And herein lies a Gears of War clone that has far more in common with Halo than Epic’s epically brown stop-and-popper.
Relic’s Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is the franchise’s first entry into the realm of console gaming, and as such, will be many gamers’ first exposure to what is as fully a realized universe as any other sci-fi or fantasy franchise, gaming or otherwise. It began as a paint-it-yourself tabletop turn-based strategy game, and then branched out into pen-and-paper RPGs, books, board games, a card-battle game, and of course, videogames - of which there are several. Before they’ve always been PC-focused, but now the gaming PC-impaired can finally partake in the Space Marine goodness.
Warhammer 40,000 is set in a far future (40,000 years into the far future, in fact - What, did you think that number was random?) science fiction/fantasy hybrid universe where humanity is dominated by a totalitarian regime that seems to model itself after the Roman Empire. Why humans that far removed from that time period would care enough to model their society after it is never revealed. However, in Warhammer 40k: Space Marine, players take on the role of Captain Titus, "captainingly" voiced by British acting heavyweight Mark Strong, as he leads his command squad of Ultramarines into battle against a race of aliens hilariously similar to the most basic of all fantasy villain races, the orc. In fact, they didn’t even bother to call them something different. Not only that, but Warhammer’s Orcs look like they’re straight out of some kid’s idea of what a classic Tolkien-style orc would look like. And most hilariously, they speak with ridiculous cockney accents. Design goofiness aside, the Orcs are bad news in the Space Marine universe, and the worse news is that they’ve invaded the forge world of Graia. Their intent is to either capture or destroy (the game is not really clear) Graia’s Titan war machines and their production facilities (called “manufactorum” in-universe). What is a Titan war machine? Think Battletech or Gundam times a million. These walking battle-bots tower hundreds of feet over the battlefield and are armed with cannons that look like they could fire small mountains at the enemy. Obviously, they’re a threat that no race would want to face off against in battle - hence, the aforementioned invasion led by the Orc Warboss, Grimskull. Warhammer 40K: Space Marine begins with the insertion of Captain Titus’ Ultramarine squad. Their job, and yours, is to stop the invasion and protect the Titan war machines. Were it only that simple.
Up there at the top of the review, I said Space Marine had more in common with Halo than the game that, at first glace, it appears to be a copy of, Gears of War. While I admit certain design aesthetics reminded me of GoW (urban destruction, chest high walls, ‘roided out man-hulks in ridiculous armor, and an over-the-shoulder third person viewpoint), gameplay-wise they’re nothing alike; whereas Gears deals in cover and tactics (and gore), Space Marine deals in twitchy mayhem, explosions, and 30 seconds of fun, over and over again - just like Halo (although Space Marine is still fairly gory, as well). Captain Titus can wield a vast array of bullet and energy-based weaponry just like Master Chief. Also, just like Master Chief, often his best choice for dispatching foes is a giant hammer, or a sword, or sometimes a very un-Halo-like axe.
Space Marine’s biggest accomplishment, and arguably its greatest contribution to the gamer collective unconscious, is the silky-smooth way the player can switch from ranged combat to melee combat even when enemies surround you. Simply pull the triggers to aim and shoot, and hit X to melee to launch a vicious strike with either knife, chainsword, axe, or hammer (timing your strikes correctly allows for the chaining of simple two to four hit combos). Happily, both shooting and melee are responsive enough to be used interchangeably in the heat of combat, allowing for some epic “Titus versus a mass of Orcs” moments where melee swipes and gunfire alternate in a ballet of blood and death; and it’s exactly as wondrous and awesome as it sounds. The combat gets even better when you begin to mix in executions with standard melee and ranged attacks. Hitting Y at the end of a combo will stun whatever enemy you are facing allowing you to perform, by hitting B, a beautifully gory slow motion body-dismantling of your chosen enemy. Doing so doesn’t just look great, but it’s one of the few ways Titus can gain health during combat. It’s a tactic best used against lone or widely spaced enemies because you’re still vulnerable to damage while the animation plays out. Submit to the blood lust too early and perform an execution in the heat of battle and you’ll find all your health gains negated by the damage you continued to take during the execution, that is if you survived at all. That’s a smart design choice because it disallows the indiscriminate spamming of executions as a way to cheese your way through tougher combat sections. Executions aren’t the only advanced way to dispose of enemies either. Early on, you unlock the Fury gauge that fills up as you kill enemies. Once it’s full you can activate it to gain a massive boost to damage, gradual healing, and, during ranged combat, bullet-time. The Fury gauge gains strength over time as you come across special drop pods that contain “purity seals” for you to collect. But just like the executions it's tweaked so you can't overuse it.
All through the roughly 10 hours of the single-player campaign, the combat remains loose, fast-paced, and utterly visceral. Blood splatters everywhere, while bullets and melee strikes impact with a tangible "umph". Explosive barrels litter many battlefields along with the occasional detachable turret that turns Titus into a walking heavy weapons platform. All of this is enhanced by tight graphics, backgrounds that shine with a kind of broken-industrial beauty punctuated by some flat-out awe-inspiring panoramas (seriously, if your jaw doesn’t hit the floor when you finally see a Titan war machine in all of its hundreds-and-hundreds-of-feet tall glory, then the things you must have already seen in your life could rival the Dos Equis man), not to mention some great particle effects. Plasma bolt impacts, for example, are accompanied by cast-off almost as if a water balloon filled with blue gravy had hit your target instead (it looks way better than it sounds, trust me), and the wind that is constantly blowing through the shattered remains of Graia pushes and pulls smoke and bullet contrails all over the place. The sound is also top notch, with Hollywood quality music and voice acting on the Space Marine side and the insane, and frankly hilarious, cockney of the Orcs; just don’t ask why they all speak with British accents ’cause I don’t know.
It’s not all happy Orc blood and love-at-first-sight explosions, however; there are a few flaws that keep Warhammer 40K: Space Marine from becoming the as-close-to-perfect-as-shooters-can-get experience that it could have been. First, and this is probably what most detractors will harp on right away, the level design suffers from the same flaws that many pin on Gears of War. It’s all rubble, ruins, smoke, haze, destroyed building, and wrecked vehicles. It is more colorful than Gears of War, but not by much. All that clutter leads to the secondary problem of becoming hung up on the level geometry from time to time. It would often interrupt the flow of battle and drag me right out of my gaming happy-place, and once I even had to reload a previous checkpoint because I became hopelessly stuck on debris from all four sides. Another set of complaints that should be levied against Space Marine is the extreme linearity of the levels, your inability to jump or even cross terrain a child could handle with ease, and the invisible walls that show up when you least expect them to make sure you don’t wander off the main path and, you know, enjoy yourself for a minute. It’s so silly for a seven foot tall, power-armored Ultramarine to be unable to cross any terrain that isn’t runway flat. It really becomes a problem at one particular point when the game forces you to cross uneven terrain, but arbitrarily decides where you can and can’t cross it. You are herded down an invisible tunnel that will, should you die and have to reload, be in a different position the next time. You’re even being shot at at one point. It was maddening. That section is probably the one truly negative experience I had the entire game.
Other, less important issues include a story that lurches in a seemingly random direction 2/3rds of the way through the game, once what seems like the main plot is dealt with. It comes out of nowhere, and introduces brand new enemies and a completely new plot that never seemed to be hinted at earlier. It wasn’t bad as much as it was confusing and arbitrary. Another little issue is the dialogue mixing. Unless you are looking at who is speaking, the speaker’s audio level drops so low only devices sensitive to electromagnetic changes could detect it. And even when you swing the camera around so you can hear them, the dialogue is still too low to listen to comfortably. The cone of appropriate audio levels is just too small. If you‘re not looking straight at them, it sounds like they‘re in another room. Just accept that you’ll have to turn the subtitles on or listen through headphones (or your multidirectional stereo system that cost more than my car). Also, for me, the executions began to suffer from the law of diminishing returns by time the game hit its home stretch, but they never got tiresome. Even once the wow factor wore off, I still relished the opportunity to use them when I could. Finally, there were frame-rate hitches from time to time. They never occurred during combat, when you’d think they would, what with all the blood and particle effects. Instead, they popped up when you were simply running through the levels between engagements; they never lasted for more than a moment, though, and I found them tolerable.
One final nitpicky issue that bugged me, and maybe only me, was the lack of vehicle sections. There is one on-rails door gunner sequence, but that is it. There are no tanks to drive or artillery pieces to man despite the fact that many areas are littered with tanks and artillery pieces that just sit there unused - taunting me. Also, you can forget about ever getting to drive the Titan war machine or firing its huge guns, which bummed me out greatly. Your mileage may vary, however.
Once you finish the single-player campaign, your fun doesn’t have to stop. Warhammer 40K: Space Marine offers all the online multiplayer you'd expect. The offerings are a bit slim, however, but that doesn’t stop them from being fun in that mindlessly twitchy sort of way Halo multiplayer is for me. Unfortunately the game ships with only five maps and two game modes. Those two game modes are team deathmatch, called Annihilation, and the standard CTF variation where you capture and hold objectives for points. That one is called Seize Ground. There are also three classes to choose from once you level up enough to unlock them. Also unlocked via experience points and level ups is multiplayer avatar customization, perks, and loadout editing. It’s fun, but don’t expect the depth of the other major players in the online multiplayer realm. My favorite part of the multiplayer by far (aside from using the Raptor class’ jump pack and chainsword to pounce on, and then kill everyone I could) was the avatar customization. You get access to both a generic Space Marine model and a Chaos Space Marine model with up to five different variations each. You also have access to myriad options for colors, insignias, armor pieces, and pre-existing chapter and warband schemes that really looked sharp, especially on the Chaos Space Marine side.