In the year 2011, men were men and the terrible affliction of "Unreal Engine 3 Neck" raged unabated. At this time of peak Xbox, we got the original Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, which paired the gothic grimdark far future of the Imperium of Man with Gears of War-style shooting, minus the knee-high cover everywhere.
12 years on, not much has changed in Warhammer 40K: Space Marine 2, at least going by an hour-long demo level I had the chance to sample. I never get tired of seeing those big ol' blue Ultramarine pauldrons, and we're actually pretty starved for straight-up, linear, over-the-shoulder shooter campaigns like this, but unless the full game has some serious surprises in store, it doesn't feel like Space Marine 2 will win the favor of 2023 Ted.
First, the good: despite having to crank the graphics down to medium for a stable 60 fps at 1440p on an RTX 3070, Space Marine 2 is still a treat to look at. Our big boys' armor nails that almost candy-like look of a well-painted plastic miniature impersonating metal, complete with details like skulls, scrollwork, and my favorite: mud that built up and caked my Ultramarine clodhoppers as I stomped through the demo's swampy jungles.
I was also impressed at how my tyranid foes swarmed in numbers that put the 360 original to shame, even clumping together at the base of walls to help their comrades climb over like something in World War Z (whose videogame adaptation Saber also developed). The demo level's interior portions leaned more into "military industrial" 40K (boo) instead of "freaky gothic" 40K (hell yeah), but there were still some nice environment art touches like the candles, scrolls, and tomes festooned about an otherwise-modern control room.
It all fell apart with the combat, though. My entire time playing, I found myself yearning for Auroch Digital's recent Warhammer 40K: Boltgun instead. They're setting out to be very different shooters, but Boltgun nails the Space Marine fantasy of being an angry silverback in power armor. I still felt like a gorilla in Space Marine 2, but maybe one already half-sedated by a tranq dart after a toddler tumbled into his enclosure.
Titus just doesn't feel responsive, launching into slow, lumbering combos with his chainsword that I can't cancel out of when it's time for an Arkham-style omnidirectional parry. The counter windows are blessedly generous, but I'd be hammering the left bumper to counter (Space Marine 2 did not feel right on mouse and keyboard) as Titus languidly worked through a pirouette strike with his chainsword, a successful riposte far from guaranteed.
The weapons don't carry that oomph for me either—these feel like assault rifles and submachine guns and not bolters, and I think they could do with deeper, punchier audio and more dramatic enemy reactions to getting hit with micro-missiles. I was also disappointed by the chainsword, which rather than ripping and tearing would smack against tyranids like a pool noodle. There's just no chew to it.
It's hard to tell how much of the full arsenal this represents, but I do gotta say that I appreciate Space Marine 2's commitment to a Halo or Gears-style "you get two guns and a couple points in a level where you can swap them out." There were no loadouts to speak of and no green, purple, blue, or gray loot drops in sight, and god bless it not even a hint of "+6% chance to poison an enemy while flanking."
With the shooting failing to carry the day for me, the demo's linear sequence of horde battles proved both dull and frustrating. At the second-highest (and recommended) difficulty level, I couldn't even turn my brain off and just let the violence machine go brrrrrr—big boy tyranids take quite a bit of punishment to down, and getting overwhelmed meant a slightly irritating wait for one of my squad buddies to come give me a kind word and slap on the rump to get me back in action. The sheer spectacle of all those tyranids on-screen at once is the only part of the 40K fantasy that Space Marine 2 is really nailing at the moment, but it's just not enough to carry the experience for me.
I hope this isn't my final word on Space Marine 2, and that the shooter is able to cook a bit more before its planned end-of-year release. We're living in a renaissance of retro throwbacks right now and, sorry to my fellow millennials, 360-style over-the-shoulder linear shooters are pretty retro at this point. There's room for a game like Space Marine 2, but not one that feels like swimming in pudding.