This week, I think I'll talk about a repetitive third-person action shooter about burly Übermenschen duking it out with alien hordes across yet another series of war-torn neo-Gothic cityscapes: Gears of War 3 now exists. Moving on, here's a review of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.
Space Marine is the latest entry in Games Workshop's long, slow slog moving the Warhammer 40,000 franchise away from tabletop wargames that nobody would be caught dead playing and toward the more lucrative market of video games that merely most people wouldn't be caught dead playing.
It's worked out pretty well so far. The resulting Dawn of War series by Relic has over the years made significant inroads into a real-time strategy genre dominated by tradition-bound gamers, studios that cater to those traditions, and the piled corpses of games that didn't follow suit.
But neither Warhammer 40,000 nor the Dawn of Wars it engendered are really known as fertile soil if you're looking for high literature. There's a universe there, sure, but what you have when you're dealing with 40K is a world of themes, not narratives. Honor in the face of certain doom, the inevitability of corruption, "orcs" becoming "orks" because K has more pointy bits than C, that sort of thing.
And that's okay, as long the overarching structure of your creation relies on plot development only as a convenient way to explain how your guys came to be pointed at the other guy's guys and why all those guys hate each other.
That's where Space Marine falls short. To both its credit and its detriment, Space Marine is yet another Relic-quality rendering of the 40K setting. It works as a representation of the setting, but what it does with that representation leaves much to be desired.
Relic practically shoots itself in the foot from the word go. Space Marine's opening cinematic scenes show all the high points of the setting, flinging one Captain Titus and his elite task force of Ultramarines headlong into an orkish invasion so Warhammer-ian that players can practically see ORK INVASION burnt permanently into the Marines' tactical computer readout.
And again, this is just fine, as is the Ultramarines' initial strategy of leaping from their dropship while still in orbit and punching their way through a few orkish space cruisers on their way to the surface just for fun. After all, 40K is a world in which your enemies require you to be 10 feet tall, bulletproof, and able to accept the most insanely suicidal of plans as the word of a living god. All in a day's work, right?
But 40K's other major point greets Titus shortly after he makes planetfall, and it's an order of magnitude less appealing. No matter how many ships Titus knocks out of orbit on his way down, once he's on the surface, he still has a whole lot of orks to kill.
Way too many, as it turns out. The sum total of Space Marine's problems lie in a simple load-bearing equation: Space Marine simply can't support the weight of all those orks. Nothing about it that isn't specifically Warhammer-based, from combat mechanics to level design to multiplayer setup, does much at all to make the game any more than just passable.
Which leaves the storyline. Titus and his crew are very imperial and very grim, the invading orks are very cockney and very thuggish, the allied Imperial Guard is very stiff-upper-lip and very doomed, the Chaos forces behind it all are very demonic and very sinister, and not one of them does a single thing to distract the player from the fact that Space Marine is about nothing more than killing ork after ork after ork (or demon after demon after demon, after the game finally runs out of orks).
This isn't a problem that Dawn of War ever had to deal with. Strategy games are nice and zoomed out both in viewpoint and in scope; the hordes are still there, but dealing with them is far from a one-at-a-time thing. Space Marine gives you no other choice. When dealing with the enemy, a million Dawn of War protagonists are a statistic; in Space Marine, one lone soldier is a tragedy.