Video Game Retrospective: Space Marine

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There’s a world where we have a long line of Space Marine-branded Warhammer 40K games to play, moving from the launch title bearing that name from Relic Entertainment in 2011 to a sequel sometime in the next three years to two next-gen titles since then, with a rumored announcement for a…probably not a Space Marine 5, but a relaunch and a reimagining under a new banner coming for the roll-out of the new consoles next year. That world is not this world. Instead we only have Warhammer 40K: Space Marine.

It is, basically, the most fundamental WH40K game you can make. You, the incredibly bland Captain Titus of the Ultramarines, must drop onto a Forge World with your grizzled sergeant (old, heavy weapons) and fresh acolyte (young, keeps talking about tactics from the Codex Astartes) to prevent the orks from overrunning it at first, and then prevent Chaos from sneaking in the back door and stealing your artifact mcguffin. The game is concerned originally about orks stealing a Titan, and then seamlessly transitions to an Inquisitor defending a hazily-defined power source from Chaos. 

And that’s fine! Honestly it’s a breath of relief there’s no silly plot about an Eldar Farseer ominously and badly lying to you for all of Act II shoehorned into the thing. This is your bacon and eggs Warhammer 40K plot-ass plot, and the game works well within those strictures. The game is basically a proof of concept for the sort of Space Marine game that should have been in constant production for the past decade, and just…hasn’t been. Part of it is Relic Entertainment having to juggle both this and the Dawn of War franchise for the early part of that dev cycle, and making a clear choice to support Dawn of War and not Space Marine. Another part of it is some corporate licensing nonsense, because it’s ridiculous that there hasn’t been some studio that Games Workshop has been able to contract with to produce a third-person action game using one of the most recognizable licenses in popular media. They’re getting a Netflix series, for crying out loud.

Space Marine was a September 2011 release, and it feels like it. Most of what you’d expect from third person action game controls are there — the biggest quibble is reload on RB, but since your Space Marine has to be able to light and heavy attack on X and Y, and finishing move on B, that means they have to get a bit creative…and at the time, RB to reload was a staple of, for instance, the early Gears of War titles. A modern title probably moves all the melee to one button, frees up X for reload, and makes everything fall in line to feel better, but this is most of the way there to how your modern controller third-person action game will control.

Reflecting how the industry was moving on, somewhat, from the Gears of War model even then, Space Marine is not a cover shooter. The idea of Space Marines taking waist-high cover is farcical anyway — how do you credibly construct an Imperial city with waist-high cover for the Space Marines? So instead the segments where in Gears of War you’d sit behind a fallen pillar and shoot are replaced by segments that urge you to keep moving forward. The concept wasn’t particularly new even then — the March 2009 title Dark Sector did a lot of the melee/ranged mixing that Space Marine does first, especially in terms of demarcating ranged sections, melee sections, and mixed ranged/melee sections — but Space Marine was one of the first titles that wasn’t in the third-person action genre coming out of Japan (Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, and so on) to completely abandon cover and just let it all hang out there.

That doesn’t mean it was a complete success! Some ideas didn’t land; most notable among them is the Ork Dropship fight to end Act I, which involves running about a thin narrow platform with a removed emplacement gun trying to shoot down a hovering craft that is constantly moving across all three axes — sliding up and to the right at the same time, for instance, or moving left as it charges on a strafing run. Given that your heavy weapon is not hitscan and is indeed tracking a very slow projectile, and you haven’t had much experience with this gun previously (there is a perfunctory tutorial for it in the first 30 minutes of the game that lasts maybe 45 seconds, and then a couple emplaced machine turrets, which operate much differently from plasma artillery turrets, appear as optional pieces in two or three key fights over the next three hours), you’re going to find yourself missing a lot. And, since you can’t take cover, you’re constantly taking damage from the Ork Dropship. It’s not an ungovernable fight — after a couple tries, you’ll get the timing and delays down and learn which pieces of scenery actually block bullets and which don’t — but it’s an experiment that doesn’t work, and doesn’t reward any of the skills you’ve been building up to that point.

For the most part, though, the game is a smooth, well-considered ride. Sure, it doesn’t make much sense for there to be armory drop pods just placed indoors along your path to swap your chainsword for a power axe or your bolt pistol for the plasma variant, but the pacing of the change is well done — you’re always getting incrementally stronger, and this is happening before the RPG-ization trend in games fully took hold and you’d be required to spend skill points or consider what build you wanted. No: you get something that is better, it replaces the worse thing. This mechanism doesn’t feed into the lootbox mania every company making an online game has these days, but it does provide a clean, straight-forward system of progression, that’s coupled with enemy progression to challenge and defeat you if you don’t understand how to use the new weapons. It’s directed, but it’s very good.

The multiplayer horde mode is much of the same gameplay; it’s a good prototype of horde modes you’ve grown to love, and while it has some kinks due to being one of the first, still manages to mainline the core gameplay loop of the series into a fun experience. Corrode: one thing that sucked here is that if I remember right, there was no option for local multiplayer. It was all online-only.

All in all, Space Marine was a powerful game that still plays well in 2019, without any of the caveats I’ve had to attach to similar statements about the franchise that actually became Relic Entertainment’s flagship for the Warhammer 40K license. There are a number of business reasons why the game — which ended even its story with a hook begging for a clear sequel, with the emergence of the Chaos whats-it — didn’t get properly followed-up on; none of them convince me that it shouldn’t be. The Space Marines are, for better or worse, the protagonists of their universe derived into singular, very boring dudes played by guys who do BBC work. There should be an avenue for that protagonist to shine, and third-person character action is a far better delivery system than real-time strategy. Hopefully, someone with the license will figure that out again soon.

Final Verdict: Buy it. I’m not even going to check the price. I paid $40 for Dawn of War III last week. You can buy Space Marine at whatever your retail frontend is asking.

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