The fantasy world of Warhammer has been around for decades now, welcoming returning visitors and newcomers alike into its gritty settings. Since its inception, the Games Workshop franchise has spawned tabletop games, written works of fiction and interactive video games. A release in the latter category is what we’ll focus on today with Warhammer 40K: Space Marine. A chaotic but well-crafted third-person action game from Relic Entertainment and their publishing partners at THQ, it gives longtime fans a great reason to enter a digital representation of their favourite science-fiction fantasy, while welcoming newcomers with easy to understand gameplay mechanics. After all, the more recruits enlisted to battle those damned Orcs, the better off the world will be.
Its digitally realized storyline picks up when a distress signal is sent out by one of the Imperial Forge World planets. Being that the orbiting sphere is one of the important manufacturing hubs in the system for the Imperium, alerts are quickly sent out. Expectedly so, the Orcs are at the forefront of it all, attempting a gruesome invasion with the intention of sparing no human soul. Due to their overwhelming numbers, violent tendencies and complete disregard for everything, Captain Titus and his small band of Ultramarines are sent out to battle the horde. Thus begins one of the most action-packed video games I’ve played in a long time, where downtime is rare.
Throughout the game’s eight to ten hour runtime, quite a bit happens on the story front. What originally seems to be a relatively cut and dry tale of attack and defence turns into quite a bit more. Twists and turns change things up as the quest progresses, with some interesting internal conflict and morality devices thrown in. Since I’d hate to be the one to spoil a storyline for someone, that’s all we’ll divulge here. Just know that there’s more to the script and its supporting premise than a brief synopsis may suggest. The overall storyline is quite interesting and well-developed for being something found in an all-out action game.
Instead of releasing Warhammer 40K: Space Marine as a traditional real-time strategy game like their past series entries, Relic Entertainment decided to change things up a bit by switching to the third-person action genre. Slower-paced and methodical strategy is replaced by a violent bullet sonata mixed with lots of hack n’ slash goodness. A multitude of different weapons are available, each with their own special skills and statistics. Those who like to swing the heaviest hammer available will be restricted to two basic bullet shooters, while the easier to manage options such as the gruesomely serrated chain sword, allow for a couple of extra slots for ‘special weapons.’ Those nasty devices include highlights such as a melting gun, a powerful laser and an explosive mine-laying gun.
The structure employed is very much like what you’d find in a hack n’ slash game. Tens of enemies will swarm towards your group at once, doing their best to whittle down your shield to get to the underlying health bar. There’s not much of a chance to duck, cover and hide. Instead, players must use all means (guns, melee combat and grenades) available, in order to take the ugly green guys out in relatively close proximity. This action first mentality is furthered by its health regeneration system, where the only way to replenish a decreasing red bar is by stunning and executing enemies. Failure to do so will mean certain death and a meeting with the retry loading screen, as cowering for a brief amount of time can only bring back shield stamina.
One new addition thrown in is the occasional use of a jetpack. This creates a death from above style scenario, where the player can boost up and drop down onto his foes, creating Orc smoothies. It’s a very enjoyable mechanic which adds further depth into a surprisingly deep combat system, which is full of some very visceral attacks. The most gnarly of all happens to be the execution finishers, shown through the use of an up-close and personal camera. Just saying the combined chain sword term will give you an idea of what to expect. The nice thing is that there’s an assortment of these animations, with some clubbing, slicing and slamming involved.
In a game like this, combat is key, with the fun factor relying on satisfying abilities. What impressed me the most about Warhammer 40K: Space Marine is how well-crafted its combat system is. I found myself looking forward to dismembering oncoming waves of green grunts, just to experience the thrill which came along with it. Every weapon feels different in the way it works and in its overall result, so some strategy was involved in picking and choosing which weapons worked best for each upcoming scenario. My personal favourite is the gigantic hammer, which can deal powerful annihilation in just one or two blows. Combining that with a machine gun worked very well, but other gamers may find different match-ups which suit them better.
Another hinge which these types of games weigh heavily on is frame rate performance. With the grand amount of enemies (of varying types) rushing towards the player at once, it’s imperative that the game can keep up with all of the individual creations and their animations. Space Marine excels in this department, as it runs smoothly without slowdown or performance issues. The only real visual/performance glitches I came across pertained to enemies going through walls during execution attempts. There were zero major faults to be found, allowing for a very enjoyable and immersive experience. Sure, there’s repetition, but the development team did a pretty good job of trying to mix things up by adding in varied stages, including a battle in the sky. Perhaps a bit more variety could have been employed, however, as these different creations don’t appear too often. Luckily, the core mechanics are quite satisfying.
Co-operative gameplay capabilities during the single player campaign could have been added to create a bit of a more social experience for those interested. This is the type of game which would be a lot of fun to play through in a team, with one player assaulting and the other watching his back. Playing through the campaign, I thought quite often about what that would be like. Those wishes will be partially answered next month however, as the team at Relic Entertainment are planning to release a free downloadable content pack featuring a couple of co-operative scenarios. Four players will be able to take part in its chaotic action, by downloading the Exterminatus pack. It’s not available within the entire campaign, but at least co-op is coming.
Not only is Warhammer 40K: Space Marine a solid single player experience; it also presents a rather robust multiplayer offering. Two separate modes are available for bloody conflict, including a traditional capture point mode and an accompanying team deathmatch option. Both are rather basic in their design, lacking individualized creativity. Though, that isn’t to say that they aren’t good, which they are. In particular, I really enjoy the deathmatches, which are quite a bit of fun.
The maps are large enough to support each mode, allowing for quite a bit of room to move around in. They’re well-designed for every class, including the fast melee type, the powerful chain gun-toting behemoths and the all around class. Being that the nimble character class has a jetpack, the maps are open enough to provide some great aerial action, as players boost up into the air and come down with a thunderous pound on top of unsuspecting foes. I found that the jetpack itself changes things up quite a bit, as it provides an easy and quick escape route from danger.
Utilizing a Call of Duty-esque structure, players can level up their marines’ classes, weaponry, abilities and armour. Performance equates to experience points, which fill a meter corresponding with the difference between your current level and the next one you’ll hit. Weapons and armour also have their own challenges and upgrades for players to strive towards unlocking. There’s a ton of customization, plenty of options and a great amount of overall player choice to be found, which is incredibly nice. These creative ventures mimic the tabletop game and its figures’ allotted creativity in terms of paint colour options. Needless to say, this is not a tacked on competitive mode.
Warhammer 40K: Space Marine is a very colourful affair, taking place in a nice amount of varied locations. Its enemies come in different forms (orcs, evil marines and daemons) with varying sizes. Each one feels different in combat, due to unique attacks, their own individual colour palettes and some nice visual attack effects. Their animations and character models are all well-crafted with the use of quite a bit of involved detail work. Though, the standout in that department certainly happens to be the Ultramarines themselves, who rush into battle wearing very intricately detailed pieces of blue armour. Captain Titus and Company’s facial features are also quite impressive, with some nice realistic visual work.
Their audio work is also very strong, with voice acting that is well-above average. It’s booming, manly and gruff befitting the fantasy world very well. However, the Orcs’ British pipes happen to feature a bit of noticeable overacting. Though, most of the time, gamers will hear explosions, bullets and their accompanying tones. This is all wrapped up amongst an original score, which fits the mood well and ramps up when necessary. It’s an explosive, action-packed and over-the-top video game, which is well-represented in the audio and visual presentation the development team utilized.
Releasing during such a busy time in the video game industry, Warhammer 40K: Space Marine certainly holds its own against the competition. It’s an immersive and entertaining affair with solid offerings in both its single player and competitive multiplayer departments. Fans of the lore and newcomers alike will all enjoy this digital fantasy outing mixed with a great amount of computerized science fiction. I sincerely hope it will do as well as it deserves, as there’s quite a quality gaming experience to be found on a Space Marine branded disc. Enlist now and show those Orcs why they shouldn’t mess with the Ultramarines!
Warhammer 40K: Space Marine was released on September 6, 2011. This review is based on a copy we received for review purposes.