Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is the worst kind of good game- it’s strong enough where it counts to make it worth playing, but in sum it’s simply not very good once the fanboy appeal of laying into a horde of Ork boyz with a Storm Bolter wears off. Leveraging its license to bring one of tabletop gaming’s most compelling settings to the video game screen, Dawn of War developer Relic clearly knows its way around the grim, baroque science fiction world that has kept Games Workshop cranking out miniatures, books, and other products since 1987. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure Relic knows its way around making a better-than-average third-person shooter and given the litany of game design sins that Space Marine commits it’s a good thing that the license is well-used and that the game at least features a well-implemented combat system, thus absolving its creators of outright heresy.
No doubt, the Games Workshop fan service is thick and plentiful. The terminology is all here, there are references to source material outside of the game, and the visual design from armor detail to the gothic-industrial architecture of the Forge World on which the story takes place is right on the money. As a long-time fan of anything to do with 40K, there were plenty of moments during the game where I was nearly giddy with gamer glee. I can’t imagine anyone who’s ever painted a Space Marine or had more than abiding interest in 40K not being excited during an all-out assault across a bridge involving another Space Marine Chapter with Chaos legions streaming out of Warpgates or joining the fight with Imperial Guardsmen, who vocally express awe and reverence at Captain Titus and his Battle Brothers.
Unfortunately Captain Titus’ story and the characters that inhabit it are shockingly dull. But really, the source material isn’t so much about individuals, heroes, or personalities as it is about epic battles between massed forces. That said, Space Marine refocuses the action to a man-to-man level, but it’s a mostly successful experiment because the combat mechanics are rock solid. The gameplay- which is almost all combat-oriented with no puzzles, moral decisions, or other folderol to get in the way of visible, violent death- focuses on the classic ranged/melee/grenades triumvirate with only a clumsy diving roll available as a defensive measure. There is no blocking, ducking, or cover and the only way to regain health is by performing Execution moves on stunned opponents. Regeneration and health potions are for cowards.
It mostly works, primarily because the game achieves a martial fluidity very close to the free-flowing fighting in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The effect brings together solid third-person shooting with a strong brawling component complete with simple combinations. But the key is that the player has agency to move between fighting types with impunity, blazing away at distant Orks while turning to do a little chainsword work on more intimate enemies. An arsenal of classic Space Marine weapons makes this smorgasbord of battle rich and satisfying. When it all comes together and Captain Titus is shoulder pads deep in Xenos just like you might see on the cover of a GW book, it’s brutal, visceral, and utterly thrilling. A fairly high challenge level imparts a rewarding sense of overcoming the odds.
Despite the great combat system and great setting, the game begins to feel repetitive halfway through the campaign and becomes almost unbearably grating in the last act. There are significant problems in the campaign’s pacing, which features long walks through empty, repeated hallways bookended by doors leading to potentially lengthy skirmishes and the occasional boss fight. It’s also ruthlessly, fascistically linear without any sense of exploration. Once you’ve seen one empty room with a couple of thematic gewgaws, you’ve seen ‘em all and no, you can’t go through that door. But I bet there’s something awesome behind it, right?
It’s not exactly a long campaign, but it feels long-winded and drawn out largely due to the uninteresting, oddly un-ambitious storyline and lack of dynamic progression. New weapons are discovered over the course of the game and a couple of jump-pack and turret sequences break up the monotony. It’s a sad state of affairs when the encounters remain dull and recycled even after the forces of Chaos makes their grand entrance.
There are other irritating quirks, like how Captain Titus’ Space Marine teammates are completely worthless in battle, apparently unable to fight at all. There is no co-op campaign, which is a tragically missed opportunity. There are numerous difficulty spikes, some of which are quite frustrating even on Normal difficulty, and misplaced checkpoints with long load times are off-putting. Multiplayer is perfunctory at best despite a fun option to customize your Marine or Chaos Marine armor. There are only two modes, neither of which are very interesting or very Warhammer-y and despite rudimentary classes and an experience system I found little to compel me to play it beyond initial curiosity and critical assessment. There’s really no sense in investing time into the shallow multiplayer at all with Gears of War 3 and the other big shooters releasing in the coming weeks and months.
What makes this review difficult, then, is that I actually did like the game almost in spite of itself. When I’d sit down to play it every night over the past week, I’d think “oh man, I really don’t feel like playing this.” But when the title screen came up with its speed-ramped vignette of Captain Titus murdering a couple of Orks, I’d get excited and my mood about the game would change. And for thirty or forty minutes, I’d be completely locked into the game and digging it, at least until the repetition and lack of depth again bubbled to the surface or until I hit a particularly difficult or frustrating portion. By that point, all the Imperial Eagle insignias and Iron Halos in the world don’t make a difference.
The problem is that the success of this game almost completely rides on it being the only competent, polished Warhammer action game on the market, regardless of its numerous issues. That does count for something if you’re invested in the setting, but for gamers that don’t know the difference between a Blood Raven and a Blood Angel the repetitive and rigidly linear campaign may wear out its welcome long before its disappointing climax. I liked Space Marine because of its Warhammer trimmings and I feel confident that most fans will get some enjoyment out of the title because of them, but I simply can’t deny that the game is lacking in key design areas and that it falls short of expectations.