If you've ever played the Warhammer tabletop game, you're going to be intrigued by this video game version. And even if you haven't, if you enjoy military games with more to do than just kill people, you'll find that Warhammer 40k: Space Marines deserves a serious look.
For those of you not in the know (myself included), Warhammer is a game based off of a miniature table-top war-game; think Dungeons & Dragons, where genetically modified "super human" soldiers called Space Marines were created by an all-powerful Emperor in order to conquer the galaxy and defend mankind. The game itself has existed since the late 80s, comprised of those miniature figurines. It's set 38,000 years in the future, in case youíre curious about where the "40k" in the title comes from.
It's an expansive yet dystrophic universe that is ruled by sweeping, powerful empires. Mankindís empire is called the Imperium of Man, which dominates the majority of the Milky Way Galaxy. They have also ruled over humanity for millennia, with an authoritarian yet decentralized thumb. Some of the main enemies in their universe are equivalent to Orcs (Orks) and Elves (Eldar). The table-game itself is currently in its fifth edition, the latest of which being published back in 2008. These updates, or codexes as theyíre called, provide the rules of engagement for combat, whether it is urban, planetary or extra-terrestrial level combat.
In Space Marine you play as Captain Titus, leader of a contingent of space marines known as Ultramarines. Sent to a world besieged by millions of Orks, you and a scarce few of your battle brothers go in to see if you can defeat the overwhelming, invading hordes. It's not the most original premise for a space marine story, but it succeeds in giving your character proper motivation to start dismembering foes.
It eventually develops into a genuinely interesting yarn, filled with betrayal, tragedy and a number of other twists. The game play is through a third-person view, with both melee and ranged attacks. As a Space Marine, you are given enhanced regenerative abilities and an Iron Halo shield. When health gets low, performing executions can allow Titus to get a portion of his health back. Fellow Space Marines Sidonus and Leandros accompany you for most of the missions, although there are some encounters for which youíll have to go it alone. The game offers a delightful feature called a fury system that allows you as the player to either slow time down like the "bullet time" in the Matrix for aiming at targets, or perform devastating melee attacks.
Like I mentioned earlier, the main baddies that you must face are the Orks, and a particularly nasty breed called the Forces of Chaos -- and with a name like that, you know they mean business. The Orks are an alien race whose sheer numbers and brutish warriors can make for overwhelming adversaries. The Forces of Chaos, on the other hand, are a far more serious threat that can literally snuff out whole galaxies by opening up doorways into a parallel dimension called The Warp. Within this parallel universe there are unspeakable horrors and nearly limitless energy. Renegade Space Marines called Traitor Legions can conjure up portals that allow daemons allow the daemons to cross over into real-space.
Now Iíd like to discuss the gameplay, which honestly was the only real drawback of the game for me. It's not horrible by any means; just choppy. The story is solid, whether or not you're familiar with the franchise. The cut-scenes break up the pacing, but when Space Marine gets going, it turns into a whirlwind of violence. However, if you can overlook this minor but constant irritation, then you may not necessarily be taken out of the experience.
Also problematic are the executions. You can only get health by initiating a kill animation on an enemy. They look awesome and result in satisfying amounts of gore, but also make you vulnerable to attack. You're stuck in the animation with no option to cancel it, leaving you open to any enemies who decide to saunter up and finish you off. It's really annoying, and makes executions feel like a liability rather than a super move.
The main character, Captain Titus, like the rest of the space marines, is super human, and can reduce legions of Orks into bloody little bits faster than a Magic Bullet blender. To reduce your enemies into a gory mess, you're constantly given an array of weaponry to use, enabling you to adapt him to your play style. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to a combination of shooting and melee combat. As enemies close in, you soften them up with grenades and firearms, then switch to your trusty hammer, axe or sword when you're ready for a blood bath. The melee combat feels good; it's simple enough to not be confusing, and empowering to watch.
Adapting to each encounter is an important part of Space Marine's gameplay, and the varied enemy types encourage a combination of both melee and ranged combat. Ammo dumps and armories are placed all over every stage, giving you regular opportunities to swap out most or all of your weapons. Going into a situation, you might find yourself ill-equipped, but after dying you can try it again and get a whole new set of tools to try. The array of weapons keeps combat from becoming noticeably repetitive, and gives you a sense of being truly extraordinary.
After the campaign is over, there's still good reason to keep Space Marine on your shelf. Multiplayer is surprisingly addictive, despite having unlockables, modes and level progression akin to Call of Duty and every other modern shooter. It takes the frantic shooting and melee combat of the single-player and tosses in real life players to kill, resulting in some pretty epic online battles.
If you're like me and have towered over your Warhammer miniatures for hours dreaming what it'd be like to fight with your friends as space marines, you can now. It may not be the best or most original action game, but itís a fine first outing for the franchise, and a rare gem for Warhammer fans.
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