But Warhammer (and this, its sci-fi, year 40,000 variant) really is the grandfather of the genre, the prototype for all of those gruff space warriors and the green-skinned and slimy hordes they battle against. Marcus Fenix and his ilk may have grabbed some headlines and sold some games, but it's about time the Ultramarines got some credit for being the original killing machines and wearers of huge shoulder plates.
And thanks to the talented designers at Relic Entertainment and their pitch-perfect use of the Warhammer universe in Warhammer 40K: Space Marine, they deserve to get that credit.
Though we've called this game "Gears of Warhammer" for over a year now, a comparison to the COGs isn't really right. Yes, Space Marine plays in third-person (though it passes on Gears' cover system -- Ultramarines aren't really the type to take cover), and yes, the shooting is just as tight and fun as Epic's big series. But the Gears of War are "bros," and the Ultramarines are very much "brothers." Battle-brothers, in fact.
Space Marine's Captain Titus, for example, has about a hundred points of IQ on Marcus Fenix. Not only can he cut an Ork in half with a chainsaw-sword, but he's also tactically brilliant, completely fearless, and can deliver lines like, "I am an instrument of the Emperor's will!" in a flawless British accent so well it will make you want to stand up and salute. Titus faces problems, and instead of yelling "It's a giant worm!" he just deals with them in a "For the Emperor" kind of way. He's a badass with a brain.
And Relic's skill at balancing RTS gameplay (honed over a series of Warhammer-based, critically acclaimed PC titles) shines here too. Your enemies and the scenarios you face are all tuned to challenge that balance between melee combat and your ranged firearms. Early on, the Orks just splatter in whatever fashion you like, but as the game progresses the various enemy types all call for different strategies -- some are agile and quick, just asking for an axe to the head, while some sit up in the high ground, where you can take a bead on them with the Stalker Pattern Bolter (the sniper rifle, in Warhammer lingo) or move in close with the powerful Melta Gun (a huge heat-based shotgun).
"The Gears of War are 'bros,' and the Ultramarines are very much 'brothers.'"
The single-player campaign is somewhat short (about seven hours) but exceptionally paced, with constant and practical upgrades to both your weapons and Captain Titus' abilities throughout. There are only a few enemy types, but they're used so smartly that the game never feels repetitive. Orks in particular make for especially fun opponents. Whenever a horde of them bursts through the door, the feeling is much less "Not this again," and much more, "Good, more killing to do." You're an Ultramarine, after all. That's what you do best.
The story is excellent as well. Relic really loves this universe, and it shows. Warhammer fans will love exploring a forge world in big, beautiful 3D (not to mention that Relic has snuck in a few really rewarding hints to famous units and heroes in the setting), and even those new to the universe will enjoy just how perfectly portrayed the world of this massive fiction is. Collectible audio logs help that a bit, but more than anything the design of this world makes it stand out, from the little gothic window markings on artillery shells to the huge flying buttresses that adorn the gigantic Manufactorum facility. You can clearly see the series' influence on popular games like Halo and StarCraft, even while the actual Warhammer setting shines through in its own way as well.
There is one hitch in the campaign that I only bring up because it's so obvious: If you're the type to ever forget just who you're playing a game as, Space Marine has you covered. At a laughable rate (almost every minute or so), someone in the game will either yell out "Space Marines," call you a Space Marine, or shout some variant of your title (as in, "Smash that, Space Marine!"). It's not so much an annoyance as it is a silly distraction, considering the quality of the rest of the presentation. It's true that Space Marines are mythical and amazing creatures even in the setting itself (they're about as powerful as any single human can get), but yes, we get it, Relic – they're Space Marines.
The multiplayer isn't quite as strong as the single-player campaign (and with just two modes and a skeleton metagame, it doesn't compare to Gears at all in that respect), but it is fun, and the progression system keeps it rewarding match after match. Unfortunately, the melee is toned down a bit, and the stun/execution mechanic that's so fun in the single-player game is nowhere to be seen. But the multiplayer classes are varied enough to make for a few different playstyles, and the extensive perk and customization systems are worth leveling up to explore.
"Warhammer fans will love exploring a forge world in big, beautiful 3D."
Both modes, basically domination and deathmatch, end up being very team-centric, in that you need to really stick to your friends to get anything done. That's a good thing for some players, though and, again, while Space Marine's multiplayer may lack some features, its intelligence stands out past other games of this type. You can't B-button chainsaw the other team, but you can sneak around the map (as your buddies spawn on you) to flank them and start a killstreak.
Despite that late addition to the game, Relic has still done a great job here. Space Marine is a terrific title, and proof that Relic's expertise can extend far past the RTS genre they've already conquered. The game is short, in terms of both length and features, but what's there, especially in the single-player campaign, is of the highest quality. Warhammer fans especially will love it, and hopefully even those who've never heard of Games Workshop's legendary setting will pick it up and learn just where the whole "space marine" idea came from in the first place.
This review is based on retail code of Warhammer 40k: Space Marine provided by THQ, and played on an Xbox 360 console. The co-op mode was not played for this review.