Let me tell you what I think the best bit in Space Marine is. For a lot of games, it’s usually one specific set piece – you know, where your character disguises himself as a yak during one particular stage and then has to blend in with other yaks in a desperate undercover bid to discover their nefarious plan as to how they intend to take over the world. Then a bunch of drunken redneck hunters show up and you have to stealth your way out, pausing only to gore those filthy gun-toting reprobates to death with your horns for bonus points. Gore enough of them and you get a sprightly little tune as you attempt to escape from this horrific carnival of death as fast as your little trotters will carry you.
Space Marine features no yaks.
No, for me the best bit in Space Marine can happen pretty much any time you want it to – charging towards a swarm of marauding orks in the distance, punching into the middle of their lines with a manly shoulder charge that pulps those unlucky enough to get in your way and then shearing off the rest of their stupid ork faces with your chainsword as they struggle to regain their feet. That’s the best bit of Space Marine, and you can have it happen every five minutes if you feel like it.
You play as UltraMarine Captain Titus, sent out to a tactically vital forge world besieged by an ork invasion in order to basically kill the millions of enemies who are stupid enough to get in his way. Even if you’re not familiar with the Warhammer 40K universe, like me, it won’t take you long to come to the understanding that these Space Marine guys are pretty badass. Going by the intro, it seems like they get sent in only when nuking the planet isn’t an option, so… yeah. They’re a bit on the lethal side of lethal, and good old Captain Titus is going to be swimming in guts by the time the situation is resolved to his satisfaction.
It won’t take you long for you to realise that Space Marine feels good. Really good. The guns in particular are beautifully realised, feeling like big manly implements of death and carnage as opposed to little puttering digital toys that happen to kill enemies when you pepper bullets their way. They buck in your hands, each successful shot accompanied by a splash of claret and visible impact as enemies flinch away from the big gaping hole you’ve been so kind as to provide them with.
What Relic have done here though, is couple ranged combat with melee in a way that works wonderfully. Your hand to hand attacks are permanently mapped to the face buttons on the controller so there’s no awkward fumbling to switch over to a melee stance – as soon as they’re in range, you can bash their brains out with a hammer. And they’re definitely going to get into range, as a typical encounter consists of dozens of big angry green buggers rushing you while some of their pals provide covering fire from afar.
This isn’t a bad thing, though. Not only is the melee combat good, clean, bloody fun – it’s also one of the only ways to recharge your health. While your armour will recharge on its own if you stay out of combat, your health only recovers when you execute an enemy with a finishing move after stunning them. They look great too, suitably violent and painful looking, but you’re open to getting attacked during them – if you haven’t cleared other enemies in the vicinity, you could very easily be killed before you get the health boost. It’s a little annoying at first, but you soon learn when you should be attempting to perform these moves.
The alternative? Unleash your fury special which allows you to kill most enemies in a single hit, perform executions without stunning them first and steadily regain health just by having it active. If you aim in this mode, time slows down and allows you to pick your shots with greater precision. It’s quite handy.
Given the sheer amount of enemies you have to violently murder for the Emperor in glorious carnage, it’s a good thing that you’re appropriately armed for the task. Even discounting your genetically enhanced UltraMarine’s sheer natural power, you can discover and choose from a bunch of weapons. From Chainswords to Thunder Hammers, or Melta Guns to Stalker Bolters, you’re always given the tools you need to succeed.
What’s a Melta Gun? Why, a superheated plasma blast that melts faces of course. A Stalker Bolter? One of the most gratifying sniper rifles in modern gaming, firing off up to ten shots before you have to reload. Again, the weapons are extremely satisfying – and they have to be, because there’s not much else to Space Marine other than the excellent combat. One of the taglines for the game is ‘There is only War’ and they’ve interpreted that very literally – there’s not much of interest in the storyline, even with the twist that a new power source attempts to throw into the mix, and setpieces are few and far between. While the jet pack sequences are bloody awesome there’s only a few throughout the game, and while there’s a good amount of personal versatility during a battle, there’s often little variation in the way one starts. You walk down a corridor, see some bastards, get stuck in. As awesome as the combat feels, it’s definitely a linear experience.
It’s kind of a shame that they didn’t tie character experience into the game as well – a few skill trees would have helped provide a sense of character progression. As it stands, unlocks and weapons occur at predetermined points. Jet packs conveniently run out of fuel when the designers deem fit, and your Bolter will never be available on the first stage.
Sound like I’m down on the game? Not at all – the moment to moment action carries the game. It’s very, very satisfying indeed, even if it does feel somewhat like old school design in many ways. For instance, you can’t take cover behind chest high walls scattered around the environments for a change. I’ll take a moment to let you get your wits back in order after dropping that particular bombshell on you. Here, have a soothing picture of a bunch of orks being massacred.
So, how’s the multiplayer? REALLY FUCKING GOOD, thanks for asking. Talking as someone who often finds online competitive multiplayer about as fun as slowly having your legs crushed in the cogwheels of some massive device, it was surprising to see just how hard the multiplayer component of Space Marine grabbed me. Perhaps it’s due to the general simplicity of the mode – there’s no scrambling around like hyenas fighting over power weapons to dominate each map with, since everything is available from your loadout arsenal to pick and choose from as you see fit. If one approach isn’t working, simply select another loadout. See how that enemy sniper handles a jetpack shunting you above – and straight down upon – his silly little head.
I’m not trying to claim that it’s supremely balanced, mind you – just that I haven’t chewed my knuckles off in frustration quite yet, which is an accomplishment in itself. On top of this the characters feel very weighty, and given the suits of armour this is exactly what they should feel like. Able to take a few hits before they’re destroyed, but vulnerable enough that you’re not unloading clip after clip into someone who just won’t die. Unless lag rears its ugly, despicable face of course – no dedicated servers mean that you’re entirely dependent upon the quality of the host’s connection, and it can be downright awful from time to time.
Customisation is robust, allowing you to paint and build your character’s armour in all kind of interesting ways, and you can choose from and tweak all sorts of loadouts before each match begins – you’re never forced into playing as a particular class, and the three available all feel very distinct. Tactical Marines are your standard balanced class, Devastators are heavily armoured gun emplacements of death even though they’ve got very little mobility and the Assault class gets to leap around the battlefield with a jetpack and melee weapon – though if they can’t in get close, they’ll be chewed apart.
Oh yeah, it’s also got an online pass. You can play for free if you’ve rented the game, but you’re stuck at level five and you’ll never get your hands on the juicier perks and weapon unlocks unless you steal them from opponents after death with the ‘clone your killer’ option. Some more variation in the map environments wouldn’t have gone amiss, either – there’s a notable lack of blue skies in them, and an excess of dinginess. Keeping with the feel of the universe, perhaps, but aside from a few maps there’s a lot of industrialisation themed aesthetics to witness.
So, that’s Space Marine in a nutshell. It could use a little more variety all across the board – more variety in the environments, more variety in your enemies and a few more setpieces to spice things up. Co-op would have been a nice addition (even though a free upcoming DLC Horde Mode-alike called Exterminatus should fix this). The environments could have been a wee bit more open, with a few more ways to approach them from a tactical standpoint. However, it’s easy to overlook those niggles because the combat is so bloody fun to get into – the fusion of melee and ranged attacks work beautifully, meaning that most situations can be resolved exactly how you feel like resolving them so long as you intend to resolve them by shoving your chainsword up an ork’s bum at some point.
Honestly, while I expected to enjoy Space Marine I didn’t expect it to be quite as good as it turned out. It’s simply one of the best all round action games to hit the market in some time. Even if you’re not an established fan of the Warhammer 40K universe, there’s a very strong chance you’ll come out of Space Marine with way more respect for it than you may have previously anticipated.
Xbox 360 version reviewed