Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Space Marine: A 40k fan's view

My half tonne genetically engineered superman rockets into the sky, two giant jet engines strapped to his back, and a hammer the size of a small truck gripped between his hands.
Reaching to top of my flight arc, I feel like doom incarnate a living personification of the Sword of Damocles. Hanging in the air for a moment, before plummeting towards a hapless victim.

There were times when I played Space Marine when just for a second everything just clicked into place. In those moments it was hard not to smile, the game made me feel like a unstoppable force of nature full of momentum and power. At its best it was a intoxicating and potent example of the sort of power fantasy that has increasingly fallen out of favour as games have begun to seek mainstream cultural acceptance.

Space Marine was my guilty Christmas gift to myself. Having been a Warhammer nerd since my teenage years bitter experience has taught me there are certain assumptions I have about what to expect from adaptations of the license. Even the best examples have never been inclusive, the lore remains archaic and full of incomprehensible dogma to a outsider leaving the barrier to entry set intimidatingly high.
Even by those standards however, Space Marine's initial half hour is quite something.
Xenos?? A Forge World?? Exterminatus?? A Thunderhawk?? The God Emperor?? The Inquistion?? Vox??? The Codex Astartes!!!!????
Now I may know exactly what every single one of those is* but to expect the same of everyone who plays the game borders on the absurd.

Obviously it's difficult to convey a what makes setting as dense as the Warhammer 40,000 universe unique from a cold start, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Developer Relic were never quite able to the grasp that there is a difference between telling a story about controlling Space Marines, and telling a story about being a Space Marine.

In games where I’ve been in controlled a group of Space Marines what they represent to me is that in a universe that is coming apart at the seams they are absolutely reliable. They do not run away, they will not panic, they will just fight and kill with superhuman finesse and unfaltering loyalty until something finally kills them. While those superhuman qualities made them a ideal troop for me to command, it also makes them individually very difficult to empathise with.

I live in a consumerist democracy, secular and rationalist. I have fears, moments of self doubt and of cowardice. A Marine by contrast is a warrior monk, fighting a religious war, part of a fascist society that has fallen so far from its heights that much of their own science has become indistinguishable to them from magic, utterly certain of his purpose in life.

I've seen many people who think that player power and choice in games are should almost be a god given right, that telling a player that they have to do something and not providing an explanation of why is tantamount to a sin. To a Space Marine however this is something perfectly natural, they are given a job, and they get it done no questions asked. Playing Space Marine it feels as if this disconnect between how a 21st century mind works and the certainty of purpose possessed by a Space Marine led to some problems for the game's designers when it came to creating believable characters.

Choosing to make a lead character embody a creed as Relic seemed to have attempted with Space Marine's Captain Titus is something I think may be inherently problematic. Titus is a un-corruptible dutiful and unfeeling paragon, with no discernible emotions other than 'righteous' anger. What makes him a good solider also makes him any incredibly boring protagonist.

That is not to say I think Space Marine had to be this way. You only have to look to the Assassin's Creed series to see how a company can stumble on it's first game before going onto recover in a impressively manner by shifting to a more sympathetic main character. Allot about Titus reminds me of Altair the protagonist of the original Assassins Creed. Altair was suppose to be a prodigy, the youngest to ever achieve his position a heroic individual seen as a example by many of his peers but this focus on him as a Assassin not as a person meant I was never able to really feel anything about his story. My problem with both these protagonist is that despite their 'vitues' they both felt inhuman as if they exist only to best represent a archetype. They feel totally artificial, constructed instead of born.

In its (numerous) sequel's Assasin's Creed fixed the problem by showing you what made its new protagonist Ezio a person, before they showed you what made him a assassin. It was simple and it was also extremely effective, and there was no reason that Space Marine couldn't have done the same.

While Relic failed to get me into a Marines mind they were far more successful in getting me into his shoes. My armory of weapons all felt appropriately weighty (as befitting a 8ft tall giant) with the highlight being the iconic Space Marine Boltgun which feels suitably massive(they are supposed to be 0.75 calibre) and fired with a satisfying “THUNK”.

Even more importantly was that from the very first moment I took control over Titus he has a tangible sense of weight and momentum. He was not the over muscled testosterone junkie 'space marine' of some games, this felt like something closer to a human tank. I found the flow of combat satisfyingly smooth, and special care seems to have been took to capture the moment when my human juggernaut's momentum comes thundering to a halt.

Aim a sprinted shoulder barge into a Ork, drop from the sky onto a unsuspecting group of enemies while wearing a jump pack, or perform a spectacular finish move and for a instant time slows (dramatically in the case of the finishing move less noticeably in the other cases). These slow motion moments gave a strange kind of rhythm to the combat, almost acting like punctuation to Titus's movement. I'm sure this undoubtedly is as much a result of a certain amount of showboating by the games developers to best show the game's 'visceral' gore as anything else, but it gave me a real sense of physical contact to both movement and combat.

Before its release allot of fuss was made of the decision to not use the now common regenerating health mechanic, and to instead encourage the player to charge into close combat and use special finishing moves which recovered a generous proportion of his health. In theory (and sometimes in practice )this was a good idea, and indeed sometimes I did find myself trying to break up large groups of enemies to isolate an individual who I could quickly finish off for quick boost. My problem with it was that these kill animation took to long, a quick half second of slow mo was great, but 5-6 seconds totally killed the flow of the combat.

Unfortunately however this is the kind of mistake the game seem to make far too often, forgeting the very things it does so well. My momentum ends up grinding to a halt as I meet enemies placed behind immovable barriers, and perched on unreachable ledges which could only be dealt with using ranged fire power. Confined in small arenas that felt anything but epic, strafing my way around taking them out one by one, just staying alive until I could finally deal with the massive horde of melee foes who have been chasing me around like something out of a fevered homicidal take on a Benny Hill sketch.
The environments used to frame all this, are all suitably inhumane in their dimensions as befits the source material, and would have been even more impressive if I'd actually got to use more than a tiny percentage of them.

Annoyingly one of the most widely loathed gaming bugbears also makes a appearance. Space Marine's quick time events although mechanically competent compared to some I've experienced (the controls have the same type of action mapped to them that they did the rest, so the game the attack button attacks, avoid button avoids ect) still ultimately felt like a lazy choice, went on for to long, and which the game would have been better without.

The multi-player was solid and enjoyable enough, but the experience of having one superhuman soldier fight another superhuman soldier leaves neither feeling special. In contrast the co-op mode (Exterminatus) which pits four players versus increasingly large waves Orks allowed me and my team mates to be heroes again. As individuals the players are stronger and tougher (hopefully smarter) than their non-player character opponents, but balance of power is fine enough that they can easily get taken down by a mob of the weaker NPC's if they allowed themselves to become isolated. Essentially the co-op works because it doesn't have to worry about giving both side a fair chance, and it can use this asymmetry to create interesting tactical choices, which combined with the sheer numbers it threw at me kept things challenging enough to keep me coming back.

Crucially the arenas used in the multiplayer portion of the game seemed to have avoided some of the pitfalls of the single player environments, you are never forced to deal with enemies you cannot reach and there is far greater freedom of movement within the levels. The decision to revert to be regenerating health model seems a wise one because it helps reduce lone wolf behaviour. Even the best players needs to be able to trust his team mates to watch his back when he goes low on health Forcing him to seek cover instead of charging forward on his own generally helped create a good cooperative environment than would have been present otherwise.

The progress system is well balanced and paced with each level bringing new options, none of which felt overpowered. Instead they offer a chance to customise your style of play to suit you taste without altering your base power level. That freedom to build a marine of my own is impressive and make what could have been a very generic game play mode feel genuinely fun. I've put far more time into it than I expected and currently I’ve been indulging my love affair with aerial delights of the Assault Marine. I'm not halfway to the level cap yet but my jump pack has been two upgrades that allow me to fry Orks with flame jets on takes off, then pancake them when I land (occasionally creating a amusing sight of my marine yoyoing into the air and then cooming immediate back down again into a unfortunate mob of Orks.

Finally I feel I should mention a strange and uncomfortable moment that occurs early in the game when we first meet a female Imperial guard commander. One of the Marines reacts to the sight of her with by commenting 'I'm surprised YOUR in command'. Sexism from Space Marine is a very strange thing to see, these are not supposed to be dude-bros, these are warrior monks utterly devoted to their duty and essentially sexless (In the lore its not explicitly stated marines are chaste, but its pretty heavily implied), si I can't see why on earth any of them would so much as blink a eye at a female soilder. I suppose I should be grateful they didn't over sexualise the lieutenant (no boobplate armor) and made her a competent soldier, but this moment left a bad taste in my mouth and seemed to serve absolutely no purpose.

In conclusion Space Marine has done a fine job of setting out the template of how a digital marine should feel, but too many annoying bumps along the ride and failure to give to sympathetic cast which I could engage with sufficiently to make me care about what was going on are all black marks against it's name.Ultimately I think at the price I paid for it (£15 in the steam sale) that I have no regrets about purchasing Space Marine. It is a good game for any fan of the mythology and worth putting time into to despite its problems and the campaigns relatively short length.

Hopefully Vigil Games' (who's darksiders engine was used as a base for Space Marine) Dark Millennium MMO can capitalise on some of good part of what Space Marine achieved. I hope they can also perhaps learn lessons about where Space Marines character building failed, and give us characters in the 40,000 universe who can be flawed even if they superhuman.

*(aliens, a giant planet wide heavy machinery production facility, the destruction of a world using orbital bombardment, what happens when the space shuttle & a panzer tank have a baby, a messianic figure who has been entombed in a giant life support machine for 10000 years, basically the same as the original but with psychic powers, a combination of the bible & the little red book & the art of war)

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