For the “Gears of War” generation, the 3rd-person shooter genre is the here-and-now of the gaming industry. Cover-based shooting, regenerating health bars, “push A to sprint” and many other features are the bread-and-butter of this style of gameplay…and by God how I hate it.
A video game, particularly one in which you play as what amounts to a steroid-pumped, ‘roid-raging, manly-man supersoldier on behalf of some futuristic sci-fi government (i.e., “Halo,” “Gears of War,” “Mass Effect,” etc.), should make you feel nigh-invincible, impervious to harm, and capable of superhuman acts of indecency in more ways than those just shown in cutscenes.
In this way, September’s “Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine,” a third-person-shooter title from THQ, available on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, based on a little known intellectual property from British miniature wargaming company Games Workshop, is a resounding success. You play through the game’s ten hours or so as a Space Marine, also referred to as the Adeptus Astartes in the game’s background universe; the ultimate in galactic badassery, equipped with nearly impenetrable power armor and armed with a variety of things that make your enemies dead in new and interesting ways. From bolt-guns – assault rifle-like weapons that fire miniature rockets in rapid succession, to the melta gun – which fires a blast of superheated air like a one-shot, one-kill shotgun, to the chainsword, which is exactly what it sounds like- a sword gripped chainsaw, your arsenal feels varied and powerful as any science fiction setting should create, and all pulled straight from the background fiction of the tabletop miniatures game that “Warhammer 40,000” originally comes from.
Immersed deeply within the game world’s gothic, science fiction-fantasy setting, “Space Marine” stuns the player with enormous set piece backdrops and a larger-than-life flare that stays very true to the world of “Warhammer 40,000” in almost every way. The game is set on a titanic factory planet or “Forge World,” where a massive hoard of green skinned, warmongering alien “Orks” are invading. You and two of your fellow Space Marines must help to defend and liberate the planet, facing overwhelming odds and more than a few twists and turns that -while not particularly original in terms of the overarching plot, and while steeped in the rich background and detail that could only be designed by true fans of Games Workshop’s games – get the job done in an interesting and entertaining way.
The gameplay, however, is another story. “Space Marine” is driven by its main selling point – it’ s a third-person-shooter without health regeneration or cover mechanics. Your health is protected by an “iron halo” shield, and once depleted your true health starts to diminish as you take damage. This system sounds like it would be a mark in the game’s favor considering my opening statement of this review, however, for a game to balance a lack of regenerating health, one must have an alternative way of regaining it. In your average shooter these days, if you don’t have regenerating health, then you generally have health packs or refill stations or some other method of keeping yourself alive as you slaughter your way through levels. In this game, however, to get your health bar back up, you must perform a “stun move” in a melee combat and then push the prompted button to execute your enemy. While this works well in theory, the reality of it is that your enemies are so numerous and constant that you will die many times before managing this, or, worse yet, that your melee attacks – which often take out many enemies at a time – will kill all of your opponents by accident leaving you none to stun and execute. Add to that a complete lack of cover, enemies that (paradoxically out of character in-story) are ridiculously accurate at long range, and oddly weak ranged weapons on your part or powerful weapons with minimal ammunition, much of the gameplay feels unbalanced or untested.
When it comes right down to it, “Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine” is really one of those games made “for the fans, by the fans,” and those who are not already fans of the “Warhammer” franchise will likely be disappointed. There’s no attempt made in-story to explain what’s going on, so if you’re looking for a third-person-shooter but have no idea what an Ork or Space Marine is, or have no interest in the Ordo Xenos, Chaos, or Adeptus Mechanicus (these terms feature heavily in the game’s dialogue), you’re best sticking to “Gears of War,” which may not have the numerous player customization features or ranked, leveling-based online multiplayer matches, but at least you’ll be able to understand what’s going on.
The score: 8 out of 10, a B+ for effort and style, but lacking in gameplay balance and not very accessible to newbies to the franchise.