Developer: Relic Entertainment / Publisher: THQ / Played on: PC, Xbox 360 / Price: $49.99 (PC), $59.99 (360, PS3) / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence]
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Playing Space Marine feels like operating a well-manufactured circular table saw: it feels good in your hand, it’s precisely constructed to fulfill a destructive purpose, and you get a little tingle in the base of your skull thinking of everything you can destroy. Putting saw to wood fills you with destructive glee, followed by a smug sense of accomplishment when the cut wood clangs against the floor. Space Marine’s campaign is eight hours of that feeling, coupled with a meaty multiplayer mode that will extend your play time. If you think that’s not enough to carry a game, you’re wrong. It totally is.
Space Marine is beautiful in its simplicity. You play a titular Space Marine, descending to an Ork infested planet for some reason or another. A barebones story sends you and your crew of marines from place to place, killing hundreds of Orks along the way. That’s basically the extent of the game, which sounds overly simplistic, but killing Orks is really damn fun. Even so, I would’ve liked to learn more about the characters and setting than the game reveals.
Your Marine has a combination of ranged and melee attacks, which can be used to massacre Orks with the quickness. Shooting is tight and satisfying thanks to how Orks explode in a mist of red every time they die, and a simple melee combo system makes it a snap to decimate your enemies at close range.
The game’s health system is its real innovation. The Marine has a shield that recharges over time, but the only way to regain health is to execute enemies, resulting in an incredibly brutal animation in which heads get stomped and stomachs get chainsawed. This can only be done from melee range as well, which means that the Space Marine’s natural habitat is right in the middle of as much carnage as possible. When you dive headfirst into a swarm of Orks, survive through gunshots and explosions, and leave behind nothing but a blood smear and a stack of corpses, you’ll feel like an absolute badass. Spikes in difficulty make the thick of battle much less survivable near the end of the game, which ends up subverting the game’s joyful combat — but this only happens in the last 10-15 percent of the game, so it’s not too problematic. Ultimately the campaign is simple but thoroughly enjoyable, and I’m already hoping for another.
The modes and depth of Space Marine’s multiplayer may seem anemic when compared to other multiplayer-focused titles, but what’s here works extremely well. The game ships with two modes — Team Deathmatch and Seize Ground (which is their term for Territory Control). Neither of these modes function differently than you’d expect. The Space Marine flavor comes in how you can customize your Marine’s loadout and appearance. There are three basic armor types – Devestator is slow but can use big guns, Assault is quick and has a jetpack but is brittle, and Tactical is a balance between the two. These armors are well balanced — in my experience, none of them emerged as the clear winner.
You unlock new weapons and pieces of armor as you play with the familiar XP / leveling system. Earning kills and completing objectives earns you experience and levels, which in turn unlock new weapons and perks you can use to customize your loadouts. Completing challenges for specific weapons and armor — which usually take the form of “so many kills with this weapon” — earn you armor pieces you can use to visually trick out your Marine. The game offers a wealth of color and customization options for your Marine’s appearance, which is an emulation of the painting and army customization from the tabletop game. This also results in demons of death on the battlefield clad head to toe in bright pink.
In both graphics and sound, Space Marine is top-notch but not exactly mind-blowing. The game is incredibly visceral, and I don’t mean in the hackneyed way that people say it when they really just mean intense. I mean that the screen is going to be full of actual viscera when you play. Certain execution moves send cascades of blood everywhere while the poor Ork on the receiving end of a chainsaw sword writhes in comic agony. Level design brings the world of Warhammer 40K to life, which oddly works against the visuals in a way. The architecture and characters of Space Marine look great, but the whole game feels like a simplistic superficial facade — like walking through a Hollywood set instead of the real thing. And yes, I realize how strange it is to say that mystical battlegrounds in space don’t feel very real. There are occasional glimmers of intensity and brilliance in the level design – one area has you fighting across a bridge while other Space Marine drop pods crash down and reinforcements spill forth. The majority of the game sends you through relatively static battlegrounds, however.
Space Marine’s soundtrack is simple but serviceable. Most combat tracks are dominated by heavy, pounding drums that evoke the duty of the Space Marines and the carnage of war. Of course, you’ll be adding your own percussion with the game’s weaponry for most of the game, and all of the guns sound excellent. They all have a meaty punch that really sells their power. My favorite piece of Space Marine’s audio has to be the Ork screams, though. Their hilarious cockney accents and barely-intelligent battle cries make them a thoroughly charming enemy to continuously massacre.
I didn’t experience a single headache while playing Space Marine, which is especially notable considering I was playing on the PC. Despite being a third person action game, which is typically a perfect match for a controller, I had no problem playing with mouse and keyboard. In fact, mouse aiming is incredibly precise and helps pick off distant enemies. Of course, the game fully supports controllers, which will probably be a more natural choice for most players.
Space Marine is a tight, well-made package. Playing this game makes you feel like a badass and a finely-honed killing instrument. If you’ve ever waved around an electric saw, cackling with power, this is a game you need to play.