Warhammer 40,000 has long deserved a shooter. A veritable cult has grown up around Games Workshop's combat miniatures franchise over the past two decades. Popularity aside, the gritty 41st century universe "where there is only war" is a perfect fit for first-person action. It would be hard to mess up a game that features forces like the Imperium, Dark Eldar, Orks, and Necrons, who are all eternally locked in battle. Yet that's exactly what Kuju Entertainment has done. The British developer, best known for 2001's Microsoft Train Simulator, has exchanged all of the depth and dynamism of the Games Workshop franchise for a shooter-by-numbers approach in Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior. This cheap PlayStation 2 port carries none of the punch that can be found in the tabletop game due to a positively antediluvian design that sees you running down an endless succession of corridors hunting for keys.
The design never gets beyond ideas that have been kicking around since Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, despite a Halo-esque rechargeable shield, a two-weapon restriction, and a story that turns Warhammer gaming on its head. Instead of playing the usual Imperium space marine, you take the role of Kais, a Tau warrior who takes on the Imperium. This changed focus is somewhat reminiscent of Warhammer 40,000: Rites of War, a 1999 wargame where you led the Eldar against the Imperium. At any rate, those who are familiar with the source material will no doubt appreciate the opportunity to venture off the beaten path. More-casual fans, whose main exposure to Warhammer 40,000 comes from playing the Space Hulk tabletop game and its computer adaptations, might be disappointed at not being able to step into space marine armor.
Not that this really matters much either way, as the plot in Fire Warrior is so hopelessly muddled that it's hard to tell what's going on until you reach the midway point of the game. Instead of easing you into the story, Kuju immerses you in a war with absolutely no setup at all. You get only a brief, chaotic cutscene that shows the Imperium attacking a Tau settlement, then you're charging through World War I-style trenches excerpted from All Quiet on the Western Front. You have to know a fair bit about the Warhammer universe to make heads or tails out of what's going on here, although if you can figure out that the bad guys are the ones shooting at you, you can get by.
So there really isn't much to figure out at all. Each of the 21 fairly substantial levels (expect around 15 hours of play, which makes the game much longer than the average shooter these days) runs on tracks, with the final map being as straightforward as the obstacle course and firing range tutorials in the first map. You follow trenches, administration building hallways, ship passages, prison cell blocks, and other narrow corridors from one locked door to another. You only pause to take blue, orange, and magenta keys from corpses. (These keys actually look like those neon glowsticks that kids wave around on the Fourth of July. Come on--colored keys? In 2003?) Every area carries with it a shut-in vibe, as if the developers were suffering from agoraphobia. Even during the few moments outside, you're usually surrounded by earthen walls so narrow that, theoretically, your soldier could stretch out and touch the opposite sides.
Fire Warrior doesn't even get this turn-off-your-brain shooter stuff right. Movement is slightly jerky, most likely because the game wasn't optimized properly in the transition from the PS2. The game feels like a console shooter, as if you're playing with a less-responsive gamepad, even with the standard mouse-and-keyboard setup. (Not that precision matters.) All of the weapons in the game, aside from the scope-equipped rail rifle, are wildly inaccurate beyond a half-dozen paces. Out of every 10 shots, seven will miss, often by ludicrous distances. Before the third level is out, you will envy the marksmanship of stormtroopers. Even when you are on target, the wimpy hardware doesn't do a lot of damage. You can pump half a clip of pulse rifle ammo into common foes, like Imperium guards, and space marines can practically shrug off the rapid-fire autogun. Even worse, there's no "oomph." Most weapons issue nothing but pops and electric bolts, and, as a result, they feel more like tasers than BFGs.
Bearing this in mind, it's sort of a good thing that enemies are dumb enough to charge at you. The way-off weaponry isn't too much of a factor because all foes, from the presumably dumb grunts of the Imperial guard to cream-of-the-crop space marines, practically paint bull's-eyes on their chests. At least they sound as stupid as they act, constantly muttering catchphrases like "Nothing detected." and "No activity." This isn't so bad when you're sneaking up on a guard post and haven't been spotted, but it's ridiculous in the midst of a pitched firefight. It's hard to take anything here seriously when a roomful of guards chant a mantra of "It's quiet." while shooting you in the face.
Then there are the usual console port concerns. Kuju has moved this game from its natural PS2 platform to the PC with no muss, no fuss. There is no save-on-demand feature, there are just invisible checkpoints spread far apart, thus forcing you to replay long stretches of the game if you're killed in a bad spot. This is a major annoyance in some areas, especially during the lengthy watch towers and diversion levels and when the game gets tough through the middle and latter stages.
Additionally, textures haven't been cleaned up, so there are just a dozen or so unconvincing enemy soldier models. The woeful animations include goofy death throes where enemies flail about like they're having slo-mo strokes. Overall, art design does come close to visualizing the run-down future that is a Warhammer 40,000 specialty. Though this, perhaps ironically, is due to the reliance on dated PS2 technology. Everything seems dirty and old, thanks to the rough textures and primitive color palette that's apparently limited to various shades of brown. The game's audio quality is in the same boat. Many levels are plagued with consistent low-level static, and the repetitive "thump-thump-thump" of weapons soon feels like it's rattling around in your skull. At least the cutscenes and dialogue sequences are well scripted and acted. Tom Baker, the former Doctor Who, and Brian Blessed, from I, Claudius, do yeoman work bringing these scenes to life.
Some multiplayer modes have just been tacked-on. It seems pretty obvious that Kuju included these options as a simple added sales pitch to hardcore Warhammer fans--and so that publisher THQ could put an "online multiplayer" blurb on the back of the retail box. Still, does anyone really need more deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag options in eight lifeless maps that are filled with nothing but mazelike corridors?
There actually isn't really a need for anything that's offered by Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior. Just finishing the game is a real chore, no matter how many miniatures you've painted over the years while waiting for a pure action game based on this great franchise. Games Workshop needs to go back to the drawing board to give us a first-person shooter worthy of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.