Inside Pulse 12

Review: Warhammer 40000: Space Marine (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Warhammer 40000: Space Marine
Genre: Third Person Action/Shooter
Developer: Relic
Publisher: THQ
Release Date: 09/06/11

Everything I know about the Warhammer 40000 franchise can be summed up into three bullet points:

1.) It’s a turn based strategy game featuring orcs and humans fighting in space,
2.) Everyone from Blizzard to Epic has ripped it off in some form or another, and
3.) I would probably suck at the actual turn-based game it comes from.

So, as such, I’m not especially well equipped to talk about the rich and complex history of the Warhammer 40000 series. It’s a tabletop series that’s been around for over two decades at this point and it’s basically brought Games Workshop a large amount of money, but it’s the sort of game that is conceptually interesting, but unlikely to interest you if tabletop minatures gaming doesn’t appeal to you. Which is not to say that the series hasn’t attempted to make the transition to the world of video gaming a few times, as something with orcs and demons and humans fighting in space is eventually going to make the transition into the digital realm if it’s successful enough, by force of will if nothing else. Back in the nineties, Games Workshop partnered with SSI to bring some games to the PC market, but the first appearance of the franchise in the console market was Fire Warrior back in 2003, which was… mediocre, to be honest. THQ learned their lesson from that and focused on real-time strategy games for the next few years, pushing the successful and well received Dawn of War franchise out to the PC market. Developer Relic has to take as much credit for that success as anyone, though, as RTS titles are their bread and butter, starting from the successful and excellent Homeworld in 1999 and moving on from there to develop some excellent RTS games that are generally well regarded by genre fans. Action games aren’t something they’ve approached, however, so the announced Warhammer 40000: Space Marine was something of a surprise, because the franchise had been doing well as an RTS series, had not done so well outside of that, and was being handled by a developer known for RTS games. As it turns out, though, Relic was more than up to the task, as while Space Marine is not a reinvention of the genre or an epic experience, it most certainly is very good and a lot of fun to play, and really, as first tries go, it’s a good one.

Warhammer 40000: Space Marine takes place, surprise, in the 41st millenium, placing you in the role of Captain Titus, head of the company of Ultramarines the story spends most of its time focused on. The Ultramarines are sent down to the forge world Graia, where the game takes place, as a stalling tactic; there are Orcs invading the planet, and while the request has been put in for a fleet to assist, something needs to be done now to protect the Titans (giant battlemechs) on the planet, among other things. Compassionate and thoughtful Titus is joined by two other Ultramarines in this effort: grizzled veteran and long time ally Sidonus and overly “by the books” and conservative Leandros, both of whom are no slouches in combat either. Along the way, they make contact with the survivors on Graia, including lead combat officer Lieutenant Mira and the shady Inquisitor Drogan, and everything gets a whole lot worse before it gets any better, as one might expect. On the plus side, the storyline is solidly written and the characters are likable enough to keep things moving, and the plot keeps the action flowing heavily at nearly all times so nothing gets tiresome or boring. On the minus side, the ending is depressing and setting up for an obvious sequel, and the game does little to clue you in on anything if you’ve no idea what Warhammer 40000 is about, and while you can follow along well enough to work with the story, you’ll be making trips to Wikipedia if you want more than a basic idea as to what’s going on in the game universe. Otherwise, there are more than a few moments where the plot is “Hey, look, there’s some stuff! Kill that stuff!” with no real explanations or indications that this is supposed to be sensible, and the characters make observations about concepts and factions that go over the head of the inexperienced player, unfortunately.

Space Marine looks quite good, and while it’s not without its flaws, there’s nothing particularly bad about the visuals. The character models are all well rendered and detailed, and the animations are mostly fluid and well done. The game environments, while mostly consisting of rotting industrial complexes and barren landscapes, are very fitting to the concept and subject matter, and still manage to show off some surprises, especially later in the game, and the special effects on display are excellent and vibrant. However, there are occasional visual glitches when performing executions where enemies will glitch during this, and while this doesn’t cause mechanical issues, it’s obvious visually and noticeable when it comes up. Aurally, Space Marine features a solid and well composed soundtrack of the expected orchestral scores for such a game, and while nothing stands out especially well, the music is fitting and works well for the game. The voice acting is excellent across the board, featuring plenty of well cast parts and solid delivery that makes the dialogue convincing and adds nicely to the overall experience, though the generic Orc voices tend to repeat noticeably as the game progresses. The sound effects are also very well implemented and enjoyable, and the gunfire and explosion effects are powerful and well implemented, as are the combat effects, especially when using the chainsword, as it’s a powerful sounding weapon that is fun to use both mechanically and aurally.

Space Marine, mechanically, is equal parts third person shooter and hack-and-slash, so anyone with some familiarity with those genres should be able to jump into the game without too much difficulty. The left stick moves and the right stick looks around, X is used for light and heavy attacks, Y is used for stunning strikes that disorient enemies, A is used for dodging and, when you’re wearing a jump pack, jumping, B is the context sensitive button, and pressing in the left stick runs. The left trigger aims, the right trigger fires guns, the left bumper tosses grenades, the right bumper reloads and vents weapons that heat up, and the D-pad can select from one of four guns you can carry at all times. The game doesn’t use any sort of oddball cover mechanics or anything of that nature, and mostly just has you running through the stages, rending everything you see asunder, so there’s not too much to adjust to, by and large. As such, it’s pretty simple to learn how to play the game, both because the game is good about providing tutorials that explain everything and because the game is mechanically friendly for genre fans and casual players, as nothing it does is too weird or hard to learn.

Space Marine uses a combination health/shield system for maintaining the livelihood of your character; when you take damage, your shields deplete until empty, and then your health begins draining until you’re dead. If you manage to get behind cover or take out the attacking forces, your shields will regenerate to full, but your health will remain damaged until you do something to refill it. There are two ways you can refill your health: executing enemies and employing Fury. Executing enemies is fairly simple: stun them in some form or fashion, then press B to kill them in graphic fashion and replenish some health. Larger enemies can potentially fight you off, though, so you’ll have to spam B to win the duel against them to finish them off, though they also pay off more health when killed, making them desirable to execute when possible. Using Fury is as simple as pressing in both sticks when the Fury Meter in the bottom left of the screen is filled, and while in this mode, your health constantly regenerates (slowly), so if you can keep yourself from taking too much damage you’ll come out of the situation with a net win. Of course, Fury Mode also offers other benefits aside from regeneration; you’ll deal added damage, be able to slow down your perception of time while aiming guns once you earn the ability, and be able to instantly win resisted executions against larger enemies, so it’s a useful thing to have, and it charges up fast enough that you won’t feel like you have to save it for emergency situations. The game upgrades your Fury and shield power a couple times throughout the campaign, so you’ll find yourself growing stronger as the game becomes more challenging, giving a solid balance to the experience all in all.

The game also has a pretty good variety of weapons to play with, both melee and ranged. While you start off with a basic combat knife, the game gets into the good stuff early by handing you the ever so wonderful chainsword to wreak havoc with, though it doesn’t expect you to stick to just that. You’re offered the chainsword, which is fast but weak in comparison to the other weapons, the Power Axe, which is stronger but slower, and the Thunder Hammer, which is exceptionally powerful but slow and limits your use of ranged weapons significantly. You’re also given four slots for ranger weapons, though two of those slots are spoken for at all times. You’re always equipped with a pistol, first of the ballistic variety and later of the plasma variety, which has infinite shots but poor damage relatively speaking… though the plasma pistol also has a nifty charge blast that deals some nice damage to compensate. You’re also always equipped with a Bolter, which is your standard machine gun, though it, too, gets a solid upgrade later in the game. The other two ranged slots can be occupied by any one of the various guns you’ll find through the game, from the long-range Stalker Pattern Bolter to the mine-throwing Vengeance Launcher to the powerful shotgun-like Meltagun and more, giving you plenty of variety and the ability to swap out each time you find a new ammo dump in the different chapters. You’ll also find the odd jump pack here and there, which equips you with the Thunder Hammer and a jetpack that allows you to launch yourself into the air, where you can then make powerful area of effect landing strikes that put a serious hurting on anything in range, allowing you to obliterate groups of enemies with ease. The odd turret sequences pop up here and there as well, though you can also rip the turrets off their stands in most cases and simply carry the weapon around with you, dispensing painful justice on the go, which is just all sorts of fun, if temporary.

Aside from the core campaign, Space Marine also features a fairly involved multiplayer component, featuring two immediately available play modes and one more that’ll be coming in a few weeks, free of charge. The two immediately available modes are Annihilation, which is your standard Team Deathmatch mode, and Sieze Ground, which is an objective-based King of the Hill sort of thing. Both modes offer full eight-on-eight versus play pitting the Space Marines against the Chaos Space Marines, and you can freely play as either side with no issue. The first few levels you’ll spend playing will be spent learning how things work, though once you unlock the ability to customize your troopers, that’s where things get interesting. Aside from the ability to fully customize the heck out of your color scheme (for those of you who are fans of painting your miniatures and such), you’re also offered three class types to pick from with their own unlockables and strengths. Tactical Marines/Chaos Space Marines are mix of ranged and melee weapon specialists that are very middle of the road, Devastator Marines/Chaos Havocs are heavy long-ranged warriors with good defense and ranged options but poor melee, and Assault Marines/Chaos Raptors offer excellent melee and jump packs, but poor ranged options. You’ll get a chance to test these out as you learn the ropes, since you can nab the build of whoever kills you, letting you play around with the different classes long before you get the chance to customize them, and there are plenty of weapons to play with between the classes as you level up. The third multiplayer mode, Exterminatus, will be a survival mode, similar in theory to Horde Mode from Gears of War, where up to four players can take on waves or respawning enemies as either the Space Marines or Chaos Space Marines, and by all indications, it sounds like it’ll be an excellent (and once again, free) addition to the multiplayer.

You can plow through the campaign in about six to eight hours, depending on how much time you spend looking for Servo Skulls (collectibles with voice clips stored in them) and such, but there’s more to the game than just that. As you’d expect, there are multiple difficulties to plow through in the campaign, as well as the aforementioned collectibles to find, so those who enjoy that mode will have a lot reason to return. The multiplayer component, between the leveling up of characters and the solid variety of play options available, also offers solid incentive to return to the game, especially with the upcoming Exterminatus mode that promises good fun for friends online. There are also plenty of Achievements to try and clear, online and offline, for those who are interested in this thing, and the game makes a solid balance between online and offline Achievements for those who want an incentive to take on both modes, and there are some interesting requirements for a few beyond the basic “Kill X amount of dudes” or “Complete X stage” options. Space Marine is certainly a fun and entertaining experience, and there’s more than enough to the game to keep an interested player coming back, online and off, and as such, there’s a surprising amount of long-term value to the game that keeps it interesting beyond the initial experience.

That said, the online play is the biggest draw of the experience, pound for pound, which is unfortunate, not because it’s not fun, but because it’s prone to hiccups. It’s not that there’s constant lag or anything, but at the moment you’ll see lag pop up here and there as you play to a point where it’s noticeable until the game forcibly does something about it, and while it’s not game-breaking, it is annoying when it pops up. Beyond that, though, the game is, in many respects, Dynasty Warriors with guns, and while someone like myself thinks that’s awesome, there are moments where it feels like you’re just hacking things to bits for hours. The game does break that up a bit with the jump pack and turret sequences, but those are few, and there are only two boss battles in the game, one of which boils down to “shooting a lot and killing thugs that interrupt this” while the other boils down to “kill waves of enemies, then perform oddball shooting/active time sequences in a segment reminiscent of the Spider-Man 2099 stages in Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions“, which are both okay, but underwhelming. The game’s health mechanic also makes for a bit of frustration at times, as the two methods by which you can refill health are the only two methods by which this can be done. This becomes problematic in larger, more involved battles where you’ll have to play tactically to survive, because refilling your health when surrounded by ten guys leaves you open to taking damage, since you’re still vulnerable during executions and Fury doesn’t refill your health especially fast. It’s not specifically a bad thing when games ask you to think a bit about what you’re doing, mind you, but the game essentially screams violent hack-and-slash, player character wading hip-deep through rivers of dead enemies, and suddenly setting up situations where you’ll die fast if you employ this tactic is jarring, especially when so many other segments are exactly this thing.

Warhammer 40000: Space Marine is an excellent first try at the action genre from a developer not known for this thing, and it’s a joyfully successful reintroduction of the franchise to the console market, but it’s not unflawed in its design and presentation, making for a fun, if occasionally uneven, experience. The story, though excessively serious for a plot featuring space orcs, manages to make itself work out well enough to carry the product, even if the ending is unsatisfying. The game looks good and sounds better, and the gameplay mechanics are simple to work with and involved enough to make the game fun to play throughout the campaign and beyond. With a good variety of content in the campaign and a solid multiplayer component that will feature free DLC to add to it, Space Marine is a game that has both style and substance to its credit and makes a good case for genre fans to love it. However, there are some minor technical issues visually, the online has some hiccups and lag issues at times that can make for some frustration, the gameplay isn’t as diverse as one might hope and lacks punch in its boss battles, and the game is uneven at times in its battle scenes thanks to occasionally odd pacing and a restrictive healing system. Taken as a whole product, Space Marine is certainly more good than bad and is easily recommendable to anyone who loves third person shooters and hacking things to bits, and while it’s not without its flaws, it offers more than enough content and sheer enjoyment to counteract the bad in the product and make for an enjoyable, gory experience.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: GOOD

FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Warhammer 40000: Space Marine is a good reintroduction to the Warhammer 40000 franchise for console gamers after the less than optimal Fire Warrior, and while it’s not a flawless product, all things considered, it’s basically a miracle of a game all the same. The story is heavy handed, lacking in depth and ends on a bad note, but still manages to be somewhat compelling and enjoyable despite, and occasionally because of, these issues. The visuals are mostly good, the audio is somewhat better, and the game is easy to pick up and play while offering plenty of depth to keep the experience interesting. There’s a solid amount of variety to the campaign and the multiplayer options, between what’s available and what’s coming at no cost to the player, make for a good amount of depth to a game about hacking up space orcs with a chainsword, which is no mean feat and gives the game value beyond its concept and execution. That said, the game has some minor but noticeable technical issues visually and with the online play that hamper the experience at times, the game lacks in variety at points and features some less than inspiring boss sequences, and the pacing and restrictive healing mechanic can make the experience feel uneven at times. As Relic’s first real attempt at this sort of game, however, Space Marine is an excellent product that shows the potential of both the developer and the franchise in the console market, and while the game has its issues, it’s really better than one would expect, and well worth checking out.