In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. Such is the famous premise of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe, the nastiest of bleak dystopias where life barely seems worth living. Pity then the Space Marines, the heavily-armoured supersoldiers of the universe’s theocratic Imperium of Man; for one thing, they never get a day off (because there is only war), and for another, when massive derelict spacecraft full of slavering razor-clawed beasties show up, rather than taking the sensible option and blowing them into flaming chunks, they have to suit up and venture into their dark and crumbling corridors. Players guide the intrepid and foolhardy Marines through said corridors in Space Hulk, a modern videogame take on the classic board game of the same name that follows in the recent turn-based strategy success of the reimagining of XCOM.
A two player game, Space Hulk pits the Blood Angel Space Marine chapter against the Genestealers, speedy, swarming monsters very much influenced by the Alien films. Each level boils down to a simple equation - the Marines want to get something (often just to an exit on the other side of the map), and the genestealers want to claw all of their faces off.
In the singleplayer campaign, AI plays the genestealer role, leaving the player to try and shepherd their squad (or sometimes two) of Marine Terminators through the darkness to their goal without them all becoming lunch. Faithfully recreating the board game, the isometric 3D maps are divided into squares, with each level being made up of a series of corridors, doors, and small rooms, and the entire game system is built around rolls of 6-sided dice.
The lumbering Marines are sufficiently wide in their armour that they must troop in single file down corridors, and are unable to squeeze by each other. Each receives just four action points per round, which can be spent on shooting, walking, turning (like an aircraft carrier), or guarding, or occasionally on special actions. However, the roll of a die each turn also allocates the player a pool of between 1 and 6 “command points”, which they can spend on additional actions for their squad however they see fit that turn. The most essential move in the game is overwatch, which for the cost of 2 action points allows bolter-armed Marines to blast away at any genestealers that move into their attack range until the beginning of their next turn.
The Space Marines pack some serious heat (some are armed with special weapons, such as the heavy flamer, which can bathe corridors and entire rooms in fire), but although being armed with a “power fist” sounds dangerous, it’s nevertheless the genestealers who have the dice advantage in close combat. For the Marines then, the idea is to keep the genestealers out of close range while moving to their goal, while the genestealers need to swarm in numbers or to take out the crucial link in the Marine’s defensive pattern and fall upon their flank. The genestealers have multiple spawn points on each map, and unlimited numbers. They also initially appear as “blips” to the Marines player when placed on the game board - each blip can have from one to three genestealers in it, and the number isn’t revealed until the Marines get them in visual range.
All this is a faithful recreation of the successful mechanics of the board game, and just as there was with the original, there’s fun to be had here in carefully arranging the progress of the Marines and blasting down the genestealers, but there are unfortunately a few problems unique to videogames that have crept into this adaptation. Space Hulk feels unpolished, like it was rushed out the door.
The game is generally pleasing on the eyes. The character models of the Marines do particular justice to the gothic aesthetic of the Warhammer universe, festooned with fetishes and brandishing their meaty weapons. A first person helmet-cam view for each Marine is also a nice touch. Animations, though, leave much to be desired. Genestealers who are gunned down (which the player will see a lot) mostly die in an interchangeable cloud of red, and a Space Marine who goes down in close combat sort of lamely falls over after claw marks slash across the screen - not the stubborn, heroic end one would expect from humanity’s toughest warriors. An action camera is designed to automatically zoom in on key events, but occasionally this seems to just not happen when it should. This is one of a number of little glitches that occurs regularly, such as Marines firing their weapons without any sound and models clipping through doors. The overall impression is that this is a good set of art assets waiting to be put to use in a better way.
The control scheme is a little bit clunky, although easy enough to eventually adapt to. Perhaps realising the learning curve here though, the game makers include an “undo” button, which cancels your selected Marine’s last action. This is very handy when Marines have accidentally been sent lumbering off in the wrong direction, but it becomes invaluable when you realise that, in what seems like an oversight by the programmers, it also works after a failed attack. If that genestealer absolutely has to die, the player is able to undo their poor roll and keep at it until they get the numbers they need, at no cost of action points. The player can try to stay puritanical, but it’s hard to resist turning to this exploit when things are looking tough, and needless to say, this kind of breaks the game. This may yet be patched, though (as early graphical glitches on the game’s menu were during our review period).
Probably bigger than these problems are the game’s slavish adherence to the source material. Perhaps it’s unfair to criticise when studio Full Control clearly seem to have set out with the mission of translating the board game directly, and the simplistic mechanics are still fairly effective, but they lead to things being a bit repetitive. Although the different types of Marines mix things up a bit, there’s still only a limited amount of tactical variety to employ, and since Marines set to overwatch at corridor junctions will typically gun down whole streams of genestealers without too much trouble (until the occasional weapon jam, which is often immediately cleared), this tactic is deployed over and over again and everything quickly starts feeling a bit samey. The AI also throws genestealers at the player in a fairly unimaginative way, only too happy to charge down a corridor under fire or into the kill zone of the flamer, rather than lying in wait in key mission areas to make the most of their close range advantage.
Multiplayer options can redress this last issue by putting the genestealers in the hands of a human player. Both online and hotseat options are available, and humans make for considerably more tricky opponents. As the genestealer player, it can be fun to find sneaky flanking routes and watch the Marines heading for your secret alien horde, but if anything your tactics are even more limited than on the Marine side.
Space Hulk is enjoyable enough for a brief while, and a faithful recreation of the board game, but its various blemishes, its lack of polish, and its somewhat repetitive gameplay hold it back considerably. It might be interesting to see what patches and expansions can achieve for the title, but at the moment it’s difficult to give it a ringing endorsement.