The Space Marine has been with us since the 80s, ever since a Nottingham based miniatures company chose to depict man’s war against the rest of the universe in a far flung future. Space Marines were giant, genetically enhanced, heavily armoured, eight-foot tall super soldiers who constantly screamed “For the Emperor!” as they charged into battle. Gods amongst men, they could clear whole battlefields single-handed.
Recently, however, videogames have somewhat circumvented the term. Everything from Master Chief and the COGs in Gears of War to any unknown soldiers fighting in the back end of nowhere is now given that tag. Grant yourself a visor and a fancy gun then you too can fall under this banner. It’s become a phrase to pigeon hole and at times deride, and Games Workshop have had enough; they’re taking back the name.
Right from the off, Relic are intent on showing you just how bad-ass they are, too. When first we meet our heroes, Captain Titus and his brethren, they are aboard a Thunderhawk dropship, high above an Ork infested world. But rather than wait for clear passage to the surface they opt to strap on jump packs and hurl themselves out of the back of the transport, weaving through exploding vessels and anti-aircraft fire, focused on taking out the Ork flagship. The indignity of this Xenos invasion cannot wait for air traffic control to sort themselves out.
With the scene set, taking control of these super soldiers you quickly gain a feeling of the weight and power they possess. Charging into combat with the crew causes the screen to shake and footfalls to boom as your armour’s bulk crashes across the deck, sending foes reeling as you cannon into them. Your chainsword wails about, cutting deep gashes of red as it does so, whilst your Boltgun barks and in response those out of range of your sword fall.
Combat is extremely visceral, with each blow heavy and brutal. Yet there’s a simplicity to it, one that allows Titus to wade in and still regain control. The focus being on threat management over style allows skirmishes to involve dozens of Orks at a time, near and far, further building the invincible aura that surrounds the Marines.
Simple melee attacks can be mixed in with stuns and basic combos that will leave your assailants dazed and open to executions that are heavy on exaggerated moves and lashed with gore. There will be little doubt you’ve finished them off given the array of places the Captain finds to stick his chainsword, and no matter your situation, melee combat can be swiftly interchanged with the brandishing of one of the game’s many guns should your sword arm grow tired.
Despite all the tales told of the valour of the chapter, your Ultramarines are still vulnerable. Their armour is powerful and such a hulking warrior thinks little of cover, but by sheer attrition shots and blows will wear it down until it’s useless. From that point your health bar will take punishment; let that fade to nothing and the palette will turn sombre and you’ll be offered a pearl of wisdom by Mark Strong in his solemn tones before being pushed back to the last checkpoint.
As is the current convention though, avoid damage for long enough and your armour will replenish back to its peak. Your health, however, is a little different. No Space Marine worth his salt is going to stagger from the fray crying “medic!” Instead they man up and get a second wind from the destruction of the enemies of the Emperor; health top-ups must be earned in blood.
Stunning a foe in combat and then executing a finishing move on them will see your health restored. There is neither rhyme nor reason for this, but in the brutal world of the 41st millennium it fits in and keeps you right in the midst of battle. This adds further layers to close combat, for as easier as it may be to take out a whole horde of Orks, each one is slowing landing damage. In between the wild swings, time needs to be taken to stun, take advantage of your vampiric skill, and then carry on cracking skulls. Given enough awareness, your ability to survive in the midst of the enemy should know no bounds.
Although there is an emphasis on close combat, gunplay is also strong, offering up a variety of mixed weaponry from heavy-duty, sniping Lascannons to rapid firing, short range Stormbolters. Exotic weapons such as the sticky-grenade launcher and devastatingly powerful Meltagun further add variety and an alternative to those who wish stay at arm’s length from their targets.
The joy is that the two disciplines work so well together, allowing them to be switched between effortlessly. One memorable encounter saw Titus pop a couple of sticky grenades into the on-rushing horde, watch them explode and disrupt the enemy lines, before switching to the Bolter to take down some gunners on the floor above. At that point the main body of the enemy was on me, and as I expended the last of my rounds the power axe was unsheathed. It all unfolded in only a matter of seconds, but it’s symptomatic of Relic’s considered design when it comes to embracing combat.
Your adventure will lead you right across the Imperial Forgeworld, through giant factories where titanic war machines are made, under the sizeable living district, and to many landmarks that the Emperor potted across the now ruined world. Throughout all, your movements retain a flow. There are very few fade-to-blacks that see you appear half way across the globe, instead you and your men trudge – or fly – from chapter to chapter. This grounding reinforces your place in the world and never treats it as an excuse to change backdrop every half-hour.
Every location you do visit is painted in the hushed and darkened tones of the grim, far future. Greys, browns and metals are evident everywhere, with only the blue of your armour and the warpaint of the Orks striking a contrast against the stark background. The scale is something to behold, however. The art directions takes every opportunity to remind you that although you’re an eight-foot monster, you’re also a mere speck when compared to the Empire. Vast bridges, huge monuments and a titan war machine all serve to put you in your place and instil grandeur in the warzone.
Lacing it all together, the tale that unfolds is one that shows the Space Marines in a light quite unlike the butch jocks of Gears. There’s no bravado when the umpteenth victim falls from your blade, the understated and very British manner they display shows that being a hard man in space is about more than just witty one liners. There’s a matter-of-fact about their actions, as though experienced cops on the beat.
Between these flashes of humanity, the encounters come thick and fast. The combination of differing Ork units and the varying level layouts provide enough possibilities to keep each new section fresh. From Orks with long-range rokkits or beefy and extra tough Nobz, it’s not always as easy as charging in and slashing wildly, even if the terrain allows it. Even when you feel you’ve beaten down as many Greenskins as humanly possible, an extra edge is added with the introduction of Chaos. As with the Flood in Halo, the different characteristics they bring into battle are a welcome change. Twisted demons and fragile, warped humans alike suddenly arrive on the scene and some of the more exhilarating set pieces are when your trio happen upon an arena full of Orks and Chaos fighting each other.
Possibly the finest inclusion however are the occasional appearances of the jump pack, first seen in the opening cinematic, allowing you to rain down your Imperial might from upon high. Ridiculously powerful when used properly, it appears sparingly and to great effect adding a verticality and pace to your movements that was previously absent.
It has a similarly strong impact on the multiplayer, too. A class-based and competent battlefield shooter where Chaos and Imperial Space Marines duke it out in a games of deathmatch and territories. Swift jump pack-carrying Assault Marines mix in with heavy weapon Devastators and run-and-gun Tactical Marines, straying very little from the feel of the campaign. Perks and weapon unlocks are ubiquitous in a bid to keep you hooked with the tease of a new bauble when next you level. With the mix of weapons and loadouts this produces there is definite scope for truly epic battles, but not so much weighted so that new comers and low level players will feel at an instant disadvantage.
There of course is a question to ask whether those who know or care little of the Warhammer 40,000 universe will enjoy the Space Marine experience as much as those who do, but on balance I think it matters little. There is nothing contained within that should alienate anyone for the story of bashing space goblins in the face is hardly a complex one, no matter the forces involved.
Instead of concentrating on that, we should look at the core. Trimmings aside, Relic have managed to fashion a shooter-come-brawler that works equally well whether it be Stormbolter or Thunder Hammer in your hand. Throwing so many enemies at you, you will relish the opportunity to get stuck in time and time again.
They have shown their version of a Space Marine. And they have done him justice.