Review: Space Hulk

04 Dec 2013 2

Johnny Dangerously predates Space Hulk by five years. That blue fella's a librarian. A Space Marine returned a book late once. ONCE.

Space Hulk is the Max Payne of games: it's completely absurd, but exudes such constipated seriousness that I find myself able to appreciate its drama. That's important, because those of us used to the more flexible maps of most tactical games might otherwise find the tight corridors in which these objective-based missions occur too limiting. While this sort of level design tends to put a great deal of emphasis on a few decisions (and a lot of die rolls), that works fairly well with the narrative and setting.

Among boardgame aficionados, the lavish, flexible tabletop game has achieved impressive renown since its first release in 1989. Developers Full Control have brought the game to Mac, PC, and now iPad in a way which keeps the third edition rules intact, but with a presentation and interface which feel well-suited to their new contexts. For many readers, all that really matters will be that it's Space Hulk and it works, but there's more to know which might swing the decisions of others.

For those new to Space Hulk, the setting is Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 universe, in which the orcs (now orks, bringing balance to the universe ever since disks became discs), elves (now eldar), and humans have been joined by H.R. Giger's totally original aliens in the far future. When I was young, there were dwarfs, but nobody talks about the squats anymore, and skaven are right out. Human culture is a mix of Imperial Rome and medieval Catholicism with warp drive. Warp drive doesn't totally work, though, so Chaos sneaks in here and there, often finding a sanctum in the titular abandoned ships drifting unpowered through space. When space hulks are found, Space Marines™ are teleported aboard to clear out any infestations of wretched xenos.

Six centuries ago, your brothers of the Blood Angel chapter of the Space Marines discovered the aforementioned aliens (genestealers) in such a hulk, and suffered a defeat which still stings. It has been rediscovered, and you have the opportunity to wreak vengeance upon their descendants and blot out the stain of that dishonor. Also to wonder why the monkey operating the teleporter makes you walk the last mile through hordes of your enemies.

Brother Leon rolls his dice. Brother Leon dies. The tactical map. This mission is helping me recapture the sense of impending doom I remember from prom night.

The Blood Angels, usually in one or two five-man squads and always sporting their most impressive Terminator armor (which has even larger shoulders than the standard kit), deploy at the beginning of each mission. There aren't any random missions here, but rather a set campaign of 15 sorties, with more available as DLC. Mission objectives range from fighting through the genestealer hordes to a particular point on the map, to recovering downed Marines, and more. It may not be random, but there is a good amount of variety.

The order of their deployment is one of the most important decisions you'll make, because it's difficult to change their positions in the narrow interior spaces. You're generally best served by planning from the very beginning what route you'll take to accomplish your objectives, and arranging to put your close combat specialists in the tight spots while those armed with the standard storm bolters (jam-prone submachine guns) are able to cover longer hallways on overwatch. The third edition rules improved the Space Marines' options during the genestealer turn, allowing them to both recover from a jam without losing overwatch, and adding the option to go on guard against melee attacks.

Playing as the genestealers is a very different affair. The genestealers get reinforcements each turn, but because of the new rules about recovering from jams during overwatch, it's even less effective than it once was to simply put them into the fight as quickly as possible. Instead, you have to bide your time and build up waves able to take advantage of the cover of corners to rush the lead marine, or assemble such a large force that you can hope to overrun the overwatcher. Only the Space Marines are playable in the campaign, though, so you'll only tackle these tactical scenarios in multiplayer.

The little icon at the top right will switch from the log to the chat window. The Blood Angels get flamers, electric hammers, psychic librarians, and more. Genestealers make do with terrifying speed, four arms of terrifying claws, and terrifying numbers.

The aesthetic elements of Space Hulk are true to the source material, so there are detailed models but not much visual variety, which the grim darkness of the far future only exacerbates. Don't expect a sunny beach level. The only bug I've encountered has been when playing the genestealers in multiplayer (once in a cross-platform asynchronous game, the other time in hotseat mode), but it's pretty bad--when revealing genestealers, it's possible to get stuck in a way which locks you out of the interface entirely, and is not fixed when the game resumes, effectively conceding the game. Otherwise, it's been quite stable and well-designed, with the sorts of options you expect, including the option to buy more campaigns or skin packs.

The undo button is somewhat more generous than I'd have expected--during your turn, it lets you back out of a failed attack and re-roll the dice, so those inclined to fudge their results may have difficulty resisting temptation. I'm disappointed that they didn't find any way to track progress in campaigns well enough to rename Space Marines who fell in prior missions yet return to fight again, and that the genestealers are only available in multiplayer, not the campaigns. Admittedly, without the variety introduced in the expansions to the first edition of the game, there's only one kind of alien available, which would make the campaign mechanically repetitive as well as narratively unsatisfying. It's also massive--with one bonus campaign downloaded, it's taking up 3.4 gigabytes on my iPad.

Space Hulk is a classic, and the iOS version maintains the tension of the original. I found the third edition rules sapped the dread a bit, but that helps make the Emperor's finest seem somewhat less like Glass Joe from Mike Tyson's Punch-Out. There's a lot of randomness, usually over a relatively flat distribution which makes it hard to skillfully manage, and little opportunity for maneuver. But if you're looking for a squad-based tactical game in which every move could be your last, this will give it to you with a heaping helping of gaming history.

Editor's Note: There's an addendum to this review that addresses technical hitches and other flaws we missed right here.

Review: Space Hulk

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