Warhammer 40k: Space Marine, Conclusions

[See my early impressions here]
It turns out that I had left off last time mere minutes before the first jump-pack sequence. These are really where the game comes alive. Instantly the control scheme makes more sense. The lugubrious roll animation gets replaced with a quick little hop. It’s effectively trivial to extricate yourself from melee combat. The dive-bomb provides an easy, satisfying area of effect attack. And the increased mobility dampened my yearning for a cover system.

It’s a shame, then, that there are so few of these sequences and that they’re so brief. Obviously, these sorts of levels place a much higher burden upon the level designers. I realize these are supposed to be breezy pace-breakers and that a whole game of this would be like a whole Halo game where you just drove the tank, but these sequences are just so much more engaging than the rest of the game.

I’m reminded a little bit of both Lost Planet and Dark Void. Both of these are fairly clunky third-person shooters on foot, but become much better with their added mobility mechanics – grappling hook in the first case and jet pack in the second. (I haven’t actually played Dark Void beyond the demo, but it’s on the list…)

The core, on-foot combat spaces are just bland. Without even a basic jump or mantle ability, the areas end up being almost laughably flat. The Forge World setting justifies this to some extent, but it still stands out. To compensate, there’s an abundance of high ground that is only accessible by enemies. In every single encounter it felt like I was being placed at a tactical disadvantage. Again, given the fiction, I should be expecting to feel like I’m fighting against the odds, but this felt excessive. There are even cases where I’d be forced to drop down into an empty arena, and then have there be enemies spawned in on the high ground that I just vacated. Was the motivation behind setting up encounters this way an attempt to make enemies harder to shoot, in a way compensating for the lack of the formal cover system, and keeping the ground clear of obstructions so melee flowed better? Was it to force ranged combat and prevent over-reliance on melee? It accomplishes both of these things, but it feels clumsy and inelegant to do so by placing enemies in areas that are physically inaccessible.

As a fan of Dawn of War 2, I really appreciated the Blood Raven cameo. As a bonus, this was one of the best core-combat sequences in the game. It was set on a massive suspension bridge, so the area was still pretty flat, but it was one of the few times where I didn’t feel completely exposed, since there wasn’t any high ground available for the enemies to occupy, and only limited flanking opportunities. It’s funny that I found this relatively straight-forward encounter more enjoyable, but after an entire game of getting flanked and scrambling to try to find a safe corner in which to recover shields, this sequence was a relief.

As for the weapons, the shotgun and grenade launcher were both pretty satisfying. Spike and area of effect damage are both pretty necessary (I was playing on Hard difficulty, by the way). The shotgun in particular provides a great alternative to getting bogged down in melee, since it’s instant speed, close range, and hits in a pretty broad cone.

Outside of the jump-pack, the other pace-breaking sequences are kind of awful. Manning a stationary turret just doesn’t work well with the game’s health mechanics – there’s no way to regain health without being able to melee, and either there’s a long enough break in-between waves of enemies to recharge shields, which renders the sequence trivial, or there isn’t enough time, which turns the sequence into a frustrating grind where your life is slowly worn away.

There’s also another rather extended sequence which revolves around combatting stationary turrets. You’re with allies, but the turrets only aggro on you. It was dull anyways, but I made it worse by using the infinite ammo plasma pistol. It has an overcharge grenade shot, and my intuition was that this would be a good way to duck out of cover, deal a large amount of damage quickly, and then get back in. But, it turns out, even though the pistol was plenty effective against hordes of Orks, it was remarkably ineffective against these turrets, and until I figured this out, the game slowed to a frustrating crawl.

Actually, the AI allies feel pretty ineffective in general, like they’re just there for show. They don’t kill much. They don’t draw much fire from enemies. There’s a funny thing that happens where you and your allies will move forward through, and then you’ll find yourself getting pinged in the back by a straggler enemy that your allies didn’t deal with, and which, or course, only shoots at you.

So, in general, Space Marine was an adequate game, but by no means a great one. I didn’t try the multiplayer, but it looks like it’s got some interesting ideas in there. But, in general, between the health mechanics and the encounter design, I just didn’t find it very enjoyable (and, again, I was on Hard, but even the comparatively easy parts weren’t particularly enjoyable, and the hard parts were worse – so many checkpoints on the wrong side of cutscenes.) It’s inherently dull in a game to wait behind cover for your shields to recharge. It’s worse here without the cover system. You have to hide around a corner, since you can’t duck behind a low wall, which means your entire sight-line is cut off, so you don’t even get to observe enemy movement or line up your next shot. And while I appreciate the attempt to encourage melee by tying contextual kills to health recovery, it just doesn’t work. Because you can only recover the bottom tranche of your health via melee (the rest is shields which must be regenerated), melee is fundamentally not viable unless all the ranged enemies have been dealt with already. Otherwise the ranged enemies just keep plinking you while you get bogged down. The only time you want to be doing one of these contextual kills is at the end of an encounter, which makes the system basically equivalent to one where your health just recovers automatically between encounters.

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