Short of developing a sandbox RPG featuring a Barbie doll as its lead character, Relic Entertainment couldn’t be much further out of their comfort zone than they are with a third-person action brawler. Not that you’d notice this – Space Marine is unerringly confident in almost everything that it does – but it’s remarkable that they haven’t inadvertently brought any RTS baggage along with them. In comparison to the developer’s previous Warhammer wares, Space Marine is blunt, uncouth and a wee bit dense. But it’s also extremely entertaining if you can forgive its countless nods to one notable action/sci-fi franchise in particular.
But Space Marine isn’t actually anywhere near as close to Gears of War’s formula as everyone was expecting. Although it may have squigs instead of tickers, a decidedly dank colour palette, at least one blockbuster set-piece set atop a hurtling freight train and heroes who look like they’re all half-bison, the overbearing emphasis on melee combat really does set Space Marine apart. Your melee moveset is comprised of three moves; a simple attack, a stun move and a finisher. Some enemies can’t be stunned without having been significantly beaten beforehand, and you can’t use finishers on anyone that you haven’t stunned. And, despite being an aspect of the game that’s destined to be misunderstood, the ultra-violent finishing moves actually involve genuine strategy, and this is because they’re essentially cast in stone.
Executing a fisher kicks you straight into a 2-4 second canned battle animation that can’t be cancelled or curtailed. This means that you are fully susceptible to enemy attacks for the entire duration of it, and you’ll quickly learn that you can’t rely on them when you’re in the midst of one of the more well-populated skirmishes. The key to success is balancing the gunplay with the hand-to-hand stuff, and ensuring that you’re constantly aware of your environment and everything in it. But irrespective of whether or not you warm to the melee side of the combat – and you’re very unlikely not to – the game has so much confidence in its gunplay that it cheerfully allows you to make your own mind up about how you approach almost every scenario.
The vast majority the game’s battles pit you against a mass of enemies who all approach from a distance, so if you want to hang back and utilise the gunplay over the melee combat, you can. However, you will need to be extremely careful about how you balance the two mechanics later on because the difficulty level slowly evolves, and one of the final abilities that you unlock – the devastating ‘Fury’ mode – becomes more and more essential the further that you progress. It bins the concept of stunning enemies and turns almost every melee attack into one-hit kill (which also replenishes your health) and choosing the exact moment at which to trigger it becomes yet another welcome strategic tactic in itself.
The game also plays to its origins in some unexpectedly subtle ways – such as Captain Titus’ ‘run’ animation, which appears to have been very closely inspired by the rigid hop of a certain Buzz Lightyear – but make no mistake; this every inch the full-pelt, grandiose space opera that the Warhammer universe has always demanded. The fans have had to make do with the comparatively restrained RTS genre until now, so the implementation of some big-budget spectacle, a booming musical score and a cast comprised partially of thoroughbred A-list Hollywood acting talent, should send large factions of the fanbase into an overjoyed stupor.
Space Marine is perhaps not as ambitious as Warhammer’s many (many) disciples would have liked it to be, and the uninitiated may continue to perpetuate those comparisons to Gears of War, but aesthetics aside – even if you ignore the influence that Warhammer clearly had on Gears’ visual style in the first place – it’s actually a very different proposition. The multiplayer is even more dissimilar – turning the pensive 5v5 excitement of Gears into a boisterous 16 player romp that has COD-style XP and unlocks to spare – and unlike so many games of this type, the campaign isn’t irritatingly short. The hardcore Warhammer fanbase are definitely going to get the most out of this, but a surprisingly involving campaign and a novel multiplayer component means that they definitely won’t be the only audience to get a bloody, vociferous kick out of it.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is out now on PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.
Watch the Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine trailer here: