“We are Space Marines. We fear nothing because we are fear incarnate.”
This is part of the creed of Warhammer 40,000‘s Space Marines (some say that they are the only Space Marines that count, and I tend to agree), and the perfect philosophy behind the demo of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.
The gameplay is at the same time simple and tactical. While it can be somehow compared to third person shooters like Gears of War and others, there’s no cover system. You play the role of a Space Marine enclosed in a fully sealed Power Armor made of thick Ceramite plates. As a walking tank engineered for battle, you know no fear. Why would you cower behind some crate like a coward instead of defiantly showing your face to the terrified enemy?
That’s why Space Marine encourages the player to throw himself in the middle of the fray instead of cherry picking enemies from far away with Bolter fire. Sure, you can use your guns to try and thin the waves of Orks a little before charging in, but ultimately you want to be in the middle of the enemy ranks, using your melee weapons to wreak havoc. The reason for that is that being aggressive is your only protection.
No matter how good you are, you will be hit a lot in Space Marine. You can dodge, you can hide for a few seconds, but you’ll be so largely outnumbered that there’s no way to avoid every blow and especially ranged fire. This may seem a flaw to some, that will think it turns the game in a mindless brawler, but on the contrary, it’s exactly what adds tactical depth to it.
The only way to make up for the hits you will receive is to continuously heal yourself, and to heal yourself, you need to fight. Between the combos at your disposal you have the ability to stun one or more enemy. When an Ork is stunned, you can kill him with a ruthless finisher. When that happens, you will heal some.
Things are made more complex by the fact that while you perform a finisher you’re not invulnerable. Enemies will continue to hit you, risking to make your healing useless. This is where tactics come into play. You will be continuously repositioning yourself to try and isolate one or more enemies, so that you can finish them before the rest of the horde reaches you. After you healed, you can resume the carnage with more energy to spare.
This simple but quite original mechanic replaces the cover system perfectly, but as opposed to the cover system, ensures that the action never stops. If your life bar is low, that’s not a signal to retreat. It’s your cue to kill even more ruthlessly.
Yet, if you just charge in and hack around you mindlessly, you’ll die. There’s no escape from that.
Despite this all, the importance of melee combat doesn’t turn ranged weapons into a useless decoration. The demo features four, each with a precise tactical role.
The Stalker Pattern Bolter is warhammer 40,000’s version of a sniper rifle. It’s more similar to an anti tank rifle though, considering that it still fires standard issue bolts, that are devastating 19 mm self-propelled mini rockets. It’s basically the only real ranged-dedicated gun in the demo, and it’s very useful to obliterate those pesky enemies on elevated terrain that are difficult to reach and engage in melee.
The grenade launcher makes for an interesting “ambush” weapon. It can fire remote controlled grenades that will explode at the pressure of a button. It can prove very useful with subsequent waves of enemies, blasting the incoming ones while you maim the others in melee.
Last but not least, the Bolter and Bolt Pistol are your bread and water. The true tools of the trade of a Space Marine. The difference between the two is simple. The Bolter is automatic and has limited ammo, while the Pistol is semi-auto and has unlimited bolts in the clip.
While both prove somewhat effective from afar, their real power is unleashed at close range. Unlike other games, you don’t have to switch between melee and ranged weapons, both are equipped at the same time, so you can slash at the enemy with your (extremely satisfying) Chainsword or Power Axe, alternating seamlessly with shooting them in the face with your Bolt gun. This allows you to keep some of the incoming enemies at bay while you take care of those that get too near, in a constant alternation between slashing and shooting that keeps the adrenaline up and running.
To put it down simply, it’s poetic carnage in motion.
The visuals of the game are equally engaging as the combat: We’re already familiar with the art style THQ uses with it’s Warhammer 40,000 games, and this one is no exception. Everything simply drools 40k flavor, from the environments to architecture. The level of detail is stunning, and in combination with the great lighting and particle engines, it creates stunning visual effects and great atmosphere. If you want to see more pictures of the demo then the ones that fit this article, you can head to my flickr gallery and feast your eyes on some.
Performance on PC seems to be great so far, as the demo never dropped under 60 fps on 1920×1080 and maximum detail on my rig (Windows 7 64, Phenom 2 X4 965, Geforce GTX 460 1Gb and 4 Gb of Ram), even during the most crowded fights.
Something has to be said about storytelling, as Space Marine promises to be a strongly story-driven cinematic experience, but not in the way many would expect. The player almost never loses control. Instead of falling back on frequent cutscenes to tell the story, most of the times conversation with the two squad mates and other characters is engaged during the action, as the battle progresses, giving a lovely impression of being “in” the story instead of just watching it.
While I normally have nothing against cutscenes, I have to say that this approach to storytelling is quite engaging.
The atmosphere of the game is further enhanced by it’s perspective: we are used to see Warhammer 40,000 games from a bird-eye viewpoint with the Dawn of War series, but now we’re more close and personal, as we walk around the forge world looking at it from the point of view of a single character, we can catch details we’re not used to, like the recorded messages that encourage workers to perform their duty for the Imperium. Space Marine finally promises to give us an unprecedented first-person (well, third-person actually, but you know what I mean) look at one of the deepest and most engaging science-fiction worlds ever created.
Add to this some top-notch voice acting (the voice of Mark Strong absolutely nails Titus’ personality, and so far is definitely one of the best voice works I’ve seen in this year’s games) and an epic soundtrack recorded by a live orchestra and you get the picture.
This said, it’s still early to see if the game will completely live up to the expectations it created, as the demo only features a part of two levels, and there’s still a lot of space to impress or disappoint.
We’ll have to see what will happen with the release and our full review that will come with it. Multiplayer is still pretty much an unknown and, if it proves as great as what we’ve seen so far in the demo (and at least the immense customization options make me lean towards a positive answer to this question), it could be the final seal on a masterpiece.
Don’t you dare disappoint me, Space Marine. I waited for you for twenty-two years.