With a sadly lackluster execution despite some good elements, Codex: Space Marines' lore is unremarkable. By comparison, how do the rules hold up? Not too badly actually, and it even manages to put a decent spin on ideas which I tend to personally hate.
Many ideas here are more a refinement and reexamination of the prior codex's rules. Rather than changing things entirely as we saw in the jumps from Fourth Edition to Fifth and Sixth, most of what made Sixth work in terms of mechanics is still here. That said, a bigger emphasis has been placed upon how certain dominating rules and traits influence entire armies. The most obvious of these are the Chapter Tactics, the governing rules which alter the overall play-style of a force. Rather than being a return to the good (if definitely flawed) pick-and-choose tactics of the Fourth Edition, these are a definitive set intended to cover the most famous forces.
On the one hand this Edition's approach to Tactics does detract from the idea of allowing a player to build their own force. It doesn't account too much for personal impact or even allowing people to put more of a personal spin on things, instead just replicating the best known attributes of their progenitor. On the other hand though, it's a more ambitious and game-changing set of rules, which allow each of them to stand out on a more individual basis. Atop of this, it means the rules aren't so insanely reliant upon characters to build armies as prior releases have been. This alone is enough to give it a thumbs up, even with a few flaws.
The actual system for these traits is a little wonky, differing in terms of impact from one to the next. These range from basic universal changes (certain units getting Stubborn etc) to widespread abilities which have to be triggered and activated in turn. The latter being the Ultramarines for the most part. Just to keep this simple, here are the Tactics one after another:
Black Templars - While sadly lacking a lot of their benefits from having an independent codex, there are a few good points here. Along with not being able to field Librarians (though perhaps not for the reason many would want) all models have Adamantium Will and Crusader as special rules. Along with this, Templar units which take casualties during Shooting or Overwatch phases of all kinds immediately gain Counter-Attack and Rage until that turn's end. In other works, you draw their blood and they run down anything nearby.
Iron Hands - Bizarrely - despite the downright hateful lore- the Iron Hands come across rather well here. All non vehicles gain 6+ Feel No Pain, from Tactical Squads to Devastators. Those who already have Feel No Pain immediately benefit by having +1 to all rolls, meaning Command Squads in particular can be durable beyond belief. Oh, and as if they needed to be a bit more unavailable, all vehicles have It Will Not Die and Techmarines gan +1 to their Blessing of the Omnissiah rolls. Not too shabby, could be more ambitious but a decent basis for a better Supplement should Games Workshop try it in the future.
White Scars - All White Scars models have Hit & Run as a special rule, and units composed entirely of their forces can re-roll dice when Running. Furthermore, all White Scars with bikes have a Skilled Rider special rule and add +1 to Hammer of Wrath hits. Nothing too remarkable here, but it's still good overall. That said, I have to worry about those who ignore the chapter's prior disdain for Dreadnoughts.
Raven Guard - All infantry units not beginning the game in a transport gain the Shrouded special rule until the second turn. They can also influence the Night Fighting special rule with +1. Atop of this, Raven Guard units with Jump Packs can use them both in Movement and Assault phases on the same turn. In addition to all of this, Hammer and Wrath attacks allow units to re-roll failed wounds.
This is very simple but reflect's the army's stealth and single strike fluff extremely well. It certainly takes intelligence to use well, but with a large force of Scouts backed by Vanguard units and rapid transports, it could be extremely competitive.
Imperial Fists - The Bolter Drill makes a welcome return, ensuring the Fists have a major advantage at range. All bolt based weapons can re-roll hits should a dice land on 1, from vehicles to infantry. This even includes those firing Hellfire, Kraken, Vengeance and Dragonfire rounds, meaning Sternguard are particularly lethal with this chapter. Siege Masters meanwhile means units can re-roll failed hits on buildings, and add +1 to any Building Damage tables. All Devastator and Centurion Devastator units then gain Tank Hunters. Admittedly as flawed and underrepresented as it was at the time of Sentinels of Terra, but it's still a decent basis for something better.
Salamanders - Along with the ability to re-roll Wounds and armour penetration rolls with flamer based weapons, all units have a 4+ Feel No Pain roll against flamer weapons. Perhaps the more beneficial opinion is their ability for each Salamanders character to upgrade a weapon to be Master Crafted. This means any weapon, even those which require it as a purchased upgrade.
Ultramarines - An Ultramarines force can use the Tactical, Assault or Devastator Combat Doctrines each once per game. They also have access to the Tyrannic War Veterans, a force unique to them.
That last one in particular is worth mentioning firstly due to what Doctrines actually are, and secondly to how they've changed since the past edition. Each Doctrine is effectively a specialised attack mode which favours certain units over others, giving them a major edge at exactly the right time and requiring the player to know when to set them off. You can probably guess which one favours which, and most do come down to a series of re-rolls.
So, Tactical offers (unsurprisingly) Tactical Squads re-rolls to hit in shooting and assaulting units.
Devastator offers Devastators and
Assault meanwhile offers Assault Squads and Assault Centurions the ability to re-roll hits in combat.
An additional bonus to each of these is that Characters attached to a unit at the time their Doctrine is activated gain re-rolls to hit on everything.
The big bonus to this now is that such Doctrines aren't simply limited to the Ultramarines. Instead, all chapters can access this via the Gladius Strike Force detachment, offering them the ability to take one of these and use it in one turn. However, this effect can actually stack, meaning that if you have multiple Gladius detachments, you can engage the same Doctrine multiple times. While this might sound like the Ultramarines are getting the short end of the stick, it actually gives them a massive advantage, as they can use these far more than anyone else. Let's say that there was a Gladius detachment of Ultramarines being led by Calgar. This would mean that they could set off a Doctrine of the player's choice three times in a row (once thanks to the detachment, another thanks to their chapter Tactics, and again thanks to Calgar's own ability.)
Personally, this is an exceedingly well balanced system. It doesn't go too far into being overpowered, requires a good deal of knowledge in order to give it impact, and uses characters, armies and elements all as cogs in a larger machine. It also offers something of a more coherent structure to the army after Games Workshop decided to do away with all Force Organisation Charts, and gives the army a series of sections which can slot into one another. For example, the Gladius Strike Force itself is a basic detachment consisting of one or two core choices then several auxiliary ones. On the one hand this does mean that the codex is based primarily around Formations, but on the other it also means that there's a more flexible sense to it. Plus it helps that some of these core choices are built around the basics of the old FoC chart.
The core choices consist of Battle Demi-Companies. These consist of a single required HQ choice along with three Tactical squads, a Bike/Assault/Attack Bike/Land Speeder/Centurion Assault Squad and a Devastator or Centurion Squad. From here you can choose to add on a few bonus elements while still remaining within the Formation's rules, namely a Command Squad and a Dreadnought of some kind. The others built atop of this are those which follow more specialized Formations, such as multiple units of Terminators, trios of Land Raiders and the like. As a result of this, it proves to be oddly lore accurate on the part of the space marines. It represents Codex chapters as being a combination of various company elements built into a single army, and means non-codex forces can still be depicted as highly specialist or different. Admittedly that last point isn't helped by "Codex Astartes" being a special rule for forces consisting of multiple Gladius units. Okay, it just comes down to the use of Combat Doctrines mentioned before, but it's still a point of irritation.
The obvious issues with the use of so many formations are twofold. The first is that the company's track record for making balanced Formations is questionable at best. There's been plenty of easily abused special rules in the past, and that same problem does appear here with at least a few of them. The second is that, to be blunt, this is encouraging massive games once again. If you want to stick to an army with any kind of structure or force now, according to this you're going to need something larger than the average Battleforce. To make matters worse, players who might want to go for a relatively small-scale game are now going to be extremely hamstrung. Either they're going to be stuck just with a Battle Demi-Company, or they lose out on one of their faction's biggest advantages of late.
Still, given how massive a part of the book they are now, it's best to go through each Formation one by one.
The actual rules behind the Battle Demi-Company are, as mentioned before, fairly reasonable. You're given Tactical Doctrines, but also one ability which gives them a very curious edge. Any unit from this formation can now hold objective markers even if another enemy unit is contesting it. On the one hand it does encourage more structured and tactical play, giving them an edge against Unbound Armies, but it also gives them an even bigger edge against structured forces. This isn't supremely overpowered, but it starts to become problematic once you see how this Formation can be built up. If you bring two of these Formations to a game with a Gladius Strike Force, they then count as a full Battle Company. What happens there? Rhinos, Razorbacks and Drop Pods can all be taken for each unit. For free. Sure, you need to buy the upgrades and all, but given that can give an army an additional ten twin-linked lascannons this seems a little ill thought out for bigger games.
Moving into the more specialised forces we have the Anti-Air Defence Force. Not exactly an awe inspiring name, and as you might guess it's made of Hunters and Stalkers. This said, the formation retains a good benefit when it comes to bringing down big monsters. If a Hunter hits it, all Stalkers suddenly gain +1 BS. I'd say this was overpowered, but it's specifically cited to help bring down Monstrous Creatures with wings as much as fliers.
The next one beyond that is the 1st Company Task Force. No, that's actually how it's spelled in the book. As you might guess from that as well, Terminator, Sternguard and Vanguard galore is what makes up this one, with three to five units making up the Formation. Along with causing Fear, all models in this are Fearless, making them a good crowd control group as well as a solid roadblock for something big and very killy. This seems to have been specifically made with this in mind, as they can be given Preferred Enemy to one specific type of unit in the enemy army, allowing them a major edge against certain forces. Not to bad at all, though their next rule is fairly useless: Subtract 2 from the Leadership of enemy units within "12 of three units from this Formation. A little useful if you're throwing them in as a spear-tip, but not much else.
Strike Force Ultra (yes, that's what it's called, and the lore mentions Codex Astartes multiple times. How did you guess?) is the 1st Company Task Force's bigger brother. Requiring a Terminator armoured captain, four units of Terminators/Assault Terminators, a Venerable Dreadnought, a Stormraven Gunship and a Land Raider Crusader, it's definitely a sledgehammer. This is all the more evident in the rules where the Formation is kept in Reserve at the game's beginning, but then summoned at the start of the player's first turn. It doesn't allow for them all to show up at once, just a bit earlier than usual though. Furthermore, upon arrival all ranged weapons from this Formation have one additional shot each, but only the Terminators. This seems oddly useless for what it is, and without much overall benefit to the army. Especially as it can only be used once per unit. This is slightly more beneficial with the Assault Terminators allowing at least for them to hit harder when charging into combat, and cutting down anything in sight. Plenty of Hammer of Wrath to be sure, but it's hard to estimate if this is worthwhile given the costs with this one.
Also, someone decided that Lysander should be a viable choice to be taken over the Captain. In a Formation called "Ultra". Methinks someone was feeling a little vindictive when this was written.
Next up is one of the HQ Formations, the Reclusiam Command Squad. Now much to say here, it's just a Command Squad with a Chaplain. Beyond the bonus of giving them Crusader, it's more useful as a brief bonus for armies with an emphasis upon close combat. While only range "6, the Chaplain allows for re-rolls to hit, but only on the first round. For what it is, the choice here just seems oddly limiting really, as this would be best used keeping him in the second wave, but it would require bunching all your forces together to have it hit more than one squad. Really, it could have just been done with a little more thought, and even the potential upgrade to Cassius isn't really worth it. Admittedly, the restriction isn't much to comment on given they're just required to take a Razorback.
By comparison the 10th Company Task Force is far more interesting a choice, with three to give units of Scouts or Scout Bike Squadrons. Also Telion if you want. No, no idea why these formations are insisting upon taking certain Special Characters. The further restriction of requiring all squadrons to carry cluster mines is another odd one, given neither of the rules reflect upon it. For all that bad though, there are some good elements here. The first among these is that this is treated like a stealthy attack force in the best sense.
Firstly, all units are given Precision Shots in the first turn, favouring Sniper teams and heavy weapons that might have been moved in ahead, allowing them to inflict a solid opening blow. Then, atop of this, you have the option for all units without Stealth (AKA the bikes) to count as Concealed until they move from their position or charge. The fact they're not blocked from shooting is especially helpful, and it really seems like a Formation intended to infiltrate en mass, hit hard at range, draw in the enemy, then move in for the kill. Definitely one which needs to be used carefully, but it will work well as an advanced force for a main army.
Storm Wing is something somewhat similar to the 10th Company Force in its overall nature, just with airborne units dropping in rather than infiltrating. Consisting of one Stormraven and two Stormtalons, all of which are called in from reserve as a single unit. Beyond this, the main benefit is offering the Stormraven a Strafing Run ability so long as one Stormtalon is still alive. It's really more of a ground attack formation despite the name, but it could potentially be useful in the right hands with the right timing. Really though, it has just been transplanted from an older edition without anything added or altered.
The Centurion Siegebreaker Cohort really speaks for itself. It's just two to four Centurion Assault Squads and a Ironclad Dreadnought bundled together. With a first special rule which is largely useless for Imperial Fists players, re-rolls against buildings to penetrate or glance, it's useful for some chapters but limited given its focus and the sizable number of points it drinks up. The more interesting one is how each unit affects anything hiding in vehicles or buildings it destroys. Try to hide inside something blown up by one of these things, and they're automatically hit full in the face by 2D6 Strength 6 AP4 attacks, all of which Ignore Cover. Overall, given its limited range and focus upon close combat weapons, the Formation seems more beneficial for making your opponent reconsider taking fortifications.
The Librarius Conclave meanwhile is three to five Librarians banded together. This benefits their abilities considerably as it allows you to select a Librarian at the start of a Psychic Phase and then use them as a psychic Fireprism. All others within "12 of him can't use their powers, but the one shooting mindbullets has access to all their powers for that turn. Oh, and he also gains a considerable power boost. Warp Charges? They're harnessed on a 3+, or a 2+ if there's at least two Librarians close by. Pair these guys off, and you're effectively walking about with a pair of mini-Ahrimans blowing holes in the enemy army. Given the risks involved and potential problems of keeping these guys open on their own, it's definitely a high risk choice but one which quite frankly seems too damn fun not to try. Honestly, if you've ever wanted to try a Blood Ravens army, now is the time.
The remaining three Formations are all vehicle focused, specifically concentrating upon long range firepower, massed armoured assault and Land Raiders. Some of these are a little more ridiculous than others.
Of the final few, Land Raider Spearhead is the truly eye-rollingly overpowered one. Effectively, put together a trio of any three Land Raiders. Keep them within "6 of one another, and the damn things ignore all results on the Vehicle Damage Table short of exploding. Atop of this, they're capable of killing damn near anything, with re-rolls to wound or penetrate armour against super-heavies, gargantuan creatures, and buildings with the Mighty Bulkwark rule. Guess someone thought these things needed to compete against the Eldar Knight. Really though, this thing is obscene, and turns an already powerful bullet magnet into a downright unstoppable behemoth of tracked death.
Armoured Task Force is one of the more toned down ones. Consisting of, well, almost every other vehicle in the list, requiring between three to five Predators/Vindicators/Whirlwinds, one Techmarine and the option for three Thunderfire Cannons. Oh and Chronus. Because special characters. It's mostly useful as a fire base, as their big special rule is ignoring Crew Shaken and Crew Stunned when nearby the main Techmarine or those manning the Thunderfire Cannons. Useful to be sure, even if "6 seems an incredibly short range for this effect. Admittedly this is offset by the Techmarine being close enough to use his own beneficial ability, having +1 on Blessings of the Omnissiah rolls, giving tanks a little more durability. Not bad, but its effectiveness really depends very heavily upon the game board and the type of enemy you're facing, and it could easily go very wrong.
The final one then, at long bloody last, is the Suppression Force. There really isn't much to say about this one either though, as it's just a unit of Whirlwind tanks (to a minimum of 2) and a Land Speeder. As you might guess, the idea behind this one is for the Land Speeder to serve as a kind of spotter plane, picking out units within "18 of it and giving the Whirlwinds re-rolls to hit. Good to be sure, but the real advantage here is that it offers them infinite range, as such it seems like a great Formation to use against blob and primarily footslogging armies. This said, the Land Speeder's limitation of being unable to use Flat Out on the turn it engages this does mean there's plenty of chances to shoot it down before it gets in range.
So, those are all the Formations. These really seem to be intended to replace individual units as a kind of FoC and it's done to a far better degree here than in other lists. The likes of Codex: Khorne Daemonkin attempted the same, but there seem to have been a few far better ideas which have gelled extraordinarily well here. Many parts seem to work far better as individual bits than a full army, and while still very rough around the edges you can see how there might be a beneficial idea behind this continued focus. It still has problems, but for the most part, given this codex is remarkably balanced and varied in its units, proving that the concept really just needs to work out a lot of kinks. Well, that and not be used to give armies insta-kill abilities or just writing whole lists for players.
If there is one thing to seriously criticise here, it's that so much of this is just carried over in terms of basic concepts when it comes to the Chapter Tactics. Some have been given more of a pass here, like the Iron Hands and Imperial Fists, which were cited as failings in their supplements. However, that's only because it's minimal enough here to be excused thanks to the broad focus. Given the page count and even with the expanded details, it would have been good to see just a little more done here to focus on each one. Perhaps Stormseers, Ironfathers or the like being brought up as alternatives to certain units at least. Still, at least they got a few things right.
As you might have guessed given all that's been covered here, we're far from done yet. Given the extraordinarily dense nature of the codex, there's still yet more to cover in terms of weapons, equipment, warlord traits and even a few basic changes to the units. Join us here for the rest of the codex and to finally finish off the book once and for all.