A visual medium, vieogames are bound to (and, intrinsically, by) their aesthetics. Measured and marketed by their bit size and pixel count years ago, gaming platforms and their software leveraged interactive graphics to draw in crowds. Nowadays though, knowing how many polygons your gaming hardware can push isn't necessarily as important; there's plenty of power on every platform to display some noteworthy piece of eye candy. Raw numbers don't hold nearly as much credence as the skill and proficiency of the people tinkering with the technology.
Gaming hasn't always been about the screen however. You can trace the inner workings of today's videogames and the influences on them back to popular role-playing adventures and tabletop games. Still played even with the prowess some studios exhibit in this generation, tabletop role-playing games and the like use nature's most super of computers to set an incredible, albeit mostly imaginary, scene. On these setups, models provide reference for the rule sets being exercised, but it's a player's imagination that is ultimately responsible for envisioning powerful struggles for supremacy and make-believe glory.
One of the most popular of these analog diversions, Games Workshop's “Warhammer 40,000” uses a hearty bible of lore to provide its players with a deep universe to consume. In a sense, you don't just play the game, however. The resources requisite for participation are more than monetary, and thus the player who devotes themselves to the pursuit builds more than a mere plastic army in their mind's eye. What unfolds on large dimensions of faux landscapes is more than just casual play—it's war!
Trying to capture that feeling of physically, painstakingly amassing an army and setting siege to another in a digital realm is laughably impossible, but to a certain degree Relic Entertainment has been critically successful in doing so, with their real-time strategy Dawn of War games. The translation of dice-rolled movements and phased turns of large armies for a videogame genre built on the same principles makes practical sense. Focusing the attention on a singular soldier in a faction comprised of “billions” (the “Warhammer” rule book points this out inside its cover), for a shooter, makes considerably less sense. Yet Relic go for it in Space Marine. To an extent, how much you get out of the game is commensurate on how deep you're into the “40K” universe, for taken at face value as a third-person shooter, Space Marine lacks a fair amount of depth to make it exceptional. Yet, despite some general weaknesses, whether you know what an Ultramarine is or not, there's showings of enough competent gameplay to make you interested for more.
Relic and THQ take a potential gamble by not dumbing down a script or abusing the “40K” license with broad contents of canon. Without protracted setup, Space Marine drops you into the boots of Captain Titus of the “Ultramarines.” There's trouble on a “Forge World” with “Orks” invading, and it's your vanguard of three sent in to secure key interests of the “Imperium.” Essentially what the entirety of the game boils down to is the equivalent of a side skirmish in an ongoing tabletop war. There isn't need to explain who and what things are, it's assumed you already know (like those terms in quotation).
Ironically, it'd seem that's how you create a rich context. By not bogging the player down with over-explained detail, or falling so far towards base terminology, Space Marine plays with a natural setting; everything makes sense because it is what is, and that's admirable. Moreover, the characters are strong and portrayed genuinely. Titus, despite his bulky appearance in his armor and skillful violence, speaks with temperament, loyalty, and rational understanding. By contrast, his younger and lower-ranked compatriots both come off as equally appropriate. Every character in the game seems in-place and is portrayed well. (Perhaps it's because English accents sound more eloquent and put together?)
This attention to character detail is only rivaled by the world in which they run about. Graia, the aforementioned Forge World, is built up with an appreciable sense of scale. Tones of rusty browns and reds, along with dull metallic textures, don't create much visible flare, but cavernous corridors and objectives you can consistently see far off in the distance create a distinctive game world. Tabletop exploits might require you to imagine settings, but Space Marine fully realizes those fantasies. There might not be wispy fauna or completely distinguishable pop to various places visited, but it all works and is done with particular precision. Even decals on armors are anything but flat and static.
Once you settle in and peel back the well-painted facade, however, what you play doesn't fully match up. The life of a Space Marine is written to be one of a man enduring a painful transformation and augmentation to become the elite backbone of the Imperium. Stronger and more skilled than their foes, one life of a Space Marine is supposed to be traded for thousands of their enemies. For Space Marine, Relic might have interpreted those abilities and their stature too literally. There isn't much beyond a fluid mix of hack-and-slash and third-person shooter gaming to admire. One corridor leading to a bottleneck encounter against Orks or Chaos after another, all there is to do in the game is beat up or shoot it out with onslaughts of enemies. Surely an Ultramarine is capable of more than headstrong tactics.
The weaponry and moves at your disposal are varied and upgraded along the way, but only a boss encounter, a stationary shooting instance, and couple of awesomely conceived jump pack scenarios break up the same ritual of hack, shoot, roll, press action button. Jetting around and slamming to the ground with a powered super-hammer is great, and it's all animated with a great allusion to a weighty mobility, but the well runs dry of ideas too quickly unfortunately. And, omitting any particular spoilers, a quick-time event is not how I want to finish a game.
Luckily, a surprisingly fun online competitive multiplayer component adds life to Space Marine. While there aren't a wealth of gameplay options and there isn't any kind of powerful community feature used, the bareboned, few-too-many maps multiplayer sets up Space Marine-versus-Chaos Space Marine in perfectly balanced class-based firefights. Between the straight-up deathmatch-style “Annihilation” and struggles for control points in “Seize Ground,” maxing out to at the 41st level with any of the three classes (general soldier, tanked heavy weapons expert, or wickedly entertaining jump pack decoy) is mildly addictive. When latency is an issue, though—it's an issue.
Many of Space Marine's shortcomings are somewhat understandable should this (hopefully) be in for a long-run franchise. There might be breakout hits, but Relic's new shooter appears to be focused on getting key features nailed down on its first pass, rather than spreading itself thin with totally useless aspects. Though the general gameplay might be shortsighted, have pacing deficiencies, and is fairly one-note, the mechanics behind it are sound. Deciding to spotlight a singular character in such a dense universe might seem somehow curious, given the nature of the tabletop game, but Relic accomplish the goal while also showing off why attention paid to all corners of aesthetics, to create fully realized worlds, remain so important to videogames.
A 40K fan? Where else do you want to see the license reach? Let us know what armies you command on Twitter @gamers_hell