Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K Franchise has been pitting big burly men against Aliens almost as long as video games have. In fact, Space Hulk (one of the more popular properties in the stable) has been kicking butt and taking names since 1989. In 2018, how does the almost thirty-year-old tabletop veteran emerge from the battlefield of video games?
The titular “Space Hulks” of the title are the game’s mission areas – huge abandoned ships full of questionable decor and, quite often, bloody remains. It’s within the cramped halls of these stranded titans that you’ll be locked in battle between Terminators (think the Cabal from Destiny but MUCH bigger), and Tyranids (Xenomorphs crossed with Baraka from Mortal Kombat).
Each side has a campaign that plays drastically differently to the other. While Terminators are slow but able to provide heavy weaponry (including devastating area-of-effect flamethrowers), Tyranids are quick and for the most part melee-focused.
The Xenomorph comparison is a fair one to make – through turn-based combat, Terminators will squeeze through claustrophobic hallways, always needing to be facing the right way to be able to attack an enemy. An optional first-person mode even allows you to step into a soldier’s boots, although with movement designated by an “Action Points” system, it feels clunky.
That clunkiness is an unfortunate side effect of playing as Terminators. While the smaller passageways and limited visibility necessitate a more cautious approach, Terminators feel as though they’re stomping through treacle. When you’re moving five units per turn, it can often feel as if you’ve forgotten what one unit has done by the time the next one is ready to move. A small concern, but a valid one.
With a lot of the systems being built on the successes of the revival of the X-Com franchise, there are some smart additions to the turn-based tactics formula. One of these is the option to draw cards that can either give a buff to the current turn (perhaps attack damage), or be converted into more Action Points. Being able to move just out of range, converting a card and firing back at the monster that chased you feels breathtaking, even in a turn-based scenario. These risks are hard to take, however – every character in Space Hulk: Tactics can be killed in a single hit. This can be frustrating, however, when coupled with your soldiers’ occasional inability to hit a target just a foot away and down a straight corridor.
Another great addition that plays into the “swarm” mentality of the Tyranids is the use of a “Blip” – essentially a way of disguising a unit on the field, a blip moves cloaked until spotted by a Terminator. When identified, it can contain between one and three Tyranids. Again activated by the card system, this gives a true feeling of dread as you wait to see what’s coming around the corner (“THEY’RE COMING OUT OF THE WALLS”).
Visually, Space Hulk’s design is firmly rooted in the nineties – and that’s to be expected given its heritage. There are lots of grey and brown rusted interiors, and plenty of bloodstains to be found on the floors. It’s classic sci-fi/horror tropes, but it works. The sound is great too, with swarms given suitably ominous vocal cues including a vaguely “Aliens-esqe” motion tracker and Terminators sounding exactly as they should – two-tonne death machines. Voice acting is also excellent throughout, with suitable gravitas given to squad members and commanders alike. Its a good job they’re so clearly audible as text can be tough to read, given the small font size.
Space Hulk: Tactics is a very difficult game. In fact, every now and then you’ll bait an enemy swarm into a kill area by shutting off doors, only to realise they’ve circumnavigated you entirely. On other occasions, you’ll keep your troops in single-file, unable to walk side-by-side through the corridors and just lay in wait for the enemy. There are some situations that feel distinctly “no-win”, forcing you to replay a mission from the beginning. For the aforementioned “treacle-covered Terminators”, this can feel like a slog, although it really hammers home the risk of being aboard a floating Alien nest.
Completing a mission can feel cheapened, however, as win-conditions seem to be almost comically binary. Whereas in X-Com you may win a battle by the skin of your teeth, Space Hulk: Tactics will assume everybody made it out alive if a certain number of troops extract. You’re also unable to eliminate more than the requested number of enemies in any mission – once you hit the required number, it’s mission complete. While there is a good chance this will be patched, it certainly doesn’t make you feel like you finally outsmarted an admittedly very wily AI – it just makes you feel as if you’ve cheesed the encounter somehow.
Aside from two fully-fledged campaigns, Space Hulk: Tactics offers a multiplayer mode complete with customisable troops and the ability to create maps. With leaderboard support too, you may find it becomes the best way to play Space Hulk with friends that can’t be in the same room to roll dice with.
For all of it’s smart additions to both campaign modes, Space Hulk feels like it’s devotion to the tabletop source material has arguably led to a slower, less immediate video game. Having said that, beneath it’s rougher edges is a good-looking, challenging, and varied title that is more than worth a look for fans of the genre.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*