Video Game Review: WARHAMMER 40,000: SPACE MARINE

The WARHAMMER series gets its action on with this brutal new game.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine was jokingly called ”Gears of Warhammer” by press while in development, but it’s not quite fair to the game. Sure, you move around impossibly beefy characters while fighting a mass of inhuman creatures that love to shout monosyllabic commands, possibly chainsawing them in twain with weapons that should never have chainsaws on them, but this is its own beast. Mostly.

Space Marines are seven feet of genetically engineered brutality, heavily armored, heavily armed, and with two hearts beating in their chests to keep on doing what they do best- kill things. They would laugh at those puny COGS who always run to cover, because these guys don’t ever hide. They kill thousands of enemies (and get achievements for doing so) but they don’t do it all from a distance, as they like to get their hands dirty with melee weaponry all the time. This has translated to the game quite nicely with a combat system that combines ranged and melee attacks beautifully, really making you feel like the badass you’re supposed to be. But is it worth picking the game up, especially when the third GEARS is out right now?

Developer Relic Entertainment is certainly no stranger to the Warhammer 40,000 series, as they’ve managed to turn the miniatures wargame into one of the best RTS titles around with Dawn of War. The second title in that series showed that they were moving in a more action-oriented direction with a bigger focus on the hero units, but Space marine is the first straight-up action title they’ve done. There’s no strategy here at all, unless you’ve been hit in the head a few too many times in life and would find it hard to follow icons on your HUD to the next place you have to go.

Space marine is a third person shooter/brawler that doesn’t concern itself with anything but simple, bloody action. It focuses solely on a man named Titus, a Captain of the UItramarines, an elite group of Space Marines. You might have been able to figure that out from their name. You’re one of three Ultramarines who are tasked with saving an entire planet that’s come under attack by hordes of Orks, a green, warlike race that seems to want the planet for themselves. Through the cutscenes you’ll find the tiny little bit of plot typical to these kind of games- backstabbings, someone sacrificing themselves for the team, one final endboss that taunts you throughout the game, etc.

No surprises there, but the combat is pretty flawless. You have four ranged weapons you can hold at any time (mapped to the d-pad in a cross remarkably shaped like a certain game), and you’ve got a nice selection of pistols, rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers. Over the course of the game you’ll find upgrades to the pistol and rifle as well as new weapons that you can stick in whichever of the two remaining slots you like.

If your enemies get too close, why then it’s time to whip out a melee weapon. Every Space Marine worth his two hearts comes with a chainsword, to properly dice his enemies. (In Warhammer’s defense, they had these silly weapons decades before Gears of War decided to combine chainsaws and rifles.) You can also pick up a Power Axe and a Thunder Hammer, both of which are pretty much what you’d expect. You’ve got a button for regular attacks and a button for stun attacks, and a handful of combos with each weapon. They all handle pretty much the same, but those stun attacks are crucial. When stunning an enemy a button will appear over its head, allowing for an execution. This is one of the two ways you can regain health, so you’ll need to keep that in mind when you’re plowing through enemies. The executions are incredibly visceral and violent, and different depending on what weapon you’ve got equipped (as well as what enemy you’re facing). There’s not much in the way of variety, though. You’re open to attacks while in the animation so you’ll have to choose your executions wisely.

A better way to gain health is to go into Berserk mode by clicking in both analog sticks. Every kill replenishes the Berserk meter and when it’s full it’s time to slaughter dozens of enemies. Your melee attacks will become super powerful and when you aim for a ranged attack time will slow down, giving you better aim for your shots. That’s about as much strategy as you’ll find in the game, figuring out when to best kick off Berserk mode.

The game certainly looks pretty enough, with incredibly detailed character models and environments, but there’s almost nothing to do it in. You spend most of your time trudging through empty corridors with nothing to interact with till you get to the next door or elevator or switch which you’ll activate and then fight the next round of Orks. It’s a shame, because the gameplay can really be a blast, but there are entire stretches where you’re just walking to the next area with absolutely nothing going on. It doesn’t feel like a game world you’re transversing, just an empty place that gets overrun with enemies once in a while.

Multiplayer is actually quite fun, team-based and quite a bit faster than the single player game. It’s got the requisite XP system in place and you’ve got three classes to choose from; a regular Marine, a Heavy Gunner, and an Assault Marine who comes equipped with a jetpack. This allows for a nice bit of variety, although there are unfortunately only two modes to try out, eight on eight battles in either Annihilation (Team Death Match) and Seize Ground (King of the Hill) varieties. One of the features I like the most is the ability to copy the loadout of the person who last killed you, a nice feature that lets you even the playing field against people who have leveled up their characters quite a bit more than you ever will.

(Note that there are plans for free DLC on the way, a co-op mode called Exterminus that will allow four players to play together in a Horde/Survival mode in two new maps.)

On a whole Space Marine is quite fun to play but there are really no standout moments in the game, nothing that will stick with you. It’s the same for the multiplayer, and let’s be honest- are you going to be playing multiplayer in this game with Gears of War 3 out and new iterations of Battlefield and Call of Duty on the way? Of course you won’t.

It’s a rental at best, but with a nice lengthy campaign (eight to ten hours) that offers plenty of bloody action you certainly won’t regret it. But it’s utterly mindless, a button masher that doesn’t have a quarter of the hearts that its main characters do.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Machine was developed by Relic Entertainment and published by THQ, and is out now for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.