Space Marine review
I love my thunder hammer. I love the crackle of blue energy dancing across the weight on the end as my Space Marine – Ultramarines Captain Titus – hefts it backwards. I love swinging into the gurning face of an ork. I love chaining together three standard attacks, whirling and spinning with destructive force, before pressing F to slam my hammer into the floor, stunning every alien, monster, and monstrous alien in the vicinity.
But life is difficult, because I also love my chainsword, and I can’t carry both. Oh, and can I tell you about my power axe? I want to explain how satisfying it is to boot a Chaos cultist very hard in his scarred face before burying a five-foot axe in his shoulder. Sorry, hang on. I’ve got too excited. Let me calm down.
Space Marine is a third-person action game that understands weight. A space marine is nine feet of purebred superhuman, dressed in power armour as heavy as half a car and the universe’s biggest shoulderpads. That shit is massive, and Relic’s greatest feat with Space Marine is making you feel it. Every step you take across the scorched earth of besieged forgeworld Graia is a mighty clomp. Start running, and it’s so loud and screen-shaking that were I my mum, I’d ask Captain Titus if he was a herd of elephants. Then make him tidy his room.
But Space Marine isn’t about walking. Ninety percent of my time in-game was spent up to my heavily armoured elbows in combat, and Relic have also brought weight and heft to the battles you fight. Which is why I got so excited about my axe.
Sprint Titus into a fight and press the right mouse button, and he’ll begin a bullish shoulder-charge. Aim this at an armoured target – one of the bigger orks, or one of the lategame’s Chaos Space Marines – and they’ll stagger back. Charge into something squishier, like a goblinsized gretchen, and they’ll just burst. For the first quarter of the game, I found it hard to employ any combat tactic beyond laughing madly and popping small green creatures with my shoulders. The Warhammer 40,000 universe says one space marine will happily eviscerate 20 orks in a stand-up fight, but Space Marine takes it to extreme levels. Titus is so gloriously overpowered that a sea of green is an invitation to wade in, chainsword swinging.
As if Titus’s standard weapons weren’t lethal enough, Relic have included little moments of ludicrous excess. From time to time, he happens across jump-packs and heavy weapons. The latter offer a few minutes of extra-swift murder, but the former is an absolute joy to use.
Any Dawn of War 2 veterans will know the drill: the pack lets Titus boost high into the air, before crashing into the ground and shattering anyone standing nearby. Space Marine gives you a little yellow reticule with which to aim your ultra-slam, and I found myself hanging for a few extra seconds in the air, savouring the oncoming carnage, before launching myself into the fray. The jump-pack is rationed in use, but every chance I had to use it began with an audible “YES!” on strapping it on, and an “aww” when the fuel ran out.
Back on the ground, the combos aren’t complicated, and there’s not much nuance to their deployment: the only consideration I had amid the mouse-button spamming was when to unleash Titus’s fury meter – a buff to his attacks that’s built up by killing enemies. But the hand-to-hand fights feel so meaty and so good that I didn’t mind the simplicity.
I survived most of these battles by spamming the right mouse button to weave together four-stage attacks. Each weapon feels different in Titus’ ham-sized hands: the chainsword is zippy, and cleaves through targets without stickiness; the power axe is heavier, and its killing blow is usually a jarring thwack rather than a deft slice. Each has a slightly different combo animation, but the end results are the same: right-mouse button four times ties four swipes of increasing intensity together. Three times then a tap of F adds an area-ofeffect slam to stun nearby enemies.
During that stun, they’re open to Space Marine’s glorious execution moves. Press E on a reeling foe and Titus will jab his chainsaw down their throat and open their skull. Or pick them up, hurl them to the ground, and stamp on their head so hard it pops. Or kick them in the ribs, wheel around and break their back with his hammer. As well as being so grimly over the top I wasn’t sure whether I should be clapping or retching, the executions provide health regeneration. Titus’s shield repairs itself after a short respite, but his health won’t recharge without him getting his hands dirty.
It’s a trade-off that forces you to weigh up risk and reward. If you take the time to execute that Khorne Bloodletter, you might recoup some lost health – but chances are his friends will jab you to death with their swords before the animation’s over. It’s smarter to dice through the main mob first, riding your last chunk of health, then isolate one foe off in a corner to eviscerate him.
Space Marine doesn’t do a great job of warning you of imminent death. When it spawns a few rocket troopers who stand back and pelt you with missiles, Titus can go down easily. At such times you have to employ that most un-space mariney of behaviours: running away. Early in development, Relic were fond of saying “Space marines don’t take cover,” but I repeatedly had to park Titus behind boxes to recover from some misjudged sprint into combat.
Fortunately, stabby time isn’t your only method of murder. Titus can carry up to four guns, and each of these has a physicality only slightly less palpable than the melee weapons. His bolter is the mainstay. It’s essentially a standard assault rifle, but Relic have imbued it with just the right kind of crunch. Take aim at an enemy’s head, squeeze the trigger, and that head will disappear with a wet splat. Firing bolter shots – particularly with the ‘kraken’ upgrade found later – is like firing super-powerful long-range punches: you can feel each one connect.
The other weapons vary between satisfaction and usefulness. Perhaps the least impressive to fire is the lascannon – which launches a beam of light that only leaves a wisp of superheated dust in its wake – but it remains useful throughout the game, enabling the immolation of tough enemies from long range with minimum fuss. One of the most fun, the rapid-fire storm bolter, is less durable. It’s inaccurate over distance and replaces your other long-range weapon slot, so I saved it for moments of cackling madness where I could unload an entire clip into a clump of Chaos cultists.
Space Marine is the first time Relic have taken their Warhammer 40,000 licence to consoles, but having tried playing with both a controller and mouse and keyboard, it’s clear they’ve not jettisoned their PC heritage. Using a controller, I’d pick a fighting style – ranged or up close – and stick with it throughout the duration of a rumble. With the speed and precision of a mouse, I could flick between both, decapitating an ork nob’s retinue, moving in to stun him with my chainsword, before ducking further out to take potshots at machinegunners firing from the surrounding masonry.
I quickly came to love all of Titus’s weapons, but never the man himself. Space marines are the most boring thing – men in armour – in a universe full of wonder. Ultramarines – the perfect choirboys of the space marine school – are the most boring of the lot. At the very least, I’d rather play with one of the other chapters: give me a Dark Angel hero and reference their near fall to Chaos, or let me be a techno-viking Space Wolf.
And there’s an underlying fascism to the space marines that Relic have sidestepped: instead, Titus is an unequivocal hero. The game’s only real baddie is so pantomime that he might as well be tying a damsel to a train track the first time you meet him. He’s even got weird, lank hair. He only needs a moustache to twirl to complete the image.
Space Marine is not a long game. It’s not a complicated game, and there’s little incentive to replay the campaign once you’ve stomped through its eight hours. There’s little to the story beyond “kill all the ork troops because they’re bad, then kill all the Chaos troops because they’re worse.” But I didn’t need plot investment to keep me playing: I just needed the next fight. Relic have Space Marine’s pacing just right: playing in lengthy sittings, I’d repeatedly reach what I thought was the end of my tether with endless war. Then I’d round a corner, and be handed a jump-pack, reigniting my desire to carve the limbs off sentient beings all over again. The darkness of the far future is less grim when constant war feels so good.
Space Marine is just endless war. Thanks to powerful weapons and excellent pacing, that war is pretty damn fun.