Unlike the quasi-dude-bros in Gears of War, Space Marine’s Space Marines (also known as Ultramarines in-game) have the demeanor of honorable knights set on lethal, efficient duty. Marcus Fenix might growl, “Nice!” when he blows a Locust’s head off, but the Ultramarines almost never raise their voices. The game’s understated voice acting is a major strength, and not just because that sets it apart from the rest of the modern market. As epic as the game’s scale is, the player senses that these futuristic warriors have seen worse just by their choice of words, and that imparts a deep sense of history to these characters.
Another major point in the game’s favor is an excellently balanced sense of humor. What AAA shooter today has that kind of quality writing? Either you get a game like Bulletstorm, which is so light-hearted you can’t care about the characters (to be fair, that’s exactly what it was advertised as), or it’s Gears of Duty desaturated color serious business. The exaggerated Cockney British accents of the Orks and their neon green Shrek-like appearance alone were enough to make my friends and I break into chuckles. The recurring Ork top dog has a bone to pick with you after you shoot down his prized “Kroozer” flagship (the Orks are strong believers in phonetic spelling). The demonic villains that turn up later are pretentious goths whose battle cries just might be doom metal lyrics. All this is delivered without detracting from the fate of a world caught between ruthless factions. The Ultramarines aren’t above a few wry and dry remarks at the outrageousness of their situation either.
Important as the atmosphere is, it’s nothing without a proper scrap (just ask the Orks). Relic has obviously spent years perfecting the third-person gameplay of Space Marine. The standard-issue Ultramarine firearm is essentially an automatic rocket launcher, and enemies struck with it literally pop in an over-the-top shower of blood and guts. The weapons ramp up in power from there. There’s no desaturated color here; brightly colored armor and arterial blood mix gloriously. After softening the enemy up with ranged firepower, the player is encouraged to charge in with chainsaw weapons and spray gore on the ceiling.
In a brilliant subversion on pace-breaking “pick up a health pack” gameplay, the only way Ultramarines regenerate health is to perform inefficient, dramatic executions that liberate torsos from limbs (as opposed to your efficient dismembering attacks). Doing this while surrounded by the horde of baddies that will outnumber you in every confrontation is an exercise in timing and strategy. Leave too many of the minions standing, and they might finish you off before you button mash that Ork warlord into the ground—and you don’t get any health out of the exchange until after your chosen victim is dead. In related news, there’s no cover system and some of the game’s advertising explicitly mocks certain unnamed games that involve taking cover. Besides, hiding is for those who don’t have faith in Big Broth—I mean, in the Emperor! The pressure is never off of you to take the initiative before the enemy can.
The multiplayer is a harsh blemish on an otherwise above-average product. On the PC version, the matchmaking is an inexplicable peer-to-peer disaster. Do you enjoy surfing through a list of servers on Counter-Strike and finding that perfect game? You won’t enjoy doing that here, because you can’t. The functionality simply isn’t there and certainly will never be added. The game modes are limited to King of the Hill and Team Deathmatch. The large-scale campaign battles against scores of gibbering redshirts won’t be found here. A Horde mode-style coop is promised for the future, and that’s exactly what Space Marine is perfect for… if only I could play it now.
That said, the gameplay charms mostly translate in spite of the obvious beta status of multiplayer, and, given community feedback and the year 2012, Relic will likely improve it as they have with their Dawn of War and Company of Heroes expansions in the past. Space Marine shows potential as a multiplayer experience. If multiplayer is your primary reason for picking up a shooter, wait until next year and see what Relic adds to the experience. Lengthening the single-player to more than six or seven hours would be another major improvement. Still, it’s hard, even impossible, to find a game that can match the pure glee of launching yourself into a jetpack-powered trajectory and aiming your power armored boots into someone’s face. Remember, it’s only funny when it’s not happening to you.