Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine Demo Impressions
Relic, the long-standing guardians of the Warhammer 40k license, are best known for creating the well-oiled RTS series Dawn of War. However, with Space Marine they’re looking to set forth into new approaches – specifically into the Third-Person Shooter genre. With a demo out for Xbox 360, PS3 and (currently limited to certain newsletter subscribers) PC, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at what the Strategy-centric studio has mustered up.
The demo showcases two missions from the main part of the game – both singleplayer only – following the exploits of Captain Beefy McTinCan (his name was something that I had no motivation to remember) and his friendly space mariners on their journey through a sea of angry subhuman homicidal maniacs. Similarities to my recent walk through a council estate aside, it makes for a fairly straightforward introduction to both the universe of Warhammer 40k, and the game itself.
In case you’ve never played a Dawn of War game, rest assured that Relic understand the license. Putting aside all else, they’ve always put a huge amount of time and effort into making the atmosphere of their games match that of the literature and artwork based in the popular tabletop franchise, and this really shines through in Space Marine. This is probably helped quite a lot just be the fact that the action is taking place up close and personal, with the camera right in the middle of the fray. Compared to the grander scale of Relic’s RTS games, it’s quite a distinct change. This closer focus lends itself very well to the brutality on show, with copious amounts of blood and guts splattering every which way like the aftermath of a tragic accident with a garden sprinkler. There’s clearly an emphasis on bringing the bloody gore of fans’ imaginations into the game, and it’s a welcome change from the more detached nature of Dawn of War.
The other obvious comparison to draw from Space Marine is Gears of War – a Third-Person Shooter focused on fighting hoards of enemies with a combination of heavy weapons and chainsaws. Sound familiar? The two games obviously have more than a passing similarity to one another, but before anyone calls Space Marine a GoW rip-off, it’s best to remember that Warhammer 40k pretty much invented the kind of atmosphere and macho idealism that is so prevalent in the Xbox flagship series, and was most probably one of the major inspirations for a lot of the main themes in the games. There’s also quite a difference in the way the game plays out, compared to Gears of War. Rather than moving from chest-high wall to chest-high wall, the game takes a more direct walk-up-to-an-enemy-and-hit-until-red-pulp approach. The player is treated with a real sense of the power and security of a space marine, through the huge amount of damage the ridiculous armour can take.
The mechanics of the game work very well together, and with the lore of the universe the game is based in. The ability for a space marine to take out hundreds of orks is written into the very fabric of Warhammer 40k, so it makes much more sense than games where the protagonist is supposedly on a level playing field with the thousands of enemies he dispatches. We’ve yet to see the forces of Chaos appear, but presumably when we do, they’ll make for a considerably more formidable foe.
What is slightly less impressive, however, is the environment art. I had a similar problem with the Gears of War franchise, in that in terms of graphical fidelity, the levels are technically very good, but the overall impression one takes away from them is of a boring grey-brown arena. It obviously fits the world the action takes place in, but it causes a sense of ennui that makes the action seem less exciting, and detracts from the immersion. Obviously, the demo only shows us a very small portion of what is reportedly a decent-sized game but the criticism remains. The designers need to find a happy medium between the desolate landscape they’re trying to portray, and something that remains interesting for the player’s eye. Even if it is just a backdrop, it’s an incredibly important part of making a game feel more alive.
Overall, it seems like Relic are really heading in the right direction with Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. They’ve managed to really nail the atmosphere of the Warhammer space marines through not only the aesthetics and sound design, but in the very mechanics themselves. That’s a depressingly rare thing in games design nowadays.