It’s hard to conceive of a more generic title than Space Marine. Maybe if they’d called it Shooting Guy: The Return, or Brown Corridors: Armageddon, then it would sound even more like a game that’s of no possible interest. But right above the title, in tiny letters, there’s the logo for Warhammer 40,000, an IP I’ve been vaguely aware of since I was a wee little hobby-store lurker, and it gave me hope that maybe the dependable formula of the action shooter would be married to the depth of the Warhammer universe, and we’d have a big glob of fun, if not originality.
No such luck. The front of the box is an accurate representation of what’s inside: nothing you haven’t seen a million times before, with anything interesting too small to make a difference. It’s not all bad; a fair amount of workmanlike competence went into it, and plenty of games don’t have even that. But it’s dispiritingly irrelevant, and sure to disappoint anyone who came hoping for the strategic depth that Warhammer is known for.
Space Marine is your typical third-person shooter, wrapped in undistinguished sci-fi trappings. Aliens invade, blah blah blah, gruff-and-tough soldiers, yada yada yada, buried superweapon, hurf durf derp, terrified civilians, etc. Warhammer acolytes are welcome to scold me for subtleties I missed, but as far as this neophyte could see, the only contribution the license made was that instead of the Gears of War standard of everyone talking like a Clint Eastwood movie staged by emphysema patients, everyone in this game sounds like they’re in an exceptionally sloppy BBC series about the Roman Empire. Warhammer universe elements like the Inquisition show up to raise hopes for a richer narrative, and they’re just as quickly relegated to standard NPC duties of giving you an address to go to and expressing awe when you get there.
Space Marine does distinguish itself from other shooters by putting slightly more emphasis on melee combat. The melee system is a bog-standard alternation of the X and Y buttons, with none of the combo density of better brawlers like Bayonetta, but it at least provides the occasional slow-mo bloodletting that’s good for a thrill.
And while the landscape you fight through is an undistinguished procession of brown and grey hunks, at least the hunks are smartly laid out, with levels designed to encourage alternation of long-range sniping and close-quarters combat. Space Marine happily does away with the cover mechanics that have turned so many third-person shooters into 2D bores; the limited and well-placed cover makes individual encounters much more dynamic than most stop-and-pop shooters.
The attempts at dynamism are unfortunately undone by yet another muscle-bound tank of an avatar. Besides being humorless and grim as only a 12-year-old’s macho fantasy can be, Whatisnameus (cursed like all the characters with a silly faux-Latin moniker) looks and feels like a brick pumped with steroids. It’s just no fun to drive this lumbering plodder, which means that any second when you’re not actively chopping baddies is a painful slog. Even the chopping has none of the fluidity you get from a game like God of War; it’s mostly just a matter of being swarmed and button-mashing your way out, made even less immersive by your avatar’s tendency to treat thumbstick-pushing as a suggestion to be considered at some point in the nearish future.
For all that, the baddie-chopping isn’t bad. Once you find a good difficulty level, there’s a pleasant video-game Zen to be found in the steady rhythm of button-pounding and splatter. If you’re looking for some mindless but appealingly paced violence, you could do worse. But you could also do a lot better. And in a glutted market, “merely sufficient” isn’t much different from “bad.” Though Space Marine is solid on the fundamentals, there’s nothing in particular to recommend it other than the chance to see your painted Warhammer figurines in galumphing motion. If you’ve already finished every other decent sci-fi shooter released in the last five years, I guess you could give it a try. Or you could do just about anything else with your life, probably to better effect.