[3 October 2011]
Space Marine does a lot right in terms of its execution. We’ll get that out of the way right now—few things are more satisfying than hearing the panic-stricken cries of your enemies as a chainsword messily dispatches them in a shower of blood and viscera. Or maybe it’s a giant electrical axe splitting their head in twain. Or maybe it’s as simple as riddling their bodies with a hail of bullets. Or disintegrating someone with a well-timed melta blast.
The point is that there are a lot of awfully satisfying ways to deal out death in Space Marine, and if you cannot find a way of murdering that feels enjoyable to you, it is not because the game did not try to let you play it in whatever way you choose. Almost. There are some definite problems that the game suffers from, which I’ll cover in a moment, but let’s start by saying what the game does right. It lets you inhabit the grim darkness of a far future, in which there is only War.
Players might not be familiar with the Warhammer 40k universe, that delightful setting born from a thoroughly engrossing, thoroughly expensive, tabletop game in which you play as either regular humans, genetically enhanced warriors of perfection (the titular Space Marines), crawling demonic horrors from beyond the veil and the twisted humans who serve them (the forces of Chaos), a hivemind insectoid race from outside the galaxy come to devour everything in its path (the Tyranid), a group of alien communists with lots of anime-inspired giant robots and such (the Tau), undead metal skeletons (the Necron), space elves (the Eldar), and orks from space (Space Orks). In this setting, the mighty Human Imperium is ruled by a mostly dead emperor kept semi-alive on a golden throne. The Imperium is constantly fighting to keep the forces of Evil (defined as anyone who is not human) at bay, and the mightiest warrior that they have to offer is the Space Marine, a massive and genetically enhanced human wearing a giant suit of power armor and wielding a machine gun (but a futuristic machine gun) and a sword that is also a chainsaw.
You play as one of these gods among men, and the game does an excellent job of reminding you that as a Space Marine you are one of the Emperor’s finest—absolute zealots out to kill in His name with the muscle and weaponry to back them up. Your enemy, this time, are hordes of Space Orks who have invaded one of the factory worlds of the Imperium, and because it would take too long for the full force of the Imperium’s liberation fleet to arrive, a squad of Space Marines is sent down to secure key installations while waiting for the fleet to show up. It would have been absolutely amazing to see some of the other races (you do actually get the hordes of Chaos making an appearance in a few chapters of the singleplayer game, and in the multiplayer mode, you play either Space Marines or Chaos Space Marines—a real faction in the Warhammer 40k universe and not just something that the developers made up in order to have a balanced multiplayer mode), but Space Marines versus Orks is arguably the settings most iconic matchup (so much so that the starter set for the tabletop game uses the same setup), so it’s no surprise to see this as the conflict of choice for Space Marine.
Orks! From Space!
I will readily admit that I was nervous about the odds of this being a good game. Don’t get me wrong, knowing that Relic (they of the exquisite Dawn of War series) was behind it made me pretty optimistic, but Relic hasn’t really done third person action games before. Which shows, at times, because every so often Space Marine isn’t sure what it wants to be. Health is set up as it is in the original Halo series, with a shield that replenishes automatically and a health bar that does not. The difference is that the only way to get health back in Space Marine is to charge into the thick of battle and execute orks (or use Righteous Fury, which you get by—you guessed it—killing lots of people). So the game encourages you to charge into the fray and massacre your enemies in an intimate setting, but at the same time, there are parts (especially in later levels) in which charging forward into the fray will inevitably end with your Space Marine quite dead.
The biggest orks are called Nobz and are tougher to kill. But really, really satisfying when you do.
This is not an easy game—I played on normal and came close to throwing my controller a few times, mostly when dealing with any explosive enemies. Space Marines can take an awful lot of bullets, but a well placed rokkit will kill you in a hurry, especially when surrounded by orks with chainswords of their own. By the end of the game, I was playing a much more conservative game than before, taking my time and using the couple of scoped weapons to drop as many orks as I could at range before switching to yet more guns in order to thin out the herd charging my way, and then—finally—dispatching the few stragglers with sword or axe or Really Big Hammer.
This is a slightly bigger ork than you should probably shoot.
It’s an interesting evolution because it feels like you’re going backwards in many ways—instead of working your way up to being a spinning murder top, you start out as one and then gradually lose the ability to charge recklessly forward as your enemies become better equipped. I can’t decide if I like it or not, but I will say that much of my frustration with the game came while stubbornly refusing to alter my fighting strategy when the game clearly thought otherwise. It bothered me because from the narrative’s standpoint you are a god. Wounded soldiers of the Imperium comfort one another by saying that at least they lived long enough to see a Space Marine in person when you walk by, and this, more than anything else, communicates the mythos of the setting without intruding on the gameplay. Indeed, the narrative of Space Marine is surprisingly, delightfully strong, complete with one of the most surprisingly well written and utilized female characters in gaming, period. Lieutenant Mira is hands down the best female character in games this year and possibly the best female character in the last decade or so that isn’t the female Shepard variant in Mass Effect. Finally, a female NPC that neither expresses a desire to have sex with you nor requires you to save her. It’s refreshing and easily the best surprise that the singleplayer campaign has to offer.
The multiplayer of Space Marine is, similarly, a pleasant surprise. Teams of Space Marines fight teams of Chaos Space Marines, and you can pick your class a la Battlefield or Team Fortress. There are two game variants: either you play to see who can reach 41 kills the most quickly or you play a game that is basically the conquest mode from Battlefield: Bad Company 2. The levels are not massive, and there aren’t a lot of them either. However, the ability to upgrade each class as you gain more experience is exciting, as is the ability to borrow the loadout of your killer for the following life upon death. This not only serves as a way to quash any complaints of not being able to play with the big guns because you aren’t as regular a player as the fellow who just knocked your head off with a massive hammer, but it also gets you to play all three available classes as you see fit (though for my money the tactical marine is probably the most balanced class and can earn an ability that essentially cuts respawn time in half).
Bottom line, Space Marine could have been (and indeed I was almost resigned to it being) a lousy game that amounted to Gears of War, only with different looking enemies. Instead, Relic knocked one out of the park, delivering their own twists on the genre while embracing whole heartedly the best parts of the gameplay. Not only that, but they deliver an enjoyable plot that, while not full of surprises or even deep thematic undertones (although really there’s enough of that to be had in just listening to some of the audio diaries tht you can find as you moved through the sacked and ruined landscape as well as in some of the recorded announcements that remind residents that being under attack is no excuse to not go to work), is still, nevertheless, quite good and solid. There are some graphical glitches here and there and the jump jet ability is awfully fidgety at times, but overall, Space Marine is more than worth the price of admission, and its multiplayer mode is an excellent addition that (while I wish there were more maps or the ability to play as different races) certainly is capable of devouring an afternoon or two.
Just don’t be surprised if you get tired of hearing Orks yelling about ‘MORE ‘UMANS TO KILL’ or ‘LOOK, SPACE MARINES.’ They yell it a lot, and it will drive you batty if you aren’t careful.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/149033-space-marine/