I love stumbling into a good sleeper hit. Whether it’s a movie, television show, or videogame, that feeling of having your initially low expectations change to an overall pleasant experience is always a comforting and welcome surprise. They don’t come along too often, but when they do they usually leave a lasting impression. That’s pretty much how I interpret my experience with Warhammer: 40,000 Space Marine. At first glance, the box cover art was uninspiring, the trailer looked like every other sci-fi 3rdperson shooter I’ve seen, and it seemed inevitable that it would fall by the wayside with so many other videogames. But then I actually made the decision to play the game, give it a go, see what was what. It certainly didn’t hurt that it was one of the 12 free downloadable titles that Sony provided to its PlayStationPlus members as an incentive during the 2012 E3 extravaganza.
Space Marine doesn’t break any new ground in terms of story, but it does have a far-reaching history - thanks to the creative minds at Games Workshop that created the Warhammer Universe. In fact, many of the Gears of War-esque space adventures probably owe a great debt to the Warhammer Universe – they’ve been around for some time.
For this version version of Warhammer you play as Captain Titus, an intelligent and calculating Commander that leads a small group of Ultra-Marines, charging head-first into the unending horde of Orks – those green-skinned monsters that have waged war on all of humanity. The motivation of Captain Titus and his crew is simple – stop the Orks at any cost and kill every last one of them along the way. Like a grilled cheese sandwich and hot bowl of tomato soup on a cold wintry day – simple, yet undeniably satisfying.
Initially, Space Marine is somewhat difficult to classify. Is it a straight up 3rdperson shooter, or does the ranged combat take a backseat to the melee? A combination of the two? The developers at Relic came up with an interesting gameplay design that accommodates for the best of both worlds. If the player chooses to sit back and take pot-shots at the hundreds (literally) or Orks that run at you - bloodlust in their eyes - you can certainly do that. You’ll have the typical weapon-set available to take as many out as possible before being forced into what will inevitably be more of a melee focused combat situation. And this is where Relic’s gameplay decisions shine.
Unlike practically every other shooter out there, where the standard for health regeneration is either health packs or staying out of the line of fire, Space Marine throws that concept out the window. Captain Titus has 2 types of health meters the player must always be aware of: his physical health and his armor health. Physical health will not begin to reduce until all of his armor health has been eliminated. Once that happens, Captain Titus, in all his brutish, hulking form, will start taking serious health damage quickly. If the combat sequence has ended, or Titus is clear from harm, his armor health will regenerate on its own, but his physical health will not. The only way to regenerate physical health is to get back into the action and tear apart the Orks with whatever melee weapon you currently have equipped – sword, axe, or hammer.
This is really the hook that Relic has hung its hat on when developing Space Marine. The only way to regenerate Captain Titus’ health is through bloody, hand-to-hand, violence; and even then, it needs to be a specific form of melee combat. You’ll need to first kick-stun an Ork until an appropriate stun icon appears, and then conduct a finishing move that is specific to the melee weapon you are currently handling; and these finishing moves are incredibly satisfying to watch. Your sword will tear an Ork in half, the axe will cleave an Ork’s head in two, and the hammer will knock your opponent down and shatter his skull - just to name a few. With each finishing move you’ll regenerate a chunk of health. Without entering into close combat it’s unlikely you’ll get very far in this game. But, in my opinion, these close quarter scenarios are the bread-and-butter of Space Marine. It’s mostly button mashing and there are very little combos to mention, but it’s all good – and extremely bloody – fun. Those Orks may have green skin, but the blood in their veins most certainly runs red.
Although Space Marine is as linear a game you could ever experience, it does allow for occasional exploration of a random hallway or side-room that holds ammo and weapon crates, or the rare Servo-Skull collectible that provides recorded messages and a bit more back-story. Still, even though you’re consistently directed from point A to point B, the environments provide for an impressive amount of detail and variety, and paint a nice picture of the destruction caused by the Ork mob. The light and shadows are also nicely rendered and provide a high level of realism. Overall, the visuals of Space Marine are another pleasant surprise. What I first thought to be a total Gears of War clone, turned out to be a world with much more character.
Adding to the impressive art style and graphical representation, the use of surround sound was also managed rather well. Where the audio score may have been repetitive and less-than-dramatic, the full use of surround sound further envelops the player into the action. Whether casually walking down a corridor, conversing with a newly met character, or in the thick of battle, I was consistently impressed with the directional-based recording. Each of my speakers – front, rear, and sides – were all put to good use. I would even go as far as saying the voice acting was on par with some of the more triple A titles released around the same time. Although the heavy British accents of the Ultra-Marines and incessant Ork battle cry may have grated on me after the first few hours, it was at least done well.
Warhammer Space Marine is primarily a single player experience, but it does allow for both online multiplayer and a 4-player co-op mode called Exterminatus. As I have tried neither of these options I won’t be including them in my review. What I will say is that after playing the single player campaign I am much more interested in these additional components than I would have expected. Whether a free download (thank you Sony) or store-bought physical copy, Space Marine is worth checking out. In my book, it is the very definition of a sleeper hit and should not be overlooked. Play it now or play it later, but don’t pass it up.