Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine 2 is a game I’ve been clamoring for since playing as the stoic Captain Titus way back in September 2011. I was a Warhammer fan before Space Marine, and if anything, I’m an even bigger one now. The franchise has been an important part of my life and I wanted you, dear reader, to know this little context of myself and my relationship with Warhammer so when I tell you during my one-hour hands-on with Space Marine 2 I was grinning ear-to-ear, and my eyes were drying out due to them being locked on the Grimdark scenes unfolding before me, you may get a sense of just where I’m coming from as I share my thoughts fresh from playing a game I’ve thought about for almost 12 years.
While I wasn’t able to record my own gameplay, it is clear from the snippet that I got to play that the developers at Saber are also fans themselves, with a drive to do Space Marine, its world, and the franchise justice, not just for long-time fans like myself, but for those new to Warhammer as well.
The first thing I noticed was Space Marine 2’s attention to detail as the game opens up on Titus with his new squad on their way to support the Cadians on the planet’s surface. I felt like the Once Upon A Time In Hollywood meme, pointing my fingers at the screen as I excitedly picked up on little details on Astartes armor or individual troops or tanks littered across the battlefield, but I believe it is with smart design and appreciation for the source that the game can also feel approachable to those with fresh eyes, too.
I was quickly thrust into the heart of battle, as any good Space Marine should be, but with every giant footstep, the combat in front of me grew into a spectacle that caused me to mutter a very British “bloody hell” under my breath.
Hills in the distance were full of swarming alien Tyranids, the view between them and me being cut apart by ruby flashes of las-fire as human allies fought to hold back a xenos horde that was quickly filling both land and sky. I couldn’t wait to be a part of it.
And it was no small skirmish; I was quickly struck by just how many enemies the game throws at you, but a few squeezes on the trigger of your Bolt Rifle and swings of your giant combat blade will see the enemy ranks start to thin. The combat will feel familiar to anyone who has played the original game, but as the Space Marines have evolved between games, so too has the furious bloodletting. It retains all of the hacking, slashing, shooting, punching, and kicking energy the series is known for, with gory executions topping up your armor and kills restoring recently lost vitality until you can find a brief moment of reprieve to pop a stim.
The additions to the combat have only served to make it even more satisfying and engaging. Average strikes from almost any enemy can be parried away to create space and do damage, with more-intense attacks being marked by a blue circle and unblockable ones that you must dodge being signaled by a red one. Depending on the enemy and their strength, a perfect parry or dodge to one of these attacks will either instantly kill the foe, stun them, or allow you to retort with a “gun strike,” pulling out your bolt pistol at close range and firing a critical hit into the now-exposed squishy bits of the Tyranid in front of you.
Your melee strikes are all activated by one button, with heavier, potentially stunning attacks requiring you to hold down the attack at the end of your combo. It’s a simple system that has been inherited from the previous game, but it, too, has been built upon. Now at the end of a combo, if you strike one of the smaller Tyranid hormagaunts or termagaunts with a stun, you can “gun strike” the disgusting bug next to them for an extra well-timed kill.
These additional elements do a lot to build on the flow and satisfaction of the combat, but due to the number of enemies you’ll be facing, they also feel important to prevent the melee-focused foes from becoming too overwhelming–because when you fight xenos space bugs, you’re going to be fighting a lot of them.
During melee combat, you are now able to lock on to the larger enemies like Tyranid Warriors, allowing you to focus your attacks and movements on the biggest threat instead of getting bogged down in the chaff. These enemies will also engage you much more intelligently, blocking your attacks or adding their own unblockable combos into the fray. This causes you to more carefully consider your next swing or back off a few feet to empty a magazine of bolt rounds into them, but executing one of these larger threats will cause–and I’m putting my Warhammer nerd hat back on here–what appears to be some kind of psychic synapse feedback, as the smaller enemies around them recoil and die as they appear to be cut off from their hivemind.
I feel as though I had to shake off old habits or muscle memory from the previous game, but after a few fights, I was gleefully catching leaping enemies on the whirring teeth of my chainsword, and once you’ve seen that spectacle, I don’t think there is any going back.
Weapons now also feel somewhat more defined. I got the sense that the combat knife is now a viable alternative to the chainsword, offering faster and more focused strikes versus the chainsword’s slower but wider and more damaging sweeps. I was also able to supplement my melee-focused loadout with regular or heavy bolt pistols.
Other primary bolt weapons, such as the Bolt Rifle, Auto Bolt Rifle, and Bolt Carbine, allowed for some variety in ranged combat, depending on if you prefer considered, accurate shots, emptying a drum mag from range, or a high rate of fire for close-quarters engagements.
I also found heavy and more specialized weapons, like the massive heavy bolter, or the close-range, superheated meltagun, capable of incinerating a corridor of Tyranids in just a few shots of retina-burning heat and color.
While I have no doubt more of Warhammer 40,000’s arsenal will appear in the final release of the game, I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised by how diverse the weaponry felt, especially when it comes to the family of bolt weapons: firearms that are iconic to the franchise.
I did find myself switching between weapons frequently, sometimes adapting to the varying environment of an open field or a claustrophobic corridor, but also because of the scale and intensity of the battles I was fighting through and the demands they were placing upon my munitions.
Tyranid swarms are called that for a reason, and oh dang did I feel swarmed. One moment from the preview had me holding a piece of high ground outside of a bunker with Imperial Guard allies. As I readied myself, a dozen Tyranids appeared in view, almost instantly followed by hundreds more. The scurrying mass was so dense that it was hard to see any individual enemy other than the larger elite Tyranids, meaning the only option was to fire into the bulk of the horde in an attempt to thin them out. While I did feel the frame rate struggle a bit in moments like this (it is a preview build of the game, so things may still be ironed out), a few stutters did very little to sour my enjoyment or the spectacle unfolding before me.
Quickly, however, they had started to form a foul xenos pyramid against the walls in a World War Z-esque attempt to scale our defenses, with the organic living ladder only being disrupted by sustained fire or a satisfying frag grenade scattering the climbing aliens.
This battle ended in the squad falling back, and many others that I experienced in this preview had a similar tone. The number of enemies the game sends your way, with some attacking from range while many more close in to attack, leaping onto your armor as they make attempts to claw their way into your metal shell, makes some of the skirmishes feel overwhelming. But when that sensation creeps in, the game is quick to remind you that you are a damned Space Marine.
And so far, this game does a great job at making you feel like one. Everything from the way the human troops react to your presence to the thunder of both your footsteps and firearms feeds into that sensation. Something that stuck with me from the original Space Marine is how it feels to play as a super-human Astartes, and Space Marine 2 only builds on that fantasy. There is a good sense of the scale and weight of a space marine as you tower over Imperial Guard allies or charge into enemies emerging drenched in gore. Meanwhile, taking damage will cause your armor to spark, and heat can be seen venting from your powerpacks.
Your allies only add to the invincible aura that surrounds a Space Marine. While the game is playable in three-player co-op, playing solo will have those roles filled by the AI. Surprisingly, they were much more useful than I expected, only getting stuck on the environment once or twice. Mostly, though, they seem effective in combat but also have their own abilities, such as scanning auspexes, and can support in a pinch by picking you up off your feet should you get downed in combat.
The game is a visual treat to behold–both in graphics and spectacle–but also in a pretty disgusting way. The Grimdark universe offers little in the way of serene forests or calming sunsets, but from dank swamps littered with piles of dead xenos, oppressive corridors lit by bolter muzzle flashes, as well as other locations and battles, the fidelity of the characters, and finer details on the weapons and armor, it’s also shaping up to be a damn fine-looking game.
While it is still early days, Space Marine 2 is shaping up to be the game I wanted it to be; I can’t recall the last time I came away from a preview so hungry for the next helping of a game. I hope the rest builds on the impressive first impression that this preview has left me with, but as a Warhammer fan of nearly 20 years and a huge fan of the previous game, that grin I mentioned at the start of this preview is still on my face as I share these final thoughts.
Heck. I prefer my Space Marines wearing winged helmets and forest green, but this game almost makes me want to paint Ultramarines.