Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Space Marine review

I finally got my XBox set up again. First thing I did? Finished Kill Team. Second thing? Finished Space Marine.

I'll just quickly mention that Killteam is a decent 2-player top-down shooter, but the dark visual style and cluttered levels makes it more of an effort to play than some. The inclusion of both shooting and melee, however, makes it a little different to most that I've played. The classes work well and their special abilities can be fun and useful. Worth mentioning: take the Sternguard with a missile launcher, pick up a quad-fire power-up, then trigger his rapid-fire special for a veritable sea of missiles!

Now, Space Marine. This might actually not be the best time to release a game called "Space Marine"; the term has come to be used, in gaming at least, to refer to a generic overly-masculine, over-armoured jar-head in a sci-fi setting, and it's use in gaming press is typically negative, indicative of an over-used wish-fulfilment cliche. However, while that description may fit the Warhammer space marines, they differ significantly from the standard gaming mold.

While a standard space marine is much like a modern day soldier dressed in military sci-fi apparel, the Warhammer versions are more like Knights Templar dressed in gothic sci-fi apparel. When they're sitting around in a transport on the way to the mission, they're not talking about how many alien scumbags they're going to waste and what they're going to do to the local hotties when they get there, they're praying to the Emperor to give them the strength to purge the foul Xeno filth. They don't yell random nonsensical noises like "hoo-wa" in the middle of battle, they recite scripture.

In fact, the setting of the whole game will probably feel very strange to players unfamiliar with 40K. Why are there orcs in space? What's an "Adeptus Mechanicus"? Who are these inquisitors, and why are they such jerks? What's this 'chaos' stuff? And why do these guys have such massive shoulder pads? The game makes no effort to explain any of it, and it may be off-putting to some. Veteran 40K players, on the other hand, will feel right at home.

As a fan of the 40K universe myself, I really appreciated how faithful everything was to the 40K universe. All the weapons, vehicles, characters, architecture, and dialogue, as well as setting and story, were true to the source material (in fact the game is arguably closer to the fluff than the tabletop game itself in that a single Space Marine can actually take on a horde of orks here). I have to admit I found it rather gratifying that the game didn't feel the need to explain itself to people who don't know 40K; it felt like the game was made specifically for the fans (as opposed to many movies adapted from comics and games, but that's a rant for another time).

The protagonist, Captain Titus of the Ultramarines, was well written in my opinion. He does not display very much emotion, in fact he may come across as flat and lacking in personality. In my view, however, the fact that he is reserved and not given to theatrics or outbursts of emotion is fitting for an Ultramarine Captain. It might be argued that his writing is more subtle than is the norm in games; his personality is revealed through his actions rather than his words. And, unlike too many video game 'space marines', he doesn't growl and act angsty all the time, he simply accepts whatever challenges come and meets them head-on.

The support characters also have a more depth than in some games, such as the young Leandros, who's rigid adherence to the Codex Astartes is a continuing theme. Actually, as I mentioned in my review of the Ultramarines Omnibus, that's something of an issue for the Ultramarines in particular, both in the fluff and in how players feel about the chapter. Speaking of, some people had evidenced disdain for the fact that the game is about the Ultramarines, seen as the most boring chapter. But they are the 'standard' marines, while many other named chapters are more themed, so it makes sense. Ideally later games or DLC can star other chapters (plus I believe you can play as others in multiplayer, which I haven't tried yet), though that is easier said than done to be honest.

Gameplay is fun. It's uses the Gears of War style over the shoulder 3rd person viewpoint, but unlike most modern third person shooters it doesn't have a cover mechanic and instead has a strong (arguably God of War influenced) melee element, as many enemies prefer to run up and hit you than to shoot you - if that doesn't make sense then just go with it, it's a wargame thing. Furthermore, you have motivation to get in close because of the way the health mechanic works.

You have a shield and a health bar. The shield regenerates itself given time, but that does not translate into regenerating health as your shield won't last long and you'll find yourself losing health in your very first fights. Health can only be regenerated in three ways: dying and respawning, triggering Rage mode (think God of War), and performing executions. Enemies, when weakened and stunned, can be executed God of War style. This regenerates some health depending on the level of the enemy. The problem is that other enemies don't just stand back and watch, trying an execution while surrounded by enemies (typically when you need it most...) is risky as you may die before you finish.

This makes fights strategic as you try to create space to tackle enemies in smaller numbers and pull of executions mid-battle, and try to tackle both the hitty enemies who are in your face and the shooty ones that are hanging back firing at you. The different balances of close up and ranged power of your enemies makes fights play out differently depending on who you're fighting and what weapons you're carrying.

Speaking of weapons, a large selection of weapons from Codex:Space Marines are here, and they all do pretty much what you would expect. The basic bolt pistol has infinite ammo, but that's the only good thing that can be said for it. It soon gets upgraded to the plasma pistol, which is more powerful and can be quite useful against some enemies thanks to it's charge mode. You also have a boltgun (assault rifle), that later gets upgraded with more powerful kraken ammo. You always have the bolter and pistol, but you get two other guns that you can swap out. The stalker boltgun is a fast medium power sniper rifle, and the storm bolter is inaccurate but has a very high rate of fire. The Vengeance launcher fires grenades that are manually triggered. The lascannon is a much more powerful sniper weapon with a better zoom but very limited ammo and a slower fire rate. There's no flamethrower or shotgun, but the latter at least will not be missed thanks to the extremely powerful meltagun - you can only hold ten rounds but this weapon will incinerate whole mobs of enemies up close, it's great fun to use. There's even some heavy weapons that you can rip from their moorings, Halo 3 style; the heavy bolter, plasma cannon and autocannon, which are again great fun.

Close combat weapons are more limited, with the choice of chainsword, power axe, and thunder hammer. I'm not sure about the differences between the chainsword and power axe, based on the fluff I had assumed the power axe was the more powerful of the two but now I suspect that chainsword had advantages as well, possibly in speed? The thunder hammer at least is very powerful, especially in conjunction with the jump pack, but it's slow to swing and you can only use the bolter and pistol when carrying it, so it's not always the best solution. Speaking of the jump pack, Space Marine makes much better use of this than in Halo Reach, and the jump pack segments are good fun, especially the last one thanks to the somewhat surrealistic setting.

It's probably worth mentioning that the whole game has only one quick-time event (to my recollection at least). Without getting in to the argument concerning their use, I felt this one was quite cool visually, though some people might find it a let-down, but I can't go into that without spoilers so I'll leave it there. On the subject, the game does have slightly less set pieces to break things up than some games - there's no driving sections at all, for example, so the game is arguable more repetitive than many, though I personally didn't find that to be a problem. The bosses, however, were slightly annoying as they did not differ much from regular enemy fights.

Graphics are pretty good, but the environments suffered from 'one-colour' syndrome. The characters were better, and they remained true to the miniatures without looking funny - that's actually a lot harder than it sounds since the minis are modelled in 'heroic scale', which means everything is exaggerated to make it easier to paint and to make detail stand out on such tiny figures, especially when viewed from a distance across the table. By the way, that's why they have such massive shoulder pads - to make it easier to paint chapter markings on the models (try it some day and you'll understand). To be honest, there wasn't as much variety in setting or enemy as I would like, but that was at least partially dictated by the story so I'll let it slide.

I'm going to have to give this game two scores, one for the newcomer and another for the 40K fan:
For newcomers I rate it 8 out of 10: a well executed 3rd person shooter that differentiates itself from the pack in gameplay and setting.
For fans I rate it 10 out of 10: the best action 40K game ever, both true to the source and fun to play.

I have heard some mild criticism of the game from 40K fans that I would like to discuss. People mention it's ridiculous that a Space Marine captain would rush into combat with nothing but a pistol and combat knife, not even a chainsword much less a power sword. I see what they mean, but it can be excused in my opinion by the fact that he wasn't initially planning to jump out of a space ship in a jump pack, so he was not properly equipped. I know it's a weak justification at best, but the point is that as far as sacrifices made for gaming reasons it's not so inconceivable as to break immersion.

Another point is that poeple have a hard time accepting Leandros criticising his Captain. Again, I agree that it's unlikely given the way Astartes are meant to be supremely disciplined, but we need to remember that they are still human and do still have different personalities, a Space Marine who's not good with authority is not common but not impossible. In the Crimson Fists novel Rynn's World, for example, both a young scout and a seasoned veteran captain show signs of insubordination. Leandros is a new marine who fresh from his indoctrination, so he's having a hard time dealing with what he sees a disregard for the rules. Without it the cast wouldn't have had very much to talk about:
"Where should we go next?"
"Let's go kill some orks over there."
Not very interesting is it?

Just one thing: it's a Daemonic invasion, right? So why just the one type of daemon? I'm not terribly familiar with the Chaos codex, but surely Bloodthirsters aren't the only daemons of Khorne? Also, some people might argue with the whole chaos power source sub plot, but it's no worse than most 40K novels I've read - there's always an insane doomsday device that threatens to shift the balance of power if the good guys can't get to it first. It's a big universe, just go with it.

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