Hot damn! Now that did the trick. I’m prone to worrying about what game I should play right after finishing something great. It’s a science, like which album or song do you play right after something that’s lifted your spirits or got you in a singin’ mood. You don’t want something that’s going to shut you up. It’s the same with games: picking the wrong bet as a follow-up can sour the experience, or at least fail to take advantage of my mental momentum. My mood could be ruined. I could be left adrift for a few days, every game seeming strangely unappealing. Last night, I got it right – following up Deus Ex: Human Revolution with the Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine demo. Hot damn. Aside from the whole machine-assisted warrior element, these are two very different games. After some 30 hours of sneaking, hacking and pondering in DX3, mindlessly eviscerating Orks by the dozen with a Power Axe was exactly right, exactly the coda I needed.
I’m not entirely sure what I expected Space Marine to be, but I’ll confess I was as guilty as the next knee-jerker of expecting something in the vein of Gears of War. Apart from a thunderous run and big shoulders, there really isn’t much in common between the two. Your stony-faced Ultramarine doesn’t need cover, and he’d probably think that taking 30 seconds to take down one enemy is weak and monstrously inefficient. In Space Marine, attacking a swarm of Orks is the ultra-violent equivalent of jumping gleefully into a big pile of leaves. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. That’s the noise I made throughout, accompanied by the happy rattle of a chainsword ripping greenskins asunder by the half-dozen.
It’s entirely stupid, which could be said to undermine the source material – y’know, Only War, terrible threats to the galaxy, the long and hard training and genetic modification a Space Marine undertakes and all that – but somehow it ends up supporting it. The point of the Space Marine is to be a brutal superman, completely unfazed by overwhelming odds and untroubled by heinous injury. The health recovery mechanic sits in a middleground between ye olde health packs and you lazy young whippersnapper’s auto-recharge, as well as adding something suitably daft the emphasise the crazed fervour of the Space Marine. Stun an enemy with F (more armoured guys take repeated slaps, mind) and you can perform an Execution kill. Cue quick, excessively bloody cutscene, of course, and also a big dollop of restored health. So devoted is the Space Marine to his duty that performing it well even makes him feel better. It doesn’t make a lick of sense. It doesn’t need to: the point is regaining health accentuates rather than interrupts the all-go, all-killing flow of the game. You don’t need to run away or scour an inventory: you just need to kill better.
On top of that is the Fury system, an unashamedly crass giant U (for Ultramarines) which fills as you kill. Activate it, and holy shit. Everything will die. Everything. Health insantly restores, any ork you so much as tap with your melee weapon pops like an over-ripe tomato, and the best thing is you’ll probably be able to do it all over again just a couple of minutes later.
Perhaps this makes the game sound unchallenging, but fear not. As well as the fact it’s near-constantly swamping you with enemies, it is, I suspect, taking full advantage of just how lost you’ll get to a blood-frenzy. You need to force yourself to stun rather than carve, to balance your sheer, unbridled mania for slaying with thinking tactically, using stragglers as health packs (rather than trying to execute one who’s surrounded by tons of angry mates), pick off distant ranged guys, and avoid stikbombs and the occasional exploding Squig. The challenge is to keep your eye on the ball even as you totally indulge yourself.
Oh, lest this sounds like primarily a melee game, there’s actually a ton of gun stuff in there too. Minibosses require staying out of range a little more (unless you’re in Fury mode, in which case go nuts), you’ll be wanting to take out assorted Orks as you charge into the fray and the Bolter makes for a satisfyingly overpowered machine gun. The boltgun’s poxy, the Stalker Bolter (Space Marine’s sniper rifle) isn’t terribly interesting and there’s some kind of electrical rocketlauncher which doesn’t seem to achieve much. The bolter, though, does exactly what I’d always hoped a Space Marine’s bolter would do. Orks go pop. I am happy.
The demo also features an Assault Marine jumppack, which takes Dawn of War II’s finest-feature, whoosh-bam, and makes it yours. The jumppack lies somewhere between go anywhere you like and out-of-control, so expect a few messy landings or sliding slowly down walls, but when you get it right it lends the game sweeping verticality that the ground-based fights wouldn’t seem to suggest. Of course, the demo takes the pack away from you for contrived reasons after a few minutes, but hopefully the full game will be more generous.
A lot of positive words, then – but what I don’t know is how well this frenetic, great-looking ultra-violence will extend across an entire game. I’m definitely hungering for more (and especially for more time with the armour-cleaving Power Axe) but I can imagine it getting a little relentless if it doesn’t have a few more tricks up its sleeve. Still, I am only speculating there: what I do know is that this really does seem to be a realisation of a crucial part of the Space Marine fantasy. Moral ambiguity, creepy fanaticism and acres of fascinating lore don’t really feature in the demo, but it’s definitely you being a glowering, ultra-hardnut wading through what most any other videogame hero would consider impossible circumstances.
Most importantly: Only War. A little bit of chat’n’walk right between major skirmishes, but all-told it didn’t waste my time with anything other than bringing the Emperor’s justice.
(Also, I can attest to this running remarkably well on Intel’s HD 3000 integrated graphics. Which is something of a relief, as I just bought a laptop which has that. Couldn’t whack everything up to max and don’t think it made 60FPS, but I was genuinely surprised by how good it looked and smooth it ran. A new age!)
The Space Marine demo is currently available to US folk who’ve preordered the game, to UK folk who’ve signed up for the ‘Honor Guard‘ mailing list sorta thing, and reportedly on public release soon.