The Warhammer 40,000 universe has been around for a very, very long time now. While initially just a miniature table top based game, it wasn't surprising to see the universe creep its way into the realms of video gaming as it became a more prominent franchise. Several releases have been successful, of particular note being the Dawn of War series which is probably the most accurate depiction of the never-ending war for the God-Emperor (or other Xenos Gods assuming you're into heresy) in digital form to date. We never really got ourselves a quality action game based in the universe though, which almost seems like a given considering the amount of content you can throw around. Well fortunately for us, Relic Entertainment has put aside their strategy gaming talents and churned out yet another Warhammer game, but this time it's in the form of an action game called Space Marine, and boy is it glorious.
Space Marine is exactly what the name implies - you are in the shoes of a Space Marine, namely Captain Titus of the Ultramarines Chapter. You've been sent to a Forge World named Manufactorum Ajakis to help secure a War Titan named 'Invictus' from tens of millions of invading Orks. However, you're soon caught up in another task regarding a secret weapon that the Inquisition is playing around with, and eventually find yourself fighting hordes of Chaos Space Marines and Daemons from the Warp too. Also, there are only three of you, a lot of dead Imperial Allies, and a rather ridiculous amount of Orks and Chaos to plow through. Sound ridiculous and very one man army-like? It is.
The story, however, somehow manages to make sense, and is even entertaining and fairly typical in the universe of Warhammer 40,000. This is literally a daily thing that Space Marines and the Imperium deal with, so it's a story that has a beginning, a thick middle and an explosive end with a cliff hanger on the side for the inevitable sequel. For Warhammer fans it's an exciting and fanboyishly gleeful story full of cheese, but for the non-fans it's more there to progress the gameplay than anything else, which is pretty fantastic in its own way.
We mentioned that there are only three of you for the majority of the time, and for good reason too. Space Marines are literally walking tanks with tonnes of armour and weapons that fire bullets that explode inside their targets, so they really are one man armies, and it's brutally evident in the combat system of the game. While the concept is a basic third person shooter with over the shoulder gunplay mechanics and transitional melee systems similar to the fluidity of Uncharted, the actual feel of it is unlike any other action game on the market. Bullets and explosives feel ridiculously overpowered and meaty, where chunks of Ork flesh will fly off upon being hit with a bullet and dozens of them will be knocked away in pieces by explosive weaponry and grenades. There are literally hordes of Orks running at you at every encounter, and plowing through them is incredibly satisfying and feels super polished and tightly designed.
But the real meat and satisfaction is in the melee system, which could be compared to God of War's simplified combat system, albeit even more brutal and empowering. Whether you charge into a horde of Orks or they've simply closed in on you, your abilities in close combat are effectively unmatched if used efficiently. You will slice and dice your way through enemies with a Chainsword and stun them if need be, opening up the option to execute them - which is your way of regaining health if you start running low. By grabbing the poor soul upon a stun, you witness a ridiculously violent execution which will either make the enemies head explode, or their entire mass disappear into a fine, bloody mist. Your health is then regained (and can vary in the amount given back depending on the type of enemy) and you keep on fighting in the middle of it. It's an ingenious system as it actually rewards direct conflict and keeps the flow of combat going. The only downside is that there are a limited amount of canned execution animations, so you'll see plenty of the same kind of execution fairly often. With that said though it's a minor complaint and rarely is it not satisfying to utterly destroy an opponent through execution.
It's a very repetitive game in this regard too, because you will literally be smashing Orks and eventually Chaos Legions into oblivion from beginning to end, and yet it rarely ends up being boring primarily because of the excellent pacing and fluidity of combat. For every moment that things might just start feeling slightly samey, the game will throw a new enemy at you or present you with a new melee weapon which brings forth a big smile and a lot of satisfaction. It's a well paced and very tightly designed game that removes any fluff and simply lets you have an insane amount of fun; it simply keeps improving on what it's based on, and that is glorious amounts of slaughter.
Once you're done with the 8-10 hour single player, you also have Multiplayer to play around with, which mechanically is actually very nice. Running off the perk and experience based system that modern shooters seem to love incorporating, you have two game modes and three character classes to play around with as well. Game modes are your typical share of Capture the Point (or Conquest as some would know it as) and Team Deathmatch, while classes are actually quite different to each other and have their pros and cons. Tactical class gives you the ability to use most of the mid-weight and standard weapons so you're a bit of an all rounder, though melee wise you've got a combat knife (which sucks when faced against a Raptor class). Raptors are basically melee classes with jet packs, and they can leap in on people from above and slice them to bits with an axe/chainsword/thunder hammer, though their weakness is they only have a pistol for any kind of range. Then finally you have the Havoc class, which is your slower heavy weapons guy, who can plow through hordes of players with high damage heavy weaponry, though they are awfully slow and lack any melee weapon whatsoever (though this is replaced by a foot stomp which stuns people around him). All three classes combined with a multitude of unlockable perks have their uses and balance the game out pretty well when it works.
And we do mean when it actually works and isn't horribly broken. While the game runs on a match making system (on PC too, which is disappointing to see), what it lacks is any kind of regional filtering whatsoever. What ends up happening is exploitation of the terrible internet infrastructure of Australia, people overseas being the hosts because of a better upload rate, and a horrible ping which makes everyone teleport and your bullets take a long time to get to places. It literally breaks the game, and it's incredibly frustrating as behind the terrible system lies a solid and fun multiplayer experience. Developers take note: if you're going to implement match making, make sure you actually add regional filtering as not doing so breaks the game for anyone outside of Europe or America.
Apart from those irritations, Space Marine is a very well designed and polished game. It's tuned to near-perfection in its gameplay, which is based purely on the slaughter of alien invaders, and its overall presentation is gorgeous on all three platforms with a multitude of technical settings for PC users along with excellent optimisation, and a rock solid framerate and experience for the console side. You're looking at a game that captures the essence of Warhammer 40,000 pretty much without flaw, and while the gameplay is repetitive and the style is not quite for everyone, one cannot deny the great job that Relic have done with their debut action game. It just goes to show that just because they've done mostly Strategy games doesn't mean they can't do anything else. Recommended.