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Warhammer 40K: Space Marine Review

The Warhammer and Warhammer 40K franchises have been around for longer than a lot of people realise, and Warhammer 40K in particular really pioneered the idea of gritty, dark science fiction with a medieval twist and the idea of the "Space Marine"- a larger-than-life, armoured superhuman, equipped with a gun bigger than most regular humans and a chainsword capable of ripping through several layers of armor plating.

The ‘space marine’ trope has been used in many games over the years, but now the originals are here to reclaim their crown in the newest Warhammer 40K game to hit the 360: Space Marine, a third-person action-brawler/shooter which treats the venerable WH40K franchise with the respect it deserves. Relic and THQ, the team behind the critically-acclaimed Dawn of War series, have brought the camera in a little closer than on their previous RTS games, allowing the player to directly control the actions of one of humanity's greatest warriors in the unending struggle against Chaos and the xeno threat.

From the off, Space Marine feels like the Warhammer 40K game that should have happened a long time ago. Your first mission, following a suitably apocalyptic intro scene, is to singlehandedly take down an Ork cruiser armed only with a combat knife and a bolt pistol. This first, utterly mental set-piece sets the tone for the game perfectly - it introduces your character as a genetically-engineered superhuman who can achieve practically impossible feats of strength and martial prowess.  In a brief, five minute span, the game shows you just how powerful the Space Marines are and whets your appetite for the carnage that is to come.  The lore and artwork of the Warhammer 40K universe is heavily focussed around the idea of a tiny number of superhumans pitted against insurmountable odds, and Space Marine delivers this in abundance, swamping you with an endless horde of shrieking foes which are individually less powerful than you, but together pose a credible threat.

In the armored boots of Captain Titus of the Ultramarines, sent to fight back an Ork invasion of a key Imperial Forge World, you feel just the right level of invincibility without the game feeling too easy. While Space Marine encourages you to charge into the horde screaming litanies to the Emperor (there is no cover system whatsoever- why would an 8-foot tall armoured superhuman need to hide behind some little metal boxes?), you can be pulled down and swamped by foes or seriously wounded by bigger enemies or ranged attacks if you don't pay attention to your surroundings.  There are few points in the game where it feels like you can wade through enemies with little effort, and those points come when you are given a temporary power-up for a brief section.

Combat is, quite simply, a joy. Your attacks feel visceral and satisfying, and each kill is heralded by copious sprays of crimson gore that splatter across your azure power armour.  The only downside to the combat system is the execution system.  Your armor recharges automatically, but you must regain health by executing enemies;,stunning them with the Y button (whether on its own or as part of a combo for bigger enemies) and then pressing B to unleash a brutal execution kill. At first, this is enjoyable and satisfying; however, after a while it becomes a little tiresome since there are only a few execution animations.  And as executions are mandatory to recover health, you will see those animations again and again until they lose some of their freshness.

The visuals of Space Marine are perfect - to a longtime Games Workshop fan such as myself, the Forge World of Graia looks exactly like it should.  It mirrors the artwork that adorns Games Workshop’s books and other materials, looking gritty and grimdark while still retaining a sense of dystopian beauty.  The environments are dense and full of activity; sparks fly all around you, the ground shakes every time a huge cannon fires, ships and Ork ‘roks’ (asteroids stuffed with starship engines) plummet down from orbit, trailing flame and smoke, and crash nearby.  The levels are far from static, and this visual density goes a long way towards staving off any sense of linearity that could otherwise slip in.  While areas are fundamentally quite linear, in that you travel from point A to point B, Relic has added so much visual polish that each area feels as though there is a lot more to it, and exploration is encouraged by the hidden servo skulls that you can discover; they contain log entries which unlock the backstory to this Ork invasion and hint at what is to come. 

The sounds are also perfectly pitched: the score thunders imperiously and dramatically, chainswords scream and whine violently, and bolter shells fire with a meaty 'thunk' that really sells the power of the weapon.  The voice acting is, for the most part, good; Mark Strong does a superb job as Titus, capturing the imperious tone of an Ultramarines captain perfectly and in addition, coming across as a very human character.  Instead of constantly growling and gritting his way through cutscenes as some characters in other ‘space marine’ games have done, Titus speaks with measured calm and exudes authority.  My only grief with the voices is that the Ork enemies don’t always sound completely right; they sound a little less deranged than they have done in previous WH40K games, which is a downside as far as I’m concerned.

In terms of characterisation, Space Marine doesn’t (perhaps surprisingly) forgo nuanced characters for all-out action.  For the Ultramarines, the Codex Astartes (a doctrine of battlefield tactics which dictates how Space Marines should fight) is held to be without fault, and many Ultramarines believe it should be followed to the letter.  The way your Ultramarines treat the Codex reflects the differences in personality between them and these personality differences come to the fore as the game progresses. Titus is willing to ignore the Codex in the completion of his duty, and this puts him at odds with another member of his squad.  Space Marine is not redolent with lengthy cutscenes introducing you to the characters. They are true to the way Space Marines are portrayed in the lore of WH40K (stoic and serious in the face of adversity) in the few cutscenes that dot the early parts of the game, but the characters develop by their actions and how they react to the situations introduced by the story.

The twists and turns of the plot are well executed; while the beginning of the game feels like a simple case of capturing points or achieving objectives in order to strengthen the Imperial foothold on Graia, the mission becomes much more serious as the actions of a reckless Inquisitor open up a link to the daemonic realm of the Warp and unleash the forces of Chaos on the planet.  The Space Marines face this with their usual resilience, but the conclusion of the story does an excellent job of casting your actions in a different light and forcing you to question the main character despite the attachment you have developed to him.

In short, Space Marine doesn’t tread much new ground in terms of gameplay mechanics.  It doesn’t re-invent the third-person action/brawler genre.  It does, however, take a universe absolutely bursting with rich, interesting lore and present it in the big-budget, blockbuster style that it has so sorely deserved over the years.  The gameplay is simple but effective, the world is beautifully-realised and full of detail and the story is well put together, drawing on Warhammer 40K’s rich backstory to lend it credence.  If this is what war in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium is going to be like, it’ll certainly be a hell of a lot of fun.


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