Humans have spread across the galaxy, sailing vast distances in huge starships, through the twisted psychic waves of the immaterium, otherwise known as the Warp. The Warp, while providing fast travel, can be unpredictable and in some freak occurrences it would chew up a couple of these giant starships and spit them out of its alternate dimension as one giant twisted Space Hulk.
Some are the size of a moon and could contain lost secrets. Often they harboured xenos denizens that would cause harm to humanity, these metal floating mazes would need cleansing before their other worldly passengers make contact and feast on our fellow man.
Genestealers were first introduced to the world in 1989 and were soon experienced by Space Hulk board game players later that same year. Also getting their first game appearance were the giant armoured Terminator squads that were chosen from humanities elite Space Marines. Think of the Terms as supercharged Space Marines and Space Marines are superhumans.
Space Hulk is a careful rebuild of the original board game. A handful of Terminators are sent into the bowels of these floating metal hulks to complete a scenario. Genestealers swarm through the corridors from set locations around the mission map.
Despite the enormous amount of armour and the electric charged powergloves, the Terminators are no match for the genestealers when it gets all up close and personal. Multi-limbed melee experts the Genestealers have claws than can tear through armour like paper, making them usually three times as effective to an unsuspecting Termie, if they were to get in to hand-to-hand combat together.
The Terminator armoured Space Marines fill the corridors and cannot move or even fire past their squad mates, so whoever is at the front of the squad had better roll good when a handful of Genestealers are charging down the corridor towards them.
Each side takes a turn to complete all their unit’s actions. The actions for Terminators and Genestealers are defined through the use of action points. Termies have 4 action points. Its simple enough, move 1 square forward pay 1 action point, firing ahead costs 1 action point. But its the cumbersome nature of the Terminators that really eats away at your action pool. Terminators have to spend 1 action point for every 90 degree turn they make. Whereas the more agile Aliens have 6 action points and can turn for free. The main part of the strategy is trying to use the Terminators limited movement to get from A to B before the whole squad is overwhelmed by the aliens.
The approach most useful to the Terminator is finding a suitably lengthy corridor and standing at one end of it in overwatch. Overwatch costs 2 action points and allows the Terminator to blast at anything that moves in the Aliens turn.
The thrill of the original boardgame was best captured in those moments when a Terminator was on overwatch and a stream of Xenos poured around the corner towards him. The Space Marine player would grab their dice and begin the extermination. For every movement the alien took along the corridor towards the Terminator the player would roll to see if he hit the alien. One hit is always one kill. But sometimes the Terminator would miss and the alien would step closer and then the Terminator would try again and sometimes they would miss a second and third time and the tension continues to mount, because as soon as they get on to close-combat that Genestealer is going to shred. Then the Terminator’s gun jams and its time to crap your shiny metal pants.
Another gameplay mechanic to add tension and randomness was the lurking Genestealers. Blips enter the corridor from one of a number of spots around the edge of the maps during the Genestealer turn. The amount coming in depended on the scenario being played. A blip would randomly represent between 1 and 3 Genestealers and can move around the board as a blip. It is only when the Genestealer is seen by a Termie that it is replaced on the board with the one, two or three aliens that the blip represents. This adds considerable tension. For example, when you see 3 separate blips moving in on your location, you know you could be facing anywhere between 3 aliens (a horror films worth of terror) all the way up to 9 aliens (We’re mother fo’ing screwed).
Now its time to talk about Space Hulk the PC game. Anyone who has played the classic boardgame will have high expectations and that could be one of the game’s biggest hurdles. People who are likely to buy this title first are those that loved the boardgame and they are likely to shout loudest should things not be just so.
I loved the boardgame, so be warned. First impressions are solid, as you get to place your 3D Terminators into the start area. Their little shoulder cameras showing you a first person viewing window in the top right of your screen. This does a nice job of adding atmosphere but you will ignore this gimmick within a minute of playing the game, as it serves no purpose. It quickly becomes obvious that the 3D isometric style overview of the narrow corridors can sometimes have you miss-clicking squares. Instead of moving forward, your terminator accidentally spends 2 valuable action points and retreats a square. This frustration can happen often, no matter how careful you are. BUT I instinctively hit ctrl-z and discovered an unmentioned control. You can completely undo your last go. This will allow you to cheat the game, so use it cautiously. But sometimes it is necessary to reverse moments when the game cheats you.
Back to the gameplay. Your standard Terminator marine can stand in overwatch and fire limitless amounts of ammo in a single turn, providing Genestealers keep pouring towards your guns, which they do. Due to this it is easy to get complacent with your overwhelming fire power. And thats when you underestimate the aliens and your predicament.
In one situation I knew there was a single Genestealer around the left corner of a T junction up ahead. I had 2 regular Termies and a flamer in single file marching towards the junction. We wanted to go around the right corner. If we did this without taking care of the Genestealer we would leave our backs exposed to it. I decided to march the first two Terminators around the right corner, leaving the final Terminator to cover the junction on Overwatch. The plan being that when the Genestealer had its turn and ran across the junction towards the backs of my comrades my Overwatch marine would mow down the bastard, saving his squad mates and walk around the corner a hero. It actually played out a little differently.
The genestealer moved into the junction square and my overwatch marine fired his burst. Brother Oh-shiticus missed and the genestealer chewed up both his buddies in a single round. Patience and planning is required. In hindsight I could have blasted the area with my limited shot flamer, who was stood at the front of the three Termies. This would have most likely destroyed the alien around the corner, but all three guys would have had to wait for the flames to clear, next turn, before moving the three terminators forward. The gamble with this is that my flamer would have lost a precious round of ammo and the next turn more aliens could have turned up, so I would still be faced with the same choice or worse. So sometimes the marines have to accept their losses and push forward or risk being over run.
The autocannon wielding Terminator is one of your main Genestealer showstoppers. He can pull down aliens until his ammo runs out. What should be a hugely satisfying experience is slightly marred by the constant animation bug that accompanies this rain of firepower. The firing animation doesnt connect with the target. Consistently his spray of fire buggily blasts through a wall off to the right, nowhere near to the target, and then the alien explodes.
The Genestealer blips I mentioned earlier are meant to instil unknown dread in the Space Marine player, but unfortunately when you see them, their flickering red graphics do little to bestow that intended stress.
These sorts of near misses happen throughout this version of Space Hulk. Graphics are functional but not great, the animations do not connect well enough with the players experience, the speed of your Terminators will soon frustrate the player as you have to watch each Termie in turn move slowly to the place you did or did not want them to go. The rules of the game are only accessible from the main menu, so if you forget a rule - you have to save and close to the main menu to check it. There is also no way of getting a good idea of what you are meant to be doing in a scenario, if you cant remember the initial mission briefing, because the limited objectives list is vague. The rules aren't that complex but it helps to be able to check that you are not about to do something really stupid. The overhead map seems all but pointless, showing no useful information. Everything seems to be just slightly off, leaving the player with a disconnected experience.
Its easy to forgive the regular but minor graphical hiccups within the game but what does get annoying is the constant disconnect between the player and what should be the fun the game has to offer. For example, distance to the target does not impact the accuracy or potency of a terminators attack. Marching right up, to look the Genestealer in the face, with a gun held to its belly, only to routinely miss is underwhelming. Having the same odds to strike it up close as the ones you have when it is down the length of a long corridor, seems a little wrong.
Obviously the game is clinging to the rules of the original for its own good reasons. Maybe these extra calculations would cause a headache to young boardgamers trying to work out if an alien is at long or short range from a Terminator and should they roll two or three dice. What am I saying? Table top gamers love that shit. But this unwillingness to move from the original game structure demonstrates a restraint on creativity. And this identifies the root of the problems with the title.
Space Hulk is a computer game and those sorts of calculations and rules could be applied by someone writing a basic excel macro, let alone a title released for £22.99 or $29.99.
Terminators are meant to be rock solid units of futuristic destruction and to go face to face with something, guns ablazing and regularly come off “unlucky” just doesn't make for an enjoyable experience.
Space Hulk as a board game is a fast paced, head-to-head, tactical blast, between you and your mate, who is sat swearing at you from across the table. Its balance between limited gun-totting Terminators and limitless claw-slashing Xenos works well. Space Hulk, as a PC game, is a lumbering, hollow experience. With key elements removed, like the human opponent furiously rolling dice for constant live or die moments, it leaves you with little empathy towards a scenarios outcome.
Whereas if they had applied some extra rules into the mix? Maybe something like, distance from target will impact weapon damage/accuracy; or maybe attacking with multiple Terminators at the same time could cause a crossfire, which increases damage dice rolled. Increasing strategic choices like these would enhance the players engagement and expand its longevity, as the focus would shift the game into something a player could enjoyably get behind.
Speaking of the missing human opponent, Space Hulk has a hot seat feature that lets you play on the same computer against your buddy. The person who is the Genestealers though should be prepared to get upset. You cannot hide the number of Genestealers in a lurking blip from the Space Marine player sat beside you. This renders the classic game’s tactics of building a bluff swarm, where you make the Termie player think you have a truck load of aliens when in fact you have 3, irrelevant and pretty much single handedly makes the hotseat feature feel hollow.
The game also comes with multiplayer via Steam but there is no timer associated with it, so unless you can find a good buddy to sit it out with you, people will simply logout whenever they fancy, leaving you feeling like it is all a little...pointless. Which made me question why I felt that way. My mind drifted to another incredibly awesome Games Workshop (GW) title, Bloodbowl. This enjoyed a conversion to PC a few years ago and is similarly a two player boardgame. But its multiplayer gameplay had a very significant point. As you played opponents and completed a full match your players would gain experience and your team would, possibly, get better even if you lost. The more you played online the better your team would become. Space Hulk has none of that. Not that it should, but it needs to be more imaginative. The unwillingness to adapt to the modern PC gaming landscape means that this title is left lacking.
The recent surge in GW game releases is a good thing, but just turning out straight up copies of boardgames may not always be the best approach.
Space Hulk is an ok game but it is currently overpriced. A patch will likely release soon to fix a lot of the graphical glitches and then it is possible a DLC may turn up, which could offer some much needed strategy and immersion.
Apart from the graphical bugs and the slightly simple user interface, Space Hulk manages to recreate the rules and missions of the original boardgame. The problem is, it missed out the guts of what made this game great. Whats left is a slow paced, empty experience of a fast paced engaging classic. Which is just not that special by today's PC gaming standards. The standards for tablet games are not as high though, so this would certainly be a worthy title for your ipad, when it releases on that platform.