“I file my tax returns… FOR THE EMPEROR!”
I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Warhammer 40k franchise. On one hand, I love the grim-dark sci-fi aesthetic, and the oppressive universe in endless conflict. On the other hand, there’s only so many chainsaw mounted skulls and Roman sounding titles one can endure before it all gets a bit dull. Space Hulk is Warhammer 40k in its most pure, undistilled form. You are a sargeant in command of a squad of Blood Angels: a space marine chapter assigned to purge a giant, adrift megaship of the swarms of insidious alien genestealers who infest it. Don’t expect cinematic cutscenes or a complex story. The plot of the game could be summed up as “Kill the xenos scum!” and the character’s rich, complex motivations are “For the Emperor!”. Space Hulk situates itself as just another battle in a grinding, infinite war of attrition against a faceless foe, and that’s exactly what it feels like to play.
Space Hulk is an adaptation of the board-game of the same name. It’s played on a square grid from an isometric perspective where you issue orders to your bulky Terminators as they trundle noisily through the Space Hulk’s narrow corridors. Each turn, you expend each unit’s action points on actions such as moving or shooting. When an attack occurs, some behind the scenes dice-rolling determines the outcome. There are no hitpoints, so an attack either results in a kill or it doesn’t. There’s very little that effects these randomly determined life-or-death encounters. For example, you have the same chance to hit with ranged weapons whether you’re one square away or twenty. Though different unit types have modifiers to the dice rolling in certain situations, you’re never more than a single failed roll away from missing a crucial shot at an oncoming alien or dying in melee combat with one.
Initially, I felt the game was incredibly arbitrary and unfair in how it left everything entirely up to chance, offering you very little ability to influence the outcome of combats. However, I then realized a tap of the circle button could “undo” my last action, even if that last action resulted in the death of a terminator. I could then re-roll a failed attack if I chose, and keep doing it till I succeeded. This mechanic is a tacit admission that playing these missions over and over – putting yourself at the the mercy of the dice with every decision you make – would be very frustrating, so they’ve come up with a deeply flawed compromise. The basic system isn’t complex enough to reward good decisions, so this is covered up by removing the tension and thrill at the risk one of your attacks might fail.
It really doesn’t help that Space Hulk exists in the looming shadow of X-Com: Enemy Unknown, which is the undisputed king of turn-based extraterrestrial blasters. Remember those bits in Enemy Unknown where you’d be moving your troops forward, cover to cover, hitting the overwatch command in anticipation of an alien beastie popping out? That’s pretty much the entirety of Space Hulk, except without the excitement and uncertainty, and you’re moving as many as ten units rather than six. You can see all the alien spawn points right from the start, and you know they all move exactly six spaces. Between the re-rolling and the ubiquitously tight corridors, it’s very straightforward to have a Terminator cover a corridor and gun down any oncoming aliens without putting them at any risk between while the aliens take their movements between turns. It was initially enjoyable setting up kill-zones to perforate waves of genestealers, but it soon became a tiresome ritual. I never really felt like I was making tough decisions in an unpredictable combat. I was just carefully doing the math to ensure it would be impossible to fail the claustrophic, linear levels.
There’s nothing unique about your Terminators other than their names. You can’t level their skills up up or equip them with better gear in-between missions to personalize them in any way. Every mission is self-contained. Amusingly, even if your Terminators die during missions, you’ll still see the exact same names pop up during the next. This wasn’t exactly a case of plot armour for important characters in the story either, as you never learn anything about Squad Lorenzo, or have any reason to care about them. In Space Hulk, your decisions don’t matter in the long term, and your units are little more than faceless counters in an orgy of tedious re-rolling and corridor covering. Your adversaries scarcely have any more variety or distinction to them, and this is underlined by the fact that you’ll face a grand total of one enemy type during your first several hours of play.
It’s more than a little bizarre that a PS3 version of Space Hulk has come out at all, given the console is now in the process of passing into obselescence, and Space Hulk itself recieved mediocre reviews on its original PC release. As you might expect, this fiddly board game adaptation isn’t exactly a match made in heaven with an aging console, and it shows when you try to do something as simple as turn your units to face a particular direction. I can’t count the number of times I tried to face a space marine upwards, but the oversensetive anaologue stick controls spun the gruff-voiced bastard around anywhere but. Likewise, Space Hulk’s graphics are hardly pushing the PS3’s capabilities to their breaking point, yet there are still framerate issues during the many bland stock animations that constitute the battles.
I’m sure the tabletop version of Space Hulk is pretty enoyable in the company of a few good buddies and some takeout food. As one of them new fangled vidya games though, Space Hulk is overly simplistic, and lacking in the narrative and atmosphere you’d hope would get you invested in the proceedings. It’s drearily slow-paced and particularly clunky to play on this inexplicably existant PS3 version. If you’re a beardy individual of a certain vintage who loved the Space Hulk board game during your heady university days, and are looking for a digitized version, you’re probably the target audience for this game. Speaking personally, I’m hoping for a true swan-song for the PS3, rather than this somber funeral dirge.
Final Verdict: 2.5 / 5
Available on: PC, Mac, PS3 (Reviewed), PSVita; Publisher: Full Control; Developer: Full Control; Players: 1-2; Released: August 15, 2013 (PC and Mac), October, 2015 (PS3 and Vita) ;
Full Disclosure: A copy of the PS3 version of Space Hulk was provided by the publisher.