Thursday, February 2, 2012

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

Imagine that each step Titus takes sounds badass
What does badassery sound like? Is it the kdang kdang kdang of the footsteps of a man in sacred two-ton battle armor? Is it the brom brom of a stalker-pattern bolter popping the heads of Orks? Or is it the rarrrrzzzzzz of a chainsword powering through the throat of a warp-spawned demon?

If you want to know true badassery, play Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. You will know.

Servo Skulls are awesome
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine takes place in Games Workshop's Dark Millennium, where there is only war. The setting is defined by being over-the-top. Wars are fought not for years, but for decades. They cover planets and take the lives of millions. The Imperium is deeply mired in superstition and fanaticism. There are no good guys, but humanity stands alone against alien and demonic threats that would kill us or do far worse.

The player controls a Space Marine hero, Captain Titus. Titus is a captain in everyone's favorite Space Marine chapter, the Ultramarines. He is a super soldier in every sense of the word: an eight-foot-tall, centuries-old master of combat, clad in heavy armor and wielding the sacred relics of his order.

Titus and his battle-brothers are sent to Graia, a Forge World dedicated to manufacturing the war machines that fuel the constant wars the Imperium fights. A massive invasion force of Orks is attacking the planet, and could spell disaster if the factories were to fall into greenskin hands. The introductory video is very simple, but it got me pumped: it shows a series of transmissions describing the situation on Graia and contemplating what is to be done. The planet is too valuable to destroy via Exterminatus. The only solution is to send in the Emperor's finest warriors, the Adeptus Astartes!

Inquisitor Drogan is rocking the emover
The campaign follows Titus as he fights countless orks and uncovers a deeper mystery surrounding the planet. Along the way, we meet several more characters. Leandros is a veteran Space Marine who has served for centuries so that little can shake his resolve. Sidonis (eat your hearts out, Mass Effect 2 fans) is a Space Marine who only recently completed his Initiate phase and became a full Space Marine. He is still a little naive, and he clings closely to the Index Astartes, which is essentially the rulebook for how to be a Space Marine. Then there is Lieutenant Mira, the highest-ranking Guard officer still alive on Graia, who is organizing the remains of the Imperial Guard forces. Though she an ordinary human soldier and not a genetically-engineered giant like the Space Marines, her courage and grit make her the most badass Cadian on the planet. Add to that Inquisitor Drogan, who is on Graia for his own reasons, and you get a solid cast.

The campaign is quite short, but feels very carefully crafted. The game was clearly designed to be as cinematic as possible. Every area you pass through is a set piece carefully designed to give a sense of scale while reminding you that you are in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Everything from space ships to factories are built along the lines of cathedrals, with new weapons and upgrades available in glowing shrines. I was afraid at first that I would get bored of war-torn industrial landscapes, but for the most part things felt awesome. I really felt like I was living in the world, and that alone was worth the price of admission.

There were many moments where I was suddenly struck by the fact that I was in the Warhammer 40K universe
 The combat is, of course, the highlight of the game. One of the innovations the game introduces is the ability to stun enemies and execute them in brutal mini-cutscenes to regain health. These executions are always very satisfying. There are three melee weapons that allow executions (your starting knife only appears in the first level and does not allow you to execute foes), and each weapon has its own execution animations that depend on the type of foe your are killing. Knowing when to execute an enemy is one of the hardest things to learn in the game, as doing so too frequently will have you often surrounded by enemies as you pause to finish one off, but doing so too rarely will leave you dangerously low on health.

Another feature of the game is a gauge that builds when you kill enemies. When the gauge is full, you can activate a temporary powerup that lets you deal extra damage and slowly regenerate health for the duration of the effect. As the game goes on, you pick up purity seals that allow you to fill your gauge more quickly, slow down time when combining the powerup with shooting guns, and extend how long the powerup lasts. This feature is hardly revolutionary, as it is a staple of other third-person action games like God of War, but it feels satisfying and is frankly the only way I got through several areas.

Servitors are also awesome
While Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is definitely rooted in the 40K universe, there are several changes made to account for the fact that this is a video game. First of all, the orks are much more accurate than I had been led to expect by the 40K rulebooks and novels. While orks are usually depicted as being more interested in making a racket with their guns while enjoying the powerful kick, orks in the game could shoot me from across the battlefield without much trouble. Similarly, while lascannons and melta guns are capable of killing the most powerful of vehicles in the miniatures game, it took several shots to kill some enemies in the computer game.

The plot serves as an excellent introduction to the 40K universe. All of the armies represented in the game are the "vanilla" representations of their various factions: Ultramarines, Cadians, Bad Sunz, and inevitably when Chaos shows up, they are Black Legion. While the plot twists may not surprise players, the cinematic way they are portrayed will have 40K fans smiling.

Once the campaign is over, there is little to do but go back and replay sections for achievements and collecting servo skulls to hear more of the backstory. There are also several multiplayer modes, but they are pretty standard: either team-based PVP that pits Space Marines against their Chaos counterparts or a cooperative Hordes game called Exterminatus.

There is a coop mode available as DLC called Chaos Unleashed. Players team up as Chaos Space Marines and fight Imperial Guard and Space Marines. I just bought this DLC (since the game and most DLC is 66% off today!) so I don't know how good it is.

I once made the mistake of watching the Ultramarines movie. It was boring, looked awful, and failed to capture the spirit of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I should have saved myself the disappointment and played Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine instead.


  1. As we've discussed, I was disappointed with the game. It felt joyless and lacking in inspiration. It did the same things every other shooter game does, and the plot and characters were cliche. Some of the set pieces are awesome, and I do enjoy being in the 40K universe, but at the end of the game I felt like I had just trudged through an impressive but fairly redundant art gallery filled with the same seven or eight kinds of people who yell at you a lot.

    And they're really, really excited about the fact that you're a Space Marine. Because that's their only topic of conversation. It's like going to a party and having everyone say, "So, you're a lawyer?" "Marsha tells me you're a lawyer." "Come over here, Greg. You've just got to meet my new friend the lawyer." "What's it like being a lawyer?"

    And any game where you have to unlock the backstory by trying to find the bit of scenery that ISN'T blocked off to exploration and collecting servo skulls seems to misunderstand the purpose of backstory. Not that any of the backstory told you anything at all interesting or surprising.

  2. I'll admit that I wrote this review with my rosy glasses on. I ignored a lot of the repetition in the game, the frustrating combat, and the thin presentation.

    So many games these days come with a Codex-style assortment of background info that I found it surprising that GW didn't send Relic some text files they could cut/paste into the game.

    This page would have made a great contribution to letting the player know exactly how superhuman a Space Marine is:

    I assume that the constant orky deluge of "Space Marine!" was the result of a well-meaning but short-sighted directive to ensure that the player should always feel like a Space Marine. The easiest way to do this is to have characters constantly mention it, but having enemies shout it repeatedly in combat is a very inelegant solution.

    In my mind, a much more effective moment was when Titus is talking to an Imperial Guard trooper, who at first addresses Titus as "sir" before quickly correcting himself and saying "my lord."

  3. I recently traded most of my 40k, Warhammer, and Necromunda books. I feel ill... Even though they really were not that great I am going to miss them staring down at me from my shelves.

    I have no problem with rosy monocles. I can hardly wait to try this out.