War, death, and demons are just a way of life in the Warhammer 40k universe. It's a crappy place to live, but makes an awesome setting for the third-person action game, Space Marine. Developer Relic Entertainment does the 40k franchise justice, telling a great Warhammer story that's enjoyable whether or not you're familiar with the world. Disappointing games like Warhammer 40k: Fire Warrior taught me to expect the worst, but Space Marine is a satisfyingly violent shooter/hack-n-slash combo. If it didn't have a number of polish issues and some problematic pacing it'd be even better, but is still a good start for the Space Marine series and a nice treat for Warhammer fans.
In Space Marine you play as Captain Titus, leader of a contingent of space marines known as Ultramarines. Sent to a world besieged by millions of Orks, you and a scarce few of your battle brothers go in to see if you can stymie the overwhelming invading horde. Not exactly an original story, but it succeeds in giving your character proper motivation to start dismembering foes. It eventually develops into a genuinely interesting yarn, filled with betrayal, tragedy and a number of other twists. In short: it turns into a good, fun story, whether or not you're familiar with the franchise. The cut-scenes do tend to be irriating, however. They look great, but also interrupt the gameplay so frequently that it makes it hard to just settle in and enjoy the ride. It isn't uncommon in Space Marine to have two cut-scenes spaced out only seconds apart, connected by nothing of interest. It's not necessary, and it takes me out of the experience.
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The cut-scenes break up the pacing, but when Space Marine gets going it turns into a whirlwind of violence. Captain Titus, like all space marines, is super human, and can turn waves of enemies into a gory mess. To this end you're constantly given an array of weaponry to use, enabling you to adapt him to your play style. Ultimately though, it all comes down to a combination of shooting and melee combat. As enemies close in you soften them up with grenades and firearms, then switch to your trusty hammer, axe or sword when you're ready for a blood bath. The melee combat feels good; simple enough to not be confusing, and empowering to watch.
Adapting to each encounter is an important part of Space Marine's gameplay, and the varied enemy types encourage a combination of both melee and ranged combat. Ammo dumps and armories are placed all over every stage, giving you regular opportunities to swap out most all of your weapons. Going into a situation you might find yourself ill-equipped, but after dying you can try it again and get a whole new set of tools to try. The array of weapons keeps combat from becoming noticeably repetitive, and give you a sense of being truly extraordinary.
Space Marine's combat shines, but there are times where Relic doesn't give you enough to fight. Setting is important in 40k, but parts where you're just gawking at the scenery drag a bit. Thankfully later stages get increasingly elaborate with their encounter design, providing both a visual spectacle and a lot of strategic options.
Also problematic are the executions. You can only get health by initiating a kill animation on an enemy. They look awesome and result in satisfying amounts of gore, but also make you vulnerable to attack. You're stuck in the animation with no option to cancel it, leaving you open to any enemies who decide to saunter up and finish you off. It's really annoying, and makes executions feel like a liability rather than a super move.
After the campaign is over, there's still good reason to keep Space Marine on your shelf. Multiplayer is surprisingly addictive, despite having unlockables, modes and level progression akin to Call of Duty and every other modern shooter. It takes the frantic shooting and melee combat of the single-player and tosses in real life players to kill, resulting in some pretty epic online battles. If you're like me and have towered over your Warhammer miniatures for hours dreaming what it'd be like to fight with your friends as space marines, you can now.