Hands on: Space Marine

Platforms: Microsoft Xbox 360 | PC | Sony PlayStation 3

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Ladies, be quick - some of the men that attended this event are still single!

Timed to coincide with the launch of the Space Marine beta THQ recently held a press event in the bowels of a fancy London hotel. Stuffed with free coke and an amazing lunch, The Digital Fix took full advantage of the opportunity to play more of the single player game than you mere mortals are currently allowed. We also had a chance to check out some of the multiplayer modes and maps, but alas the co-op code wasn’t ready in time. Check out our first impressions on the game below, and then go play through the demo as many times as you can before our Space Marine review comes out in early September. We’ve tried to keep the dialogue storyline-spoiler free but as with any hands-on some non-plot related information will be included!

Single Player

The single player campaign begins in a manner similar to the last THQ 40K shooter, Fire Warrior. Engaged in visceral trench based combat you readily spam the melee buttons as you battle your way through hordes of Orks and Gretchen, decorating your armour in their blood and gore. At points in the slaughter you are so intent on landing your next combo that you feel as though it would have been more relevant for you to be playing as a World Eater than an Ultramarine. Entire squads of the enemy are dismembered into a bloody mist as you carve your way through tapping the X and Y buttons. Just when you think Space Marine couldn’t increase the amount of stylised violence squeezed into its combat you discover the execution functionality, and suddenly the graphic display of combat in the 41st Millennium is ratcheted up another notch. Engaging Fury mode seems to increase the blood splatter even further, feeling as if you are playing a good version of Splatterhouse. The exaltation from controlling a literal god of war is hard to contain, and franchise fans will be crying with joy.

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Blood for the Blood G....er, Emperor!

Mechanics wise the lack of a weapons selection hub that slows down the action is sorely missed; having to move your thumb away from the movement stick to the d-pad to switch weapons when you run out of ammo is rarely a better option than shooting your load from the hip and then charging into melee where the switch to close combat weaponry is automatically performed when you hit a melee key. Certain heavy weapons prove the exception to this – for instance, when equipped with a Heavy Bolter you can only perform a weak kick. Of course, if you are armed with a Heavy Bolter you should just be able to hip fire and destroy anything stupid enough to have got close to you. Having to click the left stick down in order to run feels uncomfortable after a while and you have to question why the under-utilised A button couldn’t have controlled both running and combat rolls. Additionally, while using a mounted weapon it is not particularly easy to aim using the right stick and feather the right trigger at the same time, although this problem is wider in scope than simply Space Marine.

The third person perspective was really the only choice for a game with such a heavy investment in melee combat, and the camera generally tracks you excellently as you forget about the right analogue stick and smash you way around. The lack of any kind of lock-on functionality feels like an omission, but as you tend to be fighting large groups of enemies you quickly realise that it is simply not needed here. Ranged weapons tend to feel better when fired from the hip with only the longer ranged ones such as the Stalker Bolter or the Lascannon requiring you to use the left trigger zoom to realise their full effect.

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The Bolter doesn't disappoint, especially when pointed at things that blow up

The action itself starts thick and fast and stays that way. Apart from the occasional story driven mini cut scene or in-game dialogue exchange the action is relentless. Whether or not this constant tempo will remain engaging throughout the whole game, it does raise the question of how the product will feel as a whole as the only way to modify the player experience is to reduce the amount of action. In terms of difficulty anyone trying to play the campaign on the easy setting will quickly get bored of the repetitive nature of the gameplay, and they could probably one-button their way through much of the early campaign. The normal setting is a completely different story, with stronger enemies forcing you to adapt and adopt tactics and weapons that may not be your personal favourites. The first time you encounter Chaos Space Marines proves to be a real game changer; with Ork Nobs you can still generally muddle your way through, stunlocking if you time your combos right, but the Chaos Marines require you to think about your positioning and tactics. Charging blindly at them will see your armour stripped and health depleted in no time. On hard difficulty the absence of sticky cover will feel painful when up against these later foes and it will be interesting to see how much of a grind a playthrough would prove to be.

While care has been taken with the styling of each location, at certain points in the game excellence shines through. One particular sequence late in the game during the level ‘Spire of Madness’ sees you utilising an assault jump-pack to ascend the shattered remnants of a tower infected by Chaos, with each fragment you jump to populated by the followers of the Dark Gods. It opens a door on the treats we can expect later in the game, and shows that the hack’n’slash action of earlier in the game evolves as you progress.

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This guy has a nasty beam attack - don't run directly at him. You have been warned!

The level design is linear with only a few short exploratory paths apparent, each usually harbouring some ammunition or one of Space Marine’s collectables. A mixture of Gears of War’s cogs and Bioshock’s audio transcripts, the servo skulls help flesh out parts of the backstory and come with the obligatory ‘gotta catch them all!’ achievement. We are fairly certain that of the event attendees The Digital Fix managed to find the most hidden skulls, which makes up for our fairly pitiful performance in multiplayer…

Oh, and before we move on – Blood Ravens. They show up, they are awesome. Even more so than Ultramarines. And the Inquisitor is too tall – but THQ said that Games Workshop had signed that off, so fanboy shame on you Games Workshop.

Multiplayer

The multiplayer modes we played for Space Marine during the event were both 8v8 and were ad hoc hosted – no comment was available on whether the finished product will ship with dedicated servers. We played ‘Annihilation’ which is a Team Deathmatch style game where the first team to 41 kills wins, and ‘Seize Ground’ which is a control point mode. The teams are Space Marines and Chaos Marines, presumably because that’s much easier to balance than anything else. And it’s cooler. You can to choose to spawn as either a Tactical Marine, an Assault Marine or a Devastator (or their Chaos equivalents) and you can have a unique loadout for each variant that you can modify between matches.

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It's all about jump packs, especially ones that blow up

Before we get into the meat of the multiplayer it’s worthwhile mentioning the customisation options. Relic have taken the template of what you can do from the Dawn of War series and gone crazy. Literally insane. Ignoring the actually useful bits and pieces you can do in your loadout there is a veritable smorgasbord of options for how you want your Marine to look, all the way down to old school bobbly shoulderpads. Middle aged Games Workshop fans rejoice! You can customise each piece of armour and I ended up running with a bionic arm and mismatched Relic armour and still looked awesome. There are default chapter paint schemes available and you can come up with your own, so other fans of the Howling Griffons (I know you’re out there) won’t be upset. The Chaos Marines have the same level of detail available to them, but if anyone chooses anything other than the dayglo pink of the Emperor’s Children then I’ll be very upset with them.

In terms of the loadout there are a wide range of weapons and perks available for you to choose. Some of these options are unlocked as you level up through the multiplayer ranks and others are unlocked as you reach certain weapon based milestones. While some are clear choices (the jump packs that explode on death seemed a guaranteed win for Assault Marine/Raptor loadouts) others will be down to personal preference and the majority seemed well balanced.

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Seize Ground mode concentrates play on the objectives. Obviously.

The multiplayer gameplay certainly feels different from other offerings on the market, although on larger maps non-jump pack Marines felt at a disadvantage in the length of time between respawning and re-entering the action. From our few hours with the multiplayer it was extremely apparent that team work is crucial to victory with solo players being picked off easily by the opposing team. With this in mind one huge omission is the lack of any form of radar functionality with which to see the location of your team mates, leaving you to pick a direction and run, hoping you are heading in the right way. A decent matchmaking system will be critical to the overall success of the multiplayer game as at first glance it wouldn’t seem to be too friendly to new players.

Over the two modes we played the Devastator class seemed to come out as the weakest; while lascannon sniping seemed valid enough on the ‘Seize Ground’ maps the Devastators were too easily out-manoeuvred by Assault Marines elsewhere. A lucky headshot fired from the hip with a lascannon did instantly kill someone though, so there is good news for those willing to stick with the class. Assault Marines seemed to be the most forgiving to new players – the jump and bash technique seemed to guarantee at least a 1:1 kill:death ratio, with the exploding jump pack helping too. Advanced players will almost certainly plump for the Tactical Marine due to its versatility, but it does feel as though it would take some time to learn the nuances fully.

And there we are; an extremely fun seven hours and we’d like to thank THQ for allowing us to be a part of it. The hands on proved that Space Marine is more than just a Gears of War clone and the tantalising glimpses of gameplay sections that took you away from the XXXYBB combos promise so much. Relic have poured themselves into this game and Games Workshop fans will emulate the depicted Imperial Guard and fall to their knees in front of it. For everyone else you will have to wait until our review – and stay tuned for any co-op news that we may hear!

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