Review: Space Marine
The Warhammer 40,000 universe is a fascinating one. My exposure to it is limited, through my brief infatuation with the first Dawn of War strategy game, and now Space Marine—I’m not a table-top veteran or anything. The evocative references to the Inquisition and the quasi-Latin formal names spoken in the games place WH40K in a truly intriguing setting. The forbidding sanctity of the two Inquisitors I encountered throughout Space Marine, as well as the zeal of the younger Ultramarine—constantly quoting the Codex Astartes at Captain Titus—is, to me at least, the most interesting aspect of this universe. The blind faith displayed by these footsoldiers of the Emperor is taken directly from a dark chapter of our own world’s history. There were inquisitors who would arrest, torture and eventually execute people on charges of heresy. There were wars fought in the Middle East by chapters of religious knights such as the Templars and Hospitallers, against foes as foreign to the Europeans as the Orks are to the Space Marines.
Yet this most interesting thing about Space Marine, its surrounding fiction, is hardly explored. Titus may as well be Captain Price from Modern Warfare, for all the difference it made to the events that played out. Instead, we are placed in the position of a walking man-weapon and told to march forward.
Playing Space Marine goes something like this: OMG! Bad dudes, go and chop them! More dudes around this corner hurry! Chop them up! Now here’s a new axe. Go and chop dudes with it!! Oh no!! Its DOODS now, go and chop them! Here’s a hammer! Chop them all!! Mechanically then, Space Marine is a competent dude-chopper. Competent, but not spectacular. I found myself wanting for variety in the end, and considering comparisons to the combat of Gears of War or (perhaps foolishly) Assassin’s Creed.
Space Marine does manage to combine ranged with melee combat in a genuinely pleasurable mix, but the range of encounters is so limited that it doesn’t take long to master a dominant strategy. Owing to the narrow corridors of the gameworld, enemies come from in front, so you kill them as they move towards you. Though there is a large range of weapons available, I found myself sticking with the Power Axe, the Bolter machine gun, the shotgun-like Melta Gun and the Lascannon sniper rifle. These weapons were made available to me somewhere around the middle of the game, so were not the ‘most advanced,’ but provided the best mix of long, mid and short-range power. The Melta gun was so powerful that whenever I felt a bit threatened (by two Chaos Marines wielding their giant maces, for example) I just switched to that and unloaded into them.
Melee combat was good, but can’t compare with my personal favourite in the gaming sphere, Assassin’s Creed. The biggest flaw, time and again, was the ponderously slow scripted take-downs that would regenerate health. Perhaps other gamers will view this as part of the skill with which to wield the health gathering ability, but I have a strong distaste for a videogame killing my character while I can only sit and watch him go through a three second execution routine that I can’t interrupt. Also, the number of times I choke-slammed then stomped on someone floating in mid-air on the wrong side of a guard rail was troubling.
Space Marine is something of an anachronistic oddity. The Warhammer universe predates many of our oldest and most developed videogame franchises by decades. Warhammer was even already a game franchise, yet has had relatively few videogame releases. Particularly after playing Space Marine, I can’t help but wonder why there haven’t been dozens of mid-tier action games like this over the past ten or fifteen years. When its fictional structure and even art style has so obviously influenced the design of games from Starcraft and (World of) Warcraft to Gears of War, why suddenly this release? The universe of WH40K is responsible for what is now a generic term: Space Marine, that can refer to everything from the Starcraft marines, to Master Chief and Marcus Fenix and company, yet Marcus Fenix is in a better space marine game than Space Marine.
Everything about the WH40K universe is designed to be ‘gameable,’ and has influenced the design of the games that have come after. (Not forgetting that all table-top RPG or miniatures game owe a huge debt to Dungeons and Dragons, and thereby Tolkien.) From the factionalism based on race (human Empire, Ork civilisation, Eldar, Tyranid etc) to the physical shape of the Space Marines and their huge shoulderpads—if this game had been made in 2001, it might have had the same place in our collective history as Halo does now. As it is, Space Marine seems to ape the mechanics and art style of these other videogames that younger gamers are probably more familiar with than the table-top Warhammer series.
I can’t help but wonder what might have been, if Space Marine had been something other than an average corridor-shooter. Would a change of character help? There can be little doubt or mystery about the life of an Ultramarine. Perhaps taking on the role of a little-known Imperial Guardsman, cut off from his company would be more intriguing. Certainly he would have to be more resourceful than a Space Marine, since he is not the hulking, practically-invincible man-machine the Marines are. Is there room in the WH40K universe for a rogue agent who is not aligned with any faction who can live the life of a mercenary, and view the conflict from just outside it? Certainly this wouldn’t work in a table-top setting, but in a videogame it might be an interesting way to frame the fiction. I find it difficult to be excited by the life of a soldier—no matter how powerful—because, if they are a good soldier, they will surrender to the authority of their order, commander, or as in Titus’ case, the Inquisitor. There is no room for creativity. Despite what Titus claims about the Codex Astartes, I was not able to decide much in my time as a Space Marine. But I was able to chop some doods.