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The second I looked at THQ‘s Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine video game, I figured I had seen it before. The sci-fi game may be set in the fabled Warhammer universe, but the style and game play look so much like Gears of War that it’s embarrassing.

Sure, I understand this kind of homage happens all the time in video games. The grunts in Gears of War (pictured right, whose third installment comes out this fall) are derivatives of the U.S. Marine Corps soldiers, re-imagined in a sci-fi universe. So THQ’s game is really just copying Microsoft’s Gears of War game (made by Epic Games), which is copying something out of the history of marines. It’s moments like this that make me wonder about the dearth of creativity in video games, especially among big publishers that feel like they have to match somebody else’s hit franchise to cash in on the profits. It’s similar to complaints people have about Hollywood action movies with car chase scenes.

But the similarities between THQ’s third-person shooter game, developed by its Relic Entertainment studio, and Microsoft’s Gears of War third-person shooter series, developed by Epic Games, are just piling up by the dozen. Start with the over-sized armor and bodybuilder physiques of the marines. When you aim a gun in Space Marine, the target reticle is huge, just like the target reticle in Gears of War. The guns are huge and they feature a chainsaw blade that can be used to slice enemies in half, execution style, similar to the “chainsaw bayonet” of the Gears soldiers.

The blood spatters are also quite similar. The guns shoot in a similar fashion and the Space Marines wield a big giant hammer that resembles the blasting hammers not from Gears of War but from Microsoft’s other sci-fi franchise, Halo.

When I asked the THQ folks about this, they immediately pointed out that this game was set in the Warhammer universe, which has its own rich and original lore. In fact, this universe predates the existence of Gears of War, so you might argue that Gears of War copies Warhammer 40,000. There’s also not a lot of emphasis on taking cover in the Space Marine. The combat in Gears is very focused on taking cover because you die if you don’t do it. There is more emphasis on melee fights, or hand-to-hand combat, so the engagement range with enemies is typically farther than it is in Gears of War. There are also more enemies on the screen at any given time. Of course, since the THQ guys had a handy explanation of the difference so readily available, it seemed like they knew they were going to get asked that question.

The bad guys are the green Ork enemies from the Warhammer world, and they bear no resemblance to the enemies in Gears of War, except that they make loud grunts. Of course, their very name does bear resemblance to the “orcs” in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but we’ll ignore that for now. The THQ folks also pointed out that their melee system, which includes the chainsaw weapon, works a lot better than Gears of War’s does. Gee, I hope so. If you copy someone else’s game, you don’t want to copy the bad parts.

In my own copycatting of Captain Renault’s famous quote from Casablanca, I have to say, “I’m shocked, shocked, to find that copycatting is going on here!”

[Update: I’ve read through the comments and I’d like to set a few things as straight as I can. I don’t mind disagreeing with people when it comes to matters of opinion. But I don’t want to play too casual with the language here and start the wrong argument. So let me clarify what the post says, what the post didn’t say, what the post means to say, and what the post ought to say. Let me first apologize for being vague, imprecise, and casual with my words, for obviously a lot of you care about these words. This is not an apology where I say “I’m sorry” when I really mean to say “fuck off.” I am genuinely sorry about being imprecise.

First, this post is not research-backed journalism. I walked into a room, looked at a game, and offered what I thought about it. I’ve been doing that professionally for around 15 years. It’s my opinion. I just wanted to walk into this room and decide whether this game was good and whether it was original and fresh. What happened? I walked into the room and thought, “hey, this game looks like something I’ve already played.” That’s the point that I wanted to hammer home. Visually, this game’s art style and game play remind me of the action and look of Gears of War. The story is different. The context is different. The games are set in different universes. But it looks very familiar. I had the same feeling when I played Dante’s Inferno, which was based on a very different Christian mythology than the Greek-focused God of War. But when you pulled out that whipping chain in Dante’s Inferno, it felt a lot like pulling out the chain that you used to lash your enemies in God of War.

Some of the most memorable scenes of Gears of War are when you are shooting weapons into the enemies, who grunt and roar at you. You hit them once and they don’t go down. It takes a lot of shots at fairly close range to bring them down. When they get too close, you can press a button and activate your chainsaw bayonet. Blood splatters everywhere and you cut the enemy in half. The experience is very similar in Space Marine. You got the big marines in big armor shooting weapons that take a while to cut into the enemies. And when you close with them, you activate your chainsaw, or “chain sword,” if you will. The enemies grunt and roar. They bleed profusely. Yes, there are a hundred games where this kind of thing can happen. But this is a third-person, sci-fi, marine-versus-enemy shooting and chainsawing game.

The look and feel are similar. That is all I wanted to say. I don’t know what went on in the game designer’s head. Maybe that is a “homage,” which is a knowing tip of the hat and is a good thing. Maybe that is “derivative,” which minimizes the value of the new creation. Maybe that is “copying,” which is borderline illegal. Those words are very imprecise and they come loaded with a lot of emotions. I used all of those words and they mean different things and they set off different emotions. I thought in some cases I was being funny. But it’s easy to forget that words on a page go askew and what is funny to me isn’t funny to someone else. I’m shocked, shocked to discover that some gamers don’t have a sense of humor. Now I know people say “I was just joking” when they have over-stepped what they should have said and that’s not what I want to say here.

Some people thought I was very serious when I said that Space Marine copied Gears of War. I don’t mean it did that in the sense of illegal copying. I said this was derivative, where I suggested that Space Marine’s characters were not very original because they resembled the Gears of War grunts who resemble the U.S. marines. I meant to say that these things are similar in a way that leaves me, the gamer, not very satisfied. I don’t mean that it’s criminal for one to copy another.

I also did not mean to say that the Warhammer 40,000 universe is itself derivative. My “ork” vs “orc” comment stirred those reactions. I honestly know very little about the lore of Warhammer. I’ve seen multiple Warhammer 40K games over the years and they never appealed to me. I’ve looked at them and sat through demos but never taken them seriously enough to learn the lore. Here’s where I can understand the negative reaction. It looks like I am saying that the universe is a crappy one and people are wasting their time playing with it and that it just copies Tolkien’s stuff and moves it to outer space. In fact, I think it is wonderful that people are dedicated to this universe so much that they have followed it for decades. I did not mean to say that you are stupid if you are a fan of Warhammer 40K. Some commenters are twisting my words and saying that I’m pissing all over Warhammer. Not true. If it appeared that I was pissing all over Warhammer 40K, I apologize for that. I am a part of many fan communities and I really don’t like it when someone tries to stir a hornet’s nest by pissing all over my fan community. In fact, one of the people who emailed me about my post had this to say:

“You need to understand where all these people are coming from. Now, more than ever, gaming culture is exploding. As the gaming population grows, you have newcomers who start making casual, though misinformed observations. For instance, some people might argue that Halo was the game that kickstarted the first-person shooter genre, while others would argue that it was actually Half-life. Still older gamers will tell you that Doom, or even Wolfenstein 3D are responsible. You can imagine how it might upset someone who appreciates a given work to hear someone else accusing that work of being derivative of a more recent work. In other words, it’s like some kid reading Tolkien and accusing him of ripping off the Warcraft series. You’d want to smack that little bastard too.

The point I’m trying to make is, you’re comparing apples to vintage, highly-regarded apples. While two hack-n-slash beat-’em-ups or third-person-shooters are bound to have some similarities, you can’t simply accuse one of copying the other. Dante’s Inferno had mythical monsters and button mashing, as did God of War, but so did Ninja Gaiden long before either of them. None were aiming to “copycat”. They were just trying to be great games.”

I have to say I didn’t realize that was what was happening here.

Toward the end of the Space Marine demo, I asked the presenter about the similarity to Gears of War. He gave me his answer which I included in the post. In my opinion, I was being fair by including the opposite opinion in the story. We tend to make assumptions about creators and their intentions, and we aren’t always fair. Many of you are assuming that I’ve been intentionally being controversial and misleading and unfair just so that I can get attention, get a lot of page views, and make money from this post. I’m trying to get attention, for sure. But I’m also trying to be an honest critic. I think there are too many critics who shy away from this. I’ll be an honest critic and I’ll let the developer have their say as well.

My own reaction to the THQ game designers was to ascribe evil intent to them of just wanting to make a game that cashes in on somebody else’s big hit. In any case, I made that assumption because of the sequence of events. THQ has been searching for ways to ratchet up the audience for Warhammer 40K. Gears of War was a big hit and it showed how to get millions of fans for a sci-fi third-person shooter game. Even though the Warhammer 40K lore was around for a lot longer, Gears of War executed well on making a fun game. Now the Warhammer 40K Space Marine game is coming out, and it looks similar. Should we conclude it is an imitation?

Maybe that’s what is happening here, but that’s not a fair conclusion to draw, based on what we know. I assumed that their process was profit-motivated, not creative-motivated. I assumed that they looked at Gears of War, got jealous of its audience, wondered how to copy that success, looked at the Warhammer universe, and decided it would be a great fit for a Gears knock-off. That’s a very big assumption to make and, as a critic, I was wrong to make it.They could very well be the most dedicated caretakers of the Warhammer franchise in the world today, and they may simply be extending the franchise in a logical direction.

There are some things I meant to say that I didn’t say for lack of time and effort. Is it wrong to copy? The joke about being shocked about copying carried a lot of meaning. The suggestion is that I am pretending to be shocked that one game copied another, when in fact that is a rich tradition in video games and that everybody does it. Was I contradicting my own argument? Yes, I was. I was doing that with a sense of humor. If Space Marine is a knock-off of Gears of War, there may not be anything wrong with that. If it is a good knock-off and it is an improvement upon Gears of War, then gamers should benefit and the company should prosper. A really well-executed copycat can take the game industry in a positive direction. I don’t think I’ve seen the evidence of that yet with this game. If Space Marine fails to execute well, it will be like another Hollywood car chase, rather than the memorable scene from Steve McQueen’s Bullit, which has been canonized as the chase of all chases.

We’ve had the same kind of debate with social games made by Zynga. A rival game company created Farm Town on Facebook. It grew fast and then hit the wall as it got more users than it could support. Zygna came up with FarmVille, which was a copycat game. But Zynga built a better infrastructure that handled the huge load of users. It added some innovations that made the game far more popular than Farm Town ever was. The critics threw knives as Zynga. But it came out on top. And when you think about it, Farm Town was preceded by farm games on the web in China, which were preceded by Harvest Moon on the Nintendo DS — a game that debuted in 2005. All of these games stand on the shoulders of games that came before them. So when I say a game is a copycat of something else, I don’t think it should cause a great fan revolt. Especially if the game is a good one.

So there you have it. I’ve apologized. I’ve clarified. I’ve admitted stupidity. But I’m also standing by my observation that these games are similar. You can call it a correction, a clarification, a modification, a rewrite — hey, whatever you want. I’ll just call it an update. It is sincere.

end update]

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