I’ve already word-splurged about Space Marine’s singleplayer, but what about its multiplayer, which I spent most of yesterday running my cursor over? Does it make Relic’s third-person 40K stompathon a fuller package? Well, yes and no. There’s things I want to whine about, but more importantly there are two very specific things that endear me to it.
1) Helmets! No grizzled, surly war hero faces here, as is disappointingly the case for the singleplayer’s Captain Titus (I’m genuinely amazed there isn’t a helmet on/off option, a la Mass Effect), but instead each and every player gets to wear an iconic Space Mariney/Chaos Space Mariney tinlid. Phew! Steely anonymity restored.
2) Armour and paint customisation! You’ll have to reach rank 4 to unlock this option, but that’ll take you an hour max. Then you can pick a Space Marine chapter or Chaos warband of your choice, or create a paint scheme from the ground up. I dolled myself up as a Dark Angel the very instant I could. You can pick different armour parts to some extent from the off, but most of them are bound to unlocks which’ll take yonks to attain. That aside, as per Relic tradition it’s bringing the hobbyist element of Games Workshop into 40K’s latest videogame incarnation. To whine again about singleplayer, it’s a relief to get away from the rather vanilla Ultramarines and into one of the core appeals of GW’s games - making your army/soldier your own. It's a definite benefit of this being a third-person rather than first-person game: I get to stare at my painstaking pseudo-paintwork at all times.
This stuff is, of course, mere dressing - what of the multiplayer itself? Well, it’s on the basic side - 8 vs 8 point-defence or team deathmatch in mid-sized maps. The playable factions are Space Marines or Chaos Space Marines, which are identical in everything but appearance. This means they are big, strong, have regenerating armour, a wide choice of weapons (eventually) and make a great thudding noise when they run. A shame there isn’t some asymmetrical play in there, using the Orks or Imperial Guards who litter the singleplayer, but I can imagine that’d be incredibly hard to balance (uneven team sizes would be the only way to even start doing it). Nominally you’re fighting for your team, but really you’re playing for experience points and unlocks, as is The Law according to marketing people who salivate at Call of Duty’s endless success.
Levelling up and meeting certain challenges - for instance, dicking 50 people over with a chainsword - gets you new weapons, armour parts and perks. That’s why you’re playing. That’s why I played for most of yesterday - determined to unlock the power axe and the Mark VI armour. For the Emperor? I couldn’t give a hoot about enforcing the will of the living corpse on his golden throne. I just want a hat with a beak on the front. Only I’ll need to perform 200 kill assists to get it, so that’s not happening any time soon.
And that’s, speaking from a sometime 40K enthusiast’s point of view, the single greatest oversight in multiplayer. It could have been squads of Space Marines working together, but instead it’s eight self-serving guys running around with only an ostensibly common goal. It’s a shame there aren’t any squad mechanics in there. Even the armour customisation sort of undermines the potential fiction, as you’ll inevitably have eight Space Marines from eight different chapters. I might try and arrange a few people to play as Dark Angels so we can look like a fearsome, united force, but that’s going to be complicated by the very limited match-finding options - auto-matchmaking or entirely private game only, alas, in the now-standard console-prioritised way.
However, what’s very much to the good is an extension of one of the aspects I most dug in the singleplayer - working out your preferred playstyle and sticking to it. By level three, the work of about half an hour, you’ll be able to choose between Tactical (standard), Devastator (heavy weapons) or Assault (jump pack’n’melee) archetypes, to which you can apply better/different weapons and buffs as you unlock them on the long journey to level 41. That’s right: I said jump pack. Unbound from the lunatic, scripted limitations in singleplayer, you’re free to use it throughout. It does mean you’re pretty guff at ranged combat, but frankly I enjoy the ol’ whoosh-bam and then a deadly battering with my chainsword or power axe far more than trying to headshot dudes. I get killed a lot, but the freedom to semi-fly around these maps is wonderful, the thrill of successfully managing to cleave a heavily-armoured opponent to death in melee combat so much greater than hanging back with a Melta. The battlefield can look pretty corking at times, a meaty spray of assorted bullets, death-beams and crunchy melee fights, and a constant rain of jump-pack guys across the map. It might not be realising the military aspect of 40K, but it's certainly got an awful lot of its toys - and it's a delight to get to play with them so up close and personal.
Like the singleplayer though - if only there was more to it. More modes, more maps, more classes and gear. While there are a few new weapons in the mix, for the most part I’m just slowly unlocking stuff I’ve already played with extensively in singleplayer, which can feel a bit sour. Fortunately, a very smart mechanic allows you to copy the loadout of whoever just killed you for the duration of your next spawn, so you get to try everything reasonably regularly, as well as getting a headstart on some of the weapon-specific challenges. Most importantly, it means that those with high-end unlocks don’t have a totally unfair advantage over the lower-level types. That was a major factor in keeping me playing, rather than rage-quitting the first time I got smacked to bits with a Thunderhammer. It didn’t take long before I was participating usefully in the fight, not feeling hopelessly out-classed, and that’s something to celebrate.
Space Marine multiplayer is a good, meaty time, taking some of the better elements of singleplayer and sticking them into a smart new context, but at the same time it does feel a little… standard. It pulls a few punches, it throws out the splendid YOU ARE A WALKING GOD feel of the mass Ork slaughters in singleplayer in favour of rapid death and rapid respawns, there isn’t all that much to it once you’ve grabbed a few of the major unlocks, and frankly it’s in the mould of solid but forgettable multiplayer modes such as BioShock 2’s - that voguish tendency towards basing everything around hunger for ranking-up and rewards. Space Marine’s unquestionably a better package for it and I can see myself sticking my helmeted head in a few more times yet, but like the singleplayer I wish it had gone a bit further.