Chances are, any review you read about Space Hulk (and please, do read widely) by a British journalist will open with some reminiscing about the board game that it’s based on. I’m afraid I won’t be any different.
Though I dabbled in Warhammer 40,000 in my younger years, the game itself didn’t really grab me, just the miniatures. Space Hulk was the exception. A stand-alone board game spin-off focusing on squads of Space Marine Terminators (genetically modified blokes in massive power armour) clearing out infestations of Genestealers (watered down xenomorphs from Aliens) on a derelict spaceship. It didn’t require vast amounts of flat surfaces, cripplingly expensive miniatures or an empty weekend to play. Everything you needed was in the box and a game didn’t take very long. It was the (relatively) cheap, accessible gateway to 40K and making a video game of it seems like a good and obvious idea.
So good an idea that it’s been had before. There was a Space Hulk adaptation for PC-esque systems in the early 90s, which fashioned it into a famously terrifying real time strategy game, focusing on the first person views of your squad members. This new Space Hulk takes a rather different approach.
Instead of an adaptation, Space Hulk 2013 is really just a straight port of the board game to the PC. A turn-based squad strategy, Space Hulk faithfully recreates the experience of the board game on your own PC and does nothing to hide its roots. You move your Terminators around a grid-based board of narrow corridors and 3×3 rooms with the aim of achieving simplistic goals: reach the map’s exit, destroy item x with gun y, kill x number of genestealers etc. Just like with the board game, you can see all the board from the get-go, but Genestealers only appear as unconfirmed ‘blips’ until directly in the Line of Sight of a Terminator, at which point it’s revealed how many are in that bundle.
Your actions are limited by Action Points. Each Terminator has 4 to spend each turn, but they’re valuable commodities. Moving a space costs 1 point. Firing a normal weapon costs 1 point. Opening a door costs 1 point. Turning 90s degrees even costs 1 point. That last one might sound ludicrous, but it plays up the big, cumbersome nature of the Terminators and factors into Line of Sight considerations. Action Points are supplemented with Command Points. Each turn, the player randomly receives 1-6 CP, which can be divided and spent on any squad-members to further their actions.
Command Points are determined by the roll of a six sided dice and in fact the whole game runs on the throw of D6s, copying fairly faithfully the mechanics of the board game (certainly as much as I remember them – I will admit, it’s been a while). The game doesn’t hide the dice rolls from you, displaying them in a small log window. However, there’s something inherently suspicious about a computer rolling dice for you. I’m sure the number generator its using is plenty random and all games make similar calculations that you’re not privy to, but using such a simple and familiar mechanic and having it on full display but out of the player’s influence incites only distrustfulness.
This is enhanced by the game’s balance between the Terminators and Genestealers. The idea is that the Terminators are slow, cumbersome but deadly at long range, while the Genestealers are quick, weak but deadly in close quarters. This doesn’t always play out though and the Terminator player often feels at a disadvantage (true also in the board game). To kill a Genestealer at distance requires rolling a 6 on one of two D6. That’s slim odds. Yet for a Genestealer to successfully attack a Terminator in close quarters it needs only to roll a higher number on one of three D6 than on the defending Terminator’s 1D6. The odds are stacked disproportionately in the Generstealer player’s favour, making at times for a very frustrating game. Often, it feels entirely pointless making any voluntary attack against a Genestealer in your own turn, as they’re so rarely successful. The most fruitful way of killing enemies is to stick your Terminators on Overwatch, which allows them a free shot every time an enemy moves in their Line of Sight during the Genestealer’s turn and yields oddly and consistently better results. There is also a, presumably unintentional, exploit smack dab right in the middle of the game. If you fail an attack roll in your own turn you can simply use the Undo button to scrub the action and try again. Not particularly kosher, but it does even the odds in the face of the Genestealers’ ability to cut through Terminator armour like giant scissors through novelty ribbons.
Even so, it’s entirely possible to fail a mission after meticulous planning due only to the CPU inflicting on you a run of bad luck with dice rolls, which is frustrating. Entirely possible in the original board game as well, but again, with the dice rolls out of your control, it can’t help but feel slightly malicious, especially when you’ve poured in so much time to a mission.
Space Hulk, you see, is a very slow game. Each mission can take upwards of an hour to finish and that’s not because they’re particularly densely plotted or complicated. The game is bogged down by a lackadaisical nature. The Terminators all move at a snail’s pace, which yes, again plays up the whole big and cumbersome angle, but it means just moving your squad around the board takes ages. This isn’t helped by the camera. You can’t zoom out far enough to see the whole board at once, not even when you switch to the ‘strategic view’. Every time you select a different Terminator, the camera drifts lazily over to centre on it, which is considerate of it, I suppose. The trouble is, if they’re already on screen and you’ve selected them by clicking on them, chances are you don’t need the camera to centre on them and its slow drift will screw up the commands you’re issuing. More problematic is that during the opponent’s turn the camera is far too slow moving around large maps to show you action as its happening, so unless you’re treated to an ‘action view’ (a simplistic cinematic shot of combat) you can often miss entirely what’s happening.
The other big problem visually is that it’s really hard to see the layout of the map in the normal view. The spooky atmospheric effects of dank corridors and flickering lights are a nice idea, but they obstruct the player’s ability to spot simple features like doors. You’re constantly having to switch back to the strategic view just to get a clear look at the layout. Considering that the game is hardly the most impressive looking thing ever, it’s a lot of hindrance for little reward.
The controls are oddly imprecise as well. Selecting a target for ranged fire will often result in the game ignoring you, while choosing the final direction of your terminator after movement is often hit and miss. Thankfully there’s the undo button, but it often throws the game into a tizz when it resets your Terminator’s position, leading on more than one occasion to them walking through walls and glitching. Glitches are common through Space Hulk, from the main menu that leaves the mission select options over the top of anything else you try to look at, to library images that don’t display properly and frequent spelling and grammatical mistakes. It feels very much like the game was rushed through QA too quickly.
(ADDENDUM: the game was patched during the production of this review, so some of these problems appear to have been rectified.)
Very disappointingly, there’s not much in the way of customisation available in Space Hulk. You can’t customise your Terminators beyond their banners, which you can only see on the main menu. It seems wrong to have a Warhammer 40,000 game where you can’t decorate your squad in your own design, even if it means breaking the Blood Angels element of the story slightly (and let’s face it, it’s not like there’s really much of a story here anyway). You can change the appearance of the Genestealers, but only through bundles of premium DLC, available right from launch, which feels rather insidious. There doesn’t appear to be any open mod options, which again, feels a bit wrong for a Warhammer game.
Although it faithfully recreates the mechanics of the board game, Space Hulk can’t recreate the other elements that make the physical version so much fun: the social nature of playing against people in the same room (the awkward hot-seating multiplayer mode doesn’t compare), the open customisable nature of the miniatures, even the ability to create your own maps from the board pieces. What was originally a breezy, simplified gateway to 40K has been translated into a sluggish, tedious video game. If it had taken more liberties with the format, actually taken advantage of being a video game like the 90s game did, it might have proved to be a more interesting game. Instead we’re left with a rather soulless imitation that reminds me of electronic chess: handy for learning the rules but something you’d only play instead of the original as a last resort.