Until recently I was under the impression that Warhammer 40,000 was a tabletop war game played mainly by bookish and bearded nerds in comic shops and out-of-the-way conference rooms at sci-fi/fantasy conventions.
Now I'm as bookish and bearded as nerds come, but somehow I've managed to avoid being drawn into the game. I've admired the time and patience it must take to coat tiny metal figurines with multiple coats of fictionally significant paint. I've marvelled at the intricate crafting work that goes into creating the elaborate miniature battlefields those figures do imaginary battle upon.
I respect the dedication and passion that it takes to be a Warhammer 40,000 player, but I've never considered crossing over into Games Workshop's world of futuristic fantasy warfare.
Then I spent a week walking in the heavy metal boots of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.
Having proven their understanding and dedication to the Warhammer 40,000 universe with the Dawn of War series of real-time strategy games, Relic Entertainment now brings us a third-person shooter / slasher that focuses on a single member of the Imperium's elite fighting forces. When an army of Greenskins invade the Forge World of Graia, where some of the Imperium's most powerful weapons are made, Captain Titus' three-man squad of Ultramarines is the only fighting force close enough to the planet to help, but what can three men do in the face of several thousand Orks?
Quite a lot, actually.
When the Orks come charging across the ravaged surface of Graia, Captain Titus and his squad greet them with cold steel. The savages are met by combat knife, chainsword, power axe and war hammer, the might of the Ultramarines proven with every brutal swing. This is no God of War. There is no finesse here. Not when the one wielding the weapon is more than a ton of bioengineered human and massive metal armour. That impressive weight is put behind every swing, combo attacks generating almost unstoppable momentum. You won't see an Ultramarine leaping into the air to juggle his foes like some deadly, gravity-defying acrobat. Even when equipped with the rare jump pack, their attacks are ground-based, the massive warriors bringing their full weight to bear in an earth-shaking power drop that sends enemies flying.
An incredibly simple system with only one real attack button, the melee combat in Space Marine might be considered rudimentary if not for the nature of the protagonist. Captain Titus is built to wade into hordes of enemies, swinging his weapon back and forth relentlessly. He is not a nimble dancer, weaving in and out of combat like some stabby ghost. He is a walking tank. That he can even manage to combat roll out of harm's way is an impressive feat.
So instead of some elaborate fighting mechanic requiring complex button sequences, Relic gave us an attack button, a stun button (for setting up health-restoring execution attacks), and a dodge roll button. It's very basic, but it works.
That same satisfying simplicity carries over to the other aspect of Space Marine's battles: Gunplay.
"Cover is for the weak". That's one of the slogans that appeared on the marketing for Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. Perhaps that should be amended to read "Cover is for those not nearly eight feet tall and encased in power armor". When one becomes a Space Marine, crouching against crates is forever removed from your list of realistic activities. That doesn't mean that cover isn't a necessity. Space Marine just does things old-school. Don't want to get shot? Put obstacles between you and your attackers, just like we did it in the good old days. Walking behind a large metal crate is just as effective as hugging it, and it counts as self-preservation instead of hiding.
Running and gunning without a cover mechanic makes for much more action-packed firefights. Rather than just finding a rocky outcropping and laying low until all of the enemies stop moving I dodge, I weave, and every now and then I throw caution to the wind and charge, chainsword humming to life in my hands. The four firearms I can carry at any given time add to the variety of my attacks. Do I get in close and let loose with a fiery force of the shotgun-like meltagun, or do I hang back hang back and let the pinpoint accuracy of the powerful lascannon take my foes out from afar?
The success of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine lies in combining these two simple systems into one. While enjoyable enough, there's nothing particularly spectacular about the game's melee combat. The gunplay is solid as well, but doesn't do anything to stand out above other modern shooters. It's the marriage of these two that make the game sing, two modest voices coming together to form a gorgeous (if somewhat militaristic) harmony.
The game's only failing is that the online multiplayer falls under the keep-it-simple motif as well. Battles between the Space Marines and their chaotic counterparts are every bit as satisfying as solo gameplay, but with only two multiplayer modes and a handful of maps, it just doesn't have much staying power.
Fortunately the single-player story is more than enough to carry the title. In narrowing the focus from Dawn of War's large-scale battles to a single soldier's story, Relic is able to immerse players in the 40,000 universe like never before. Rather than looking over the action, we're an integral part of it, and while Captain Titus has all the personality of a particularly colourful rock, his values, integrity, and the dark secrets locked away in his past make him a compelling enough character to warrant revisiting.
The true triumph of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is that it left me wanting more. Not just more of Captain Titus' tale or more multiplayer battles, but more Warhammer 40,000 in general. I've watched people playing the tabletop war game many times over the past several decades, and I thought it a colossal waste of time. I played through Relic's own Dawn of War games, and never once did I think to look beyond the game to the rich fiction Games Workshop.
But now I have questions. Who are the Inquisition, and where do they get off? What's wrong with a little chaos? What's the story behind the other Space Marine chapters that show up in the game? Why the hell would anyone subject themselves to a process that filled their body with extra organs and fused their ribcage into one giant, bulletproof plate? Do they sell those little metal Space Marines in bulk?
Simply put, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine has made me a fan of the property, and for the first time in ages, I'm wondering if I can find some time during the week to paint miniatures. Anyone have any pink and yellow paint I can borrow?