REVIEW: Space Marine

When my son started going to Games Workshop stores about a year ago, I thought: “This is what happens when you’re not careful about what you leave lying around the house.” Fortunately, he was satisfied with a single set and didn’t start buying $40 figures and giant foam terrain blocks. He’s moved on to D&D, which has a different type of geek cred and is far less expensive.

Why yes, I am raising nerds. You got a problem with that?

You see, the “Warhammer” system isn’t just a game: it’s a lifestyle choice. First introduced by Games Workshop in 1983, the series provides rules and settings for tabletop miniature wargames. Set in a fantasy universe heavily derived from the work of JRR Tolkien, the initial Warhammer Fantasy series pitted humans, “Orks,” elves, and other typical fantasy races against each other in epic battles carried out with little painted models. Five years later, Games Workshop projected their entire system 40,000 years into the future with Warhammer 40,000, creating an even more popular science-fiction universe.

The model-building element, combined with the constant additions, upgrades, and rules changes, makes Warhammer an expensive and labor-intensive hobby. Entire stores are dedicated to selling products, running tournaments, and providing gaming space.

In the decades since its creation, the Warhammer worlds have spawned an immense amount of published material, adding extraordinary layers of detail and baroque flourishes to these imaginary worlds. They have provided the setting and inspiration for a number of excellent games on both PC and videogame consoles. The latest, Space Marine, is an unusual extension of the popular Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War strategy games into the realm of third-person acting gaming.

The Dawn of War titles are the work of Relic Entertainment, creators of inventive computer strategy games such as Homeworld, Impossible Creatures, and Company of Heroes. These real-time strategy games allow the user to command Warhammer armies in a series of mission-based battles set within a narrative framework. One of the appealing qualities of Dawn of War is the ability to zoom out to a view of the entire battlefield to make command decisions, and then zoom down to ground level to watch the soldiers as they fight.

Essentially, Space Marine removes the strategy element and puts the gamer at ground level for a more intense, wholly action-driven experience. In the process, Relic has stripped out all the depth and finesse that characterizes their best work to focus solely on melee combat and gunplay. The result is a fairly exciting game, but one that misses multiple opportunities to create a deeper, more fulfilling gameplay experience.

The game follows the exploits of Captain Titus and two other soldiers as they attempt to fight back an Ork invasion of a “forge world”: a planet comprised solely of factories turning out vital military equipment. There is a narrative of sorts, but its primary purpose is to glue missions together and imbue them with some sense of urgency. Peripheral characters merely exist to swoon over the awesomeness of the Ultramarines, or to kill and/or betray them. On the positive side, the production values are very good, with strong voice acting from the leads and effective cinematic sequences.

The gameplay features somewhat simplistic third-person action fare, with endless waves of expendable foes and a minimal level of sophistication. Gamers proceed on a very linear route through various locations in the forge world. Along the way, they gather new weapons and ammo and utterly obliterate everything in their path.

The primary enemy is the Ork, a green-skinned brute that comes in various shapes, sizes, and threat-levels. In the world of Warhammer, Orks are a genetically engineered fungus imbued with a rudimentary intelligence. This means that they attack every situation with thousands of shock troops, attempting to make up in sheer quantity what their soldiers lack in quality.

Ultramarines cut through this canon fodder like butter with a weirdly implausible array of weapons, such as giant shock hammers and chainsaw-bladed swords. This close-in combat is the heart of Space Marine, allowing gamers to string together attacks in order to chop through the onrushing wall of murderous monsters. New guns are collected as the gamer proceeds, adding more strength or new features to the available firepower.

It’s hard to deny the visceral appeal of the combat. The Ork blood and gore is so extreme that it verges on parody, like the encounter with the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Nevertheless, the violence is brutal, constant, and vivid. It is the entire point of the game, and thanks to the squishing and crunching sound effects, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Late in the game, a new enemy emerges: Chaos marines, accompanied by hoards of demonic shock troops. These require a subtly different strategy to fight, but they don’t change the equation all that much. The game is at the end what it was in the beginning: pure hack-and-shoot action. Since Captain Titus is always accompanied by two other Ultramarines, it would have been a simple matter to add a tactical control element to Space Marine, thus giving the game the depth it’s sorely lacking.

The game plays fairly well on Xbox, but is a wretched, glitch-filled, completely unacceptable experience on PC.