I really like the new Primaris Marines.
There’s a bunch of reasons.
I mean, I could talk about the aesthetics. How I honestly think the new armour looks great; the way the additional armour plating really gives the models heft, and the more ‘realistic’, faux-truescale sculpting lends them a real dynamism. Maybe I could explain how I think the actual armour stylings themselves are really good – the way there’s clear visual links between the pre-existing Heresy-era sculpts and Adeptus Mechanicus lines of models. The Primaris equipment really feels like a fusion of the greatest era of Astartes technology, and cutting edge Martian engineering. Not to mention, the actual weapons they have look great – the picatinny rail-inspired greebling just makes everything look that little bit more ‘military’. Personally, I think that in every way, the Primaris figures are a rousing success.
Not that you’d know it from the comments online.
“I’m so sick of Space Marines being released. When are they going to do <insert personal army here>.”
“These look shit.”
“Games Workshop’s replacing all my old marines.”
“The new fluff is shit. Fucking Gulliman spiritual liege Matt Ward blah blah blah…”
I’d say I get this negativity, but honestly? I really don’t. As an AdMech player since 1993, I know better than most what it means to have to wait for new models to be released. Sure, it’s annoying, but that wait can be a positive thing; it encourages hobbying, because missing models means more conversions. Plus, it’s not like GW’s pattern isn’t known at this stage. Astartes will always have more models than any other faction, for the same reason Batman will always fight the Joker more often than Two-Face. Some things are just more popular than others. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. If we want more models more frequently, we have to accept that we either change our army to one which is updated more frequently, or swallow the bitter pill that by choosing a more esoteric army, we’ve made an implicit agreement to wait longer for new toys. The Szechuan sauce might be amazing, but the vast majority of people just want burgers. Businesses need to follow the money, and that can’t be helped; it’s the ugly compromise between having an artistic vision, and getting paid for it.
As for the people arguing that the models look dreadful, I mean… seriously, if you think they look shit, I’m sorry, but you’re subjectively wrong. They look great, so long as you’ve got the same love of the Astartes aesthetic as I do. And it’s not like you have to buy them. I mean, I think every Chaos model ever released looks like warmed-up ass; doesn’t mean they’re a shit army or that people who play them are stupid. Just means I personally don’t buy Chaos models. I’ve got a new Dark Imperium Death Guard army I’m going to be eBaying, doesn’t bother me none. We don’t have to like everything, so we shouldn’t make people defend their aesthetic choices in the name of salving our own egos. That’s just a dick move.
However, where these first two complaints are just kinda obnoxious, the other complaints are a little more interesting and bear a little more merit, and warrant a little more analysis, because with them, we’re kind-of getting into the nitty-gritty of what makes 40K what it is.
As we all know, the fluff is everything.
Changes to the fluff are inherently controversial. Especially with a group of humans as naturally conservative as gamers. Changing the fluff is like putting a plastic castle in a piranha tank: doesn’t matter how nice the new toy is, the moment you put your hand in there, you’re losing a finger.
The thing is, not all gamers are unthinking as piranha. Sure, there’s a type of gamer who hates any and all change, but we can ignore her. After all, we can’t help her out. She’s stuck hating anything new because she remembers The Good Old Days ™. We can’t help her and honestly, we shouldn’t try; these are the kind of people who saw the automobile and decided they’d rather take a horse. And, you know what? Fair play to them. Nothing wrong with being a Luddite; the only person it hurts is you. So we can ignore them, because their problem isn’t actually with the game, it’s with the fact that time is happening, and they lack the self-awareness to realise that.
No, the gamers we need to talk with are the ones with the active critical thinking skills. The ones who’re actually prepared to engage with the new work, rather than simply regurgitating whatever hate their local club is currently steeped in. This gamer, she’s actually approaching the fluff from the perspective of good vs. bad writing, and that’s great. I mean, again, like aesthetics, that argument’s a question of taste; you either like it or you don’t, so I’m not sure there’s any great understanding to be had from the discussion of whether Bellisarius Cawl’s introduction is a bit out of nowhere, or the fact that YET AGAIN the Ultramarines are the centre of everything and YET AGAIN their Primarch is shown to be the best… Either you like that, or you don’t.
However, where I think there’s utility is in considering why these new changes have been made. In asking why Primaris? Why Ultramarines? Why Gulliman? The reason being, once we’ve analysed why these decisions were made, it develops the discussion in a more helpful, constructive way.
The answer to this is obvious, but it needs stating, because all the other decisions descend from it. If we proceed from the baseline, the simple reason for the Primaris Marines’ existence is this: Games Workshop created the Primaris Marines because it wants to make money.
You can see why they made the call to introduce the Primaris line for Astartes and not, say, Drukhari. Astartes sell better than anything else, because of course they do. They’re concentrated awesome, and if you disagree with that, then you basically need to stop lying to yourself and ask exactly why you’re interested in Warhammer 40,000 at all. No matter how much we might love Orks, they’re simply not the face of 40K in the way Astartes are.
Thing is, while Astartes are awesome, after thirty years, Jesus Christ, what’s left? The Astartes product line is FUCKING MASSIVE. Seriously, how many models are there? There’s Greek statue marines, Roman legionary marines, mediaeval monk marines, skull-faced marines, awesome flame decal marines, bat-wing head marines, cyber marines, dragon marines, Viking marines, vampire marines, werewolf marines, Mongol marines, special forces marines, wizard marines, Egyptian marines, Skeksis marines, barbarian marines, zombie marines, junkie marines, marines riding bikes, marines riding wolves, marines riding in Santa’s sleigh…
This, all before we get into breaking down the types of marine. Because there’s flying marines, big gun marines, big marines, bigger marines, bigger marines with two big guns, marines in cloaks, marines with swords, marines without power armour, marines inside robots, big marines inside robots…
It’s fucking insane how big the Astartes product line is. Take a step back and compare it to any other game line, and compare the audience response to the release of a new product. Warmahorde fans cheer when they get a new army box with two robots and a single, one piece dude, all cast from that awkward plastic resin crap which never gets the mold lines out. Poor Infinity fans celebrate whenever just one single new model comes out. When GW releases a box of ten models that can be built as two different squads, with multiple weapon variants, special weapons, helmets, heads, ammo pouches, bandoliers, grenades, add-ons, spare kit, customisation parts and details, 40K fans tend to wail like the end of the world has come.
So, when it comes to Astartes, how does GW do anything new, and worse, how do they do it without being vilified? Look at how many Astartes models there actually are. How can they actually introduce a new product into that line? They’ve done every kind of Astartes there is. About the only option left is pith helmet Astartes vs assegai-wielding Astartes. Either that or, you know, female marines, but when your community’s values are so messed up that they regard daemonically-possessed psychopaths as less abhorrent than half the population of the Earth, well. Here we are – Primaris Marines, models with the one thing GW has never done before aside from acknowledging that women are humans: marines in a scale appropriate to the background fluff.
Returning to the core problem is, having decided to create such a massively divergent model line, how does GW then introduce those model lines without making every one of their existing customers furious?
I mean, obviously they can’t, because there’s a significant portion of the 40K community that’s thrived on hatred since the game’s birth. No matter what they do, some dipshit’s going to get angry and burn their army, because that’s just how parts of the 40K community are.
So that means the question isn’t so much “how does GW introduce these new marines without making everyone furious?” as “how does GW introduce these new marines without making the sensible people who happen to have invested a lot of money and time in the 40K hobby and will therefore be deeply upset to find their time and money, essentially, wasted?”
Because that’s not a small thing. To be a 40K player is to have an Astartes army somewhere. Probably quite a large one. Probably more than one. Possibly even a fantastically expensive one that’s been literal decades in development.
As a result, GW’s options are seriously limited. They can decide to go ‘truescale’, but they can’t just say ‘this is what Space Marines are now’ without full-scale riots breaking out. Their only option is to incorporate the models into the existing fluff, and say they’re a new type of Astartes. It’s all they can do; their hands are tied.
I sympathise with them, I really do. With a community this notoriously impossible to please – one that’s been neglected and borderline insulted for many years – making a decision like the Primaris one is genuinely ballsy. The fact is, though, the way they did it was the only way they could do it. They HAD to come up with a way for Astartes players to both keep their old models and have incentive to buy the new ones… so the Primaris Marines couldn’t be retconned; they had to be introduced as new Marines. They couldn’t replace the current Astartes; they had to be introduced as ‘the same, but different’. And, given the Imperium’s fluff-rooted hatred of anything new, there were the twin problems that they had to be introduced by someone with serious authority, and someone with serious, heretical-level science. The Primaris needed to be introduced by someone with Heresy-era technology levels, and someone with authority approaching the Emperor’s.
In essence, the Primaris could only be introduced the way they were. It couldn’t just be Chapter Master that introduced them, or the new model line would end up Chapter specific, with gamers complaining that they couldn’t use the new toys. It couldn’t be some AdMech guy, or the fluff fans would be up in arms, asking ‘How does the AdMech have the authority to impose this on the Black Templars?!’
It had to be a Primarch, and there had to be an uber-AdMech character involved. It couldn’t just be one of them; it needed to be both.
The change – as all real things in 40K are – was driven by the model line, because it’s a story driven by toys. It always is. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad; the idea of a Loyalist Primarch coming back is an awesome one. The idea of him coming back with uber-marines is equally badass.
There’s so much hate for the Primaris story arc in some areas of the community, and no matter how much people complain, no matter how many reasons are given, I’m of the opinion that the root of all that hatred can be summarised in two simple words.
‘Chapters [not descended from Guilliman’s geneseed] are disciples who owe their genetic inheritance to another Primarch, but follow the Codex Astartes as keenly as their divergent heritage allows. While primarily composed of successor Chapters, this group also includes several Chapters of the First Founding – notably the Imperial Fists, White Scars and the Raven Guard. These chapters can never be Ultramarines, for their gene-seed is not that of Roboute Guilliman. Nevertheless, they will ever aspire to the standards and teachings of the great Primarch’
– Matt Ward
It was the fifth edition Space Marine Codex was when I first became aware that people really hated the Ultras. It might seem like it’s always been that way; that the Ultras were just the very worst, most godawful of all the types of Astartes you could possibly play, but it wasn’t always that way.
Way back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, back when I first began playing, the Ultramarines weren’t anything special. But then, neither was anyone else. They were just… well, marines. The Ultras were the blue marines, Blood Angels were the red ones, Dark Angels were black, Salamanders were British Racing green… none of the chapters were terribly different from each other. The names were just names without any real Chapter culture attached. The fluff wasn’t fully developed. The Ultramarines certainly weren’t the Face of The Imperium like they are now. They were just what you called your Marines if you painted them blue.
While other Chapters were developed, their backgrounds expanded into interesting and varied cultures, the Ultramarines stayed undeveloped for ages. Most of 1st edition, actually, and a significant portion of 2nd. They were Just Another Chapter. There were no named characters as we’d think of them today – Calgar, though he existed, was a fat little hobbit-looking dude on a weird chair with twin powerfists, intended as a display piece, not an actual battlefield model. The only Ultra-specific model which had any of the more ‘modern’ stylings was a single Marine captain with vaguely Roman details.
Now, the Ultras weren’t alone in having a limited line. For most of 1st edition, the Blood Angels had a single Captain in proto-Sanguinary Guard armour; the Dark Angels had a single captain with a strange, sort-of Native American headdress-inspired helm; the Space Wolves had a single captain with a wolf helm. Well, that and a terrible model of Leman Russ which was somehow even worse than the seated version of Calgar.
The hilarious thing is that it wasn’t even the Ultramarines who were the first Chapter to be fully fleshed out. It was the Space Wolves. The releases of the Blood Claws, Long Fangs, Grey Hunters, Ragnar Blackmane and the rest absolutely dominated the summer release window they came out in. It was like no other marines mattered. For a length of time which might surprise modern players, the Sons of Russ were as ubiquitous in 40K as the Ultras are today.
After the Space Wolves were given their ‘All Wolves, All The Time’ gimmick, the gimmick train couldn’t be stopped. The Blood Angels gained the Death Company and became vampires; the Dark Angels were liberally dipped in the simmering homoeroticism of their real-world origins, and became penitent warrior monks. It was getting to the point that there were so many non-Codex compliant Chapters that the idea of a Chapter who did follow the Codex had become a novel idea. In fact, the current, modern ‘popularity’ of the Ultramarines could be read almost entirely as a direct response to the historical proliferation of ‘snowflake’ chapters that came to define 2nd edition.
So it was, that the Ultras were finally allowed to have a genuine gimmick of their own, and it was the one gimmick no-one really wants: to be the ‘standard’ chapter. To be the yardstick by which everyone else’s awesome is measured. The reason why this ‘honour’ fell to the Ultras and no-one else seems – to my mind, at least – to be a combination of unpopularity, aesthetics and poor real-world paint technology.
All the other chapters had, by 2nd edition, got special rules and awesome models of their own. By contrast, the Ultramarines had received nothing. No special characters, no unique units, nowt. This had lead to an obvious lack of popularity, meaning they were ripe for development. Coupled with a lack of narrative development – they’d emerged from 1st edition with almost no fluff to call their own – made them the perfect blank slate, making them ideal candidates to be slotted into the role of ‘the Codex-compliant Chapter’.
Also in this era, Games Workshop was undergoing something of a reinvention. This was the period where they first realised there was big money to be made selling to tweens, and so they were now interested in pursuing this untapped, lucrative younger market. It’s a curious quirk of nature that children and younger people’s eyes respond best to bright primary colours – they ‘notice’ them before subtler shades and tones – and, aesthetically at this point in 40K’s life, GW was all about painting everything red. As a result, the Blood Angels were GW’s go-to choice for their ‘Face of The Company’ Chapter, and they were plastered all over the 2nd edition boxed set.
But this didn’t stick.
Why? Well, we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Giving up on the Blood Angels, 3rd edition 40K tried to make the Black Templars A Thing. Templar Knights IN SPACE should be an easy sell…. But the Templars choked. It’s easy to see why. Their colour scheme is simultaneously boring, but really hard to paint well. You can’t make Black Templars look good with minimal skill – you need to actually practise painting to do that, so they’re terrible for beginners. Plus, their emphasis on swords detracts from the futuristic feel of 40K, and they’re just so goddamned GRIMDARK that the whole thing starts to verge on farce. Plus they hate psykers. Much as I love the Templars (and I really do), you can’t blame GW for giving up on them as the Chapter designated as The Face of Games Workshop.
So, for fourth edition, GW’s forced to go back to the drawing board. They return to their initial ideas of a simple, primary colour scheme that’s easy for beginners to paint, and which looks great with minimal effort. With the Blood Angels on the outs, GW’s desire for a would have to be filled by another Chapter.
This is where painting issues in the real world get in Games Workshop’s way. With red no longer an option, all that’s left is yellow or blue. Yellow is an infamously tricky colour to paint well, and paint technology? Well, this was back in the days before decent shades and washes were commercially available. As a result, the Imperial Fists were out as a potential choice.
And so it was that, after nearly twenty years, the Ultramarines finally get invited onto the dance floor. Picked as the Face of The Company, not because they’re the best choice, but because they’re the best of the available options. The Ultramarines are the ugly, rule-abiding nerd who’s always picked last for everything, chosen only because he’s well-behaved.
So it is that from 4th edition onwards, the focus has finally – and seemingly permanently – shifted onto the Ultras as the Face of The Company. It’s easy to see why. All the things which made them ‘vanilla’: the colour scheme, the Codex-compliance, the fact they’re the closest thing to a genuine ‘Good Guy’ the Imperium has… all that stuff’s turned out to be actually kind of essential to selling the fucking product.
Maybe you’re asking why? Why the Ultras and not the Blood Angels?
Well, remember how I said we’d come back to that?
It’s because 40K scares the shit out of the Muggles, that’s why. If you’re like me, you love it because it’s so relentlessly bonkers, so utterly crapsack, so horribly, horrifically dark. Coincidentally, these are also the exact same list of reasons why parents hate it. Trying to explain that their children are playing a wargame where the good guys are Nazis because the whole game’s a complex satirical critique of utilitarianism and the human drive towards fascism and oh, also the baddies are actual fucking demons?
Seriously, you can tell a straight boy that being anally fisted feels amazing, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to huff some poppers and tell you to get stuck in. No matter how much fun a pastime might be, some things are a difficult sell. So it is with 40K.
When some parents won’t even look past the word ‘war’ that preceded the ‘game’ part of the equation, well, you can see why the Blood Angels were dropped. While they were obviously GW’s preferred Face of The Company Chapter from the get-go, the fluff meant the Sons of Sanguinius were just completely unacceptable for the role. Vampires are one thing, but the Death Company? A literal squad of suicidal murder bastards?
And this is why the Ultras are GW’s main chapter. They are, for want of a better description, the perfect camouflage.
Look at the colours. Blue has connotations of goodness and heroism, as well as the fact it’s almost always combined with red or yellow on their pauldrons. Those primary colours just pop, and their heavy associations with childhood toys are not accidental. Ultramarines are overtly heroic; much moreso than the vampiric Blood Angels, the berserker werewolves of the Space Wolfs, and the furious monking of the Dark Angels. Not to mention their name screams ‘Good Guy’: Ultra Marines. They’re like regular marines, only… Ultra.
The Ultramarines are a con. A scam. Everything about them is calculated to make the Chapter – and by extension, the game – seem ‘safe’ to the parents who will inevitably be shelling out hundreds of pounds for handfuls of grey plastic. They’re a way to make a game about Space Nazis fighting Space Demons palatable to people who won’t look any closer than that, and who aren’t interested in trying.
Of course, these same ‘safe’ qualities are – inevitably, really – those same qualities that make them so despised by the ‘hardcore’ gamers. Ultras will always have connotations of being ‘for the kids’ (conveniently missing that this is literally their point) and Christ knows, the one thing teenagers and twentysomethings hate is stuff that runs the risk of making them look childish. They’ll scream and shout and rant for hours about how a hobby about little plastic spacemen is, in some way, Not For Children.
When of course, that’s exactly what 40K is. And only a fool would take that statement as criticism.
Of course when you couple our community’s all-too-frequent, lamentable insecurity alongside the fact that many of us were drawn to the GRIMDARK specifically because it has no heroes, because of the moral complexities the Imperium presents, well. It’s no surprise that the Ultras are despised. And it’s not like Games Workshop’s had a history of exactly helping themselves on this front. Matt Ward’s 5th edition fluff (quoted above) seemed almost wilfully engineered to enrage fans of other, non-Codex chapters by outright stating that the Ultras are objectively The Best Chapter. I cannot imagine a more flamboyant middle finger to anyone who, like myself, plays other Chapters.
An Unfortunate Series of Events.
It’s not surprising that the Primaris Marines are getting a poor reception. A new idea introduced to a community that distrusts new ideas; background material connecting them to a wildly unpopular Chapter, and a less popular Primarch… And given the game’s history, background, everything, honestly, there’s no other way they could’ve done things. The continuity of 40K is too well-established at this point to allow for any other options, and the sad thing is that all that’s happening? Is that the community is being given new toys to play with.
Ultimately, I’m not saying you have to like the Primaris, or that you shouldn’t bash them. We’re all allowed opinions, all allowed to like what we like, hate what we don’t. I’m just saying, maybe we need to think about why things are, the history of where they came from, before we start rushing to attack. The Primaris fluff isn’t great, sure, but there’s complex historical reasons why it is what it has to be.
As I’ve argued before, young people are the lifeblood of the hobby, and getting angry at the fact the game’s made for them is like getting angry at the tides. Shout at the waves all you like, but be prepared to get wet. And while the Ultras are, without question, the lamest of the Chapters, there’s no point being angry at them. Our game needs them. They’re the necessarily safe entry point the game requires, and that’s actually a good thing. More gamers overall, means more money, means more development of those other, more esoteric models, factions and species. Their success means you’re more likely to get the less popular toys you actually want.
A rising tide lifts all boats.