I've always been curious about Warhammer 40,000, the tabletop miniature sci-fi/fantasy wargame that has been a part of modern gaming culture for nearly a quarter of a century, but I've never found a way to become properly involved. I knew no one who played. I've never had the courage to go in and mingle with the dauntingly geeky clientele I saw hovering around tables in Games Workshop stores. And, for one reason or another, none of the Warhammer video games that have come and gone over the years have ever beckoned me.
At least until now.
Thanks to intuitive controls, familiar game design, and a simple narrative structure, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine—a third-person shooter of the over-the-top, sci-fi super-soldier ilk (it falls somewhere between Gears of War and Killzone on the meaty-man-o-meter)—serves as an easy means for outsiders to wedge their way into this rich fictional universe.
Players take on the role of an ultramarine captain whose mission is to help secure important military assets on a planet under assault by an inordinately angry race of cockney-accented, green-skinned alien "orks." Our noble human heroes—civilians refer to them as "lords"—are an extremely serious and overly dramatic bunch obsessed with duty and chivalry. They're basically futuristic knights, complete with Latin-inspired names, hulking armour (which, curiously, leaves their heads—the most important bit, one would think—completely exposed), and even swords and axes that incorporate rotating, energy-infused blades.
The game sells players on pleasure derived from graphic violence. We use powerful long-range weapons to blast away at charging, screaming hordes of foes until becoming engulfed in a sea of lime-skinned menace. Then we pull out our melee weapons and swing away, carving up enemies and creating a crimson mess with special execution and fury attacks that don't just destroy foes but also replenish our health.
It's highly satisfying in a mindlessly visceral kind of way, and often more than a little challenging.
But the game's strengths are also the root of its weaknesses.
While anyone with even a modicum of experience with the third-person shooter genus will find the interface and design to be warm and inviting, these same players will likely see the game's linear levels as unusually simplistic and repetitive. And though combat is gratifying on an animal level, it involves little strategy—battles are head-on, fight-to-the-death fracases in which cover plays almost no role—and offers up hardly any innovation, save a few missions in which players can use rocket boosters to take to the air before screaming down to ground-pound their opponents.
I haven't invested much time in multiplayer, but the same criticisms of simplicity and lack of originality seem to apply. Players are provided a couple of competent modes—Annihilation (death-match) and the self-explanatory Sieze-Ground—and a nice little levelling system with perks and customization options that will likely appeal to die-hard Warhammer fans. However, there just isn't much reason to put in the sort of hours that more complex and rewarding online shooters manage to squeeze out of hardcore players.
I've enjoyed my time with Space Marine, and I'm grateful that it has finally provided me with some first-hand knowledge of the Warhammer 40,000 universe—which, not surprisingly, appeals to my nerdy, knight-and-nobility-loving nature—but I suspect it will struggle as it goes up against heavy competition this fall, starting with this week's other big-name sci-fi shooter, Resistance 3.
On the subject of Insomniac Games' latest romp through an alternate, alien-infested history, I'll take a look at it later this week or early next. As I mentioned in my roundup of fall games, this week marks the beginning of the game industry's annual deluge of fall titles, with other releases including Ubisoft's action racer, Driver: San Francisco; Deep Silver's open world zombie apocalypse adventure, Dead Island; and Nintendo's Star Fox 64 remake for its new stereoscopic handheld. In all likelihood, the only time I'll be turning my head from a screen over the next week is when I take a moment to report my impressions here. Stay tuned.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC