Thursday, 20 October 2011

Video Game Review | Warhammer 40k: Space Marine, dev. Relic Entertainment

You know, on the one hand, I get why Warhammer and 40k are so important to the community arranged around fantasy and sf like cogs around a single great gear. I understand that the brands drove awareness of the fiction we all adore today - originating certain aspects of it, even, like the indomitable space marine (I think) - helping in a larger sense to cement the narrative and thematic preoccupations of a generation or more.

And of course it can be hard to leave those things you hold dear behind. To move on. Every year, every autumn - honestly, it's become like a ritual - I read the new Stephen King, and some years more than others, I ask myself: why? Why do I do this thing that causes me as much pain as pleasure?

The answer is simple: because I did... because to stop now would be to do this thing that I used to care a great deal about - and still do, sometimes - a disservice. And why should I? There is that saying, I suppose... that to become a man, one must put away childish things, but let's face it: adults today have more toys on their person at any one time than kids ever did. And Stephen King was one of my very favourite toys.

But I digress, suffice it to say that I still have my Stephen King habit, and you folks, if you're that way inclined, are perfectly entitled to - and just as justified in your continuing appreciation of - your Warhammer, and/or your 40k. No harm, no foul. Let it be said, though, that I do glaze over every time one or another of the bloggers I've followed through thick and through thin start banging on about The Horus Heresy or some such. The fiction's just never appealed to me, from the outside, and though I stand ready to be corrected, I've found it all but impossible to find a way in to such a vast and complex canon.

So Warhammer 40k: Space Marine was a welcome chance for me to see what all the adulation's been about. A test case of sorts. At worst, I expected, it would be a competent shooter with a nothing narrative, and I've played a lot worse than that, so I'd have been alright with that. But at best? At best it could have been an entry point, at long last!

Space Marine is not exactly either of those things. For a shooter, it's actually quite an interesting specimen... though its arrival practically day and date with Gears of War 3 has done it no favours. As an introduction to the 40k fiction, meanwhile, I'm sorry to say Space Marine is an almighty missed opportunity.

You are Ultramarine Captain Titus, commander of a small regiment of delightfully soft-spoken space Romans sent to defend Graia, a Forge World under attack by infinite Orks. Your mission - and you have no choice but to accept it - is to support what remains of the Imperial Guard, and prepare the planet for the imminent arrival of a Liberation fleet. Needless to say this does not please Ork Warboss Grimskull, who makes his dissatisfaction known by appearing every now and then in the early-going of the game to say silly things.

Thankfully, your path soon crosses that of Inquisitor Drogon, who has been secretly developing a weapon of mass destruction in Graia's Manufactorum. From this point on, your orders are to rescue the Inquisitor, despite him being a total sleazeball, then aid him in readying the weapon - designed to tap the energy of the Warp - in order to use it against the pesky Ork invaders.

As a narrative, it's not actually bad. There are some strong characters, though they seem straight out of the mold of commonplace military sf; the very mold 40k played no small part in making, back in the day. As you plow through the eight-hour single-player you'll encounter some predictable betrayals, handled with such staunch self-seriousness as to amuse rather than surprise or entertain, I dare say... but there are also some legitimately engaging reversals of fortunes later in the campaign.

In terms of gameplay, what's most interesting about Space Marine is the strange yet satisfying balance it strikes between melee and gunplay. In most encounters, you'll be seamlessly shifting between the two types of enemy interaction: shooting the Ard Boyz with weapons with your weapons - of which there are a few neat variations on the norm - then whipping out the mighty Thunder Hammer or your trusty old Chainsword to mow through a swarm of Orks before they overpower you. Rinse and repeat.

But this repetition, combined with an ever-expanding arsenal of arms and enemies to overcome, means that you must find, and find quickly, what works best for you: for instance the Melta Gun never left my side once I'd found it, whereas I gave the Lascannon a single shot and promptly abandoned it... because I'm a really rubbish sniper. In Space Marine, unlike most modern shooters, that's just fine.

Which isn't to say Space Marine isn't unreasonably punishing, on occasion. It is. And that's symptomatic of RTS developer Relic Entertainment's inexperience with the genre rather than some design decision, I think; that and all the other issues you don't expect from a triple-A retail game in this day and age - things like checkpointing before unskippable cutscenes, some horrendous textures (though it looks pretty good otherwise), and invisible walls here, there and everywhere - that hold the experience as a whole back.

So as a shooter, too, Space Marine is solid, if a bit cheap and cheerful compared to the likes of Gears of War 3. It's good enough... but never truly great.

And that's the thing. I was really hoping Space Marine would sell me on Warhammer. It didn't. You do get the sense that Relic are making an effort to embrace all comers - the fiction is far from impenetrable, and it could have been - but in part because of that restraint, that allowance to accessibility, Space Marine is in narrative terms almost entirely bland; resolutely unremarkable in the face of so many other similar games that have co-opted elements of the 40k canon and ran with them, evolving them in ways that leave the franchise started it all feeling not a little left-behind.

Sadly, then, Space Marine didn't make a Warhammer convert of me, though I was open to it doing so... hopeful, even, that it would. But those folks who're already amongst the faithful? I can't see any reason why they wouldn't love this thing, odd beast though it may be in the modern marketplace.

One last thing before I call it a day: for a game about space marines, called Space Marine, in which you play - yes, you guessed it - a space marine... there really isn't a whole lot of space in Spare Marine. What's that about?


  1. I tried the demo of Space Marine, and to me it got the feel just right.

    It felt... right. I think that's the only way to describe it. You thundered around, the combat was brutal and messy, and everything felt pretty damned good.

    Relic are not great storytellers, though. The campaign for Dawn of War 2 feels very wobbly. You're in the Blood Ravens (I think) and basically the Tyranids are making a bit of a stink, the Orks are being nobz (See what I did there?) and the Eldar are just being their waifish selves. I think the campaign for Retribution is even worse, because it's a one-size-fits-all for all races.

    Generally, if you're going to try and get into 40k, I've found nothing to be better than the Codex for the race you're most interested in. Do you care for the Space Marines? Well, pick up Codex: Space Marines. A lot of it will be useless info as it's made for the table top game, but there is some good background.

    I know Adam of The Wertzone recommends Ciaphas Cain and Gaunt's Ghosts as entry points, because they're more like traditional sci-fi. Cain is probably the one I'd suggest to you, Niall, because it isn't up its arse and it's got a very self-important protagonist. Oh, and it's also a comedy as much as it is a military sci-fi series.

    The problem with the games is they have to bend and break the lore. They can't be saddled down with three or so decades worth of background, because it would make the game very hard to get into. They're 40k-lite in those regards.

    My personal advice is either go for the Imperial Guard/Inquisition books (Like the ones mentioned above) or to go for the Ultramarines books. They are your main entry points in terms of fiction.


  2. Why yes, kill them all! But of course.

    I'd be lying if I said I was super-duper keen to read some Warhammer fiction after playing Space Marine all the way through - kinda had my fill for the moment - but when I'm of a mind to, and I will be again, I'll keep an eye out for the Ciaphas Cain books, as you suggest, Kathryn. I really do appreciate the nudge in the right direction; knowing me (as I do, ever so well) I'd have ended up eight miles deep down one blind alley or another if left to my own devices.

    My own devices are not often to be trusted...