The greatest strength of Space Marine is that it does such a great job of bringing the Warhammer 40,000 universe to life. Like Games Workshop’s dark future RPG and wargames, it presents a brutal, dystopian and ludicrously violent sci-fi world, in which a quasi-fascist Imperium is all that stands between humanity and the forces of chaos and disorder, and in which the heroes are hulking bruisers in gigantic suits of power armour, literally battering their way through endless hordes of green-skinned orks intent on tearing them to pieces. It’s a universe that was originally crafted with wit and real attention to detail, intentionally grim but also marked by a vein of twisted humour. Without it, Space Marine would be an above-average third-person action game, but little more. With it, it’s hugely enjoyable, and we should all heap kudos at the feet of the team at Relic Entertainment for making it so.
Space Marine puts you in the thumping, power-armoured boots of Captain Titus of the Ultramarine chapter of the Imperium’s finest, as he leads an assault on an ork invasion force in the process of attacking an Imperial factory world. Ostensibly, the concern is that gigantic Imperial Titans (huge piloted battle robots, for those not in the know) will fall into Ork hands, but as you play it becomes apparent that something larger and more dangerous is afoot. What really matters, however, is that this entails Titus going up against thousands of orks with the assistance of some of the most barbaric futuristic weaponry ever conceived.
Now, screenshots and early reports might point to an uninspired Gears of War clone, but actually that’s only part of the story. In fact, Space Marine turns out to be a weird hybrid of Gears of War and God of War, where melee combat is every bit as important as blasting, and where there’s none of that wussy cowering in cover that those big-girls-blouses in the Gears series get up to. Generally the game works like this: Titus and any supporting officers wander into a new area. Within seconds, the area is swarming with charging orks and peppered with gunners and snipers, and you take out the former with your current melee weapon while blasting the latter with your bolter, laser or plasma gun of choice. The trigger buttons handle shooting, Gears of War-style, while the X, Y and B buttons handle basic attacks, stun attacks and finishing moves. After a few minutes the orks will be nothing more than a smear on the scenery, your armour will be covered in gore, and you stomp off to the next area and repeat.
This might sound dull, but in practice it’s not. First of all, Space Marine gets the flow of its melee combat right. Whether you’re wielding a chainsword, a power-axe or a mighty, skull-crushing hammer, hacking your way through the orks feels good, and the game can pack impressive numbers of the green-skinned thugs on-screen at any time. There’s also a level of strategy involved. Ignore the orks with guns (or worse, rocket launchers) and they’ll pick you off while you’re managing the hordes. Leave the shock troops to focus on the snipers, and you risk being overwhelmed.