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Space Hulk Review | Dropping The Baal

Author:
Jonathan Lester
Category:
Reviews
Tags:
Full Control Games, Games Workshop, iOS games, PC games, Space Hulk, Strategy games

Space Hulk Review | Dropping The Baal

Platform: PC (£22.99, reviewed) | iOS version incoming

Developer: Full Control Games

I suspect that Space Hulk will be superb on iOS. Passing around a single iPad or sitting it in the middle of a table, two players can enjoy the classic Games Workshop board game the way it was meant to be played.

The first commands a squad of Blood Angel Terminators, elite Space Marines deployed into an ancient infested space ship with orders to exterminate anything that moves. These brutally efficient killers effectively pack the power of a main battle tank and the heft to match, slowly stalking through the corridors with heavy assault weaponry, pressing forward since the only way back is blocked by a gaggle of their peers. However, this being a truly asymmetrical game, their opponent assumes control of a horde of Genestealers, horrific aliens who can rip Terminators to shreds if they only get close enough. The Blood Angels have enormous guns and hulking armour on their side, but the profane Xenos boast surprise, sheer numbers and pure terror.

It's fantastic, and since a game of Space Hulk against a family friend originally ignited my love for the Warhammer 40,000 franchise, I can't wait to see whether the tablet version lives up to expectations. Unfortunately, though broadly functional in the main, the initial PC release never makes a case for its astonishingly optimistic price tag.

Space Hulk Review | Dropping The Baal

Space Hulk's third edition, which saw the Blood Angels storming the Sin Of Damnation to atone for an embarrassing rout (they apparently have a bit of a blind spot for Tyranids, hell, even the dreary Ultramarines made a better fist of it), has been recaptured here with a welcome eye for authenticity. The mechanics lend themselves well to a turn-and-grid-based strategy game played from a top-down perspective, acting much like a slightly clunky and more deliberate take on XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Though, of course, Space Hulk came first. Terminator players are governed by a limited stock of action points; every movement, gunshot or even change of facing costing valuable resources, whereas Genestealers players deploy counters resembling radar 'blips' that only translate into enemy forces when they enter line of sight.

The ruleset is a quirky and occasionally bizarre beast - for example, random chance sometimes means that a massive battle-armoured elite marine can consistently fail to open a door with an enormous electrified gauntlet - but everything is designed to increase the tension for the Blood Angels player and the fun factor for their Genestealer nemesis. Weapons jam without provocation, while every 'blip' could represent one, two or three Genestealers. You'll only know which when you come face to face.

As such, Space Hulk is tough to the point of being absolutely vicious when played against the agressive AI, but the thirteen missions offer a reasonable difficulty curve along with a new three-level tutorial. Once you've got the hang of abusing Overwatch, choosing the appropriate facing and not totally blocking up important corridors with your impractically-armoured forces, it's a lot like playing Aliens: The Board Game.

Having been brought to full 3D life by the Unity Engine, Space Hulk handles like practically every turn-based strategy game you've ever tried, save for a couple of neat features that distract us from a slightly clunky and cumbersome feel. First of all, you can get a 'Terminator's Eye View' of the situation thanks to a helmet cam monitor in the top corner of the screen, which is absolutely fantastic and deeply immersive. Important actions such as successful ranged attacks also triggers a close-up camera pan, allowing you to admire your handiwork.

So, then, Space Hulk is a straightforward adaptation of the third edition ruleset - but that's where my scant praise has to stop. Rushed out far too quickly and costing far too much, Full Control's effort suffers from a near-total lack of care and polish.

Space Hulk Review | Dropping The Baal

Where to begin? We'll need to start with the movement and core gameplay. Indeed, Space Hulk commits one of the worst sins that a Warhammer 40,000 tie-in can perpetrate: making Space Marines look stupid. Terminators laboriously waddle around the corridors like they've soiled their Ceramite underwear, moving at a snail's pace and exhibiting bizarre pathfinding and a propensity for clipping through walls in the process. Not only is it impossible to take the whole embarrassing shambles seriously, but turns end up lasting three times as long as they should as you wait for your lumbering hippo-esque warriors to relocate without any options for time compression or disabling the awkward animations altogether.

Much of the board game's fun and tension was provided by dice rolls, which govern everything from close combat to opening doors and unjamming a Storm Bolter in time to fend off an onrushing Genestealer. Whether you live or die comes down to their fickle whim (praying to The Emperor before making each all-important roll was one of the key parts of the original game), yet here, the results are relegated to a tiny window tucked away on the right hand side of the screen. A jammed weapon used to result in abject terror, but here, there aren't even tension-inducing animations should your Storm Bolter gum up. If the turns were quicker, but key dice rolls actually took their sweet time in finally coming to rest, the atmosphere would be much improved.

Space Hulk Review | Dropping The Baal

For £22.99, an oddly inflated price point that likely stems from Games Workshop demanding a sizeable cut of all sales, Space Hulk is shockingly unpolished in the presentation department. We've seen great things from the versatile Unity engine, but here, it's wasted on a visually drab and graphically primitive experience. The Terminators and Genestealer models are horribly-animated and lack detail, especially when the camera zooms in for an action shot, while the crushingly dull levels resemble a basic randomised game assembled out of a limited stock of recycled tiles, despite every stage being individually curated. Blood and weapon effects are hilariously crude, often making us wish that we could use our imagination instead.

An embarrassment of glitches undermine the premium price, not limited to Genestealers sometimes not appearing properly. It's a comedy of errors, with my first shot fired in anger resulting in an invisible foe exploding into a cloud of pixelated blood, while my second Genestealer kill failed to trigger the death animation, leaving a corpse standing in limbo for the rest of the match. Thankfully Full Control managed to quickly hotfix a game-killing victory condition bug on mission six, but they've still got their work cut out over the coming weeks. Sound design is similarly unambitious, from the tinny gunfire effects to a near-total lack of background music, but at least there's some novelty to be gleaned from every Space Marine sounding like a low-rent Darth Vader.

Space Hulk Review | Dropping The Baal

The weighty RRP also cries out for more features and throws the spotlight on some missed opportunities. Even though much of the fun of Space Hulk came from creating your own maps out of the modular cardboard components, this functionality hasn't yet been implemented, leaving value questionable. A randomised skirmish mode wouldn't have gone amiss. Non-existent Space Marine AI means that you can't control the Genestealers during the campaign. There's no army painting suite beyond limited banner customisation, odd considering that we had to paint all the miniatures ourselves, and the 'Librarium' contains no storyline or bestiary entries to flesh out the lore and add extra value for fans. What should have been a glorious fan-service package ends up feeling lean and undernourished.

Most of these issues can be patched, added or improved, but even if they eventually are, Full Control's Space Hulk will still never quite manage to live up to our expectations. It's a board game, meaning that it's designed specifically around the interaction between two players. The constant back and forth taunting between the put-upon Terminator player and their taunting, overconfident nemesis is a core part of the experience; the players are the very soul of Space Hulk. Without them, it just doesn't work... and the multiplayer doesn't really work on the platform.

Space Hulk Review | Dropping The Baal

Asynchronous online multiplayer is functional, sterile and soulless (if cross-platform, to be expected from Unity) - whereas the all-important hotseat mode doesn't work here because it's impossible for the Genestealers to keep their blip values secret. Thus undoing much of the game's unique appeal immediately. This appalling oversight aside, the PC experience of constantly swapping seats isn't really all that practical in the longer drawn-out missions. We suppose that you could pass a laptop around, but even then, it's not ideal. I used to hotswap seats back in the Worms 2 days, but we've come a long way since then.

Which brings us full circle. Space Hulk is slated to release on iOS, so when it does, two players can effortlessly pass an iPad around to keep their movements and blip counters secret, constantly taunting and bantering as they do so. The smaller screen will make Space Hulk's lack of fidelity less obvious, while the touchscreen is a perfect fit for turn-based strategy games like this. Hotseat mode will be the beating heart of Space Hulk, so if you share my love of the classic board game, you're better off waiting to see whether the tablet version can deliver.

Pros:

  • It's Space Hulk
  • 3rd Edition rules and missions competently executed
  • Can be tense, tough and rewarding

Cons:

  • Insultingly unpolished, both in graphical and gameplay terms
  • Embarrassingly slow movement and hilariously crude animations
  • Criminally overpriced; plenty of missing features and a lack of fan service
  • Hotseat multiplayer is a poor fit for the platform

The Short Version: Space Hulk is a purely functional and shockingly unpolished remake of the beloved board game that, frankly, will work better on a tablet. Even die-hard apologists should demand more from this unambitious effort.

Space Hulk Review | Dropping The Baal

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