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Warhammer 40K: Space Marine Xbox 360 Review - PAGE 1Lydia Sung - Thursday, September 8th, 2011 Like (2) Share
Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K might be one of the biggest names in geek culture, its history spanning more than two decades and across multiple mediums. The tabletop game has its own long list of spin-offs, but the 40K name isn’t nearly as widespread as some of the franchises influenced by it. In fact, Blizzard has Games Workshop to thank for the success of Starcraft and Warcraft, both of which borrow heavily from the Warhammer universe.
Then you have the now clichéd “space marine” theme, though most other games have adopted their own names and synonyms. Space Marines – yes, with capital letters – remains a distinctly 40K concept. In more recent years, Relic Entertainment’s 40K RTS series Dawn of War has kept the name alive among the PC-centric gaming community, and with Warhammer 40K: Space Marine, the studio made their first attempt at reintroducing the franchise to console gamers.
Space Marine drops players in the boots of Captain Titus, a 150-year-old Ultramarine leading his modest squad of three against an invading Ork army. The Orks, under the command of a clever Warboss Grimskull, have been tearing across Forge World Graia, wreaking havoc upon its citizens. The Imperial Guard – also known as the greatest army of cannon fodder in 40K – is rapidly crumbling to the Orks’ superior numbers, and the Liberation Fleet is still planning a counter assault. Enter the Ultramarines, perhaps the most well-known Chapter within the Adeptus Astartes.
Combat: Brutality and Simplicity
A brief opening sequence eases players into the frenetic combat of Space Marine, by pitting Titus against some of the Ork army’s weaker units. The combat system is incredibly easy to grasp and works like any standard hack ‘n’ slash. Spamming X (on the 360) performs a basic attack, and Y triggers a stun. Chaining the two commands together can yield more powerful attacks with wider areas of effect.
The arsenal at your disposal is taken directly from the 40K tabletop realm and boasts a rich variety of melee and ranged weapons. To get up close and personal, Titus can choose between the standard Chainsword, a Power Axe, or the two-handed Thunder Hammer. For killing at a distance, the list is much longer, ranging from the classic Bolter to more unusual selections like the Meltagun and Lascannon. Space Marine offers up every blade, hammer, and gun pretty early on, so you’ll have access to most of the collection less than halfway through the campaign. Yet all the weapons come perfectly balanced, so you’ll never be forced to give up an old favorite for something bigger and better. That said, the game does limit your weapons by type, meaning you can only carry one melee and four ranged at any given time, and the number of higher-tier guns that can be equipped is restricted. Still, what you bring is mostly up to you, with the exception of your Bolter.
Gameplay is completely action-driven, encouraging players to fully immerse themselves in the heat of battle. In fact, killing is the primary way to gain health. Should your enemies manage to eat their way through your shields and begin depleting your health meter, performing executions on stunned targets will replenish large chunks of it. The amount of health you receive increases with the difficulty of that target, so taking down a weakened Nob can literally bring Titus back from the brink of death. These finishers may very well be the highlight of Space Marine, and they vary per weapon and enemy type. Grab a stunned ‘Ard Boy, and Titus will actually confiscate the shield from the Ork and beat it to death with the slab of metal. Perform an execution on a Nob with the standard Chainsword and Titus will do one of two things: tear the Ork’s jaw from its skull with his bare hands or shove the Chainsword into its mouth. Either way, you end up with a dead Greenskin and a feeling of smug satisfaction.
Fulfilling as it may be, the combat could stand for some improvement. The lack of any proper defenses beyond a quick dodge may lead to some frustrating deaths, and Titus can still sustain damage while stuck in an execution animation. I wholly support Relic’s decision to exclude cover, but at the same time, Titus doesn’t feel quite as indestructible as the Space Marines described in 40K lore. If making Titus invulnerable during executions is too much, then he should at least be able to disengage during the lengthy sequences to avoid incoming Squigs and missiles.
Fury is another handy lifesaver to fall back on and the only other method of regaining lost health. The Fury meter, shown on the lower left, builds with every successful attack, and once triggered, Titus enters a rage during battle that gives him additional damage while slowly regenerating his health. Later in the campaign, you’ll find upgrades that improve upon Titus’ Fury, like being able to enter bullet time by using ranged weapons in Fury mode.
Fury aside, character progression is nonexistent in the campaign, and the logic behind this, according to developers, is that you can’t improve a Space Marine beyond giving him better equipment. So rather than farm XP and gain levels, players will be awarded Purity Seals and other iconic items every few chapters or so, upgrading Titus’ Fury and armor. Similarly, weapons are also non-upgradeable, apart from your starter pistol and Bolter, which do receive several buffs throughout the game.
Staying True to the 40K Universe
A few minutes with Space Marine is enough time to understand its target audience. Despite its simplistic design, the game is brimming with 40K terminology and themes, and for fans of the series, Space Marine plays out like a single verse in an epic poem. If you’re going in without any prior knowledge of the 40K universe, then you’ll wind up struggling with the dialogue and major plot elements. Rather than including a codex or insert lengthy explanations into the script, Relic treats Space Marine like any writer would a 40K novel: by diving straight in.
In that context, everything about Space Marine makes perfect sense, from the story’s premise to its characters’ behavior. Every race, faction, and individual is written as they ought to be. The Orks are invading Graia because that’s just the kind of thing Orks do. Captain Titus, despite his daunting appearance, is the very embodiment of temperance and loyalty, befitting of a proper Space Marine. His two subordinates provide some contrast with different personalities and outlooks on life, yet exhibit the same stalwartness appropriate of Astartes.
Even the environments are indicative of 40K. Since the game takes place on a Forge World, you are constantly surrounded by the Imperium’s trademark architecture, which is characterized by a mix of gothic and industrial design. Towering spires and flying buttresses loom over the battlefield as standing monuments to the might of Mankind, in stark contrast to the steel infrastructures contained within and beneath. Every stage conveys a breathtaking sense of scale and somehow reflects the Imperium’s fatalistic sensibilities.
Multiplayer: Imperium versus Chaos
Like the rest of Space Marine, the competitive multiplayer segment sounds deceptively simple on paper but yields a surprisingly rich experience. The two available game modes are relatively standard fare. Seize Ground requires players to capture and hold points, and Annihilation is simply team deathmatch. The map selection is modest at best, but should be enough to keep players happy until additional content is made available. Not all classes will feel equally at home across all maps, so being able to switch classes upon death is a nice convenience.
Players can side with either the Imperium’s Space Marines or their nemesis, the Chaos Marines. Each side features the same three classes, just with different names. First, you have the well-rounded Tactical Space Marine/Chaos Space Marine, proficient with a wide range of weapons; the Assault Marine/Raptor specializes in melee combat and rely on their Jump Packs to carry them straight at enemies; finally, the Devastator/Havoc unit bring up the rear with their ranged attacks, armed with heavy weaponry that limits mobility but packs one hell of a punch. All three classes are fairly balanced, though the Assault Marine carries a slight advantage in closed environments.
Customization is purely cosmetic, allowing players to adjust their armor and color scheme. Relic actually provided a generous number of presets, emulating existing Adeptus Astartes Chapters and Chaos Warbands, but don’t let that stop you from creating your own Marine. The customization feature remains locked until level four, and the current multiplayer level cap sits at 41 – perhaps referencing the 41st millenium.
Warhammer 40K: Space Marine is unabashed fan service at its best and effectively captures the spirit of what it means to be one of the God-Emperor’s finest. You’ll still find some room for improvement, of course. A more refined combat system with defensive maneuvers could do wonders for the already solid gameplay, and the story would definitely benefit from an extra plot twist or two. We do see one major twist about midway through the campaign, but everyone pretty much figures it out by Part II.
In terms of play time, Space Marine runs a respectable 12 hours or so on Normal difficulty. After that, the surprisingly robust multiplayer should keep you occupied much longer, at least until the “Exterminatus” co-op mode is released (for free). With Space Marine, Relic has done the 40K franchise yet another great service, and I’m genuinely hoping to see the studio continue the Space Marine series alongside Dawn of War. Their liberal and masterly use of the 40K source material should please existing fans to no end, while hopefully inspiring newcomers to pick up the 40K habit.
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