Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Warhammer 40k Breaks Out of RTS

And I cannot be happier. Finally I can play as a Space Marine with bolter and chainsword hacking my way through a sea of greenskins with my brothers at my side.

Well, except I have kind of done this dance before with the Gears of War series and I guess this might taint thing a little. Especially with the release schedule fixed like it was this year. You see, once upon a time I grabbed a disk for my X-Box 360 called Gears of War after watching the trailers and being somewhat impressed with what I saw. And it took me all of 5 minutes of playing it to realise this is how it must feel to play as a Space Marine in Warhammer 40,000's universe.

Bring it!
Heavy machine guns doing major damage with dust kicking up all over the place as hordes of ugly enemies surging in your general direction while raining down a hail of bullets, bombs, grenades and insults about your personal hygiene that cut to the bone and harden the soul in a mesh of scar tissue. Such a shame that the only Warhammer goodness I can feel in my gaming is top down impersonal RTS style combat pushing units of marines and tanks around the field to hold strategic points and build more power generators. I did not want to be a commander floating in the sky fretting over where exactly my apothecary was standing among my men to make sure he can heal all of them with his aura. I wanted to be that marine on the front line looking the Ork hordes in their beady red eyes, counting the teeth I dislodged from my armoured size 40 boots in barely concealed disgust.

And who knew Relic and THQ would finally pull through and give us this experience. Just a shame it took them so long, since now I feel little can live up to the expectation of the experience once Gears of War passed them in a blinding flash of bullets and blood and whirring chainsaw blades flinging intestinal lining in all directions.

Command your army from on high like a god.
Easy to see why the first major breakouts of the franchise on PC
are RTS based, appealing to the old hand tabletop commanders.
For those not in the know, Warhammer 40k is a game set originally of the tabletop miniature flavour by a company called Games Workshop in the UK. It is one of several settings they have made, as well as having license for being the official Lord of the Rings tabletop maker. THQ have been responsible for several Warhammer related games in the past, all of them real time strategy (RTS) games. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War as well as several expansions and Dawn of War II were fine games and tributes to the Warhammer 40k feel. There is even a Warhammer MMO by the creators of UltimaOnline Mythic Entertainment, set in the original fantasy setting, and a Warhammer 40k MMO is due maybe in 2012, also by THQ and Vigil Games.

Anyway, onto the review of the game.

As I played I was somewhat impressed by the atmosphere and, well, a sense of general trueness that Space Marine upheld to the Warhammer theme in total. The atmosphere and effects come very close to the vision of Warhammer 40k and the weapons have not been messed with in any way so I will leave it said that visually the game ticks many boxes for me. I especially liked the effect of a distant ground defence canon firing massive shells into space way in the distance, followed by the rolling shock wave of dust on the ground washing over your location. In short, Warhammer was always about going big or going home with your scrotum hanging on by a thread. There are some graphical issues on the 360 platform, with texture details being a little blurry on the anisotropic filtering, and this is something you notice even before you play as you admire the coolness of the animated title screen where a marine is whirling around in slow motion to plant bullets or sword blade into one ork after another. I am not sure about other platforms and if they have the same issues, so anyone who has played the PS3 game or PC port please comment and let us know your experiences.

This may be a pre-render but the game is just as grizzly as this.
Shame the combat is not as precise as the picture leads us to think...
Still, the grumbling has yet to start. While it upholds a true feel of Warhammer, it does feel bad to play at some points. Gun play is all fine and dandy, and feels nice to hurl explosive bolts at the enemy, though I would like to chew up the scenery more than I am able to. However, when the game gets in close and personal and the Space Marine needs to break out the melee attacks for which they are famous or be some random ork's dinner. Her is where the honeymoon stops and the control system shows flaws. Now, THQ have been responsible for many WWE wrestling titles in their illustrious career so you would not expect hand to hand combat to suck, but it does. Half the time I am thrashing into thin air, not the direction I wanted, and another quarter of the time I hit an enemy I did not want to hit. Picking your attacks in any tactical manner is not viable due to the clumsy hack and slash approach THQ have taken and it kind of spoils the fun. The only real targeting that can be done is an execution move on a stunned enemy. These are pretty nice to watch, though, so do enjoy them and make use of them regular. They not only look awesome and will kill many kinds of enemies without frustration, they also refill your health bar.

However, another issue is with the camera during this mode, and many times if an enemy is near a wall the camera may go behind some of the scenery or another npc (as seen in the clip above) and block your view. This is not so much an aesthetic issue as it is a practical one since executions are done in slow motion, and give you a sense of what is happening around you at the time and time to pick your next victim to have their jaw bone removed by way of mailed fist. To compound the issue the camera is locked in the direction at the time of pressing the execute key. So you cannot really look around much if you get into a real frenzied scrap.

I think maybe I have been spoiled by other games, but I could not help but keep thinking as I played 'if only they had made hand to hand combat like in Batman: Arkham Asylum.' Each combat move, unless clearly a good distance away from any target, would connect with an enemy with a fluid feel. And there was a variety of attacks to fill all possible situations, instead of Space Marine's typical pre-set combo of 3-4 slashes if you mash the button, then back to the start again. It all starts to feel so rigid after a while that it begins to spoil the theme of frenzied war with highly trained genetically enhanced murder machines in armour plate. In Batman, I could punch someone in front, then elbow someone behind, then leap and kick someone to my side, then back to the guy behind where I do something else equally painful to watch. This system has much to teach the 'mob combat' oriented games and I wish developers would see the light and adopt this for future titles. It does not make the game too easy, either, in case this is the fear at THQ, as you still had to pick your moment and positioning in Batman so you do not get too swamped.

Up, up and away!
The only other control issues I have encountered are the use of the jump packs, when the game lets you use one, and the use of the special 'Fury' power. The jump pack is a nice tool and can really save your bacon when you master it. You launch into the air by holding the button until the charge is gone and then you start to drop down again. You can then target somewhere on the ground and hit another button to reactivate the thrusters and hurtle down to the ground, stunning all around you for a moment. This is a good tactical move if the room is getting kind of crowded and lets you kick one arse at your leisure to refill some health before jumping away again before others recover. However, time is short before you come down, and using the stick to pick your spot is fiddly since it also controls your view which you will have used moments ago to look up as you launched to ensure the way was clear. Often, I find, you will miss the mark... or maybe I just suck... Anyway. I have also found myself in many a situation trying to get onto a ledge with the jetpack only to not have applied enough momentum when I jumped and falling short, and once in free fall you have no directional control. So be warned and practice a little with the jump pack first. Overall they are pretty good, slight fiddly controls aside, and it is a shame the game only lets you play with them in certain canned parts of the game.

Ork Nobz can really bring the pain and stunning does not work on them.
The other issue is the activation of the 'Fury' power. As you rack up damage on the enemy you build a fury meter up. (again, pay attention to the bottom left of the vid linked above) Once full, you can activate. Your health is full again, your regular melee attacks are god like, your speed is that of a runaway locomotive and you can jump over tall buildings in a single bound. Well, you get the idea. You also cannot be knocked down by certain enemies who have that ability, especially the Ork Nobz who eventually show up to ruin your day. And when your blood pressure drops again and you settle back into normal fighting mode, your health is once again full, as well as your armour power levels. You can also unlock a sharp shooter mode in Fury later in the game where time slows in aim mode and you can pick your shots with better accuracy and damage. Though I have found this to be kind of useless overall since you should only use Fury when mobbed and losing badly, and the gun should be the last weapon you use unless you have something like a heavy bolter that minces your average ork mob in a couple of shots. So what is my problem? Well, you have to activate on the 360 (and I suspect the PS3 as well) by pushing both direction sticks down together. And woe betide he that does not have them entirely centred when doing so because the odds are it will not activate when you are desperate and suddenly swarmed. And you die. Many times...

So I mentioned you can unlock stuff. As you roam around you are given better weapons, often finding them in some kind of chamber and they are always an upgrade to your current one. Overall you can carry four guns and one melee weapon at a time. Two of the guns are your main weapons, a bolt pistol and a bolter to begin with. Two of them are specialist weapons you can eventually swap for other specialist ones as you find them. Letting you mix and match a little in the hopes you have a diverse spread of damage dealers for the next section until you can swap again. All you need worry about is keeping the ammo stocked. Special weapons start with a grenade launcher that fires grenades that stick to an ork, and detonate manually, and a scour bolter with a scope and high power rounds in single fire mode. OK, a sniper rifle...

OK, I promise, no 'hammer time' jokes from me.
Later you get a lascannon that is like a sniper gun on steroids, and a melta gun that fires a wall of plasma at short range with a wide spread. Kind of like a shotgun, I guess, but with lots of flashy lights and sizzling flesh. Eventually you can swap out your bolt pistol for a plasma pistol that you can charge a shot with, and seems to be only specifically made for taking out orks with riot shields by knocking them over. And the classic bolter can be replaced with likewise versions and so on. But mostly you will be unlocking the range of melee weapons from your humble chainsword, to a power axe and eventually the god-like power hammer which smashes any and all who stand before you.

An ork Psyker. Kill these guys as fast as you can.
The range of enemies is good, as well, and keeps again with the Warhammer ethos, with your standard or boyz, some with a shoota and some with a choppa. You will get your heavier variations with a machine gun doing more damage, some are grenade happy as well. You get a squig that has a bomb strapped to it (most likely where Gears of War 'tickers' come from) and heavy armoured orks that cannot be stunned unless you do something drastic, and they can go berserk when they are damaged enough. You get rocket launching orks as well, and finally the nobz who lead them. Taking down a nob is not easy and getting too close will result in you getting an unhealthy curb stomp, not them. Again, they cannot be stunned unless you use a jump pack or are in fury mode, and even then trying to execute them results in a button mashing war of strength to see who will win. But worst of all, there are the ork shamans and psykers. These guys teleport around the room and spawn more orks and in one instance I had to chase him around to kill him or I could not progress, meanwhile he spawns more waves of orks with a couple of nobz each time I killed the last wave. I did not figure it out until after the 4th time I died.

This bring me onto another issue I have with many games lately. I am sure I have mentioned this before, maybe in my Homefront review. games are being artificially padded out with difficulty and players resigning themselves to dying quickly and being forced to start from a checkpoint again. Instead of there being more material for players to work with and a longer and fulfilling game coming out of it. Many have said this about games like COD:MW2 where the game is like 4 hours long in total, but you might take longer due to dying in the same room a dozen times before moving on and dying again a few dozen more times in the next room. Unfortunately Space Marine has been infected with this illness too. OK, I did start the game on the hardest mode so this is kind of understandable. But you can see it in some places, once you get used to the controls anyway, and a room fills with as many orks as the game can render and you and sense the design principal behind this is not to make a challenge but to simply hold you back with a ridiculous scenario.

I have not yet completed Space Marine, but I am fairly deep into it and not much has really happened besides dying a lot and having to run back from the autosave point several minutes earlier in an empty series of rooms. And I do not accept that this is a part of hardcore mode gaming, since I have this experience with Gears of War 2 and recently Gears of War 3 as well, but in the end I feel like the game has given me a lot more than just death and reload because there is a long story and lots of content.

It is not that Space Marine bores me with endless traipsing through hallway after hallway and I do not want it to. Each combat experience is presented before you feeling as fresh an encounter as the last one. This is, at least, a good thing I noticed about Space Marine. The scenery is not just hundreds of cut and paste rooms and hallways and courtyards. Each one is modelled different and the scenery and terrain is varied, never letting you stay in one kind of setting too long to become stale and make combat a simple matter of routine. So another good tick for our friends at THQ for taking time and effort to make a diverse playing field.

Overall, I have enjoyed the game and I do recommend it, despite the control failings in melee mode. You eventually learn to adapt and stay ahead of the glitches by learning to minimise their impact on your game. So if you are a Warhammer 40k fan, then grab the game and enjoy. Even though I say I might have been tainted by having played Gears of War first, which set a very high bar while dipping its hat to the Warhammer 40k crowd taking it as inspiration, I still feel satisfied in some way for having played it. Even if it does not quite measure up 100% to Gears. It gets to about 90% though and that is good enough for me.

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