In the Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine video game, you're the best of the best, a genetically modified supersoldier wearing incredible armor and wielding incredible weapons. This is a third-person shooter/hack and slash action game, but beyond that it's a great military sci-fi story.
If you're already a fan of the Warhammer 40K universe, there's really no reason not to own this game. You get to be an Ultramarine, stomping around a gothic industrial wasteland splattering orks left, right and center. You feel like a serious bad-ass at all times — even when you die, a grim voiceover intones a grim reminder of the grim universe in which your grim life just ended grimly.
Newcomers won't feel out of sorts, though – you quickly grasp that the Space Marines are the military arm of the Imperium, a galactic empire of humans wrapped in religious trappings. Stylistically, they are vaguely Roman Catholic, but in all the ornate armor and soaring cathedrals you won't see a single cross. You're definitely in a fantasy world, heavily accentuated by all the grandiosity of an age-old religion, but without any specific references to real religions.
One of the many alien races the Imperium fights against is the orks, who are essentially orcs with spaceships and guns. Ork tech has a battered, used feel bristling with spikes and jet engines. Everything looks like it's surplus from Reagan-era military spending. Call it JetPunk. In addition to being the most common adversaries, the orks also provide the game's comic relief, which is desperately needed in the face of so much grim grimness. Whenever you arrive on the scene, you'll hear orcs shouting, "Space Marines?!" in a hilarious British accent. Have you ever heard Adam Savage from Mythbusters do his British auteur impression? They sound just like that.
The story is fairly straightforward – the orks have invaded a forgeworld, a planet entirely converted to the production of the Imperium's heaviest weaponry, particularly Titan-class battlemechs. The Space Marines have staged an incursion to retake the planet, but it hasn't gone well and their forces are scattered, facing a difficult battle against the entrenched orks. You and a few other Ultramarines drop in to take the fight to the shattered streets.
The military sensibility is pervasive. No one is running around in a panic – every action is infused with a sense of duty and loyalty to your fellow soldiers. The understated reactions of the characters are very effective. There's a great example early on where one of the Ultramarines working with you blows away an ork with his gun, then continues to fire bursts of bullets into the corpse for a few moments, a haunted look in his eyes. Those few seconds did more to convey his horror at seeing so many comrades killed in the war than a histrionic scene of frothing and raving madness.
Gameplay alternates between firing a variety of guns at orks, then wading into them to butcher them with your chainsword. Yeah, it's just what it sounds like. A chainsaw, but…a sword. There's no hiding or ducking, and no power ups to collect. The only way to heal yourself is to stun an ork, then execute him, which tends to involve either bisection via chainsword or a splattery head stomp. That keeps the action moving along briskly. There are some set pieces as well, where you'll hop around on jump jets or wield turret guns.
I found the controls clumsy and confusing on PC, but I quickly settled in on the Xbox version. Frankly, this isn't my favorite kind of game, and the shooting and hacking starts to feel redundant to me before too long. It's actually the story that pulled me in and kept me playing – there's an unfolding mystery, plus you can't let your fellow marines down. It gives you just enough incentive to clear one more industrial complex of orks.
Publisher THQ actually sent me the Xbox Collector's Edition for review, and while I'm not one to spend $100 on a video game, it's certainly a lavish set that hardcore Warhammer 40K fans may find alluring. It comes with the game, a CD of the soundtrack, a cast resin purity seal and a hardcover book of concept art. The art book is the jewel of the set, showing off the detailed weapon and armor designs, some of which you can see here. There's a chapter of sci-fi cityscapes filled with eerie desolation and baroque architecture, all of which is brilliantly evocative.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine doesn't break any new ground, but it does what it does well and with a passion for the subject matter. If you're a fan of the shooting/chainswording genre or of Warhammer in general, you'll enjoy this one.