The first five minutes of Space Marine look a little bit like this:
A strategically significant Imperial forge-world that renovates/maintains irreplaceable and incredibly potent war machines artifacts of a bygone era is engulfed by the green tide of destruction that is the Orc horde. Wave after wave of green skinned, brutal and savage warriors rain on the planet surface from the sky, pillaging and murdering everything in sight. They are scavengers and opportunists, and they are after the technological wonders made on this factory planet. The Imperium takes notice and dispatches the Ultramarines, it’s most trustworthy and loyal chapter of super-soldiers to the rescue.
In the cinematic opening cut scene we see the planet ravaged by explosions and surrounded by rings of space debris – remains of the defense fleet that attempted to hold the alien horde at bay, and failed. We see a lone Thunderhawk gunship swoop in from the right, and head towards the planet surface. We patiently wait for the rest of the Space Marine fleet to arrive, but apparently the short range vessel is doing a quick scouting run before turning back towards the capital ships and carriers that must be in-system. After all, Tunderhawks don’t have interstellar travel capabilities. Strangely enough, the Marine fleet (or at least a single capital ship) that must exist is never shown or mentioned. The scene cuts to the interior of the Thunderhawk.
There we see three of our protagonists: Captain Titus, Sargent Beard-face and Some Dude. I’d look up the names of the two other guys but honestly, I don’t care much. As their gunship enters the atmosphere the pilot says they can’t land because the Ork fleet is laying down a curtain of fire so thick, there is no way they can squeeze through. Titus decides to fuck caution to the wind (yes, you read it right), strap a jump pack to his back and use it as a makeshift parachute.
Some Dude is opposed to the idea. The voices his objection telling the captain that such brash and reckless action goes directly against Codex Astrates. Titus won’t have any of it. He says something along the lines of “Codex-shmodex, chill out dude and go with the flow, man” – only you know, more distinguished and space marine like – but that’s essentially is the spirit of his response. Then he jumps out of the ship, and soars through the air to single handedly fuck up an Ork fire-barge.
Being a life long, super-massive Wahrammer 40k fanboi, I can’t help but wonder how this guy even made a captain in the Ultramarines chapter. You see, the Codex Astrates is sort of a bible for everyone’s favorite power armored super soldiers. It is a book that describes their force organization, approved strategies, combat prayers, daily routines and even mundane things like how to take a quick-combat-poop while wearing that bulky armor. All Space Marine chapters base their dogma, philosophy and tactics on this one book in some capacity, but many play fast and loose with many of it’s rules and proscriptions. Space Wolves for example are more or less “viking marines” and they mostly don’t give a fuck. Their army, combat doctrine and traditions is heavily influenced by the tribal culture of their chilly home planet. Dark Angels are shady, secretive and they do all kinds of weird and non standard things with their army because of their secret agendas, and clandestine operations. Black Templars are a crusading chapter, that picks up recruits as they go and their organization is a form of pragmatic controlled clusterfuck that is only loosely based on the Codex. Ultramarines however are the chapter famous for doing things by the book.
Hell, their primarch (eg. founding father) is the guy who wrote Codex Astrates. Among 40k players, this chapter is known as “the vanilla chapter” because it’s sole distinguishing feature is the slavish, stubborn and boring adherence to the codex. While many of the other famous named chapters get special rules, and additional units, Ultramarines get none because they are supposed to be the standard, archetypal Space Marine army.
For an Ultramarine officer, Titus is a reckless maverick. Now, if he was a captain in the Blood Angels, I wouldn’t even bat an eyelash. I wouldn’t expect anything else from the chapter famous for being a brash and reckless band of berserkers. Their heavy weapons teams tend to score more kills by clubbing enemies to death with their Lascannons rather than shooting them. So it would work fine. But Titus is an Ultramarine captain. The obvious in-character thing for him to say would be to scold the younger Marine on his ignorance of the Codex, and then quote some obscure rule that allows improvisational use of a jump pack in a crisis situation.
Unfortunately some writer did not pay attention to the 40k “fluff” and Titus comes off as some bizarre Ultramarine rebel, that thinks codex should not be followed too rigidly. In Ultramarines that sort of attitude puts your career on a fast track to become a servitor, not a Captain. In my mind the only way he could have made an officer with that mindset is via instant in-combat promotion (ie. everyone above him in the chain of command just died).
In retrospect this actually makes some sense, because it would explain why the Tunderhawh which apparently was the entire relief force sent to the forge world, only had three Marines on board. Everyone else died en-route or something. Either that, or someone dropped the script on the floor and then took a shit on it. That’s the only explanation.
Unless of course we assume that they are playing second edition, in which case – yes, that would make sense. In those times a single command squad, tooled up with all kinds of crazy wargear could potentially wipe out an entire opposing army, provided that you could somehow shoot down and equally tooled up command squad of your opponent. In other words, rank and file units were basically there because you couldn’t legally field just your force commander model on his own, but they didn’t really contribute to the battle much. But I digress… This was supposed to be about Space Marine.
I’m not even five minutes into the game, I haven’t even seen any game play yet, and I’m already annoyed at the gaping holes in the plot. We are not off to a good start.
Fortunately, it gets better. The combat is actually fun. It is a brown linear button masher, but it is undeniably enjoyable. The controls are pretty good, and the combat is visceral and satisfying. My first instinct after I finally gained control over Captain Titus was to try to hug the waist high cover, but he would not flatten himself against it. Confused I opened the key-binding screen, and to my astonishment I discovered that there is no “take cover” button in this game. My jaw instantly unhinged, dislodged itself and hit the floor so hard that the aftershocks could have been felt in the entire Tri-State area.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am actually playing a linear, third person, shoot’em-up made in 2011 and it does not have cover based combat. This is unprecedented. No, this is revolutionary! It also does not have quick-time events, but the animated, nu-interruptable cut-scene take downs that are all the rage lately are in, and deeply integrated into the game play (you recover health by doing take-downs). Granted, I would never expect a Space Marine to use cover-based tactics on the account of the fucking Power Armor (in the tabletop game it gives Marines a 70% chance to just shrug off all damage, except if it was inflicted by a select few heavy weapons awesome enough to penetrate it) but I did not expect the game designers to resist the temptation. They did, and they deserve a lot of credit for this. Perhaps lack of boring cover-shooting is what makes this game so appealing.
It is perfectly ok to run head first into a horde of enemies and dice them with your power axe. It is perfectly ok to circle-strafe a big ork Nob. It may not be very Ultramarine like to do these things, but it works and it is fun. And once you get over the horrible miss-characterization of the protagonists the lore and the setting does get better.
For example, the Orks do scream “Waaaaaagh” while charging sometimes. The Imeprial Guard are properly awe-struck and intimidated by the sight of the Space Marines. There is also that iconic, shifty Inquisitor who is probably a traitor, because that’s just how Inquisitors work in the 40k universe. If there is only one inquisitor in the story, and he does not turn to Chaos at some point, or turn out to have been a traitor from the very start, then that counts as a plot twist.
The forge world does look very Warhammer-ish. The look and feel is there, and so is the iconography. The audio logs you can collect do adhere to the game fluff, and give you some more background on the daily lives of the workers on this strange planet. When you are in less destroyed parts of the factories you can hear automated announcements on the overhead speakers. It seems that unlike the writers, the artists, the level designers and concept people were all on the ball. They were right on target, and created a world that feels true to the source material – at least in the audio-visual layer.
Unfortunately, while combat is fun, joyful run-and gun experience, a lot of it feels like padding. After a while, the game starts to be monotonous. There is just a limited number of shades of brown you can use to paint a scene, and a finite number of arrangements you can make out of industrial rubble. After a while, all the different locations from the game start to blend in. They do try to mix it up – sometimes you fight in city ruins, sometimes in factory ruins, sometimes in a trashed underground factory, sometimes in the desert full of stones and rubble, sometimes in dilapidated sewer system. Granted, the planet is a brown, desert like wasteland with just one huge hive like city/factory complex so expansive that is clearly visible from space. It would hard for it not to be brown and industrial, but it does get boring after a while.
Especially since you mostly fight Orks and there are just not that many different unit types. About two hours into the game, you’ve already seen all the different available Ork types. From that point on, till somewhere around hour six, you just fight the same enemies, just in different quantities and combinations. They don’t even palette swap them to keep things more interesting – it’s just more and more of the same. Eventually Chaos forces show up, throwing some demon and Traitor Marine forces into the fray which is a more than welcome change. But soon enough, even that gets a tad monotonous.
It becomes even worse when a big boss type guy keeps popping about once an hour, to taunt you from some inaccessible ledge while completely impervious to damage. He always fucks your shit up, but you are not allowed to fight him because he is needed in some future cut-scene. I really, really hate when video games do this. When you show me a boss character, I want to fight and defeat him. Making him a recurring antagonist is just annoying. I’m sure you are fond of him, but I just want to pump him full of led, and get it over with.
I’m currently about 7-8 hours into the game and it almost looks like the story is slowly winding down. There has already been one big reveal, and a hit that there might be some mystery surrounding Titus himself that won’t be revealed until the finale. I do feel that I’m in for a long and slow slog to get there. I will try to write another post talking about the end game, and the story when I finish it.