This post merits both a YAY and an EPIC FAIL, for two slightly different reasons. I had Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine pre-ordered on Xbox 360 well over a year ago, because I knew it would be right up my street of man-shooting, Ork-bashing, daemon-rending unbridled slaughter, with ridiculously macho metal shoulderpads and slightly fascist overtones. Before I go any further, I should say at this point HERE BE SPOILERS. Spoilers as big as an Ork Warboss's teeth...
Unfortunately, before I could really put more than a few hours into it, last weekend my 160GB Xbox 360 Elite died an ignominous death, by not actually quite dying (no dramatic red ring of death, or anything like that) but one evening my lady turned it on to watch a DVD and while it made all the right noises and booted up, it steadfastly refused to output video or audio, despite me resetting the video output to default (twice) and trying both the HDMI cable and the component AV output ports.
So instead of forking out £200 I don't have on a new Xbox 360, instead I picked up a PC copy of Space Marine, since that was a slightly cheaper option. I've ploughed through the single player campaign in a little over six or seven hours, but had a rather nice time. Some reviewers (quite rightly) have critisized it for being rather on the conservative side, particularly in the plot and storytelling, which is really rather predictable and Captain Titus (while quite nicely voiced by Mark Strong) suffers from being a thoroughly dull protagonist, evidently from Dullsville, Macragge. The final battle with the Chaos lord, Nemeroth, is also rather an anti-climax, given that it's QTE-tastic, which basically sucks all the real skill out of it - the boss battle with the Ork Warboss Grimskull is much more challenging and rewarding. The epilogue is also rather an anti-climax, with Titus being (somewhat predictably) being taken into custody by the Inquisition because of his seeming resistance to the Warp... There are also other annoyances - it would be nice if enemy NPCs had more than half a dozen lines of dialogue... Hearing Orks yell "More humans to kill!" or "Kill those Space Marines!" for the two hundredth time in the space of two hours gets rather tiresome. The Chaos hordes show a similar lack of verbal dexterity too, though at least you don't have to put up with them for so long, given that Chaos forces only show up within the last couple of hours of the game.
But, BUT... if Space Marine has a saving grace, it's this: the combat. It gets a little relentless at times (particularly since the story exposition isn't terribly interesting or well handled), but by the Emperor, this game makes you feel like you can kick the ass of an Ork horde by yourself. This is mainly because of one fact: you can. Lots of people initially said Space Marine would be Warhammer 40,000: Gears of War. While I see the comparison, they couldn't be more wrong. Space Marine is only superficially like Gears of War. Sure, they have the big guns, shoulder pads and token female characters, but Space Marines don't need a cover system. You can hide behind crates if you must, but a true Space Marine just kicks ass bigger, better and faster than anyone else.
What I really love is the melee system. You can really be aggressive and bash your way through massive groups of enemies if you know what you're doing with the combo system. The melee attack-stun-execution system is very well balanced, and it drives the whole game, given that you don't have regenerating health (though you do have regenerating shields, Halo 1 stylée) and if you want to heal up, you have to get close and dirty, stunning and executing enemies. It's visceral and satisfying and in many cases it's tempting to forego the Power Axe in favour of the Chainsword because it has better execution animations and it's slightly easier to chain together stun-execute combos. The Thunder Hammer is a thing of joy, though the downside of using that is you're only able to use your pistol and Bolter as ranged weapons.
Some (OXM 360 Magazine amongst others) have described the ranged weapons as rather clunky and uninspiring... Personally, I don't have that much of an issue with them. I actually rather like the simplicity of a Bolter Pistol & Chainsword combo, as while it may not be the most powerful combination of weapons, it is the most naturalistic for senior Astartes in the Warhammer 40,000 lore. The Stalker bolter and Storm bolter (the latter of which only makes an appearance in the final chapter of the single player campaign) are both lovely. I'm less convinced about the Melta gun, which I found thoroughly useless and I wasn't too fond of the Vengeance launcher, given that it is quite fiddly to use, but don't seem to have that much in terms of stopping power. The Lascannon is great (particularly in the set pieces you get to use it against Ork Nobs), though ammo for it is a little scarce for you to truly make the most of its power and the few occasions you get your mitts on heavy plasma cannons or autocannons are real highlights.
One complaint I've also seen is that you don't get to use the jump pack enough. You get to use it in three chapters out of the eighteen in the story, and I think that's about right, since it's ridiculously overpowered. The way in which the use of it is taken away from you on each occasion is quite contrived, but it makes sense in terms of game balance. The way weapon and ability unlocks (such as Fury and Marksman modes) are handled is very well done and the enemies also scale well. The challenge of the game increases signficantly once the primary protagonists switch from Orks to Chaos, but this is also well handled, as by then you should have gotten to grips with the right tactics and will have unlocked the superior Fury mode, which basically turns you into a rampaging angel of death, if you select your weapons and use the melee combos effectively.
While it's a shame that Space Marine doesn't really try to push the boundaries of the genre, or even really make the most of its source material (you can't help but feel that Relic wanted to make a "banker" title to make money and prove they could develop games in this genre before attempting something really ambitious), it's still a very solid game and an enjoyable enough way of wiling away a couple of lazy autumn weekend afternoons. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, maybe it is, but hey - there's always the inevitable sequel to look forward to...