In defiance of all real time battles of the 1990s, hex-based tactical wargames were still a big deal – thanks to Panzer General. Software 2000 had not made a big name for itself in this genre yet, but still wanted a piece of the pie. And so they followed the paradigm if you're going to do something, then do it… big. Consequently, the game starts out with a sleak rendered introductory sequence, actors have been projected cleanly in front, voice acting sounds professional… wow, now there should better be a good game in there, too! There is, even more so than expected.
Between two and five armies clash in turn-based fashion. Starting from tanks and battle robots, the game quickly introduces hovercrafts and fighter jets – while avoiding to overstrain its player with all too many types or mass usage. Simply by setting a restrictive limit to the maximum army size per mission.
Gameplay-wise, this is all very positive, as the focus is much more on individual units. Just losing one in a strategically important position can turn the tides of a complete battle, because there won't be a dozen standing at attention as backup. They grow on you even more as you can equip them individually and take them from mission to mission. Unit types behave differently; for example, artillery will do scatter damage which can affect your own units, too.
You could almost consider it a commando game, if there weren't any enemies. As far as they are controlled by the computer, they do in fact rely on quantity instead of careful planning. Even though they are also subject to tight limits of how many units they may have at the same time, they seem to have almost limitless resources to build new ones even when they are pretty much beaten already. Smells suspiciously like somebody tried to hide certain weaknesses in the artificial intelligence there…
Nevertheless, particularly because multiplayer mode was only available as a paid upgrade, single player mode remains interesting, mostly thanks to the thought-through tactical options and well-designed levels. The environment offers advantagous defensive positions, but a freezing lake can easily circumvent this. Fuel and ammunition supply can work through depots or mobile units; though repairing units is only possible in the former. Such buildings, just as factories etc., cannot only be conquered, but also destroyed – even when they are in fact under your own control (scorched earth policy).
It never becomes as detailed or deep as in certain competing games, though. Advantage or disadvantage? Depends on your expectations. Space Marines at least manages to remain manageable while still offering sufficient complexity to still allowed for enough variation in one's tactical choices.
On the technical side, things look similar. The mouse controls are generally easily operated. Though why on earth do you have to switch to option mode to use the mini map? Why isn't there a button, as introduced by various other games, to jump to units which still need to be moved this turn? Not even those units which have been moved already are marked on the map – only when they have also attacked.
The battle cutscenes may look great, but why don't they ever reflect the type of terrain where the units meet? Between mountains and forests, this is irritating enough already, though when a glider is actually above water, but the battle seems to take place over dry land, it gets really ridiculous. Oh yes, and why does it take a whole four mouse clicks to skip a battle scene? Where, in any case, the obvious option to disable them completely is missing.
On either side, technical or gameplay: it's a nice game, but when it comes to details, the competition was just ahead or or two steps towards perfection. Gameplay of Space Marines is a collection of well-known elements, but without really fine-tuning them towards one another, which would be something the cream of the crop manages to pull off. As far as user comfort is concerned, it is similarly alright, but not up to the best in the genre. Nevertheless, the essential test still succeeds: stripping out all of this “multimedia” knick-knack and you still have an entertaining game. Which is what a player wants, right?
Technical remark: if you would like to play in Dosbox, please configure it to use “vesa_nolfb” as video driver.