Space Marine: the 40K brawler a sequel or two away from brilliance

Every game should have a lightning hammer in it.

REINSTALL

Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting PC gaming days gone by. Today Tom basks in the blood of a thousand Orks in Space Marine.

Captain Titus stands seven feet tall, clad in his holy armour. He has a pistol the size of most shotguns and a chainsaw for a sword. He has a rectangular head, the voice of Mark Strong and the chiselled chin of an Olympian, and he lives to kill Orks in their thousands.

Captain Titus is a man too big for the game he’s in. His blue and gold armour is designed to stand out among hordes of enemies on huge battlefields. He is genetically tailored for the front line of a huge war. He should be clearing out entire enemy mobs in the shadow of mountain-sized titan war machines, but here he is, in the third-person brawler Space Marine, clearing out some brown warehouses instead. 

He doesn’t care. There are dozens of Orks in these warehouses, and they explode in spectacular ways. They charge the space marine with endearing vigour, waving their axes and cleavers above their heads and yelling incoherently. Their animations and mannerisms almost perfectly communicate the ’ere we go ’ere we go Ork mentality. The idea that any of them could take a space marine captain is laughable, but they can’t resist a scrap. When Titus chops off a limb or crushes a head the victim is merely outraged. Beaten by a human? How could this be? They don’t understand that they have charged a god.

Deep in a fight, between bloody swings of a chain axe, the game transforms. The limited, repetitive environments are forgotten. There is no finesse to the combat system, but that doesn’t matter. You are mighty. You are a holy Roman centurion in the 41st millennium. There is no block button. There is no cover button. There is only stamping, slashing, and the crunching impact of a lightning hammer against a ribcage. Space Marine is a game about the joy of violence, and the fiction carefully shaves off the more uncomfortable aspects of that. Orks don’t really feel pain, and space marines famously know no fear. Orks lose blood and limbs at an alarming rate, and Titus takes hundreds of axe blows, but everyone’s happy to be involved. 

I keep playing Space Marine for those moments, and because there are few games that are show such curtailed ambition. In an alternate universe, Space Marine sold better, THQ didn’t collapse, and the sequels went on to supplant Gears of War and all other pretenders. In that universe Space Marine 3 puts you in drop pods and slams you into huge conflicts against hordes of aliens. In 2011 the resources simply weren’t there.

Relic still found away to put a titan in the game. You fight around its enormous shoulders and use its gun-arm to blow up a space elevator.

But Relic still found away to put a titan in the game. You fight around its enormous shoulders and use its gun-arm to blow up a space elevator. In another section you drop onto a moving train to chase down an Ork warboss. The game constantly tries to generate the spectacle you might expect from a Naughty Dog or Crystal Dynamics game. It only variably pulls it off. There are nods throughout the game for Warhammer 40K fans, but many—such as the sight of a Predator tank behind an impassable waist-high barrier, give the game the feel of a 40K wax museum where you get to see the legendary vehicles of the fiction, but only in dioramas you can't interact with. Nonetheless, I appreciate the intent, and the set-pieces successfully vary the pace for the first two-thirds of the game. 

The jetpack sections are the best. Space Marine’s assault pack fights let you boost high above the battlefield, and at the peak of your jump as you slow and start to fall, you can target the ground and crash down into combat. The impact stuns enemies who aren’t instantly reduced to bloody mist, which enables Titus to follow up with a series of executions. 

The first half of the game is better than the second. A new enemy army arrives and the squishy Orks are replaced by much tougher Chaos space marines and demons. Space Marine works best as a power fantasy about chopping through mobs, and the combat system isn’t geared to create interesting fights with more resilient foes, particularly when you have to tackle annoying airborne enemies at range. Space Marine’s guns can be fun when used to thin out a charging horde at mid-range, but long-range sniping doesn’t feel good, and works against the fantasy.

Though the game suffers from the introduction of Chaos towards the end, generally—whisper it—the story isn’t bad. It manages to capture some of the subtler elements of the fiction, while successfully joining the dots between boss fights and set-piece encounters. Notably, you get to meet the imperial guard. These are the ordinary human soldiers that hold the front of the Imperium. Compared to Titus they are fragile underdogs who regard the space marines with a mixture of reverence and fear. You’re the reason why the Imperial facilities they work in have huge arches, wide gantries and elevators that have to carry tons of weight. You’re a monster to them. Nonetheless, Titus respects the guard and shuts down his squadmates’ lofty attitudes toward them. Through these incidental interactions Titus shows his compassionate side. It would have been easy for Relic to make him a generic frothing warrior, but the writing, and Mark Strong’s fine performance, give him a strong sense of dignity, even nobility. 

Spoilers ahead, but the story also confronts the space marines’ key character flaws: fanaticism and dogmatic thinking. In this paranoid world, policed by inquisitors who can find corruption and heresy in a gesture or a misplaced word, Titus is doomed by his competence. After a very silly sequence in which he punches the head off a Chaos champion while falling 30,000 feet from an exploding platform, he is led away by the Inquisition, accused of heresy by his own squadmate. 

I always feel sad when the door closes on Titus for the last time, not because he’s about to be tortured in some horrible Imperial interrogation vault, but because that moment should mark the beginning of a series rather than the end of an experiment. If Space Marine was made today, it would have have skill trees, gear choices and other features that have become popular thanks to the cross-pollination between action and RPG genres. Going back now, it feels unusually pure. You occasionally have the chance to swap out weapons and guns, but all you really have to think about is living the fantasy of unending war in the 41st millennium. I love how simple and immediate that is, and I shall continue to play Space Marine over and over, whenever I feel the urge to put a big blue boot to some Orks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom stopped being a productive human being when he realised that the beige box under his desk could play Alpha Centauri. After Deus Ex and Diablo 2 he realised he was cursed to play amazing PC games forever. He started writing about them for PC Gamer about six years ago, and is now UK web ed.
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