Monday, 31 October 2011

Game Review: Warhammer 40,000 - Space Marine

Format Played: X-Box 360

Oh, I remember the days when all of Games Workshop's non-tabletop gaming output consisted of chunkily rendered, gaudily coloured pixels moving jerkily across a one-tone green background. Hell, I remember when collecting an army for one of their tabletop wargames cost less than the GDP of an emergent African nation.

But then THQ came along with the elegantly designed and balanced Dawn Of War series, first spitting out the original RTS base-building title which became a flood of expansions and then a sequel that removed many of the original's hardcore RTS elements in favour of an RPG-lite approach that proved an interesting if audience-splitting experiment.

And now they bring us their first foray into a more action-based Games Workshop release, the clunkily titled Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. Unfortunately the title isn't the only thing that is clunky. But I digress. What have they got right? Well, THQ have lost none of their obvious respect for the IP. For the uninitiated, Warhammer 40k portrays a galaxy of unending war, where fantasy tropes such as orcs and elves have been transplanted into a Gothic far-future where they spend most of their time murdering the hell out of each other. The poster boys of Warhammer 40k are undoubtedly the Space Marines - genetically-modified totalitarian religious maniacs who lead humanity on an endless crusade to purge the stars of the unclean filth of other races. It's a setting that is much-emulated, particularly in the world of gaming where many FPS lead roles are filled by suspiciously large armour-clad marines who do the main part of their marine-ing in space. The irony was not lost on 40k fanboys when internet forums lit up with refrains of "Oh no, not another shooty game with space marines in." Lol, facepalm, delicious ironing etc.

The setting is portrayed beautifully, and as Captain Titus you feel like a suitably inhuman bulky juggernaut. Imperial Guardsmen (humanity's more prosaic soldiers) view you with awe, referring to you as 'my Lord' inbetween bowing and scraping. Orks are appropriately brutal, acceptably savage and perhaps too Cockney. But they come from a long, proud tradition of Cockney orcs so we'll let that one slide.

The graphics and environments are well-designed and perhaps surprisingly well-executed for a relatively low-profile release, but the latter come with the caveat that they are extremely repetitive.

Repetitive. Oh, yes. There is definitely more to say along the line of repetitive.

Open door. Large wave of Orks and/or other spoiler-ridden bad guys. Shoot/carve them to little meaty chunks. Open door. Empty room. Open door. Empty room. Open door. Ammo stockpile. Open door. Large wave of Orks. Rinse and repeat. At one point early on I was fairly sure the game had glitched, as I seemed to be walking through a very long series of empty decaying Gothic structures with nothing to do other than trudge onwards and hope something grunting and green turned up so I could bury my chainsword in its face. There is a severe lack of variety on display. This follows through to the weapons, which while satisfying in a weighty and powerful sense, lack any real punch or much to really distinguish them from each other. Each subsequent heavy weapon you obtain feels like a slight improvement from the last, to the point where the heavy vehicle-destroying Lascannon from old-school Warhammer 40k feels like an upgraded sniper rifle.

The combat itself is bloody and enjoyable in a staid fashion, though suffering from a lack of complexity. Close combat is simple move sequences that are sometimes reduced to flailing around and button mashing in the vague hope that you will decapitate/stun the correct enemy out of the twelve or so surrounding you, some of which will be inevitable off-screen due to a camera that hovers much too close to your massive form. You will need to master both ranged and close combat to get through the campaign - indeed, for a 2011 release it is a relatively challenging game even on a Normal difficulty setting. This is partially due to the health system, which consists of two tiers. There is your regenerating Armour layer and your standard health layer, which can only be topped up through lengthy execution moves carried out against stunned enemies. This is an acceptable system, if not particularly original. However, it doesn't sit very well in a game where enemies are thrown at you in massive waves and have no problem with savagely mauling you from all sides while the execution animation is going on. In turn, this means that if you want to top up your health without dying you will need to save executions for the last enemy remaining onscreen. Some combat takes quite a while, and is populated with enemy types who can one-shot you off your feet unless you are in tip-top shape. This may well be working as intended and I might be a whinging privileged gaming pansy, but it doesn't feel right. What is the point in introducing such a relatively unintuitive health mechanic if the player feels punished for implementing it other than when the action is finished with? All of this is exacerbated by the aforementioned 'bulky juggernaut' feel of your protagonist - even with a slightly Space Marine-inappropriate roll evade thrown in, you sometimes feel unable to direct your movement within combat and subsequently just end up sitting there taking the punishment.

There are two boss fights bunched in near the climax of the game, and three or so action setpieces which feel distinctly copy-and-paste - the outstanding sequence consists of an assault across a ruined bridge alongside squads of your fellow Ultramarines and Blood Ravens, but it comes far into the campaign and is too little, too late. One well-implemented feature is the use of Assault Marine jump-packs sporadically through the campaign, which are both fun and devastating to use. You make use of them for about 20 minutes in total though - nowhere near enough to lift the general ennui. It's sad to say, but more than anything this portrayal of total war in a grim far future feels dull. As with any IP that has a legion of loyal fans, enjoyment will strongly depend on your love for the source material. But during much of the campaign I felt that the setting was all that was dragging me onwards - the story certainly isn't much to speak of, and some decent voice acting by Mark Strong as Captain Titus is pretty much wasted.

Out-of-the-box multiplayer consists of two modes - a standard team deathmatch-style Annihilation, and Capture & Control with strategic points that must be occupied by teams to earn victory points. Nothing terribly innovative there. Loadouts are determined by the now standard level-based unlocks, perks and class choices. There are three of the latter on offer - Tactical, Assault and Devastator (standard, jump-pack and heavy weapons for anyone not fluent in Warhammer 40k). Oddly, many of the weapon and class choices you can make in multiplayer have a varied feel that is lacking in the campaign - perhaps because it is a choice to use them, rather than being prescribed to you for particular sequences. And there is a certain visceral thrill to be had by slamming onto fellow players from on high as an Assault Marine while screaming "Death From Above!" loud enough to wake up your cat. For nerdy fanboys there is also an excellent customisation system to ensure your multiplayer efforts can be portrayed in whatever Space Marine Chapter colour scheme your feverish desires require.

All in all, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine doesn't offer anything more than many other Action/FPS blends on the market right now other than a decent, original setting. And it delivers a distinctly substandard experience on other areas, leaving me feel like I had just played my way through an average PS2 action-shooter that had experienced a graphic revamp for a special edition. Overall score - bleh marks out of meh.

1 comment:

  1. I thought a lot of what you said. Fun enough but I couldn't be bothered beating the final boss. Also, hated the kill to get back your energy thing as too often I'd be getting a kicking during the animations.