Thursday, September 8, 2011

Warhammer 40K: Space Marine Review

[Updated Dec 23, 2011]

I first heard of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine in some video game forum that I can’t remember. My first reaction to the news was: “Relic Entertainment is moving away from its highly successful RTS line? It’s a hoax!” And for a time I did think it was. The Dawn of War series is a successful PC strategy product line. Its games have pulled off what dozens of Warhammer 40,000 games before failed to do—draw in legions of fans and newcomers alike. For Relic Entertainment to wander off from this unprecedented trend was, for me, an odd decision.

Fast forward a couple or so years later, and I just finished Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine on the Normal and Hard difficulty levels. In both playthroughs, I had to grudgingly admit that Relic Entertainment did pour in an awesome amount of effort to bringing the “hoax” to life. It is a solid game in more ways than one. However, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine does have its flaws. This Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine review, made by a fan, discusses the pros and cons of the game. More than a review, this article also discusses what Relic Entertainment should have done to more fully immerse Space Marine players into the Warhammer 40K game universe.

"No more micromanagement! Hallelujah!"

The full review after the jump. 

Warhammer 40K: Space Marine puts you in the role of Captain Titus, an Ultramarine who leads one of the numerous strike forces tasked with staving off an Ork invasion in one of the Imperium’s forgeworlds. For most of the game though, the only Space Marines you see are Leandros and Sidonus, two characters with contrasting personalities. The former is a newly christened marine who insists on following rules to the letter while the latter is a grizzled veteran. Though at first you might think that these dissimilar personalities would introduce enough conflict to the story to make it fascinating, the game will disappoint players in this aspect as the interplay among the three is so bland as to make it uninteresting. Thankfully though, the action is more than enough to keep you glued to the screen.

While it’s immediately apparent that the developers meant for Space Marine to be a melee-oriented game, they haven’t left out the shooter aspect in it. In Hard mode, you would have to thin out the ranks a bit before thundering in with a chainsword, power axe or a warhammer. You first start out though, with a large nondescript knife and a bolter but these get swapped out later for better weapons. There are four types of bolters in the game and each is a clunky but solid-looking boxy affair. I like how Games Workshop has brought out the “forgotten technology” feel of the Imperium’s weaponry. The upgraded bolters are the very epitome of that design direction: huge, unwieldy, but their shots sound powerful; firing them feels like you’re really dishing out rounds that can punch out exit wounds the size of plates. Later in the game, you will get your hands on two types of plasma-based weaponry, two types of sniper weapons (the lascannon and the stalker bolter), the powerful melta gun (a short-range shotgun type of weapon that fires a plume of superheated substance) and the vengeance launcher. The last is what struck me as odd; its smooth red-and-silver body looks as though it belongs in a Quake game rather than the Warhammer 40K universe. I did some research and I was right—before the game, the vengeance launcher—which fires grenades that can be remote detonated—is non-canon. However, rumor has it that Games Workshop will be making it as.

"What do you mean the shoulder plates make me look fat?"

The shooter element of Space Marine is only a secondary aspect though—melee is where it’s really at. Like most hack-and-slash games nowadays, successive swings form a combo and Relic Entertainment’s game is no different. Click four times and Titus will form a four-hit combo that ends with a devastating swipe that sweeps in a wide arc, decapitating most foes. Click F (the default button in the PC version) after one to three attacks and Titus ends with a move that stuns enemies. Stunned foes immediately display a QTE (quick time event) icon above their heads and if you press E (the default execution button in the PC version), Titus makes a brutal coup de grace, killing them. What makes this whole thing unique is that every Execution replenishes Titus’ lifebar with a considerable amount of health. However, Executing an enemy triggers a rather lengthy 2.5-second animation and in that time that you’re busy tearing apart an Ork’s head or burying a power axe into a Chaos Space Marine, his fellows will be busy trying to rip your armor apart. This mechanic allows for frenzied action (apparent in the Normal and Hard difficulty levels)—should you Execute an enemy and hope the animation finishes and heals you up before his fellows kill you or should you continue cleaving away and hope you finish them all before your flagging health hits zero? This design decision makes for hectic action sequences as you roll, dash, cleave, Execute, and shoot the endless hordes the game throws at you. Quick thinking and quicker reflexes define the core action of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.

As impressive and addictive as this is (and it IS!) some people may be bothered by two things:

1. As implied above, there is no way to cancel an Execution animation. An ill-timed Execution could mean your death and not the enemy’s. I’ve always believed that one of the elements of what makes a video game addictive is its level of control. I’ve discussed this in how Area 51, a freeware PC first-person shooter, handles grenades in your inventory. Space Marine hits this same problem with its Execution system; you simply do not have control once the animation starts.

2. Seeing that the combo system is limited and that Titus can’t jump, the PC game’s melee system basically is a one-trick pony: you dash in, whale away at everything and if the enemy eats away your armor and start to chip away at your health, you start to search out the best way to Execute something without exposing yourself needlessly to enemy attacks. And while this is addicting, it could have used some more variety shown in other melee combat games like say, Darksiders.

Rooster Teeth gave their Red vs Blue series an apocalyptic twist.

Speaking of one-trick affairs, this is Space Marine’s biggest flaw; the game basically pits you against wave upon wave of enemies while slogging your way through its levels. Though there are sequences that do break up this repetitiveness, I wish the developers put in more of these. For example, there’s a part where you get to man an Imperial Guard Valkyrie’s heavy bolter turret as you soared through the skies. It’s a very entertaining sequence. Why they didn’t put in two or more segments akin to it is beyond me. Rolling across a vast landscape in a Land Raider for example, or fighting alongside a Dreadnought that shakes the ground every time it takes a step would have been awesome. Complaints aside though, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is definitely one of the better melee games I’ve played in quite a while. It’s also the first one to render this many enemies to take on; the first time you see a wave of gretchin, bomb squigs, and Slugga and Shoota Boyz, you can’t help but be impressed of what Relic Entertainment has done here.

Unlike several hack-and-slash games, Space Marine has a dearth of puzzles—which is actually a good thing. The Warhammer 40,000 universe is all about war, bloodshed, and wanton genocide. Introducing puzzles meant for pointy-eared, effeminate, sword-and-wooden-shield-toting elves would have only watered down the action. This is an action game through and through. This is about killing aliens and purging the unclean.

An action game, no matter how good its mechanics are, would suffer significantly if its artificial intelligence is lacking. So how does Space Marine’s AI fare? Truth to tell, it’s unimpressive but it gets the job done. Warhammer 40,000’s Orks are Orks; they’re bloodthirsty creatures, shouting “WAAAGH!” wherever they go. The game’s AI serves this role well: Orks, except for the Shoota Boyz, invariably charge at you en masse. Shoota Boyz just hang back and well, shoot. They skip several steps sideways when you shoot at them but aside from this, they just stand there and take whatever damage you dish out. Nothing impressive there but it definitely gets the job done.

Ah uzed to be a weirdboy like youz but then me knee took a warhammer...

What really bothers me is the part where you get to encounter Chaos Space Marines. Most of these will be carrying ranged weaponry and so initially you won’t find anything amiss with their AI. However, as the game progresses and you encounter more of these, it will begin to dawn on you that they really don’t give the impression that these are former elite troopers of the Imperium. While they are more mobile than the Orks—they’ll actually run for cover—they just don’t act like elite troopers. F.E.A.R.’s Armacham Elite do a better job at this. Chaos Space Marines wielding melee weapons behave much like Ork Slugga Boyz, adding to the disappointment.

Your companions fare no better. There were only a few times in the game that I felt I was fighting with a squad. Leandros and Sidonus behave like slow-moving invincible turrets with low-caliber weaponry. They can still kill enemies but they do it at a significantly slower pace than you. The Space Marines are supposed to be a close-knit cadre of elite killing machines. Except for a few segments here and there, this game doesn’t give you the feeling that you’re fighting with coordinated battle squad.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine’s boss battles are few and far between and what handful there are are nothing to be impressed about. In fact, the last boss fight is a QTE fest, something that, while realistic (you couldn’t realistically go toe-to-toe with the last boss considering what he is), left me a bit disappointed. This is something that bothers me; Games Workshop had two decades to expand and hone their lore. Relic’s failure to capitalize on that rich a storyline perplexes me much like Day One Studios’ palpable indifference to some of the deeper aspects of FEAR’s. (See my FEAR 3 review here.) Giving Warhammer 40K: Space Marine more boss fights and enemy types would have deepened the game’s immersion greatly. If they didn’t have the time, casual references to the other races would have sufficed; an abandoned Eldar temple here, an uttered line about the Tau there and it would have immersed the player more into the Warhammer 40,000 universe. As it is, Warhammer 40K: Space Marine barely skims the surface of what Games Workshop has created.

Lascannon to the head: exorcism, Games Workshop style

To continue this line of discussion, the very first Dawn of War game featured Orks and then Chaos in the course of its singleplayer campaign. Do all Warhammer 40,000 games have to feature the popular races all the time? Why not Chaos and Tau? Or Chaos and Tyranids? Orks and Dark Eldar? While this borders on nitpicking, this trend of spotlighting Orks and Chaos in the first game of every Warhammer 40K PC game series is starting to become formulaic.

Also where are the awesome quotes? It would have been cool if Relic gave players the chance to do taunts by pushing a hotkey or two. Bellowing “Show me what passes for fury among your misbegotten kind!” in multiplayer would have been awesome.


[Note: I will provide a separate review for the Exterminatus and the CTF game modes in the coming weeks.]

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine does have a multiplayer component that’s split into two modes: Seize Ground and Annihilation (basically Take and Hold and Team Deathmatch, respectively). While the two modes are very entertaining, they don’t have much in the way of what makes the game appealing: to be an elite, nearly invincible supersoldier who can take on waves of monstrosities by the lonesome. In the multiplayer component, you’re up against other space marines, who have the same hit points and armor values as you and who—needless to say—are significantly better than the singleplayer campaign’s AI opponents. This devolves the MP component into just another shooter as both sides jockey for flanking positions to optimize firing arcs. (While the Assault Marine class is a melee-oriented one, the action is just different from the singleplayer campaign. Because you’re up against similar Joes, here, you’re just another ordinary dude who would seek cover every time you find yourself in a situation where you are badly outgunned.)

I've nothing to say about this screenshot except that I'm awesome.

The game’s archaic weapon designs also don’t improve matters; Space Marines move slowly even when they’re running and bolters aren’t the most efficient weapons if you figure in rate of fire, handling, and accuracy. To make matters worse, the Assault Marine class is somewhat overpowered compared to the other classes. Find yourself in a situation where there’s a lot of open terrain and you can be sure that in the next eight or so seconds, death will come at you from above. Assault marines can, of course, be countered, but it takes expertise to successfully evade one.

It should be brought to light that there is no server browser; the matchmaking system is peer-to-peer. This might prove problematic for people who are living in regions where there are too few Space Marine players.

Taking all the above into account, the game’s multiplayer is great but it’s not something I would play every day for weeks on end. (It’s being actively patched though so things might change in the future.)

The game’s other (technical) aspects are impressive but not overly so. Below is a breakdown.


The amount of particles Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine throws at you is impressive; Orks erupt in globules and buckets of blood, dust swirls away at swings of your melee weapons, and plasma rounds detonate with such ferocity that you can almost smell the ozone.

On the other side of the coin, closer inspection reveals the graphics to be inferior to games that use bleeding edge game engines. Also there isn’t much in the way of bump mapping. As a result, the cutscenes strike me as being too CGI-ish. They’re not cartoony but they definitely don’t raise the bar.

Red carpet cleaning Imperium style

The game’s environs are, however, convincing; forgeworld Graia shows signs that it has been recently ravaged by an invading force. There’s no signs of civilians though, something that greatly detracts from the whole picture. Also, the game could have benefitted from a more diverse level design; Space Marine only has basically two: the surface, which features dust-covered urban rubble and canyons; and facilities, which feature sterile surroundings that are predominantly gray. The latter are relatively unimpressive; while the surface levels feature a more vibrant color scheme and dust that get kicked up in battles, the facility levels don’t have anything going on.


Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine’s audio gets the job done and more. The Orks’ “WAAAGH!!,” their death screams and shouts of agony, your chainsword’s keening wail, all these give players a cathartic and immersive experience. The music also shifts to a more ominous tone whenever you get embroiled in a skirmish, adding to the immersion.

Relic’s effort to bring the Warhammer 40,000 universe into the hack-and-slash genre is a success. While the game stubbornly sticks to its core action mechanics from beginning to end, there’s no other game that gives you the opportunity to wade into seemingly endless waves of Orks and Chaos Space Marines.

Lock and load soldier of the Imperium—in Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, your belief that the “Emperor protects” will be severely tested.

Half a league, half a league onward! And into an outpost held by a solid wall of Imperial Guardsmen scurried the orks and squigs.


Tilt: 7.5 - The game shipped with a flicker bug that has since been fixed. The storyline presents a premise that isn’t something to be impressed about. The developers didn’t delve too much into the rich material that the Warhammer 40K universe has. Overall, though, the game is a fairly hiccup-free experience that’s worth checking out.

Gameplay: 8.0 – Fluid combat that’s only tarnished by the game’s stubbornness in sticking to the same core mechanics from beginning to end. Warhammer 40,000 though, presents the players with all the brutality that the Games Workshop codices envision the far future to be. Multiplayer is weaker relative to the singleplayer component but it still delivers.

Graphics: 8.0 – It’s definitely not bleeding edge but what you find here is definitely impressive. Blood spray every which way, debris scatter in the heat of battle, and hulking adversaries paint the events ravaging forgeworld Graia with a realistic intensity. It’s just marred by the console-ish feel of the game’s engine.

Audio: 8.0 – Nothing to complain about the audio; meaty bolter reports, ear-shattering death screams, and martial themes really place you in the thick of battle. Vox-casters though would have lent the game a better score; SMs sound more awesome with them.

Replayability: 7.5 (Note: This will be adjusted soon as I release my review about the two new game modes.) A limited Easter Egg system in the form of digging up what happened to the forgeworld by recovering servoskulls encourage players to replay the campaign a couple of times. The game though, is a boon to those just simply seeking a cathartic experience; hacking away at hosts of adversaries never gets old. Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine’s first two multiplayer modes are bland affairs; they’re not something you would want to play again and again as much as the leading multiplayer games today.

A chainsword--Jason Voorhees wants one for Christmas

Overall: 7.8

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