18 December 2011

Review: Warhammer 40000: Space Marine (PC)

Because fuck orks.

You know, what with my previous post being a lot of agitation over console ports, and complaining about action-RPGs, it really looked like Space Marine should be just the kind of game that would get my undies in such a twist that... They'd be really twisty undies. I dunno, feel free to work in your own Shyamayalamayanayan joke.

Anyway, if you disregard two key words, by all means I should hate this game. Those key words are Relic and Warhammer. And guess what? I fucking loved it!

The game is perfect. It’s not literally perfect- there are insignificant flaws. Cutscene animations are weirdly slow, the antialiasing messes up in rare instances. The sound is buggy1. But those flaws- they don’t really matter. When the game is fun, who gives a fuck if cutscenes are clumsy? Not me.

What matters is, Space Marine is a great game. It’s fun to play, the mechanics are a great realization of the concept (be a Space Marine and brutalize Orks and other enemies of the Imperium!) and all the stylistic design decisions have been made just right. The engine, although I’m awful at recognizing these things, appears competently coded but it's probably nothing special compared to today's (or even two years ago’s) state of the art, but frankly who cares? Game graphics reached a saturation threshold around 2005 after which it is no longer possible to discern which engine is more or less photorealistic- they’re all far more capable than you perceive. It’s all about design and style now, and those were done correctly in Space Marine.

Inside an Imperial Guard bunker.
A good example of that, and one of my favorite things about Space Marine: The character size. Space Marines are supposed to be giants, one and a half times taller than the average man even without their enormous power armor (although lore isn’t very consistent). But so are Orks. Basically, you are a huge man fighting huge aliens- it’s tricky to convey this sense of “hugeness” when relative to your enemies, you are average-sized. Yet somehow, Relic managed to do it unbelievably well. I’m not sure if it’s the camera angle, the clever proportions of the scenery, the occasional tiny guardsman, the carefully sluggish looking but not really sluggish animations giving you a sense of momentum, or perhaps just the head-to-body proportion of your character, but you just spend every moment of the game very aware of the fact that you are a gigantic, almost monstrous hulk, battling other monstrous, enormous creatures. It all feels very epic and big.

The same goes for weapons and combat in general- there is again an extremely crucial balance to strike: You can’t make the game too hard and the player too wimpy, or you’ll feel like some clown in a suit rather than a Space Marine- who are supposed to be demigods on the battlefield, a few dozen capable of clearing planet-wide alien invasions. And on the other hand, if you make the player too powerful, the game will seem too easy and ultimately pointless. Again, somehow, and honestly I’m baffled how- this is the work of truly talented game designers, somehow it really manages to present you with a challenge while still making you feel like the immensely powerful, titanic super-soldier that Space Marines are supposed to be.

"Orks! Always more orks!"
The bolter isn’t just a wimpy machine gun -this is a weapon that shoots explosive shells the size of a man’s fist in rapid fire- it pauses just enough between automatic shots to feel like a weighty, immense weapon, and yet still fires sufficiently rapidly to seem absurdly overpowered compared to familiar real-world weapons. Even so, it is not overpowered- Orks take 2-3 hits to go down, but they recoil from the (just large and loud enough) explosion and blood spatters everywhere and once again, you never forget that the weapon is extremely powerful- it is only not obliterating everything in a single shot due to correspondingly great robustness of your opponents.

There are 4 melee and maybe 7-10 (depending on how you count) ranged weapons in the game, plus their upgrades. They all feel different. They are all equally effective and practical to use. I gravitated towards favoring certain ones, of course, but tried all of them and none was a pain to use.

And melee combat itself- this part is just incredible. I really can’t overstate just how well done it is. Everything is so smooth, the controls are working really well, and you really feel like you are in full control of your character. The enemies, as I said, are not made of paper, but they can’t hope to pose a threat on their own- it is the numbers that make the difference. And something I just loved about what Relic did: The numbers advantage is such that, you are not really having a hard time because ten times as many Orks deal ten times the damage and so on. It’s not a simple numbers thing. More enemies are simply more distracting. It makes for a more chaotic, mentally demanding battlefield where it is easy to screw up your combos, or misdirect your attacks. And when you get special enemies, like suicide bomber squigs, it gets even more fun: You have to focus on the small squigs which deal you no damage (unless they blow up in your face) while normal Orks all around you constantly attack and leech off your attention. It all feels tremendously enjoyable- the game constantly throwing you curve balls and weird new tactics, requiring you to think on your feet to deal with them.

Executing an ork.
The execute mechanic is another gem: With normal orks, you can use a stun attack, and then “execute” a stunned ork. This basically kills it in one hit, and shows a cute, gory animation of Captain Titus tearing the hapless enemy apart. One of them has you drop the ork to the ground with a fist, and then stomp on its head, exploding it into bloody chunks. The other thing you get is, it heals a lot of health. But the flipside is that during the animation, and when trying to stun, you are vulnerable. What’s more, if you try to stun a wounded enemy, you might kill him outright, not getting the execute health and ending up having wasted time maneuvering into a position to stun him.

And it gets better: Small enemies, like gretchins, are killed outright by execute, even without a stun. Large enemies, like nobs, have to be wrestled. Stunning them is a challenge in its own right, as you have to use a special combo, and then there is quicktime sequence where you struggle with the enemy to break his strength, and execute if you succeed. Now, I hate QTEs, but if there’s a single right way to do it, this is it.

Oh and, you also get an assault jet pack! You can’t always use it, but when you do, does it feel awesome. The first key press sends you slowly but steadily rising into the air with a trail of smoke and bright jet plume behind you. Then as you pause mid-air, you select a spot on the ground, and a second key press sends you shooting like a comet right into a group of enemies, killing some and scattering others. Remember how watching assault marines do the assault jumps was so awesome in Dawn of War? Well, this is that, squared.

Praise the Machine Spirit!
I also have to say just how Warhammer-y this game feels: The universe is realized wonderfully. Shots glance off your ridiculously good armor. Guardsmen salute and kneel to you in awed deference, calling you “My Lords”. They shoot Orks with their flashlights, ten of their lasguns barely bringing down one. The buildings feel wonderfully gothic, both due to the size and high ceilings as well as small details like “gothic-y” looking lantern-shaped safety lights on elevators, and carvings resembling cathedral windows on enormous artillery shells the size of a tank. The Orks yell the standard “brutish enemy” taunts, but they are WH40k Orks- occasionally you hear a lovely “Shoot me again!” and remember that these guys don’t just like winning fights, they like getting killed, too. And this is really why a Warhammer game is special- the universe is just so wonderfully bizarre in its gory violence porn. Space Marine is an excellent demonstration of that idea.

There are things about the game which I think could be better- There could be flamers and rocket launchers, terminator armor, more execute animations, more enemies, but really, it’s just perfect as it is, not to mention being yet more proof that Relic knows exactly what they are doing when it comes to making games. If you like Warhammer, you will love this game, and if you don’t, you will after playing it. The only thing is the horrible, game breaking sound stutter bug, which I have thankfully been able to fix. It’s really quite unfortunate, because doubtless there will be people discouraged from playing this great game because of it.

Score: 5/5

1Possible solution for the sound bug:
So basically, you know what this is when you see it. Whenever there is a lot going on, such as many enemies on screen, sound begins to stutter, you get static, voiceovers repeat and echo, and the game lags, even if your framerate is quite high.

From what I saw on forums, this happens because the game has poor audio code, and when your video card is doing a lot of work it can overload the processor, which breaks audio. Normally it should be coded with this possibility in mind, and the sound code should handle the issue gracefully- in most other games it does. For some reason Relic coders appear to have messed up here.

Now the usual first step is, close unnecessary background processes (which probably won’t matter on a modern computer) and check if any driver updates are available, especially for your sound and video card (which were probably already automatically updated by Windows, and probably will not fix the issue). This didn’t fix the problem for me, but some people claim it worked for them, so it’s worth a try.

Since fundamentally, the issue is the CPU not running the sound code fast enough (although it shouldn’t have to do this much work for sound in the first place), you could solve the problem by going out and buying an i7. Some people claim it worked. I didn’t try, and eventually the game ran fine with my modest triple-core, non-overclocked Athlon II 345.

What did work for me was lowering the sound quality. For this you go into Sound in Control Panel, then the Playback Devices tab, then select Speakers (or whatever else you use) and click Properties. You’ll get a new window, and under Advanced should be a drop down for quality, saying something like “16 bit, 44100 Hz”. You want this as low as possible. Again, for me the lowest setting was 16 bit/44 Khz, so I used that, and it solved the issue. I still get very rare, momentary, singular sound distortions, but they are negligible.

Note that by the time I tried this, I had installed new (2010 or 2011) audio drivers from Realtek’s website (Gigabyte's site actually had updated drivers for my motherboard/sound combo too, despite windows claiming otherwise). My motherboard has on-board audio, as most people nowadays probably do, and there was another audio driver by Gigabyte that I had been using, which showed up as being from 2009 and up to date according to Windows. So it may be the case that you need to update your driver AND drop the sound quality, but I already told you to update your drivers, didn’t I?

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