Video games based on the Warhammer 40K license tend to be strategy titles. A fitting mix, considering the games take their setting from a tabletop wargame. However, a brave few studios have attempted to take on different genres. While Fire Warrior wasn’t exactly a hit, Relic’s Space Marine was an interesting new attempt at getting a shooter out of 40K. A shame it sold like absolute rubbish.
Failure is unacceptable
The story of Space Marine starts off with a pretty bad cutscene, where a computer monitor notes that the planet Graia is under attack and begins to run through a number of options for how to tackle this. It reveals that the planet is a so-called Forge World, a planet dominated by factories, and also that awe-inducing warlord-class Titans are being developed there. With losing those titans being out of the question, the computer eventually comes to the only remaining conclusion: Deploy the Ultramarines!
Players take control of Captain Titus, whose squad acts as a vanguard that lands on Graia and begins battling with the Orc invaders. Once on the ground, Titus and his crew have to fight their way to the factory and secure the Titan Invictus. On their way there, they attempt to help the war effort in whatever way possible and must kill approximately half a million orcs.
The game is remarkably heavy in story and puts a lot of focus on its characters. Titus is an accomplished and confident commander, backed up by the veteran battle brother Sidonus. There is also the rookie Marine Leandros, a capable and hardy soldier who is a little too by the books and frequently question Titus’ tactical judgment. Interesting characters pop up along the way, such as Lt. Mira who leads the remaining soldiers on the planet and a shady inquisitor who keeps withholding vital information in the name of protocols.
There is a lot of banter between the characters as they fight their way around the planet and all of it is quite interesting to follow. What ends up happening is pretty standard fare for Warhammer stories, but it’s presented and paced well, with frequent new developments to keep up the interest. The ending, however, does feel very inconclusive, owing to its ambitions for expansions and sequels that never came to be. It’s not unfinished, but they throw out a major sequel hook that suddenly brings up lots of questions.
Story score: 7.7/10
So close you can almost smell the orcs
After years of sending out orders for tactical marines to go shoot up a squad of orcs, it’s fun to now be the Space Marine on the ground who has to face off against the green brutes. As Titus, you have an arsenal of guns at your disposal, starting with a pistol and bolter rifle. Your remaining 2 weapon slots can be swapped out, with familiar guns like the sniper, melta gun, lascannon, and plasma rifle becoming available as you proceed the story.
Secondly, the game has a number of melee weapons, as well as grenades for some explosive needs. Your melee weapon can also be changed, with a chainsword, power axe, and thunderhammer becoming available over the course of the story, each with its own qualities. And you’ll definitely need all this heavy firepower, because the orcs are as angry as they are many. You and your squad will really be in the thick of it, with firefights often having hordes of orcs swarm you from multiple directions.
And this does bring up a consistent problem I have with the game. You feel powerful, but at the same time, you really don’t. Weapons feel like they have a lot of impact to them and Titus stomps around like you’d expect for a giant in power armor, but the effect all of it has on the Orcs is minimal. A single orc might need about 4-5 shots from the bolter before it decides to go down, and when you got 12 of them swinging at you, that just takes way too long. Similarly, almost anything can survive a straight hit from the sniper or cannon, unless you get a headshot dead center. Even explosions are no guarantee for quick kills and grenades have an absolutely pathetic blast radius, to begin with.
It feels very underwhelming when not even the basic orcs will go down fast and becomes even more absurd in melee combat. A single orc might take up to 8 direct hits before they die and, again, you got dozens of them around you in any given fight. Oftentimes it comes down to trying to thin the horde with your guns and grenades, before you just start mashing away in melee combat. There is little tact or precision to melee, you just keep hitting them and sometimes activate a rage mode to restore health and get a little stronger.
This does bring up another problem because Titus doesn’t have regenerating health and there are no health packs. Your shield protects you from a few hits, but quickly vanishes when you take enemy fire. Any damage to your health is permanent unless you stun an enemy and perform an execution. HOWEVER, executions don’t give you invincibility frames, so while you need to perform them to restore health, enemies continue to deal damage while you stand around for a 10-second animation. And this goes fast! Sometimes you just walk into a room and take so much fire that you’re down to 25% health before you get over the initial surprise.
The game also suffers from poor variety. Every fight starts to feel the same, with the same enemy types, the same strategies, and the same flow. It’s serviceable, but if you look at everything I wrote above, it’s just not up to par with shooters of the time. The game does throw in some turret segments and you get to jetpack around sometimes. There is also a lot of downtime and that just feels weird. You got these enormous areas, beautifully detailed stuff, and players just run through 4 rooms of it completely uncontested and with 0 dialogue.
If anything, I will say that the game is challenging. You’ll often face hordes of orcs while being pounded by gunners and rocket launchers from afar. It feels overwhelming in a way that matches how Warhammer games often play out. The AI is not spectacular, however, and will often just kind of stand around, ignore foes, shoot at walls; just all-around not contribute to what you want to achieve. This really was a game where I just put up with the gameplay because I wanted to see the story concluded.
Gameplay score: 5.4/10
I’ve got SPOIS MAREEHNES
While we know Relic Entertainment primarily for their strategy games, Space Marine stands to prove that they are capable of so much more than distant, isometric strategy maps. Seeing the world of 40K so up close is as staggering as one would hope.
The forge world we find ourselves on is dense with military structures and jaw-dropping architecture, such as massive bridges and the factory. Everything is oversized and needlessly detailed, such as the explosives for the massive canon all being ornately-decorated. Seeing stuff like a computer terminal with a scroll filled with religious texts taped beside it, those are the little details that really draw you into the bizarre world of the wargame, and it was something that Fire Warrior very much lacked.
Where Space Marine falls short is in its color palette. Titus and his team are donned in the bright, blue armor of their chapter, but everything else prefers washed out colors and gory realism. Typically, I have always preferred the games that focussed on the silliness inherent to the 40K license, over those that tried to play the grimdark nonsense seriously. A middle ground would have been nice, like we could still have the dreary streets littered with corpses of fallen soldiers, if they gave the Orcs some brighter colors.
The Orcs, naturally, steal the show. Titus and his allies all look & sound just fine with convincing voice work, but it’s the orcs that you want to focus on. Their ridiculous behavior and hilarious English is good for many laughs. Lastly, there are the cutscenes, which all look quite nice. The visual quality and creative character designs mean they still look impressive several years later, and since the game prefers in-engine cutscenes that don’t interrupt game flow, getting an actual cutscene feels more like a reward than it otherwise would have.
Presentation score: 8/10
Wasting expensive skulls
Clocking in at about 7 hours, Space Marine has a pretty standard length for a 7th generation shooter, though I will say that the game feels longer than the runtime implies. I wouldn’t exactly say the game is replayable either, as its linear story and straightforward levels don’t offer much new on a second run through.
The game does feature some collectibles in the form of servo skulls. These hidden devices contain audio logs for additional story details. Some of these expand on the mystery’s left vague by the plot, which is very welcome, but others can just be the last words of some random citizen that make you wonder why they bothered to record such a message.
Extras score: 4.5/10
It’s a shame that Space Marine couldn’t establish a series of shooters set in the 40K universe, because it remains an interesting idea for a game series. Space Marine really shines in how well it presents Games Workshop’s world. The design of Graia, the interesting and well-designed characters, the cool storyline, these are all reasons for why I kept playing through the game despite its meager gameplay offering. It would have been great if Relic got to expand on these ideas in a sequel. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.