Set 38,000 years in humanity’s future, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine tells the story of Captain Titus and three of his battle bros as they try to hold off an invasion of space orks intent on occupying an imperial weapons factory that takes up a whole world and is key to the continuing perpetual war effort. Warhammer is grim, with the universe caught up in eternal war with several different alien races in addition to demonic forces. With their fanatical devotion to the God Emperor who rules the billion worlds of the Imperium of Man and their (admittedly justified) rampant hatred of every other race in the universe it’s hard not to feel a little conflicted getting behind the protagonists. But their sense of honor and duty are the only things that can get them through the grim darkness of their grim, dark future. Did I mention it’s grim? And dark? Also, there is only war.
It’s impossible to talk about Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine without mentioning Gears of War. The instinct to dismiss this game as a Gears of War 3 clone is strong, and not entirely incorrect. There are many game play elements that Relic (the game developer) lifted whole cloth from Gears, including a class of enemy suspiciously similar to the explosion-prone living land mines known as Tickers and special finishing moves involving chainsaw-equipped weapons. There are also strong similarities in the overall aesthetic as both games involve steering bulky heavily-armored human tanks through a slightly gothic otherworldly landscape in a constant war against monstrous opponents. Warhammer 40,000, as a tabeltop wargame, predates Gears of War by decades so it is easy to argue that Epic Games used the Space Marine look and feel as a source of inspiration. Indeed, my first few forays into the Gears universe strongly reminded me of the Warhammer milieu, especially the heavy ferocity of Marcus Fenix.
But those similar elements can obscure the very different playstyles of the two games. Gears pioneered the heavily tactical, cover-based shooting system (or at least perfected it). Space Marine is designed primarily as a melee game where you wade into a massive crowd of enemies. There is no cover mechanic beyond standing behind something bigger than you. As a genetically altered and Ultramarine with heavier armor than an m1 Abrams, you eschew cover entirely as a tactic for lesser men. Most battles begin by hurriedly taking out enemy gunners so that the field is clear to whip out your power axe or chainsword and start stomping through the enemy. The only way to regain health is through melee combat ending in a finishing move, so the game is constantly pushing you to engage directly with the orks whenever possible. This focus on shifting ranges is immensely satisfying and made the frenetic close quarters combat keep from getting old much longer than it should have. There is a variety of weapons and frequent opportunities to switch between them, changing combat up just enough to keep it fresh.
The fact that I have read a few novels in the Warhammer 40,000 universe and am generally familiar with the setting made the game that much more pleasurable for me. Die hard Warhammer fans probably orgasmed quietly the first time a Chaos Marine lumbered on to the screen, trailing Warp energy behind him. I’m not that into the grim darkness of the far future, but I did get a few thrills at playing through the wartorn landscape. Without that added bonus, the game ranks somewhere in the B+ range. It was fun to play but I doubt I will remember it at all this time next year. There is a multiplayer component to the game, but the smaller number of enemies per map takes away the visceral thrill of the melee combat against hordes of opponents, hamstringing the game by making the unflattering comparison to Gears that much more apparent.