It’s very rare I buy a game when it has just been released and pay full price, and Space Marine is no different – my friend bought me it for my birthday. But I have been looking forward to it for a while, as I used to be a huge Warhammer geek when I was a kid and the Ultramarines, who you play as in Space Marine, were always my favourite marine chapter.
Warhammer 40,000 is a universe set, as the name suggests, in the 41st millenium. The universe is in a constant state of war as various alien species attempt to destroy mankind. The only thing stopping them are a thousand space marine chapters, essentially semi-religious orders, each made up of a thousand space marines, super soldiers bred for war who protect the empire of humanity that echoes the Holy Roman Empire in it’s imagery and latin-derived names.
Space Marine takes place on a planet that has been invaded by Orks. The planet is of strategic importance as a ‘titan planet’ that creates gigantic titan war machines that aid humanity in their war against the aliens. A squad of Space Marines from the Ultramarines chapter is sent to the planet to hold key positions in advance of a large imperial guard fleet and you play as the leader of this squad, Captain Titus.
That’s about all you need to know about the story and to be honest the developers, THQ, tell you little else about the plot or the universe it’s set in. No explanation is given really of what a titan warmachine is, who the space marines are, why it’s the Ultramarines who get called (as opposed to another chapter) or why your ‘squad’ only has three marines in it given they’re being parachuted into a planet that’s been invaded by a million orks. Little niggles like this mar the game throughout, even though the experience as a whole is very enjoyable.
It’s difficult when you’re a long-running franchise with a core of loyal fans trying to introduce yourself to a wider audience who care little for what is ‘canon’ and what isn’t, but an example of a better introduction to the Warhammer universe can be found in the second Space Hulkgame that came out for the PSOne and 3DO years ago. In that a simple introduction to the Warhammer 40,000 universe is spoken over imagery of a space marine monastery with marines lined up in front of a sort of space marine templar. It’s simple, but establishes the context of the Warhammer universe and the religious warrior nature of the space marines. Ironically a similar shot is used for the trailer of Ultramarine: The Movie as well.
You may have realised I have a bit of a problem with being quite picky about games, or about everything as some people would say and as the Warhammer 40,000 franchise is something that is close to my heart it would bother me more than usual if the game didn’t meet the standards I think it should do.
Thankfully, despite the lacklustre introduction, for the most part Space Marine is an engrossing romp through hordes of green skinned aliens, albeit with cockney accents, and provides enough visceral, violent entertainment to keep most action fans more than happy. At least in the first four chapters I’ve played through so far before feeling compelled to write something about it.
Bullets thud into enemies’ heads with a satisfying crunch and you can melee your way through swathes of orks in a frenzy of blood and guts. As the core element of the game it’s the most important part to get right and thankfully THQ have more than succeeded in that department.
That said, it’s by no means perfect and numerous aspects of the game could, and indeed should, be improved upon with future updates even if it would amount to tinkering at the edges.
For instance, although there is little they can do about the voice acting or the script now the game is out, both of which feel pretty average and unimaginative. It’s not a game breaker, as frankly I think most games are average in this department but given the quality of various Bioware titles like Mass Effect or Dragon Age I don’t understand how other big budget games can’t achieve close to the same quality in voice acting or scripting.
Space Marine goes further than most in aiming for a cinematic experience with constant cut scenes and a cringe-worthily bad title scene that randomly pops up after you complete the first section of the game. The cut scenes themselves are OK, but they are excessive in number and crop up at frequent intervals, sometimes when you literally walk from one room to another. Worse than that, they frequently seem unnecessary. One cut scene appears just to show you an ork filled vehicle pop out of the ground in front of you. This is exactly the sort of thing that could surely be done ‘in game’ without stopping the action and taking the gamer ‘out’ of the game.
If they want the game to be more filmic they should try at all costs not to take the player ‘out of the game’, and every time they run a cut scene or a ‘Space Marine’ logo they do that, even if the cut scene is necessary the player is mentally taking a step back and watching the scene before stepping back in and playing the game. The more they can be kept in the game the better, do you need a cut scene to show orcs coming out of the ground? Probably not except to make it easier to stop the player interfering with a set piece. Do you need a cut scene to provide some exposition as to the next scene? Sometimes, but equally an ‘in-game’ conversation can be held that serves the same purpose.
Likewise, it feels THQ have struggled to capture an authentic voice for the Space Marines. As semi-religious warriors they act as knights templars of the futuristic empire but their speech often comes across as excessively self-righteous and self-important, which stems from the leaden script. You get the feeling they’ve tried to impart the vastness of the empire and the power the marines have through the script but it’s that vastness that weighs it down unnecessarily. It’s a difficult balancing act but sometimes a ‘less is more’ approach can help help provide the necessary nuance without weighing the game down in portentous speech, especially when it’s mixed with ramming chain swords through orks heads.
Speaking of which, the orks sound so much like marines and imperial guard it feels like not only are they the same species, they’re also from the same borough of London. In my mind orks are boorish, stupid and aggressive. As opposed to just being cockneys. It’s made worse by the fact that they sound very similar to the orcs in Lord of the Rings, further adding to the slightly derivative, unimaginative feel the game has at points. Several times in the game I’ve heard a voice and thought it was one of the Imperial Guard only for them to say ‘Kill the Space Marine!’, which is another thing – the shout outs are a bit tedious and limited. There is plenty of repetition to be expected when you fight so many enemies, it’s no different in Reach, but throwing the odd bit of ‘rare’ speech in helps mix it up a little. Running round a corner and hearing the same thing every time gives the game a repetitive air it needn’t have.
This repetitive air is further enhanced as the layout of the levels feels similarly unimaginative. The first two chapters revolve entirely around running through makeshift outside ‘corridors’ made from the ruins of the world the orks have laid to waste. Every now and then you run into an open area, have a set piece fight with some orks and gretchin (the goblins to the orks’ orcs) and then run into more corridors. As the game progresses you move inside and through new scenery, but the linear layout remains. None of this is too different from many games, Halo is no less linear but given the scale of the buildings around you – the might of the human empire on display – it feels restrictive being forced to wander in an obvious straight line throughout the level and it makes the game seem less epic than it really is.
As the planet is an imperial world, the colours, whether in the sky or on the buildings are almost exclusively a sort of rusty copper or dull grey/green with the main flash of colour coming from the blue of the Ultramarines’ armour. It makes sense given the semi-steampunk setting of an aged yet futuristic, imperial empire but nonetheless, given the other issues around the slightly repetitive gameplay, it’s slightly infuriating. Again though, the same ‘beige overload’ criticisms have been levelled at Call of Duty games plenty of times in the past.
On a more practical level, there are numerous gameplay issues that could theoretically be resolved in a future update.
When selecting your weapon with the d-pad, it instantly selects the weapon you highlight, whereas often you would prefer to keep the menu up so you can check the respective ammo levels of your weapons before choosing one. It would be better if it didn’t select a weapon until you let go of the d-pad on the weapon you wanted to select. A simple update could resolve this.
The world is littered with ammo caches, which naturally the orks have left untouched and easy for you to access as you race through pounding them to dirt. They’re stupid like that. Regardless of what weapon you have in your hand, all ammo caches contain the ammo you need for your weapon. What is frustrating though, is that it completely empties when used regardless of how much ammo you need or what weapon you’re holding, as if you take one bullet and throw the remaining fourty nine away. The whole thing would be simpler if it brought up the weapon select screen where you could choose which weapon to take ammo for. Likewise each cache should contain a set amount of ammo that depletes rather than disappears completely regardless of whether you take ten bullets or twenty.
To go with the ammo caches, weapon caches can be found on every level, which gradually introduce you to the different weapons available in the game. In terms of game mechanics, this is cleverly done as the caches only open when the sensor inside the cache recognises the blood of a space marine, which explains how they haven’t been taken by the invading orks. However, the necessity of their presence exposes the inadequacy of your starting weapons. When you land on the planet, you are armed only with a combat knife and a pistol. With this and two marines, you’re expected to hold off a planet of a million orks. Yet when you pick up a bolter, it explains this is the standard marine weapon, which begs the question of why you don’t start off with one in the first place.
It’s a case of game mechanics being inadequately hidden in a plausible plot. What if the captain got to the planet and couldn’t find any weapons, and had to spend the whole game with the space marine equivalent of a pea shooter and cheese knife against a rampaging army of orks?
It feels like this aspect of the game, designed to stress the excessive toughness and ballsy nature of the marines is over done, like THQ have overplayed their hand. Currently it’s playing as if three space marines can clear an entire planet of orks. If that’s the case, why would you need Terminators (essentially super heavy armour marines) or larger squads? It just feels a bit OTT when you’ve grown up seeing armies of marines take on armies of orks and suddenly a game comes out which says three marines can hold out against a million orks. If you had more marines in your squad, who could then die, it would present a more realistic presentation of space marines, rather than having them as invincible superheroes.
It’s this excessively kick-ass attitude that has Captain Titus in a trailer for the game declare, ‘I AM WAR’, which struck me as a weak knock off from the 300 quote ‘THIS IS SPARTA’ (which I remembered as ‘I AM SPARTA’ for some reason). In that it feels like Space Marine is trying too hard to be like ‘300’ and films of that ilk, replete with slow motion leaps through the air and death moves. All games and film are products of their era, with a different emphasis for the age they’re produced in but it gives the game a more derivative feel when it should be confident enough to present itself without worrying too much about other games, especially when some of the features incorporated from other games are weak.
For instance, throughout the game you can pick up audio logs, which allegedly explain more of the invasion to you as the game progresses. In reality, so far at least, they’re tedious, badly scripted and reveal for the most part nothing. In this they have incorporated an interesting element of Halo ODST, but done so in the most unimaginative way possible. In ODST the audio logs form part of an interesting sub-plot, which upon collection of all the audio logs crosses over into the main plot for it’s conclusion. In other games that have used the audio log device, including Aliens vs Predator and Space Marine, it is just an excuse to force you to trawl back through the campaign to find every single last one, usually linking it to an achievement as well.
Meanwhile, unlike ODST, there is no option for a co-operative campaign mode, which given the nature of the game would seem ideal. However, it’s been left out and therefore stymied it’s re-playability, which is a huge feature of the Halo games. The problem is the restrictive level design is clearly built with single player in mind so the entire game game would need to be re-thought from the bottom up if they wanted to implement it in future. THQ have announced that a future update will include co-operative firefight, which will increase the multiplayer opportunities for gaming, but it feels like an opportunity missed to only have a solo campaign.
If you’re still reading by now, it probably feels like there is simply too much wrong with Space Marine to justify buying it or playing it, but that genuinely isn’t the case. It simply bothers me more when it’s a franchise I care about than a random game whose success I couldn’t care less about.
Space Marine is still great fun despite the niggles and well worth the positive reviews it’s been getting. The promised downloadable content will add extra co-operative gameplay and massively increase the longevity of the game, it just has a lot of unnecessary niggles that really should have been ironed out before it was released.
That doesn’t make it massively different to most games on the market but the rich setting that Warhammer 40,000 provides means it does have a much bigger potential than most. Hopefully future updates can help Space Marine realise this and it will prove successful enough to justify an even better sequel in the not so distant future.
Right, now I’ve got that off my chest I’m off to play Space Marine.