A long time ago, Games Workshop released a board game for their popular “Warhammer 40,000” game franchise. It featured a web of interlocking pieces that could be fashioned together to create the claustrophobic interior of a derelict spacecraft, adrift an unknowable period of time in the great beyond. Obstacles such as doors (both functional and not) populated the game board, and then one player took control of an incursion team of elite Space Marine Terminators as they attempt to secure the derelict. In the lore of the universe, this is done because such derelicts, or “Space Hulks”, have the awesome potential to harbor lost technologies from the distant past. Also, such ships could be full of random marauding Orks, or much worse… the Tyranid Genestealers controlled by Space Hulk’s second player.
You don’t need to know what all of that stuff is to understand that the game was fun. The Space Marine player deploys their squad of Terminators and attempts to achieve their objective, while the Genestealers spawn into the map after play begins as ‘radar blips’. Until visual contact is made, the Terminators can’t know how many Genestealers each blip represents… and even a single one of them is a mortally dangerous adversary at close quarters. Of course, the Terminators prefer to do most of their fighting at range, and have stormbolters (think assault rifles), assault cannons (think miniguns) and heavy flamers (think heavy flamers!) they can deploy to wipe out the Genestealers before they can close to close-combat range. Combat within the game is capriciously lethal, and the whole experience was half an hour or so of good, clean fun.
Fast forward to 2013. Space Hulk (even its re-issue!) has been out of print for a long time. It is now very expensive to acquire, and must be procured second-hand (‘new’ copies exist, but you’ll more than likely have to resort to various hobbying or miniatures sites on the Internet to find them). Enter Full Control Studios, a UK-based developer with several other turn-based strategy credits to their name, who on 15 August of this year dropped “Space Hulk”, a fully realized 3-D recreation of the board game experience that some of us will remember. You know, from a long time ago. Their stated goal was to faithfully recreate the board game experience. The tension of that game primarily came from the uncertainty facing both the Genestealer and Terminator players. The Terminators knew their objective and had prior knowledge of the spawn points for the Genestealers, but had no way of knowing which spawn location they might choose to use, and as I mentioned before… the Genestealers always ride single file, to hide their numbers. The Genestealers need these advantages to make up for their deficiencies in long-range firepower, which the Space Marines have brought in spades.
At the time of the game’s launch, it was met with very mixed reviews. I’ll get to some of the game’s high points in a moment, but it was rightly criticized at launch for an obscene number of bugs. I’m happy to report (in fact, it’s the reason that I’m doing this review now) that with the advent of the 1.3 version patch and the release of the new DLCs, that the game has been running smooth and bug free for me ever since I revisited it. I have not even noticed any jarring graphical anomalies, though they seem like an inevitability in modern game experiences. With the game now smoothly playable, I feel like I can much more authentically recommend it to the interested player. If you are interested… read on, I guess!
Couched in these terms, the video game experience is a very pleasing one. The 3-D graphics are pretty (maybe nothing awe-inspiring, but this is 2013, you’d have to work very hard to impress me with game graphics), and more importantly, the environments have been well constructed to recreate the claustrophobia of the original game. Because, my friends, the corridors aboard the space hulk are only one square wide. You can’t just have your marines spread out in a fire line and advance under a withering hail of machine gun bullets. Instead, the winning tactic tends to be advancing slowly using the ‘Overwatch’ command to fire at moving Genestealers off-turn, or to deploy the heavy flamer or the powerful psionics of the Terminator Librarians to deny certain passageways to the Genestealers completely. Otherwise, what tends to happen, is that a whole bunch of Genestealers charge your position, and your guys die one after another. Oh, and that’s one thing to keep in mind if you do try out Space Hulk: Some of your guys will die. Trying to prevent all friendly casualties? That way lies madness.
If some of this stuff sounds at least a little reminiscent of another recent release (specifically, 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown) that’s because the interfaces share some similarities. Veterans of the new XCOM game will probably find that they have an upper hand in some respects, as you’ll understand what kind of tactics work against enemies that you don’t always know the position of, and who are hilariously deadly if approached in a cavalier fashion. Each of your Terminators, by default, has four ‘Action Points’ available in a turn. One AP allows your space marine to take a step, change his facing 90 degrees, or discharge his firearm (the Heavy Flamer requires 2 action points). You can also use 2 AP to enter Overwatch or Guard (Guard gives you a marginally better chance of success in melee, can be effective on units who already have a leg-up in melee combat)… AP is also used for things like opening doors, acquiring mission critical objects, and so on.
The Genestealer player’s traditional disadvantage, on the other hand, is that she does not know how many command points the Terminator squad has on a given turn, which (in the original version) allowed them to do certain things ‘out of turn’. In the 2013 video game release, command points are rolled at the start of turn (1-6, and you can re-roll them if your squad’s ‘Sergeant’ is still alive), and can be used (at a 1:1 exchange rate) to supplement a Terminator’s normal limit of 4 AP in a turn. In addition, when autofiring while on Overwatch, any roll of ‘doubles’ (1s, 2s, 3s, 4s, whatever) will jam the overwatching weapon…but your Terminator can automatically unjam at the cost of a leftover Command Point.
The game is entirely tactical, without any sort of overarching strategic framework. You enter each scenario (or multiplayer match) with the Terminator’s forces and objectives pre-determined. Only the tactical combat on the map is in play. For that, I find it to be both engaging and fun… in small doses. The game play deepens when you add in all of the game’s potential features, like the Genestealers being able to loose Broodlords into the hulk, and the full Terminator arsenal, including heavy melee weapons, assault cannons, heavy flamers, and psionic Librarians, rather than just the vanilla stormbolter guys…but still doesn’t really match the tactical depth of a game like XCOM, which has many varied enemy types, special unit skills, and a wider arsenal of weapons. An average scenario can clock in at 40 minutes or so, which is not at all disagreeable for me, and, unlike XCOM, Space Hulk is quite amenable to the idea of saving, taking a break, and coming back to your game later.
Oh, one more thing: Space Hulk normally retails at $29.99 from Steam, but is featured in the 2013 year-end sale at 50% off!