For the past few days, I’ve found myself yelling out “For the Emperor!” quite a bit. You see, I’ve been playing Space Hulk, and more specifically, I’ve been commanding the Space Marines, a group that has taught me that with every victory I reap, I strike a blow on behalf of the emperor. Perhaps I need to back up a second. Space Hulk, from developer Full Control, is a two-player board-game that has been converted into a computer game… again. This is not just any board-game though. This is a Games Workshop officially licensed board-game set in the Warhammer 40k universe. I’ve had a good chance to evaluate the entire game, and I am now ready to reveal how I feel this game stacks up.
Know this – this Game is a Computer Board Game
I can’t stress the importance of the next statement enough. Space Hulk, the computer game, is an almost literal conversion of the 3rd edition Space Hulk board-game. If you’ve played the prior Space Hulk computer games from the 90s, which featured first person real-time action, you need to know that you will not find anything like that here. Do not expect a sequel or continuation of that experience here.
I personally haven’t played the prior Space Hulk games. I’ve also never played the board-game, so I went into this game with no per-conceived notions of its mechanics and gameplay. I’d had some prior experience with other Warhammer 40k games, like Dawn of War and Space Marine, but this is quite a different experience compared to those.
The Universe is rich with lore (but you won’t see that here)
The Warhammer 40k universe is absolutely rich with lore, interesting races, and potential. As a game based within this universe, one might assume that you will find within Space Hulk a fantastic setting and story. Anyone familiar with the board-game would tell you that’s not what Space Hulk is about though. What Space Hulk is about is two specific groups fighting one another aboard a very confined and tightly enclosed ship. While perhaps the game would have benefited from more variety and a more glamorous setting, the developer’s goal was to remain true to the board-game in this regard. I’ll be repeating this sentiment quite a bit in this review.
The story and setting of Space Hulk is set within and around a large space hulk called the Sin of Damnation. In Warhammer terms, a space hulk is a group of ancient lost ships and wrecks fused together. You control the Blood Angel chapter (and no other) of the Space Marines. Your chapter has been ordered to investigate a psychic anomaly within a genestealer infested space hulk that has appeared near your home planet. Genestealers are a specific species of Tyranid that possess extremely sharp and powerful claws. While certainly formidable, it is important to note that this one unit type, along with one other unit that is an enhanced version of a genestealer, are essentially your only antagonists in the game. Suffice it to say, you’ll be seeing a lot of these guys in the single player campaign.
I have to say, I don’t find the setting of Space Hulk to be all that appealing. It seems handcuffed to a very small subset of the wonders contained within the Warhammer 40k lore. My understanding is that the developer’s license only covered elements that were within the board-game, and did not include free reign of the entire 40k library of lore. If that is indeed the case, I can’t really blame them for staying strictly within these tightly controlled confines. The developer’s goal was to recreate the board-game as accurate as possible, and knowing that before hand, I was not surprised or upset to see these limitations. What I was surprised by was the fact that the limited story available to them was still presented in such a lackluster manner.
While I understand its humble origins, I suppose I thought a bit more pizzazz could have been added to increase the immersion. Aside from the intro video, which you’ve actually already seen on release day, there are no cut-scenes during the game or even at the end of it. When you start a mission, you are shown a map and hear a very brief introduction. You are told which squads you will be deploying and where, and what your objectives are. Then you start the mission and you’re off.
In the audio department, we have only a few voice overs and absolutely no music outside of the title and menu screens. While there are some ambient noises, some marine voice overs when taking actions, and some weapon and attack sound effects, the audio experience basically stops there.
It’s unfair to say that Space Hulk fails to introduce anything flashy to the board game formula. One nice extra bell and/or whistle that is present is a small FPS view from a shoulder mounted camera placed on each marine. Given that this game is actually a 3D game played from a top down perspective, it was quite an ingenious decision to make use of that fact when implementing this camera. It doesn’t add anything significant to gameplay, but it is neat to look at every once in a while.
So, What’s in the Box?
There are 15 missions in the game spread across two campaigns. The first campaign is a prequel/tutorial and has 3 missions. The second, which is the Sin of Damnation campaign also used by the board-game, has the other 12 missions. Each mission can be played in either easy, normal, or hard difficulty. I played through all missions on normal, which it states is “Like the board game”. It will be easier to explain the differences in difficulty as I go through the review, and I’ll make special mention of them. None of them seem like they would dramatically alter the experience, in any case.
There’s a banner customizer that can be modified in a few different ways, based on what you’ve unlocked. After beating the game, I’ve still not unlocked some of the categories. In fact, I have very few things to choose from. A pinned forum post from the development team indicates that you have a random chance to unlock these every time you beat a mission, but this is not really explained in-game. Evidently you get a different one for single player and multiplayer use.
The options menu has some audio volume controls, a few video settings, and a couple of gameplay settings that can be tweaked. Unfortunately, these settings are not explained or tooltip’d, so options like space marine timer are unclear at a glance. I do know in hard mode that the timer is mandatory, but I didn’t turn it on for my normal mode play.
There’s also an in-game manual that covers a few of the basics, and a shop that allows you to see what DLC is available. As of release, the genestealer skins (for multiplayer) that were available for pre-order are available in the shop.
Purging the Sin of Damnation
Space Hulk’s gameplay is almost entirely tactical in nature. Those looking for a lot of strategic depth outside of tactics aren’t really going to find much to interest them here. Randomness is another thing you need to be prepared for. While you can try to stack the odds in your favor, no plan is foolproof if you just have atrocious luck.
In each mission, you’ll be given some objectives. These generally consist of getting from one point to another, or from one point to several points, or from one point to another and then back. In addition, there are a couple of missions that will have you making a defensive stand until a set number of enemies are killed, though one of them is very brief in the prequel.
Each mission is set within a very confined section of the hulk. While there are some rooms large enough to reposition your units, say 3×3, most of the time you’ll be moving your terminators down hallways that are a single tile wide. Along the way, you’ll find some doors that need to be opened or shot down, and some already broken doors that must be destroyed. In the final level, there are also some ladders that allow you to move between two floors of identical layout, but that level is very brief. I did not notice any traps or other environmental hazards, which along with a special unit capable of perhaps detecting or setting these traps, would have perhaps been a nice addition to the tactical formula.
In single player, you’ll be controlling the Blood Angels space marines. There are a few different types of marines that are primarily distinguished by their weapon layout. Every marine wears red terminator armor except for the librarian, who wears the much more stylish blue. While some marines are generalists, there are also some with weapon layouts that are specialized for area control or melee engagements. In addition, you have the sergeant who serves a couple of purposes, being useful just to have around and decent at both melee and ranged. In some missions you also have the aforementioned librarian, a unit with good melee and ranged capabilities, as well as psychic powers that are absolutely invaluable.
Each unit can move, fire, move and fire, open doors, enter a defensive melee guard, or enter overwatch during their turn. Each marine gets 4 action points and every action takes at least 1 action point. Every 90 degree turn, even in the same square, takes a point. Moving takes 1 (as does move and fire, use this!), opening doors takes 1 (if they aren’t damaged), firing takes 1, and overwatch and guard both take 2 points. As you can imagine, you burn through these quickly. Thankfully, you also get between 1 and 6 command points randomly each turn. These points are shared amongst all your marines and can act just like action points. If you happen to have a sergeant in your squad, you can also perform one re-roll of your command points at the start of your turn, if for example you get 1 or 2 and want to try for more. Note that in hard mode your command points are capped at a max of 4.
While in overwatch, marines get to take a shot every time the enemy moves and is within their line of fire. This is the most useful ability a marine has. You will also want to save some command points, as in overwatch your bolters can jam and any command points you have leftover will be used to automatically unjam them and keep them firing during the enemy turn. Ability points can’t be used to unjam during the enemy turn, so this is an important distinction. In easy difficulty mode, your bolters will not jam, so disregard and don’t save command points when playing in this mode.
It is very important to keep in mind how confined the game is. This is done intentionally and is the only reason why the space marines have any chance at survival. Creating lines of fire down long corridors using overwatch is crucial. You will repeat this mechanic over and over if you plan to be successful. Melee is ill-advised under almost all circumstances, so having the chance to shoot multiple times, and hopefully hit, the enemy as they charge towards you is essential.
Remember when I said Space Hulk was a board-game? That may help you understand why you want to avoid melee with a genestealer. Genestealers get to roll more dice (d6) when attacking than a regular marine does, and if they beat your marine’s highest die roll, your marine is dead. Yes, that’s right, their claws are so sharp your marines will be one shot, armor be damned. Some people don’t like this, but this is how the board-game is balanced and the lore is written, and thus it is how it is here. Considering the vast numerical superiority of the genestealers, you really want to avoid melee. Only a couple of weapon layouts, namely thunder hammer/shield or lightning claws should engage melee, and only as a defensive move using guard. Guard will grant you a re-roll of a die that could keep you from dieing. These are essentially the only ways you can have melee odds in your favor, but it is still risky as they do get a chance to kill you. For best results, just lay down some ranged overwatch and if you hit them once before they reach you, they’ll drop dead before you have to worry about it.
Genestealers warp in at specific points on the map and you will receive radar blips indicating where they are. You won’t know if it is 1, 3, or an enhanced genestealer called a broodlord until it reveals itself to you though. You’ll want to keep your marines positioned to use overwatch on these spawn points as your other marines move past towards your objectives. Then you’ll slowly march your units around the map while protecting your flanks and avoiding tight corners. This is basically what Space Hulk is all about.
You won’t find unit advancement, RPG elements, or progression based on your play. This game is just like the board-game, and each mission is handcrafted and balanced for specific units and numbers. While limiting, it is understandable why this is the case given their stated goal. I know I wouldn’t mind seeing some of these elements explored in the future though. Especially given the lack of any real diversity in the enemy.
Multiplayer is present and at the present time consists purely of two-player versus modes, with one side playing the terminators and the other playing the genestealers. All multiplayer matches are played asynchronously. Each side takes their turn and then passes control back to the other player. This occurs regardless of whether the other player is online or not. In that sense, the game can almost feel like a play by email experience if you and your competitor are not available to play at the same time.
There are two multiplayer modes available. You can play in hotseat mode locally, which is probably the closest thing to the true board-game experience, or you can play online. When playing online, you’ll have the option to create an account, for free, with a username and password that can be used to set up matches between you and your friends who also have accounts with them. This account is also used for their cross-platform multiplayer, allowing you to play or continue an ongoing game on any of the platforms that Space Hulk is available for.
If you choose not create an account, you’ll still be able to participate in multiplayer. You’ll be given the option to select a side and a mission and have the game find a random opponent for you. Unfortunately, this is where multiplayer starts to fall apart for me. I tried a few times to get into a game and did not have success finding an opponent who was online when I was. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but the first two games I played ended up being 1 second wins as my opponent had apparently forfeit prior to my first move. I managed to make a move in the next game, but after a couple of days, I am still on turn 1 waiting for my opponent to move. It seems to be hit or miss, and more often miss, based on my experience.
There are a few other problems and issues I have with the multiplayer design. Specifically, these are issues with the random match design. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of love put into it. There’s no preferred region selection, no time zone selection, no playstyle preference for those who want to play a game in a day or two instead of 1 turn per day for weeks. As far as I’ve seen there are no leaderboards, stat tracking, or matchmaking to place you with opponents of similar skill either. There’s also no real tutorial for playing as the genestealers, so I suspect a lot of new players are going to be a bit reluctant to tackle playing that side right away.
Aside from those few things, I noticed that in multiplayer the timestamps were also off from my local time, quite a few hours in-fact, and this made it a little more difficult to determine when my invite was sent, when I last moved, and when my opponent last moved. Again though, I only managed to make 1 move due to my opponents not being online to take their next move.
The bottom line is that playing against your personal friends or joining a community interested in the game is going to be the best way to set up matches. If you’re not interested in doing these things, your multiplayer experience is likely to be unsatisfying based on my experience. Unfortunately, I’d also say this is the area where Space Hulk is most likely to shine. After all, it was designed to put two human minds against one another. That is where all the drama and intensity was meant to occur. It’s also where you can truly test out your tactical capabilities.
Bugs, Patches, and Grievances
While Space Hulk’s launch was not exactly flawless, they were able to patch the first major issue within 24 hours of release with patch 1.01. Basically, the Sin of Damnation campaign was unplayable past mission 6 due to a victory condition issue that only appeared after what I read was a late pre-release fix. I can confirm their fix was successful. They also fixed most of the misspellings and other grammatical issues that somehow made it into the release version.
That’s not to say I haven’t encountered a lot of other bugs. Numerous times, apparently due to something I might have been doing, I found myself playing hotseat against myself. Not a problem, except I was actually playing the single player campaign and was trying to start the next mission and found myself in control of both terminators and the genestealers. I had to quit the mission when this occurred and restart from the main menu to fix the issue. This seemed to happen 5 or 6 times, and always after I had just beat a mission and selected to go to the next one.
The Undo button is a blessing due to a control scheme that took a little getting used to. When I first started, I was moving marines and had them facing in the wrong direction wasting precious ability and command points. I hadn’t seen the undo button as it was located next to the map rotation buttons and looked similar. Once I found it though, it made a big difference. I also found I could turn my units and then hit undo and often keep my points and still be turned. I could also fire a gun and then press undo and try again until I hit for just the 1 AP point. I didn’t use this exploit, but it is there, and it seems to me that any action involving a random dice roll should be permanent. For better or worse, the undo button is not present in multiplayer.
The game lacks a lot of passion and polish overall. I’ll briefly list some annoyances: bullets fly right through walls, the same few animations are repeated over and over again, the animations in general are poorly done, the sound effects don’t always sync properly, framerates plummet when zoomed out, a lack of multiplayer bells and whistles, no music in-mission, no option to increase animation speed or turn off animations, not all achievements work properly, and the game campaign is probably only 7-10 hours for most people. None of these are horrible by themselves, but when considered in totality, they do detract from the experience.
I mention animations a few times. When genestealers attack, the same animation plays every time. There is exactly one front and one from the back attack animation. The only difference is that they either claw you, producing three horizontal red lines on the screen, and your marine dies and teleports away, or your weapon animation plays and they die. This diminishes the goal they had with their action camera, which was to make the action feel more visceral. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough variety here to keep it interesting enough to leave it turned on.
It’s also sad to see that they stuck so close to the board-game because they seem to have some talented modelers. The Space Marines look as you’d expect, and though animations are not the best, they do make you feel unmistakably like you are controlling 40k terminator marines. It would have been great to see some other races in-game with the same attention to detail.
Full Control has released three patches now, with 1.03 hitting just 4 days after release. These patches are supposed to fix my random hotseat mode issue, amongst other things, like the game switching from easy to normal mode if you hit continue on the campaign, and a bug in one of the mission objectives that I managed to avoid when I played. They seem dedicated to fixing the game at this early stage, and have even announced enhancing multiplayer so it will actually find you opponents who are online to play against. That would be a welcome change from their current system and might even make multiplayer with random people viable.
If you liked the Space Hulk board-game, have friends with computers, and want a computer version of it to play with them, I think you’ll probably enjoy Space Hulk. If you are a big tactics game fan willing to overlook some of its issues, you may also enjoy Space Hulk. I actually did enjoy most of my time with it, but by the time I finished it, I felt I had enough. Without multiplayer, and perhaps even with, I don’t think Space Hulk has enough complexities to keep it interesting over the long haul for most people. An argument could be made that this board-game is best played at arm’s length, a distance where taunting your opponent and watching the dice hit the table adds a level of drama impossible to recreate on a computer screen. Perhaps the base game itself just isn’t the best candidate for conversion, regardless of who is doing the work.
I do feel like a lot of corners were cut in this game. Limited animations, lack of music, limited multiplayer enhancements, and odd bugs are part of the problem. These are things that can be patched out, and some of them have been already. The bigger issue may be a lack of effort to really tell a compelling story or take advantage of the things a computer can bring to a board-game conversion. While they’ve done a fantastic job bringing a hard to find and expensive board-game and its rules to the public, they’ve failed to up the ante in any significant way.
As an indie game, I understand some of these issues. The credits list is very small, and they have likely worked very hard to create this game. Unfortunately, perhaps due to licensing considerations or other issues, it just won’t offer a good value for most gamers at this point in time. Unless you’re a diehard fan, I’d recommend waiting for further patches and re-evaluating after its had a bit more time to refine itself.
Space Sector score:
- Gameplay is well-balanced
- Unit placement and smart tactical decisions are rewarded
- Character models are detailed and nice to look at
- The Librarian adds some color and flavor to the marines
- Perfect if you always wanted to play the boardgame and don’t own it
- Fails to deliver a compelling narrative beyond its board game roots
- Very narrow in scope
- Similar tactics are effective on every mission against the AI
- Feels unpolished in many areas
- Lacks Multiplayer features and effective matchmaking
- Enemy diversity suffers due to the Space Hulk setting and rules
- No music in missions and lackluster sound effects
Keith Turner, also known as aReclusiveMind here on SpaceSector, has been an avid gamer ever since he first laid his hands on a Commodore 128 in the mid 1980s. He enjoys multiple computer game genres, but his primary interests are in deep strategy games, 4x games, rpgs, and action rpgs. He enjoys writing and hopes to contribute with additional reviews, previews, and informative AARs to the community. See all Keith’s posts here.Subscribe RSS
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