Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

Being the first in a kind of reverse-retrospective of Warhammer 40K computer games.
I am an Ultramarine! I laugh in the face of peril, at a Codex-approved pitch and timbre.
The third iteration of the Warhammer 40,000 RPG is Deathwatch, in which you get to play Space Marines, members of the Imperium of Mankind's elite corps of genetically enhanced warrior-monks, which has always struck me as a terrible idea for a roleplaying game. It would make a great skirmish game, however, and it certainly has the makings of a terrific shooter.

Nobility, honour, and bloody great guns.
Enter Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, from Relic Entertainment/THQ.

Relic and THQ were already known in the 40K community for the Dawn of War series. The original Dawn of War was a real-time strategy game in the mould of Command and Conquer, while Dawn of War II combined a small-unit RTS with elements of tactical roleplaying. Both games were well-received and expectations for Space Marine, a third-person shoot-and-slash, were high.

The previous games had come to focus strongly on the Blood Ravens, a Marine Chapter created specifically for the games. The Blood Ravens are marked by a strong sense of individuality mingled with a reverence of tradition and discipline, which makes them uniquely suited to be the leads in a game with a single character focus. However, for whatever reason - possibly the tangling of canon created by the multiple possible endings of the last expansion for DoWII - the Blood Ravens feature only in a small cameo in Space Marine, and instead the lead is Captain Titus of the Ultramarines.

The Ultramarines are the Marines' Marines, religiously devoted to the doctrinal guidelines laid down by their founder in the Codex Astartes. They are... not fun. This makes them an odd choice of lead, but then it turns out that Captain Titus is, basically, the worst Ultramarine ever. He improvises, deviates from Codex doctrine, switches between assault, tactical and heavy-weapon loadouts on a whim, and actively encourages his newly-minted Marine sidekick to regard the sacred Codex as 'guidelines'. It makes him a more interesting character, but it does beg the question why make him an Ultramarine in the first place.
Turn, duck, EVISCERATE!

But anyway, enough of the fluff; let's talk about the meat.

The basic gristle of the game is pretty slickly done. You can walk, run or combat roll; you can aim (slowing movement), or shoot from the hip, or use the right mouse button to attack with your melee weapon. Your health meter is surrounded by a shining border representing your armour, which apparently regenerates. Once that runs out, your actual health drops off alarmingly fast. You can use a stun and execute option to regain health (which is a bit odd and more suited to the vampiric Blood Angels). Meanwhile a Fury metre builds to provide a burst of super-powered melee or slow-time sniping once you've killed enough enemies.

The combat rocks... the first few times. Eventually though a sort of fatigue sets in, and you come to treasure the mini-boss enemies just because they break the monotony. Aside from a few opportunities for sniper fire, each fight tends to begin with grenades and sweeping automatic fire at neck height, then progress rapidly to close up work. There are a few manoeuvre variations in close combat, but you really have to look them up; the game doesn't do much to help with combos, so for the most part it's all the basic set and repeat as needed.

If the game had more variety elsewhere, this would be fine, but it's actually incredibly linear. Titus' inability to climb or jump limits him to a single path through the world, and forces a specific approach to every problem. Feel like flanking the Ork horde and laying down a withering fire from cover? Yeah, only if it's one of those levels; otherwise you're pretty much standing behind a projecting piece of wall and trying to whittle them down before you go to melee. Conversely, if you'd rather melee the heavily-armed Chaos Marines and the map is a long, long hall, don't think you might find your way around.

The game also lacks a context-sensitive environment; you can bump into scenery, but you can't stick to it, lean around or over it, climb on it or vault it. In a world where sandbox games are the norm and even linear shooters are represented by the likes of Gears of War (aka 'Fun with Cover: the Computer Game'), this feels like a huge absence. Maybe standing there and taking your hits is more Ultramarine, but as a result the game has little to no variation, which severely limits the possibilities for repeat play.

Space Marine represents the ultimate evolution of Relic/THQ's 40K games, bizarrely from greater variety to less. It has fun moments, but ultimately you lack agency, making a only few limited weapon choices (you can only carry up to four ranged weapons at a time) in the game. It's a shame, as it is nearly a very good game.