia of Space Marine’s controls may not be entirely by design. It’s almost as if someone got so intent on highlighting the brutal physicality of the space marines that they forgot a game would be going on at the same time. The design of campaign play limits exposure to this issue, but certainly presents challenges in the much faster pace of multiplayer, which already has to contend with lag issues.
Executions are worth a mention, not just due to their glorious brutality, but because they’re yet another way Relic informs the player that facing a Space Marine means dying in horribly painful ways. Also, as as an ancillary benefit, executions are the chosen (yet risky) method by which you regain health in campaign play. Typically, regaining health should not be so great a risk/reward choice as it is in Space Marine. When you’ve whittled an enemy’s health down far enough to commit to an execution, any mob able to draw a bead on you will be getting free hits while the awesomely graphic kills play out, making it a race between your remaining life bar and the animation. It wasn’t entirely uncommon to lose the race, and end up back at the last checkpoint (with full health again). That this element was replaced in multiplayer by a genre-standard regenerating health system sends a pretty clear message: the implications of this feature weren’t wholly thought through prior to implementation.
Single player is a treat. The campaign is designed to showcase the fact space marines are the implacable badasses of the 41st millennium, and does it well. Character voice work is convincing, with Captain Titus bringing a particular gravity to the role, which really helps a player buy in. Weighty ranged weapons decimate hordes of gibbering enemies while threshing sweeps of lethal armaments spray blood everywhere.
Those gamers who list Transformers: War for Cybertron in their back catalog will feel right at home with the setup of Space Marine’s multiplayer. You’re provided with three distinct classes, each with its own unique assortment of weapons and perks. For rapid movement and close combat, you have the Assault/Raptor which is equipped with a jetpack and the most powerful melee weapons. Alternatively, there’s the Tactical, which is your standard middleweight infantry. And finally the Devastator/Havoc, the “heavy”, who carries the biggest guns and is designed for survivability. The argument could be made that the classes are perhaps a bit too stratified. During the course of campaign play, your character is provided access to a much broader suite of weapons than is available to each class through the game’s customizer.
Jumping into Annihilation (standard team deathmatch) or Seize Ground (conquest) is standard fare to anyone familiar with Gears or the aforementioned War for Cybertron. Kill your enemies for fun and prizes, or capture locations on the map for fun and prizes, while at the same time making your enemies dead. Sadly, multiplayer also yanks on the emergency brake while cutting the wheel, and sends the play-style roaring off on a course 180 degrees from the campaign. Where single-player requires a mix of ranged and close-combat, with a distinct lean towards the up-close-and-visceral, multiplayer is largely comprised of gunplay with only a few instances where the awesomely designed melee weapons are really viable.
As with the execution feature of the game, use of the 41st millennium meat-cleavers in multiplayer lock characters into flourishes of animation which certainly look cool but take way too long to transition out of, leaving players frozen and defenseless against nearby enemies. Perhaps the greatest letdown from this title is how multiplayer highlights the shortcomings of the melee system. It’s a case of style-over-substance, which is a real shame, because nothing quite carries the “oh insert-choice-expletive” factor of hearing the growl of a chainsaw (or axe) right behind you and knowing the person wielding it is not friendly.
UNFOUNDED SPECULATION ALERT: The campaign got the bulk of the attention. Multiplayer got rushed once the street date was set, and that date was set in full knowledge that their sales numbers were screwed if Space Marine dropped after Gears 3. So here we have another instance where Relic’s work product hits the plate without enough time in the oven. Lag issues abound, I spent well over an hour trying to get into an Annihilation match; instead I was automatically routed to a Seize Ground game, and on three separate occasions found myself stuck behind the scenery. All of the above issues point to insufficient attention paid to what would have given Space Marine a fighting chance in the longevity department. As it is, Space Marine boasts a single player experience which is a must-have for those fans of the 40K universe, but those who don’t number among the faithful should definitely try-before-you-buy.
Final score: 3.5/5.0
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