High-quality games set in the Warhammer 40k universe have almost all tended to be real-time strategy games, this being the specialty of developers Relic Entertainment, who are also famous for creating the cult favourite Homeworld and acclaimed RTS Company of Heroes. Indeed, Space Marine is only the second non-strategy game they have made, and, especially when you take this into consideration, it is a very impressively constructed game.
For those unfamiliar with Warhammer 40,000 lore, humanity has formed an enormous interplanetary empire known as the Imperium, united under the Emperor, a figure who, although he is worshipped as a god, is in reality feeble and sustained only by his Golden Throne. The billion-strong ranks of the Imperial Guard make up the enormous majority of the human armed forces, but the thousand chapters of Space Marines (one million marines in total) are its elite units, sent in in small groups to aid the Imperial Guard, and strike terror into the enemy. They stand eight feet tall, wear incredibly powerful armour, and know no fear.
You play as the Captain (leader) of one such chapter: Captain Titus, of the Ultramarines. Your chapter is dispatched by the empire to a Forge World, or planet focusing on the production of military technology, which is under attack by a horde of Orkz, a futuristic version of the orcs who are present in almost every fantasy universe since Lord of the Rings, in one form or another. They have strength in numbers, but even so, they are no match for even a few Space Marines, and Titus decides to take only his trusted second-in-command, Sidonus, and another young but promising sergeant named Leandros, with him in an assault on the Orkz, to hold them off until the Liberation Fleet arrives to destroy them.
I’ve spent quite a while talking about the story, and it is important in Warhammer games, because of the fascinating nature of its backstory: a combination of traditional fantasy and the interstellar empires found in science fiction. Space Marine is unfortunately quite light on story, but what is there is well-told and fascinating. It is also a lot more enjoyable if you know a little bit about the universe, so do consider reading up a little before you play.
Space Marine can be considered either a third-person shooter with melee combat elements, or an action game with guns. This depends entirely upon your playstyle, which will probably change over the course of the game: some sections are far easier with primarily melee combat, and others with primarily ranged combat. Preference will differ depending on whom you ask, but I personally tended to use guns more than close-combat weapons.
You can carry four guns at a time (which is twice as many as the traditional two, and a very nice touch), two of which are the standard issue Bolt Pistol and the Bolter, a sort of sub-machine gun. These are automatically upgraded as you go through the game, but you cannot switch them out at will. The other two slots can be filled by your choice of the Melta Gun, a kind of shotgun; the Lascannon, a highly accurate sniper; the Vengeance Launcher, a grenade launcher, and a handful of others. In addition, you sometimes find powerful heavy weapons and turrets lying around, and you can rip these out of the ground and carry them, at the cost of some agility.
For most of the early part of the game, you will only really need the Pistol and Bolter, and your melee weapon. You are initially issued a pathetic and useless combat knife, but this is quickly replaced by a chainsword (yes, a chainsaw on a sword). For most of the rest of the game, you can switch between the chainsword and axe, which are, other than aesthetically, quite similar. Certain sections will also permit you to use my (and probably everyone else’s) favourite weapon, the Storm Hammer. It is slow, but incredibly powerful. It obliterates hordes of weaker enemies, and slowly breaks down the stronger ones. There is, however, a penalty for using it: when it is equipped, you can only shoot with the pistol and Bolter, not your more powerful weapons, presumably due to weight. This is fortunate, because without that limitation, it would be so overpowered as to be game-breaking. Even with the limitation, it is quite often your best bet, especially if you focus more on melee attacking.
Occasionally, you are given a jetpack, which allows you to soar to great heights and slam into the ground, damaging enemies. This is only when progression requires it, i.e. you have to reach a series of high platforms, and Titus makes a feeble excuse to throw away the jetpack (“Out of fuel”) when each of these sections finishes. These parts of the game make for a nice change, but it would be nice if they were more commonplace.
Health does not strictly regenerate in Space Marine. Your outer shield regenerates, but the level of health below it is finite, and only restored by executing enemies (a slow and dangerous procedure that leaves you wide open to attack from other enemies) or activating Fury mode, which also increases the power of your melee attacks. This can be quite an annoyance, but careful play means that you still shouldn’t need health too often; your shields should only rarely be down. If they are, you will probably die fairly soon. As you progress, you are provided with upgrades to both your Fury and your shield, to keep up with your ever-more-powerful enemies, but difficulty does still ramp up near the end.
A little over halfway through the game, everything (as usual) goes horribly wrong, and the minor annoyance known as the Orkz are replaced by a truly terrifying and extremely powerful enemy, the arch nemeses of the Imperium: the forces of Chaos. So strong is their pull that certain Space Marine chapters abandoned the Emperor in favour of the Chaos Gods, and are now Chaos Space Marines, units comparable in strength to a standard Space Marine, complete with regenerating shields. These are accompanied by corrupted guardsmen and even a handful of proper daemons. At this point, careful planning becomes essential, and you need to be sure that cover is within reach. The game becomes far more enjoyable at this point: you feel that you are fighting a worthy enemy, and the fact that one step out of line can lead to almost certain death means that a great deal of skill is required.
Unusually for a shooter, Space Marine plays much better with a gamepad or controller than keyboard and mouse, because of the heavier-than-normal focus on melee combat. So great is this focus that Space Marine has, and needs, no cover system. This is not a slow, tactical shooter. It is a visceral, fast-paced and highly enjoyable third person action game which clearly takes some inspiration from Gears of War (though, to be fair, Warhammer had Space Marines long before Gears did) but the absence of one of Gears’ most important gameplay mechanics means that it cannot possibly be considered a clone. The use of a gamepad will make it easier to control Titus, and also improves immersion, especially if it is a controller with vibration, so any PC gamers who don’t have a good gamepad should consider getting one.
The single-player is a solid experience, and lasts a somewhat respectable 10-11 hours, more than the average shooter nowadays. Forty-one servo skulls, containing audio recordings from those who died in the defence of the planet, are scattered around the game. Listening to them can be interesting, but either you find them or you don’t; Space Marine is a linear game, and you probably won’t be in the mood to search through every corner for the skulls. You don’t get any genuine reward for finding all of them, except an achievement. There are three difficulty levels, but the lack of any reward for beating the game on Hard means that there is little reason to replay it.
However, Space Marine does contain a somewhat fleshed-out multiplayer segment. The core gameplay is balanced and enjoyable, but there isn’t much variety of options. Only two modes exist: Annihilation, in which the first team to reach 41 kills wins, and Seize Ground, in which you must capture and defend points, which increase your score; the first team to 1000 wins. You play as either a Space Marine or a Chaos Space Marine. Initially, you can only play as one class, a standard marine, but as you progress, you unlock the second and third classes, and at level 4 you gain the ability to create a class of your own, in the traditional style: with weapons and perks and such unlocking as you get closer to the highest level, 41 (the number 41 shows up a fair bit, because the game is set in the 41st millennium).
You might think that a multiplayer segment so light on options would be tacked-on, but it isn’t. For one thing, the matchmaking is among the best I’ve seen in a game: a match is almost always found within a few seconds, where certain other games have left me waiting for minutes or have just failed to find anything. Relic tackled the age old problem of rewarding hard work and high levels, whilst making the game accessible to new players, by implementing a loadout-stealing system. Essentially, after you are killed, you are given the option to use the loadout of the player who killed you until you die next. This is a great way of letting new players use the more powerful weapons and perks in the game, whilst maintaining an advantage by letting high-level players choose their own powerful weapons. One can quite easily put a few hours into the multiplayer, not least because it is fun to play.
Visual design is very impressive in places, with some fantastic armour and building detail. Once you get close up, the textures start to look quite average, but from a distance they add to the civilised feel of the setting of the game. Character models are solid as well, and the fact that most of the enemies of a certain type look the same is easily forgiven by the fact that, presumably, all Orkz do look the same, and that all Chaos Space Marine armour looks the same. Lip-synching is similarly above average.
Not many characters speak, but each of these does speak a fair bit, and the lines are delivered well by the cast, although strong emotion does feel rather forced. I would have liked to see the pleasant music from Dawn of War and its expansions here, but the music in Space Marine does admittedly add to the game and is well-paced. Sound effects add to the visceral feel of the game: cutting an enemy in half with a chainsword wouldn’t be as enjoyable without the sound of the chainsaw spinning, and Space Marine does not disappoint here.
Space Marine is refreshingly different from most modern-day shooters, not least in the heavy inclusion of melee combat. The story is interesting, if light, the presentation is excellent, and the gameplay, though a little mindless at the beginning of the game, really starts to pick up and become brilliant in its own right as you get nearer to the end. The multiplayer is short on features, but still worth a try, and very well designed. If you are a fan of Warhammer 40k and can even stand action games and shooters, then there should be no doubt in your mind about buying this. And if you consider yourself a fan of science fiction and fantasy, but haven’t really looked into Warhammer lore, do give it a try. Space Marine provides a greater understanding than a strategy game could ever give you of the life of a lone space marine and his partners as they fight enormous hordes of enemies, and is highly enjoyable to boot.