Darkness crowds the world. Countless foes, alien and human alike, threaten the might of the Imperium of Man. The Emperor, once the last shining beacon of all that humanity strives to be, survives only as a husk; kept alive by a failing mechanical device known as the Golden Throne. Sustained through psychic power only created by living people, a thousand of which a day are killed in the process, he exists as a God to the people of the Imperium, guarding and maintaining the smallest shred of hope for his people with his immense psychic power.
This is the universe of Warhammer 40k. Awesome and intricate, immense and familiar. An entire civilization a gasp from destruction held aloft by the power of a dead man’s mind and the might of his most incredible creations, the Adeptus Astartes. The Space Marines. Each one a powerful testament to the might and will of the Imperium. Stronger, faster, sturdier than any normal man could ever hope to be, their might and power makes them legends among the awestruck populace. Trained soldiers bow in their presence. Spanning the Galaxy and divided into Chapters so that no man can control too many. The greatest of these chapters are the Ultramarines, and these are the warriors you will control in Relic Entertainment’s newest release, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.
This is certainly not Relic’s maiden voyage into the Warhammer 40k universe, with the wildly successful Dawn of War games on their resume. This is, however, their first attempt at a third person shooter. What they’ve managed to put together is a more than competent entry in the crowded market that could be the kickstart to a very successful franchise.
Space Marine follows Captain Titus of the Ultramarines and his squad as they attempt to repel an Ork invasion on Forge World Graia. On the surface, the game twists and turns through a solid, if not sensational, story with some great enemy types and set pieces. Fans of the lore behind the universe, though, will certainly get a lot more out what’s on display here. The game contains plenty of shout-outs for devotees of the universe, from casual conversation between the Marines to the various references scattered around the battlefield.
I’m a big fan of the 40k universe, but it can get a little hairy trying to translate the raw scope of the fiction without coming off as silly. Everything is over the top in 40k. It’s the year 40,000, billions of soldiers dead per day, an Emperor who has been dead for 10,000 years yet still protects his people with his psychic power. Held within it’s own limits, however, the fiction all fits. Relic has done a great job of capturing that here. For every enormous structure that stretches for miles into the sky, there is an audio log between members of a family trying to escape the invasion.
Scenes where your character wades into battle against dozens of Orks and demolishes them with his incredible might are offset by dozens of dead and dying Imperial Guardsmen, reminding you that while you may be superhuman, there is a very human cost to the endless war the Imperium is waging. The game is filled with countless instances of this kind of balance for players familiar with the setting and it certainly goes a long way to legitimize the setting and flesh out what would otherwise be a somewhat thin storyline.
The gameplay is the most important part of any Third Person Shooter, and this is where Space Marine shines. Unlike most TPS games, Space Marine puts an equal amount of emphasis on both ranged and melee combat and manages to do both quite well. The seamless transition between mowing down a hoard of Orks with your Bolter and then rushing in to finish off the stragglers with your Chainsword is incredibly satisfying and captures the feeling of power and grace that should come along with being among the galaxy’s most lethal killing machines. The shooting controls are very tight, and melee offers both standard and stun attacks as well as the option to finish off stunned opponents with brutal executions. Everything from the weapons’ impact on the enemies to your Space Marine’s movement has the appropriate level of weight to it without feeling bogged down. The Adeptus Astartes are heavy but agile due to the nature of their power suits, and that tricky combination manages to come off well in game.
This agilty is important, because unlike the majority of modern TPS games, Space Marine has no cover mechanic whatsoever. In keeping with the style of it’s titular warriors, you will not spend any time hiding behind short walls waiting out the next burst of fire from your enemies so you can squeeze off a couple rounds. You’ll need to utilize both ranged and close quarters weaponry, as well as the roll mechanic to make it out of many situations alive. Executions also provide your character with health, as does triggering Fury mode.
This mode builds up by killing your enemies and can be triggered to either give you extra damage in melee combat or allow you to slow down time when aiming in ranged combat. You’ll need to learn all of the ins and outs of the gameplay to survive large waves of enemies, especially on the higher difficulties. The agility of your character, lack of cover, and seamless transition between melee and ranged combat keeps the game from being a “clone” of Gears of War, as many people may assume upon first glance.
Relic does a good job of feeding you new enemy types and weapons to kill them with as you roll through the 8-12 hour campaign. There really isn’t much variety in the gameplay besides finding new ways to defeat the different enemy types, so some may burn out a bit as the hours wear on. I found, though, that unlike a typical first or third person shooter that tends to wear out it’s welcome after a while, Space Marine’s combo of Melee and Shooting helps to add longevity beyond the standard “go here, shoot them” setup.
Of course no modern game would be complete without Online Multiplayer. Space Marine offers an 8 vs 8 multiplayer experience that spans across two modes, Annihilation and Seize Ground. Seize Ground is your typical “capture the points” mode common in the genre while Annihilation functions as your standard deathmatch. There are multiple classes you can choose from as you progress up the ranks of the multiplayer, and you’ll unlock new weapons, armor pieces and perks as you go. Both modes are very enjoyable experiences because of the game’s smooth gameplay, however they are too derivative to hold much of a player base once some of the heavier hitters in the genre launch this fall. Thankfully, by then’ Relic has promised free co-op DLC in the form of Exterminatus mode. Functioning similar to the now familiar Horde Mode, this 4-player mode takes place outside the campaign and will initially feature two different scenarios. This is a great addition to the game’ and the timing should be perfect to help draw some players back.
The real draw of the games multiplayer mode for fans of the 40k universe is the customization feature. Unlocked at multiplayer level 4, this mode allows you to customize nearly everything about your Space Marine from the color of their armor to the style of every piece. More armor pieces are unlocked as you level to allow even greater customization. Just like when painting real life miniatures you aren’t locked into color schemes. While you have the option of picking schemes that correspond to the various chapters of Adeptus Astartes, you can also individually color each section however you want. This option is a dream for collectors as it allows them to recreate the style of their tabletop miniatures in the game. The selection of chapter templates is huge and not limited to obvious First Founding chapters like the Blood Angels. This level of fan service goes a long way to increasing the appeal of the multiplayer and I would love to see additional options added via DLC.
Visually, the game looks very sharp with some very good art direction. Environments do a great job of capturing the scope of the world. The Space Marines and the various enemies in the game look and animate very well and the execution kills are visceral and satisfying. I did run into several visual glitches during my time with the game. Multiple times during executions enemies would disappear or sink into the environment. I had one occasion where the character I was talking to during a cutscene completely disappeared. These issues were somewhat minor, however, and the game is solid as it relates to the more important performance/visual areas like framerate and screen tearing. The audio is likewise very good with some solid voice acting and a very fitting score.
Fans of the Warhammer 40k universe have been waiting a long time for a game like this. A game that manages to capture both the scale of the battle the Imperium is waging and the gritty, blood stained action on the front lines. While anyone who loves third person action games will get a great deal of enjoyment out of Space Marine, fans of the fiction will find a lot to love here. With a solid single player campaign, enjoyable competitive multiplayer, and what should be a lights out co-op mode coming next month, Relic has delivered a love letter to 40k that even non-fans should consider taking for a spin.
Review copy provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.