Space Hulk Review: Sergeant Of The Squad, Accept Your Orders
One of my fondest childhood memories is of lazing around with my best friend for whole weekends at a time, sat around the living room floor, board games strewn far and wide. One of the best was Games Workshop‘s Space Hulk, a spinoff of their massively popular (especially in the UK at the time) Warhammer 40,000 franchise. It was essentially Aliens: The Board Game, pitting two players – Marines and Aliens – against each other in intense, objective-based combat, and it was somehow terrifying in spite of being all cardboard and plastic miniatures.
Over the past twenty years, Games Workshop have since discontinued, re-launched, re-discontinued, re-re-launched and re-re-discontinued the game. Despite the most recent release only being a couple of years old, the only way to get hold of it is trawling eBay, and in the UK you’re looking at prices well in excess of £100 ($150 or more) for a copy of it in half-decent condition, which brings us to why the release of a humble board game adaptation on Steam is such big news for some. At $30/£23 it’s more expensive than you might expect, but it’s the cheapest way to own the game by far at this point. So the question is simple: Is this adaptation good enough to live up to the Space Hulk name? Yes. And no.
Space Hulk: – PC [Reviewed], Mac, iOS (Coming Soon)
Developer: Full Control Studios
Publisher: Full Control
Release Date: August 15, 2013
Why yes? Because Space Hulk is still a magnificently designed and accessible board game, and this version allows you to play through the classic 12-mission campaign against the AI or friends anywhere in the world. Being a direct adaptation of the board game rules, it’s relatively simple and accessible, and the rules don’t take long to learn. A simplified three-mission tutorial campaign eases the player into basic controls, taking turns moving a small squad of barely-mobile armored marines through tight corridors, fighting off endless waves of alien monsters and covering each other at chokepoints.
Each unit has their own personal pool of Action Points each turn, letting them move, turn, fire or interact with devices such as doors. Plus, each player has a reserve pool of AP each turn that can be spent to push pieces further than they’d normally be able to go. The alien forces are unlimited, constantly streaming in through spawn points littered around the edge of the map, so the game only ends when the Marine player completes his objective, or once any mission-critical units (such as specialists required to complete objectives) have been killed by the aliens. One of the more notable rules is Overwatch, allowing a Marine to spend some AP to lock down a hallway and fire at anything crossing his path during the Alien players turn.
While the game lets you consult a digital manual at any time to see the full rules, anyone who has played a turn-based strategy game or strategy RPG can probably figure their way around the basic controls. The in-game UI is solid and simplistic, reminiscent of the XCOM: Enemy Unknown reboot, and while it would have been nice for the game to tell you your odds of succeeding an action up-front, that twinge of tension that comes from having to rely on luck and gut feeling makes up for it. Once you’ve played a few rounds, you’ll know your odds, anyway – never good – and you’ve often got a time limit, too. Intense and high-pressure; Monopoly this ain’t. Sadly, the tutorial and campaign only teach the Marine side of the game, so anyone wanting to learn effective Genestealer tactics will have to find a friend to play against.
What makes Space Hulk such an intense game is that with just a couple of simple single six-sided dice, it manages to simulate that movie moment of a terrifying, dark alien creature rushing down a hallway at a twitchy Marine. It moves into sight, you take a shot, assuming you remembered to spend the action points to put the Marine into Overwatch mode. You have a small chance of hitting, but it’s a swing and a miss. It moves closer, you fire again, with a slightly higher chance thanks to the rule for sustained fire. Another miss. It’s now two steps away, you’ve got good odds of hitting it and… your weapon jams. While your Marine fumbles helplessly with his weapon, it closes the last space and it switches to melee, and only one of the two can walk away from this. Every dice roll has the chance of saving or ruining the mission. It’d be hideously out of place in a traditional computer strategy game, but this is meant to be a shared experience.
The game also captures the overbearing techno-gothic style of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. The disgraced Blood Angels chapter of the Space Marines are seeking redemption after a disastrous mission six hundred years ago cost them 95% of their numbers. They think their salvation comes in an all-or-nothing bid to capture the Sin Of Damnation, a massive spacecraft which has been missing for centuries, presumably lost to the Warp where demons, dark gods and monsters roam. So, they’re going all-in again, throwing their entire force at another potentially unbeatable foe, all in the name of a deathless god-emperor. They’re optimists, you see.
It is incredibly silly – it’s a game about power-armored warrior space monks fighting purple aliens in a ship with a casual skull-motif decor – and only really makes sense to those familiar with the setting, but it just works. The voice acting, while limited, is reminiscent of the original PC adaptation of the game from the early 90s, distorted and bellowing as it issues the Marine player their orders. You can also learn the game at your own pace by playing solo, albeit only as the Marines, unlocking each mission in turn as you progress through the classic 12-mission campaign from the rulebook.