Review: Space Hulk24 Aug 2016 11
Review: Space Hulk
Released 08 Jun 2016
Space Hulk on mobile is a tale of two dev teams. Full Control developed a PC adaption of the Games Workshop tabletop classic and ported it to iOS back in December of 2013. Then, this year, Hoplite Research brought Space Hulk to Android with a port that differs in significant ways from Full Control’s iOS version, which Kelsey reviewed for us after it came out. This review mainly covers the Android version of the game, although the iOS version has been played for reference.
This is going to be one of my more technical and convoluted reviews, as some of what I have to say goes all the way back to the tabletop Space Hulk (released in 1989), and distinctions must be made between Full Control’s PC version and the iOS and Android ports. Since this is Pocket Tactics, I hope you’ll bear with me for a short history lesson.
I’ve loved Space Hulk, in various official and unofficial adaptations (and there are a number of the latter) for a long time. I’d heard about Warhammer 40k before I played Space Hulk, but Space Hulk introduced me to some of the foundational concepts of that universe: Space Marines shoot like Storm Troopers, Terminator armor is made of Tissue Paper, “Power Fist” is future-slang for FUBAR, and that Genestealer and Tyrranid are synonyms… waitaminnute, that’s not right!
The basic mechanics of Space Hulk make a lot more sense when you realize that the board game was released three years after Aliens, and that Warhammer 40k was only two years old at the time. Space Hulk is, and has always been, Aliens the board game, with an increasing accretion of 40k concepts converted to game mechanics. By now, we’ve all rationalized the cognitive dissonance, thinking, for example, of the limited movement of Terminators as being due to their powered armor being ill-suited to the narrow corridors (making sending in Terminators to clear Hulks the second-greatest strategic blunder in the history of the Imperium… the first being when the Emperor handed the keys to his military to the guy with the Eye of Sauron codpiece).
The high degree of randomness in Space Hulk is central to its identity, and its storied unfairness. I’m more forgiving of the dice mechanics in Space Hulk than I am of some other 80’s boardgames, because it produces an oddly-credible dynamic tactical situation in which, to succeed, you have to know that some part of your plan almost certainly will fail catastrophically and you’ll have to try to recover. In the words of Miles Vorkosigan “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
Space Hulk-influenced games, among which I count all the Xcom games and the Trese Brothers' brilliant Templar Battleforce, generally rely more on field of vision and fog of war rules and less on critical failures, making it less likely that a couple of bad rolls will devastate a reasonable strategy. That’s great, but it’s not Space Hulk.
Full Control’s Space Hulk is Space Hulk, down to the option to see die results in notifications so you’ll know that that Genestealer rolled 5, 6, and 1 on 3d6 in close combat, relative to your Marine’s 2 on a single die, and that when you lost the scenario the turn before you would have won it, that final throw wasn’t even close. Early criticism of the PC version wasn’t about the ruleset, it was about bugs and about how the game’s richly rendered graphics slowed down play and made it easy to miss important information. That and problems with multiplayer that killed what should have been the game’s main draw. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but a very similar combination of flaws is what killed Regicide for me.
Still… Full Control has has three years of active development, including a number of expansions, to correct those issues, right? It should be all better now, and it is… sort-of. The actual bugs have been fixed, and they added a tactical map before they even ported the game to iOS, which mitigates the fact that the dimly lit corridors of the hulks are still confusing, not only obscuring the details like vent locations but also adding spaces that you’d think you can move onto but can’t.
My biggest gripe with the game is still present in full force: the animations take bloody forever. You can speed up Space Marine and Genestealer movement, thank the Emperor, but all the weapon fire etc. takes place at the same pace as ever and, even on fastest-move speed, computer turns take forever when the map is full of revealed aliens.
To reduce the number of bolter and autocannon animations, Full Control's Space Hulk doesn't show you every shot fired in overwatch, just the final one for that Genestealer’s animation, be it kill shot, jam, or the last in a series of misses. This works well enough, but it warps one’s perception of how overwatch works, making it appear to give only single shot per movement. Also, Full Control never added an “angled short” animation into the game, so when a Terminator shoots at a Genestealer immediately diagonal from them (a relatively rare occurrence, given Space Hulk’s long, straight hallways, but nonetheless one that happens nearly every game), you see them shooting straight ahead and, on a hit, the Genestealer coincidentally explodes at the same time.
Full Control’s iOS version feels just like a scaled-down version of the PC game, with reduced graphics (I don’t know what the high end looks like, but on my aging first gen Mini, it’s kinda blocky) and a reduced pricetag for the base game and each of it’s expansions. Hoplite Research’s Android build isn’t a NVIDIA Shield exclusive, but it easily could have been, with it’s Tegra-enhanced graphics and Shield Controller references on everything. You have to press the back button to access the "pause" menu, and that's the only plave you can speed up the movement. It's not hard to figure out on a controller, where you're going to try the back button just to see what it does, but it's completely unintuitive if you're using touch controls. This port really wants you to play it with the controller on an Android TV.
That’s where Hoplite’s version shines: hotseat play (and single player) on the Shield TV. If that’s your platform, it’s actually easy to recommend this game. The zoomed-in killshots will look good on your flatscreen (well, except for those close-in diagonals), the tactical map is lucid, standard zoom is appropriately grimdark, and the Space Marine player can go get a snack while Team Genestealer is populating their blips. There is the occasional graphics glitch at turn start: dead Genestealers appearing to be alive, flames and Force Barriers persisting after they should have faded. These errors go away after the first Marine action of the turn, and Hoplite has promised a fix sometime soon.
Networked multiplayer works much better now than it did in 2013, but Android users will have to wait a bit to join the club: at the moment, Hoplite’s port only supports hotseat. That and the game's demanding graphics make it harder to recommend Space Hulk to Android phone and tablet users. On a Shield K1 tablet (the Shield TV’s portable, somewhat less powerful, cousin) Space Hulk is a battery hog and I experienced a short but frustrating lag after every move during both the AI’s turn and my own.
I’m okay with having victory in sight only to have it blow up in my face at the finish line: that’s Space Hulk. I’m a lot less okay with having to replay a scenario when a map that should take 30 minutes start-to-finish takes an hour and a quarter because of the animations and the pauses between them. It can be a lot of fun when something goes wrong early in a mission, trying to hobble along and complete it, but when that challenge means a lot of waiting and probably a loss at the end, restarting as soon as something goes wrong becomes very tempting, and that’s not Space Hulk at all: this game is all about unexpected setback and desperate gambits, pyrrhic victories and heroic sacrifices.
In the end, I think Hoplite Research’s port is a good one, albeit with room for improvement. Space Hulk is a valuable addition to what appears to be a resurgence of premium titles on Android (centering on NVIDIA’s designed-for-gaming devices), and I like the self-respect of their pricing: Space Hulk is $15 on Android, but includes the Space Wolves’ campaign and other content only available via IAP on the less-expensive iOS version.
I’ll be honest: I’d rather have had an official Space Hulk game developed in the Nomad Games style, re-presenting the aesthetics of the tabletop game and containing briefly animated rolling dice. Full Control’s brooding, ponderous 3D style slows the game down and does little for me aesthetically: if you know me, you know that I turned the l action camera off after about the third time I saw the same animation of a Genestealer’s death throes. For me, games like Battlefleet Gothic and Templar Battleforce hit the sweet spot for me in terms of balancing visual punch and speedy gameplay.
Still... if you want to play Space Hulk in your living room, Hoplite Research’s version is about a tenth of retail for the tabletop game (which is out of print again anyway). And if you want to play Space Hulk digital at all, you’ll be playing with a version of Full Control’s adaptation, which is serviceable enough despite its intrinsic flaws, kind of like that Storm Bolter that shouldn't jam when you need it most.