Space Marine would be far less frustrating if it weren’t obvious that Relic truly loves the Warhammer 40,000 setting.
I’m not a huge 40K fan, but I really wanted to like this game. Even in spite of this review, I can’t say the experience wasn’t often entertaining.
But the most damning thing I can say about Space Marine is what it really inspired in me, in the end, was a desperate desire for a good Imperial Guard game. (Ciaphas Cain would be nice.) For reference, the Imperial Guard is the force you largely spend the entire game saving. When you’re more interested in the redshirts than the protagonists, something is wrong.
Let’s start with the good- and there’s actually quite a bit the game does well. It’s a mechanically competent, faithful presentation of the 40K setting. Captain Titus, our protagonist, is a surgically- and genetically-enhanced superman wearing a suit of power armor that probably weighs as much as a small car and armed with an automatic mini-rocket-propelled-grenade-launcher and high-tech chainsaw sword. In competent hands, our hero will simply mulch the hordes of foul lesser xenos in his path and pound down mightier adversaries in the thick of a melee.
The game has an aggressive tempo and flow. As befitting a servant of the Imperium, Titus recovers health through executing the enemies of the Emperor or raging in righteous fury. Unfortunately, while health is recovered through aggression; armor (shields) is recovered over time, disrupting the rhythm. The lack of a parry option also makes one-on-one combat sadly limited; the game is clearly at its best when Titus battles mobs of enemies.
So far so good. Space Marine’s creators clearly felt committed to capturing the feel of playing in the 41st Millenium, and for longtime fans of the series, those who just want the opportunity to tromp about in the boots of an Ultramarine (as in “Marine of Ultramar,” not “Ultra Marine”), it may well fulfill that need.
But the game is filled with narrative problems, and not just to the uninitiated, that ultimately make its single-player campaign somewhat hollow.
Space Marine starts in media res and never quite leaves it. We begin with a trio of Ultramarines dropping into the atmosphere of a “Forge World,” Graia, to secure a “Titan” from Ork hordes. The game takes no pains to explain any of this. How are the uninitiated to know that a Forge World is a planet whose surface is devoted primarily to industrial complexes? Why should they regard the orks with the vitriol of the game’s protagonists without knowing they are savage, cruel barbarians that literally thrive off war and view genocidal slaughter like other races do a pub crawl? And most damningly, where Chaos (a force of elemental evil) is concerned, how is the player to know that they represent an insidious, corruptive evil that might taint even the virtuous through repeated exposure?
Even the protagonists, viewed as angels by the rank-and-file of their society, are too ridiculous to take seriously in their solemn use of the title “Space Marine,” as if it didn’t sound like something from a ten-year-old’s imagination. Warhammer 40,000 takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to embrace its uniquely mad vision, and Space Marine rests heavily on the shoulders of other titles set in the 41st Millenium rather than trying to establish, on its own terms, the evocative appeal of its setting beyond violence.
It’s not necessary that the game present players with an encyclopedia. Relic’s Dawn of War series captured the setting’s essence through judicious use of subtle hints and sheer melodramatic bombast. Feel is often more important than exact details. A good writer can tell the audience a great deal simply through everyday dialogue without resorting overmuch to grand expository speeches. Space Marine certainly got the details right, but no amount of accurate Bolter power, perfectly-reproduced chapter markings, or roaring chainsword can replace the frenzied rambling and fanaticism so characteristic of the Space Marines and Chaos in 40K and Relic’s Dawn of War – and so absent here.
Space Marine doesn’t even make the effort. It does little to contextualize its campaign, despite clearly being only one conflict in a vast universe. The player never encounters civilians and only speaks with a few ordinary human soldiers. The protagonists themselves are soft-spoken and almost sedate. None of its characters are especially developed, seemingly more representational types than individuals, and since none of them are really compelling people it doesn’t matter overmuch what happens to them or their world.
The chosen narrative is partly to blame for this. A Forge World is a poor choice of setting, despite its strategic importance – almost the entire game is variations upon blasted and barren industrial complexes. The Space Marines themselves are difficult sells as protagonists precisely because they are essentially sexless warrior-monks, with no lives beyond battle – and unlike the Dawn of War franchise, Relic chose caution and kept its Ultramarine leads straight, subdued heroes without even the frenzied crusader’s zeal their Dawn of War Blood Raven counterparts regularly displayed.
And the presentation of its villains surely does not help. The orks are ready-made foes, and come off reasonably well. Unfortunately, when the demented acolytes of Chaos show up, they receive little characterization. There are no chances for them to prove themselves the far more terrible evil any 40k fan knows they are. Daemons (bloodletters, for those of you who care) are largely cookie-cutter videogame monsters who somehow lack the terrible aura of pure evil written media grants them. Even the portals that the initiated recognize as literal rips in the fabric of reality leading, essentially, to Hell are portrayed as swirling clouds of purple mist that wouldn’t introduce alarm in the casual viewer beyond “oh, hey, more enemies.”
Without the unique context or entertaining insanity of the franchise, Space Marine is a solid shell about a brittle core. It seems to believe it can rely on established characterization- characterization rarely exposed or borne out in the narrative. Even comic books feel the need to re-establish key character traits on a regular basis, the better to make the reader care when the heroes and villains start pounding on each other.
Despite the tagline that precedes all material set in 40K, war alone is not enough to capture the 41st Millenium. Space Marine is a noble effort, but a flawed one.