In the year 40,000, mankind’s empire stretches across known space. Countless worlds, we are told, have come under the emperor’s protection, and presumably the vast majority of them are doing perfectly well, thank you very much. I wouldn’t know, though, as I’ve never seen a peaceful world depicted at any time, in any of the vast amount of lore that has been created for Warhammer 40K, undoubtedly one of the richest sci-fi settings there is.
But we’re told that ‘in the grim dark future, there is only war’. So perhaps it’s no surprise. Anyway, the battlefields depicted in the miniatures wargames, comics, books and videogames are invariably bombed-out husks. Welcome to Space Marine.
Finally. How long have there been videogames? And how long has there been Space Marines? Now, in 2011 – 2011! – someone has had the bright idea of a videogame where you get to control a Space Marine! It’s hardly rocket science, but there it is.
There are lots of things that could go wrong here. Warhammer 40,000 has a carefully-constructed visual style that’s been developed over decades, and the Space Marines themselves are not just some run-of-the-mill combat grunts. They’re military units, sure, but they’re also – what, Roman centurions? Crusader knights? Zealous, uncaring Nazis? Actually, they’re a little bit of all of those things, and yet none of them. Obviously, pitching this just right in a game where you get into the armour – and the head – of just one guy is going to be a challenge.
Fortunately, it’s the kind of challenge that Relic eats for breakfast. From the ruined buildings of the Forge World of Graia to the ‘Mad Max’ biker gang styling of the orks, and of course the proud, fanatical focus of the marines themselves, the 40K world we’re used to seeing on tabletops and in RTS games is finally, perfectly rendered from an individual soldier’s perspective. This viewpoint is tightly focused through the personalities of your NPC squadmates, who hold contrasting opinions that help keep the story moving.
As I may have mentioned, though, there is only war. And plenty of it too. From the moment you start, a green deluge of orks WAAAGHs down on you, and you’re picking the game concepts up under immediate, heavy fire. Left click to shoot, righ click to disembowel… it’s pretty straightforward at first. As you lose energy – and you WILL lose energy, pretty much all the time – a particularly gory takedown on a stunned enemy will restore a little of your life force, causing you to regard stragglers as walking bags of potential health. While the enemy have a suitably chaotic look to them, there is still enough uniformity (usually through subtle colour patterns that you soon get used to) for you to pick out the high-value targets among the masses.
It’s all good, clean, blood-soaked fun, blissfully devoid of such hackneyed concepts as scoring and levelling. When you’ve got to grips with a particular weapon loadout, the game drip-feeds you something new, keeping you involved and hungry for more. It’s a simplistic approach that works well to keep the focus on the action. Melee feels sickeningly heavy, with even the measly combat knife providing gallons of gore with a successful takedown, and the grisly finishing moves with the Thunder Hammer are well worth waiting for. The only thing the campaign is really crying out for now is a co-op mode. Because the only thing moore fun than slaying orks in power armour is slaying orks in power armour with your mates.
A couple of little things, though. In our run-through, we encountered the odd infuriating collision detection problem, such as stunned orks who we couldn’t properly eviscerate, gun turrets that we either couldn’t grab hold of or let go of in a timely manner, and the like. Furthermore, it seemed that the multiplayer servers were extremely laggy, although I am willing to concede that this might not be the same for everyone. Multiplayer in general leaves a little to be desired – while the maps have the same crumbling sci-gothic architecture that makes the single player experience so immersive, there are only two game modes – deathmatch and control point capture – and the whole experience can be a little overwhelming at first when you’ve got a piddly little bolt pistol and everyone else has upgraded armour and las cannons.
If I’m completely honest, though, this is a game that has been crying out to be made since the 1980s. Now it’s actually a reality, I’m rather pleased they didn’t try to make it before. As a third-person shooter with a heavy emphasis on melee combat, it has a distinct taste of Darksiders, The Force Unleashed and God of War about it, and I’ve got to say it feels a little consoley. But as I’ve said before, that’s not always a bad thing.
Space Marine gets a big power-fisted thumbs up from this gamer.