Space Marines. The superheroes of the Warhammer 40,000 world. Fanatical warrior-monks of the far future, they protect humanity from the many faces of chaos that threaten to engulf the universe. But among these fearsome protectors of humanity, a few stand above. The superheroes to the superheroes. Clad in tactical dreadnought armour and deployed as spearheads for the most critical assaults the Terminators are mankind's finest.
So, when dirty great chunks of space-crap appear out of the void, formed from hundreds of capital spaceships fused together by the corrupting power of the warp itself and seething with feral aliens that barely skirt the borders of copyright infringement, who ya gonna call?
Space Hulk - the original Space Hulk, that is - was a board game that came in a huge box back in the late eighties and made an impact on my young life back then. I wouldn't go so far as to say I actually painted the miniatures (let's not go crazy here), but I remember tense confrontations between the Terminators (who were fierce at range but surprisingly fragile in melee range) and the swarms of Genestealers who relentlessly harass them.
Then came the videogame for the Commodore Amiga, back in the early nineties. Bravely eschewing the board game's turn-based approach in favour of an innovative semi-pausable real-time thingamabob never really tried before or after it, this new imagining of the skirmishes between Space Marine and Genestealer remains to this day perhaps the tensest gaming experience of my life. I'll never forget one mission where my one remaining Terminator, his flamer completely empty, fled toward the decklift and safety, knowing that there must be Genestealers right behind him. Back in the elevator, he needed to turn round to close the door and there they were, swarming toward me down the hallway. I was literally screaming out loud, fumbling to hit the button to close the lift door as the aliens got closer, and closer, and...
Even talking about it these years later evokes a visceral reaction. So much so that I had to waste the whole beginning of this review remembering it, even though that classic game bears little resemblance to the modern Space Hulk: Ascension, which is happy recreating the original board game's thoughtful tactical meanderings. The first DLC for Ascension is the Imperial Fists, which adds, simply, a new playable Terminator chapter and a new Space Hulk.
Warhammer 40,000 is certainly not short on backstory, and the Imperial Fists have tons, but for the most part, all you need know is that they're the ones who wear the yellow armour. There are of course gameplay tweaks that differentiate them - no Librarians (because who has time for books when you're hands are always fists?) and bolters that cool down more effectively (although you'll still get that feeling that mankind's most fearsome warriors are equipped with the least-reliable machine pistols the universe has ever seen, most of them jamming each and every time there's a firefight). But forget all of this stuff. The main thing you need to remember is that the Imperial Fists are the yellow guys.
Oh, and there's one other thing. The Tarantula Turret. Imperial Fist sergeants can select this nasty little beggar as their carry-on luggage for their foray onto the Space Hulk, and quite a little beauty it is too. You can only place it once per mission, and be careful with the facing or you'll accidentally have it up against the wall the wrong way. But once it's deployed with a decent firing arc - oh, my. I never once saw it miss, or fail to kill a Genestealer in its sights. If you have a flank you just can't seem to keep safe, set up the Tarantula and you can safely go on your merry way worrying no more. In later missions when the Genestealers are tough and numerous the Tarantula can be a massive bacon saver.
The new Space Hulk is just like the others, sadly. There are a couple of point-defending missions (again, the Tarantula is your best friend in these) and the die-hard fans will no doubt enjoy the chance to just get stuck into a new set of missions, but ultimately there's not much new in the Space Hulk itself. Considering it's supposed to be a load of different ships stuck together haphazardly, the whole thing feels kind of two-dimensional. The Space Hulk backstory should be the perfect set up for Poseidon Adventure-style scenes where you open a door and the next room is completely upside-down, or at a ninety-degree angle or something crazy. But there are not even any stairs. The lack of depth seemed to me to be a missed opportunity. Aliens appearing on the scanner and getting closer and closer... "That's impossible! They should be inside the room!"
Space Hulk is, and remains, a game about overlapping fields of fire, covering all the angles, straightforward advances followed by grueling retreats and lop-sided battles against a foe that can never be completely eradicated. None of this is changed by the Imperial Fists expansion. But it does remain a fun game, and aside from some new types of enemy and new and interesting environmental challenges (none of which you’ll really see in this DLC), there’s perhaps not a lot of directions they can go with the inevitable DLC beside expanding the roster of Space Marine chapters and plopping more Space Hulks into the game. The Imperial Fists expansion is a steady, workmanlike DLC with few surprises but no major flaws.