Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine — Bringing a Chainsword to a Gunfight

Tri Nguyen
6 min readSep 23, 2019


Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is an action game that champions the power fantasy of being a Space Marine in the brutal and dark Warhammer 40,000 universe. The game’s combat design is satisfying, if a bit unfocused due to cramming in all the design tropes of both hack-and-slash and third-person shooter games. It’s extremely difficult for a game with both melee and shooter mechanics to get both aspects right, and even harder for both systems to mesh cohesively.

In this essay, I’ll be analyzing and iterating on the design with the goal of focusing the combat mechanics and systems.

Combat Analysis

As a general overview of the game, the single-player campaign sees the player moving between locations and battling a smorgasbord of enemies utilizing both melee and ranged weapons.

When playing the game, it seems like lots of polish went into the melee aspect of the game. Combo chains end in juicy slow motion hits to sell the violence and impact. The melee swings are slow and weighty, with long recovery frames (even longer on stuns and combos that end in stun). The game’s combat pacing is also centered around over-the-top executions that reward the player with health.

All of these kills also fill the “Fury” Meter in the bottom left corner. When Fury is activated, all close-quarters kills rewards the player with health (essential encouraging the player to kill enemies with melee). There’s usually hordes of enemies, so lots of health sources for the player to harvest. There’s no defensive options, which encourages a mostly offensive play-style. The dodge roll also doubles as clearing distance towards a health source.

The shooter aspect of the game doesn’t have the same attention to detail that the melee has. The guns don’t have much recoil and most of the guns having a crazy amount of accuracy and range. That diminishes the depth in using the guns, since the player doesn’t have to learn the recoil patterns or prefer certain weapons over others (I used the Bolt Pistol to take out long-range sniper enemies because of the crazy range the guns have).

There also isn’t much satisfaction in using the guns either, since enemies have no hit reaction when being shot (vs. having a big hit reaction when being hit with melee). There are also sections where you get on a turret or sniper to take out waves of enemies (which inherently clashes with the aggressive forward-pushing combat of the executions and “Fury”).

Going All In On Hack & Slash

The player has a huge suite of mechanics at their disposal in the game. From the shooter tropes, the player can aim, shoot, use grenades, reload, has a regenerating shield a la Gears of War, Halo, and Call of Duty. From the hack-and-slash mold, the player can dodge roll, hit, stun, and execute enemies. To iterate on the game’s design, I’ll have to lean one way or another.

To iterate upon this, I’ll be unifying the mechanics under one player motivation. In the original game, players are encouraged to be aggressive with melee, because they can stun enemies and and recover health. However, the regenerating shield suggests that the player should be taking cover, long-range enemies have hitscan weapons, and the player can’t dodge roll through enemy projectiles.

With all of that in mind, I’m going to be leaning into the melee combat aspect of the game, with the player motivation goal of aggressively pushing forward to get kills and executions.

The Combat Iteration

The player mechanics, pared down to focus on melee combat, look something like this:

Shoot, Grenades, Dodge Roll, Hit, Stun, Execute, Move, Sprint, Fury

I’ll go through the mechanics and dive into what’s changing in this iteration.

The shooting will function more like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, which is used as a combo extender or to reduce a bit of the enemy’s health before the real fight begins. Since it’s more about supporting the melee system, the game no longer needs an aim function as the player won’t be needing to make accurate shots throughout the game. The guns will auto-target enemies based on a combination of distance and priority.

Reloading is also removed and all guns will have infinite ammo. The way that the game will balance the weapons is with the rate of fire, spread and accuracy of the shots, and the strength of each weapon. This also means that ammo won’t be scattered across the levels to act as “secrets” for exploring the levels.

Explosives will now be used as the hidden “secrets” for exploring, and the player will be able to hold a very limited amount. The grenades will be extremely powerful and will be used by players to thin the herd before huge battles.

Dodge Roll:
Before, the player couldn’t use the dodge-roll I-frames on enemy projectiles. In this iteration, the player will be able to dodge roll through projectiles, since they will be needing to dodge enemy fire to get up close and personal.

Melee Attack:
The hack-and-slash combat system will need to have a little more depth, since the design will be hinging on it to hold up the entire game. The system can generally stay the same with hits and stuns being strung together into combos.

To increase the system’s depth, the player will be collecting melee weapons throughout the game that will be permanent upgrades to the player’s arsenal. Instead of switching out the weapon on pick-up, the player will be able to access those weapons at any time (like the original God of War trilogy), with each weapon having its own quirks and perks. For example, the blunt Thunder Hammer could be effective against shields and machine enemies, while bladed weapons like the Power Sword could be more effective against flesh enemies.

Shield System:
The health system will largely remain the same, with the exception of the regenerating shield. The shield will be removed, so players aren’t ever encouraged to just hide behind a rock to heal. For balancing purposes, there could be a very slow health regeneration over time, but nothing too substantial. For boss fights, there should also be sections where waves of enemies spawn, so the player has some opportunity for health recovery.

Currently, enemies are using hit-scan weapons. In this iteration, enemies that have long-ranged weapons should be firing projectiles, so the player has an opportunity to dodge them when the player is making their way towards the enemies.

In Conclusion

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is a great game with a combat system that needed a little bit more focus. In the original game, the player had access to a huge, unfocused suite of both melee and shooter abilities to take down enemies.

With these changes, the player will now be encouraged to charge directly into battle to utilize their arsenal of blades and hammers to take out enemies and execute them for health drops. This solves the problem of a split player motivation, and hones it in on encouraging a very aggressive melee-driven play-style.