Sunday, May 5, 2013

An Exercise in Frustration

It's about damn time.
So, here's the deal.  I recently got around to finally playing Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine from beginning to end on the normal difficulty setting.  It was a somewhat tedious experience, not because the game was bad, but because I think it could have been so much better.

Generally speaking I'm not especially good at third person shooters.  That said, I thought the player character, Captain Titus, controls rather well; the aiming is smooth and melee attacks are snappy.  Relic, the developer, also did a good job of giving the Ultramarines a weighty, impactful feel.  What drove me nuts though, was the divergence between gameplay and setting.  The idea is Space Marines are humanity's biggest bad asses yet in this video game they more often than not die like chumps instead of bring the smack down on enemies.

The basic problem is twofold.  First, in order to recover life Captain Titus must stun an enemy then perform a special time consuming execution move.  If I had a dollar for every time my Ultramarine was killed in mid-attack the game would have paid for itself and then some.  Perhaps if Relic had seen fit to allow life recovery with every kill, rather than just with repetitive and inefficient finishing moves, the basic mechanic might have worked better.  However, as it stands this change alone would not be enough to salvage the poor gameplay.

The second part of the problem is the player's regenerating shield (copied wholesale from from the Halo franchise).  The game's producer has gone on record saying that he wants the player to feel like a tough guy who doesn't need to sprint from cover to cover.  Sadly, in order to facilitate shield recovery you are more or less encouraged to take the opposite course of action.  Time and time again charging in simply brought about quick player death.  Meanwhile sidestepping in and out of barriers while taking pot shots at extreme range proved far safer and more effective.

Enemy design also feeds into the fundamental issues this game has.  Snipers, rockets, suicide bombers, and mortar fire are deadly and difficult to pinpoint in the heat of battle.  Adding to this are gun-toting orks (yes, with a "k") who tend to constantly peck away at the player's life bar using surprisingly accurate fire.  Granted the damage these orks do is minimal, but it's still enough to prevent shield regeneration and can even finish off a Space Marine before he's able to recover from a low health situation.  Because of these design decisions defeat often comes in the form of death-of-a-thousand-cuts, or equally annoying, one big blast out of nowhere.  It's all very antithetical to the kind of experience the designers and fiction push for.

Say hello to my little friend!
Compounding things further still is the simple A.I. which tends to charge the player blindly.  So what do you do?  Get the enemy's attention, then lure the them into a place where they can be corralled and slaughtered without ranged support from their more cautious comrades. Personally, I found the best strategies usually involve baiting, sniping and hit'n'run tactics. Basically the opposite of how Space Marines are supposed to operate.

Now, I know there is an argument to be made that this is a more realistic view on warfare and perhaps it was Relic's intention to do a bit of genre deconstruction.  But remember this is Warhammer 40,000!  In the grim dark future the rule-of-cool trumps all.  So, if I'm playing as Ultramarines I expect them to live up to their namesake.  Part of the problem plaguing the game might be legacy issues stemming from the original miniature figurine war game.  To newcomers there might seem to be a few strange rules such as battles usually being capped off at six turns.  Another weird one is the inability to make ranged attacks against enemies who are engaged in close combat with allies.  These rules exist to ensure the table-top game consistently offers an entertaining experience.  Despite their importance, I imagine that these rules don't translate very well to other forms of media such as a third person shooters.

Yet another pitfall with regards to the above is the simple fact that Warhammer 40k has already been pilfered for it's best setting material long ago to make games like Gears of War, Halo and Starcraft. Honestly, I don't understand why Relic chose to neglect its well received Homeworld series in lieu of playing copycat. Yes, I know that Games Workshop technically introduced Space Marines into their fiction long before Bungie came up Spartan IIs. Keep in mind that for most non-table-top war gamers though chainsawing orks as Captain Titus feels like a rehash of when they were doing the same thing to Locust as Marcus Fenix.

As an aside, I think it's worth mentioning that I played the PS3 version of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine and it was buggy.  Enemy clipping, area loading errors and one instance where I became trapped by level geometry, all forced checkpoint reloads in order to progress.  I'd say that the game was made lazily except there are some rather obvious examples to the contrary.  The fact that most enemies don't disappear after being killed is a big plus in my book.  It also indicates that code got a healthy does of optimization.  Audio is very hit and miss too with music and sound effects both being excellent, but the voice acting coming across as a mixed bag.  Captain Titus and friends are well performed, delivering their lines with the stoicism and determination you'd expect, but the ork speech seems limited to repeating "Supayce Mahweens!?!" over and over ad nauseum.

Believe it or not these aren't the bad guys.
After finishing the game I felt like there was a missed opportunity in the storytelling department too.  The Warhammer 40k universe is grand in scope and ripe with possibility.  Relic could have very easily told a much more compelling epic tragedy involving feuding chapter houses or a grand saga of glorious conquest and sacrifice.  Instead we ended up with a boilerplate get-the-macguffin tale with painfully obvious plot twists.  Chaos has always felt more like a force of nature or symbol for the failing of humankind rather than a proper adversary.  That's just my take on the setting though.  I'm sure there's a small horde of war gaming veterans who would strongly disagree with me.

Overall, I am left with a profound feeling of disappointment regarding Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. Again, not because the game was all that bad really, it just reeks of a squandered opportunity to show a wider audience the best of what the setting has to offer. Mediocre gameplay, a bland story and numerous elements that feel recycled from more commercially successful video games...the Emperor would not approve of his finest being wasted in this manner.

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