By Alec Meer on September 7th, 2011 at 3:10 pm.
Hello! I’ve spent my waking hours since yesterday afternoon battering my way through Relic’s Ork-mashing sci-fi action game Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine (which was released yesterday in most of the world but not until bloody Friday in the UK) and am now ready to empty the contents of my head all over you. This is only for the singleplayer campaign, however – I’m hoping to turn my attention to the multiplayer shortly… On with the word-show!
Space Marine spent around four years in development. At times, it’s difficult to conjecture exactly what all those long months went towards, at least in terms of the singleplayer campaign. I like the game – at times, I like it a lot. At other times, I was yawning my way through yet another near-identical, closed environment, fighting another vast pack of largely identical Orks who were, yet again, pointlessly shouting ‘Space Marine!’ at me every five seconds. Me? I was shouting ‘Chaos Space Marines! Not more bloody Orks! C’mon, please! I know they’re in here somewhere! Hurry up!‘
Space Marine front-loads most of its ideas and features, makes you love ‘em, then mercilessly and mystifyingly repeats them for several hours. Those ideas and features: alternately smacking and shooting a shitload of Orks. It looks spectacular, and there’s no question to my mind that this is 40K’s grim’n'bloody universe in its most visually pleasing digital incarnation yet. In fact, the amount of ornate detail and a subtly painted look to the characters’ armour makes Space Marine the closest we’ve come yet to Games Workshop miniatures come to life.
It’s not exactly short on reverence for the source material, though alas it does ultimately turn it to a rote tale with a straightforward twist that anyone with even a passing familiarity with 40K will spot from a lightyear away. That said, if you’re of a mind to hunt down the audiologs scattered around the level, which isn’t a thrilling task in and of itself as all it involves is checking empty corners, the backstory’s much more fleshed out, adding valuable context and nuance to the growling of the core characters. The same can’t be said for the sequel-hungry cliffhanger everything wraps up around, sadly.
Back to that real problem, though – while not an especially long game (I polished it off in around 10 hours, though men of superior button-pushing are claiming 8), at least half its length is essentially repetition. The game appears to have built up its various mechanics then draped formula content around it until the final stretch, at which point Chaos enter the fray and, while you’re still not doing anything that you haven’t already been doing for hours, the stakes and ferocity of the games step up considerably. Puts me in mind of a long car journey; it’s quite exciting at the start, all rich with the possibilities of your destination, but then you end up on the same motorway for three hours at a steady speed, barely moving a muscle, and slowly zone out into a sort of reflexive fug. Suddenly, though, there’s your junction! And a pretty country road! It’s all jolly good fun again.
So, again, I’m not entirely sure how Space Marine took so long to make – at a wild, entirely speculative guess, perhaps a whole lot of stuff ended up on the drawing board, too impractical to actually realise within the game’s apparently tight brief. For this is a very simple, almost arcade affair, underneath the exaggerated gore and flair of its multifarious kill sequences. You either shoot everything to death, axe/chainsaw/hammer it death or stun it then perform an execution move to regain health. You could chuck a grenade in there too if you like, or activate the Fury power-up that makes you a wee bit stronger for a while. There isn’t a whole lot to it – however, and enormously in its favour, Space Marine’s weapon loadout and ammo availability is such that you can tailor the fight to your preferred style (which in my case is ‘carry a big bloody hammer and not a lot else’) rather than be constrained by what enemies and what guns the game chooses to give you at any one point.
Which is lovely: Deus Ex it ain’t, but I felt I was bashing Orks my way, not forced into an arbitrary sniper sequence or something similar miserable. The exception to this is mighty jump-pack, which allows for rapid traversal of the horizontal and the vertical, and the game’s single most-pleasing attack – the slam’n'stun. Alas, you never get to choose when you do or don’t have the jump-pack; it’s given very rarely and taken away again all too soon. ‘Out of fuel’, mutters Titus, shrugging it off his shoulders. Yeah, and your Bolter was out of ammo a few seconds ago, but that wasn’t a problem for long, was it?
This does mean that the jump-pack is one of the all-too-few elements of the game that doesn’t outstay its welcome. Environments occasionally change appearance, or at least colour palette, but it’s consistently running along fixed paths through industrial-looking interiors or devastated exteriors, interspersed with long lift rides. I suspect design conversations had it that Space Marines don’t do puzzles, which is probably a correct decision. I’m not sure filling all the game’s downtime with elevator journeys was a better choice, however.
There’s a key point I’m dancing around, and one that potentially explains Space Marine in a big way. It’s a game about being not a space marine, but a Space Marine, and as such its laser-focus is on making that feel good: variety and setpieces and everything else that’s so nigglingly missing doubtless became secondary concerns to that.
A Space Marine isn’t any old action hero, even aside from the fact they’re meant to be intergalactic fascists (something the game only lightly touches on, alas – playable character Captain Titus is a straight-up military hero). In 40K fiction, they’re armoured supermen, able to batter and Bolter their way through untold hordes of Xenos, and that is very much the case here. It’s not at all uncommon to stumble your way into death, where you’ll be at the sometimes cruel mercies of checkpointing, but it’s much more common to murder about 30 Orks without breaking a sweat. At times – early in the game, the first introduction of the Thunder Hammer and the ultra-napalm sprayer that is the Meltagun, the sadly few and far between jetpack sequences – this is absolutely, unabashedly joyous. No mess, no fuss, just all-out, ludicrous sci-fi violence on a grand scale. That this can be made boring is upsetting and mystifying. On and on and on and on and WHERE ARE THE CHAOS I WANT TO FIGHT SOME CHAOS NOW PLEEEEEEEEEEEEASE.
Chaos don’t get too much of a look in all-told, but at least this means they don’t get boring like the Orks do. A far more varied force, they require marginally more thoughtful fighting and provide a good excuse to battle against dark mirrors of yourself as well as daemons, grenade-lobbing traitor Guardsmen and the surprisingly deadly Heretics. Once Chaos are in the fight, you can’t rely on one favoured tactic quite so much anymore – the big, more ammo-scarce guns are that much more crucial to stay alive when you’ve got a pair of Chaos Space Marines thundering towards you. There’s a palpable sense that these are a real foe – the Orks just a warm-up.
There are some great moments late in the game where it’s Orks vs Chaos vs Space Marines in enormous fights you can weave your way in and out of, but apart from a couple of relatively well-judged boss fights, that’s about as close as Space Marine gets to setpieces. There’s a tantalising moment where it seems as though you’ll take control of one of the most awesome vehicles in the Imperial armoury – my 13-year-old self took total control of my brain at the mere idea of it – but then it all plays out in a cutscene and you’re back to the cyclic batter’n'Bolter action for a couple more hours.
It’s become almost de rigeur for RPS judgements to worry about revealing mechanical spoilers, but in this case there’s so very little to spoil in that regard. If you’ve played the demo – and you really should – it’s basically that stretched out over 10 hours, for both good and ill. I like it, and I kept playing through to the end for this write-up despite being pretty damned sure I’d already seen everything it had to offer, but I almost wish I hadn’t played it – and instead had preserved the giddy buzz the demo gave me. That said, the groundwork here, the raw and excellent Space Marineiness, is something that could be built upon in wonderful ways, whether that’s in DLC (some manner of co-op is already planned) or the sequel it so crassly angles for.
Despite growing tired of its relentless sameness, I also kind of miss it now I’m not playing it anymore – it’s immensely satisfying to hammer and Lascannon your way through a small army then proudly pan an absurdly blood-splattered Titus around the now-empty room it all happened in. Those four years built a solid foundation for sure; a shame Space Marine doesn’t go much further than that.