Review | 11/4/2011 at 2:06 PM

Warhammer 40K: Space Marine Co-Op Review

Gather your battle brothers!

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, Warhammer 40k: Space Marine came out w-a-a-y back on September 6th. Why am I doing a review now? As you may or may not know, Space Marine did not have co-op until recently, and I couldn’t do a proper co-op review without co-op content now, could I? Besides, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve done a review for a game that’s been out for a while. Compared to my Demon’s Souls Co-Op Review, I’m like a year and a half early. So there.

If you want more details on the single player campaign or the multiplayer, I strongly suggest reading our WH40k: Space Marine Single Player and Multiplayer Hands On Preview. If you wan to jump to the co-op portion of the review, go right ahead. It’s clearly marked. If it seems that the co-op section doesn’t make up much of this review, that’s because it doesn’t make up much of the game.

I wanted to reacquaint myself with Space Marine’s single player campaign before I dove into the co-op. I checked my achievement list and saw that I began playing the game on September 7th and I finished it on September 9th. Ah, yes, I remember now. This is not a long game. If anyone tells you there’s a 12 hour campaign, they’re straight up lying to you. For me, the campaign lasted about seven hours on Normal difficulty, and it felt like five. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Time flies when you’re having fun - and I remember having a lot of fun.

I chose Chapter 12, “Dying of the Light” for my refresher. I marched the main character, Captain Titus, into battle against the Ork Horde. The purposefully clunky shooting controls made me feel like I was piloting a heavily armored mech. Titus can dodge and roll, but he feels more like a machine than a man. Of course, he’s wearing a ton of armor, so that makes sense. I used an array of ranged weapons, pulverizing Orks with my trusty Bolter, long-range Lascannon, and over-powered, (but painfully slow to recharge) Meltagun.  

The pistol works well, too!

My ranged weapons could not stem the tide of the encroaching xenos, so it was time to whip out my Power Axe and begin the dance of blue-armored death. One of Space Marine’s strengths is the seamless transition between ranged and melee combat. I instantly morphed from lumbering mech-man into a giant ninja, slicing my enemies to bits with ease. The camera adjusted nicely from an over-the-shoulder view to a slightly zoomed-out, third-person action game perspective. As I mutilated the enemies of Man I took substantial damage. I was now faced with the most frustrating aspect of the single player game: the health system.

A large, heavily armored Ork Nob was closing in. They’re like the Incredible Hulk version of a normal Ork. I had dispatched the surrounding mob and was prepared to fight with tooth and claw, Power Axe and Bolter. We hacked at each other for a few seconds, until I finally connected with my stun attack and staggered him for a finishing move.  My health was low, so I quickly engaged, wary of the new wave of approaching Orks. After a button mashing sequence I was locked into an execution animation, and promptly hacked to death by the fresh batch of Orks. Now I had to play the whole battle over again. This SUCKS. And it happens all the time.

When the health system of Space Marine works right, it’s okay at best. Titus has a regenerating overshield, which we’ve all seen in other games. When this shield is depleted his actual health bar begins to take damage. The only way to replenish it is to perform an execution or to activate your ever-increasing Fury meter. Simply put: hide behind something = regenerate shield, execute an enemy = get some health. This concept seems sound at first, but quickly becomes stale.

The problem is that each execution locks you into an animation where you can continue to take damage. If your health bar is too low you will be killed before completing the execution. This can be infuriating in the later battles, where checkpoints are few and far between. And don’t get me started on the enemy rockets and grenades. Ranged enemies will shred your health, and Orks wielding rocket launchers love to spawn when you’re in the thick of a melee battle.  

This is an Ork Nob.  They specialize in dropping Space Marines on their heads. 

Managing your health becomes a huge component of the single player game  I found myself cowering behind cover in many of the later levels, desperately waiting for my overshield to recharge. The marketing team behind the game pushed the lack of a cover system. It’s too bad our fragile protagonist desperately requires one.  If developer Relic had just made the player invincible while performing an execution, the problem would have been solved.

The other major issue with Space Marine’s single player campaign is the absolute failure to hide the fact that it’s little more than an arena shooter connected by long hallways. Most shooters are plagued by this design, but Space Marine seems to revel it it. After a strong opening sequence the game quickly degenerates into a simple formula: enter an arena, kill up all the baddies, slowly walking through a hallway, get a little exposition, enter another large room, repeat. The lack of environmental variety; bland industrial settings, and the fact that there are only two boss battles doesn’t help with the oppressive repetition.

The characters themselves seem bored with the story, which itself will come off as overly esoteric for newcomers to the series. I know that the 40k universe is constantly at war, and this is just another day at the mall for most of these characters, but does everyone have to be so damn aloof? 

Despite these flaws, the single player campaign is still a fun ride. Once you’ve mastered the health system, you won’t get killed mid-execution nearly as often. The soundtrack is just epic enough, and the weapons are deliciously brutal. The game really hits its stride during the final bridge sequence, where fellow Space Marines from other chapters join in the fight. You all look like total bad-asses as you square off against the forces of Chaos. It was here that I felt this game would have played much better as a squad-based shooter. That’s where the co-op comes in.

It's about damn time.  

The Co-Op

I know, I covered a lot of the single player mechanics, but I had to do that to adequately explain the co-op portion of the game, or more accurately, explain where the co-op mode is lacking. The single- and multiplayer versus modes of Space Marine were obviously the focus of the development team. The co-op mode, called Exterminatus, was launched as free DLC 50 days after the game originally launched. To call it an afterthought would be... well, extremely accurate.

Exterminatus is an online-only horde mode for up to four players. You can play it by yourself, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You’ll need all four players to have any hope of completing one of the "missions." You can expect more of the same when it comes to Space Marine’s formula of room clearing and hallway walking. There’s only two missions, so once again, don’t expect a lot of variety. 

Exterminatus plays more like the versus mode than the single player campaign. This means you’ll have access to the awesome armor customizer, allowing you to make your own personal Space Marine, complete with multiple weapon loadouts. This also means that the health system and melee combat are nothing like the single player experience.

In both the co-op and versus modes executions have been totally stripped from the gameplay. Your health regenerates as it would in any other shooting game. The melee combat feels random at best, broken at worst.  Only the Assault Marine class has access to the real melee weapons, such as the Chainsword, or Thunderhammer. The Tactical Marine has a combat knife. The Devastator has, well, a stomp kick and bad intentions. Since there is no lock -on, players will find themselves flailing about with their melee weapons, desperate to produce results. Once you have the mastered close-ranged combat, it is impressive, but there is a serious leaning curve.  

I wish I could get all four players to focus their attacks...

You’ll gain experience points for enemy kills and completing challenges. These simple tasks usually involve acquiring certain amount of headshots or kills in a set period of time. The XP will gradually raise your level, which unlocks new classes, armor perks, and weapons. You will not, however, unlock weapon upgrades, which are essential to becoming an efficient killing machine. You’ll have to venture into the versus mode to earn these weapon perks.  

For example, I normally play as a Devastator class and I use the Heavy Bolter Expertise and Coolant perks. To unlock these I had to get 50 kills with the weapon in multiplayer, as well 30 killstreaks. You can expect to spend a lot of time in versus mode if you want to get the most out of your weapons. Luckily for me, I was already at level 36 (of 41) from my multiplayer exploits, and proficient with several weapons.  

Both of the Exterminatus levels, “Hab Center Assault” and “Kalkys Facility Escape” involve 20 waves of enemies and four arenas. After five waves you move on to the next arena. These stages are basically reworked maps from the single player and multiplayer campaigns. You’ll have two flavors of setting: desert brown and factory browner. 

As I played through Exterminatus I was presented with some truly baffling design decisions. Unlike the multiplayer game, you CANNOT change your class when you’re waiting to respawn. If you show up to the fight and everyone else has their Devastator dress on, you know your team is screwed. You’ll have to wait until the whole team has been defeated before you can change classes. In a game mode with changing objectives, this is downright unforgivable.  

One guy gets killed while another guy watches. The other two players are probably gathering ammo.

Your team has a shared set of limited lives in Exterminatus, and you’ll receive an extra life for every 5000 points your team scores. This isn’t so bad, until you realize that you’ll be playing with people who have never touched the multiplayer. I hate to blast novice players, but damn newbies suck up all the extra lives. And don’t even get me started on playing with randoms; the great unwashed, un-mic'd masses who play as the Assault class and still take ammo drops! What the hell are you doing? I’m watching you play! You’re using a Chainsword and haven't fired your bolt pistol once!  

All of this leads to the inevitable defeat, forcing you to attempt the arena all over again. You aren’t sent back to the beginning of the whole match, but if your team is defeated at level 20, you’ll have to start over at level 16.  And if you choose to restart, you’ll lose any XP you’ve gained since you first entered the arena. It’s better to quit and start all over again, BUT, if you quit in the middle of a match, you’ll lose your XP as well. The only way to collect XP is to finish an arena, or quit after the whole team has been defeated. And if you get disconnected, you’re screwed. As with the multiplayer, there are serious issues with lag. Enemies slide across the arena floor and disappear at times. This is a huge issue on the Space Marine forums, and I'm not afforded the space to delve into it here.

One final gripe about Exterminatus: capture points. Certain waves involve the capture of specific areas of the map. You have a set time to claim these points, and you do this by simply staying in the area. Unlike the other challenges, if you fail this task, it’s game over. These objectives are almost impossible to complete with un-mic’d players. Since you need to retreat from battle to regenerate health, the whole idea of holding your ground goes against the way the game is played.

Don’t worry, it’s not all a crap sandwich. Exterminatus is quite fun with a mic’d team, and it’s a blast with friends. If you can coordinate strategies and class choices before a match your chances for success are greatly increased. Four Space Marines working together is an awesome sight to behold.  It’s too bad this rarely happens.  The potential for greatness is there, but like the game itself, it misses the mark on a few key features.  40k fans will still love it.