Space Hulk Review (PC/Mac): “A Tired Take on the Original”

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2013’s Space Hulk follows in the footsteps of several forms of inspiration – naturally, this includes the original board game it’s based off of, as well as the previous two Space Hulk PC games released back in the 90s. Each was a huge success, providing a tense, strategic game landscape backed by all of the lore of the Warhammer 40k universe. Now, Full Control have released what would seem to be a modern take on the originals, allowing players to control the Blood Angels chapter of Space Marines in a chilling, bloody fight against hoards of Tyranid Genestealers aboard the titular spacecraft. The 2013 version includes fully-3D graphics and voice-overs, but does the classic gameplay stand the test of time, or is it doomed to drift in the endless expanse of inadequate game remakes?

Story: 2/5

Space Hulk sees the player controlling a squad of Space Marines, the superhuman soldiers fielded by the forces of Mankind in the Warhammer 40k universe. Representing the Blood Angels chapter, these soldiers begin a bloody campaign of vengeance aboard a Space Hulk, a massive spacecraft that has become adrift in the Warp, a terrifying, chaotic alternate dimension host to daemons and other horrible creatures. Many of the Blood Angels’ forces were slaughtered therein hundreds of years prior by hoards of Tyranid Genestealers – nightmarish, feral aliens bent on killing and consuming all organic beings.

Bulky super-soldiers in a cramped corridor. What could go wrong?

The game’s campaign consists of 12 missions of multiple varieties, and each is prefaced by a short briefing, giving you an idea of what your objective will be. A powerful, melodramatic voiceover gives a full rundown of strategic data to digest, but otherwise the game’s plot is paper-thin. This is hard to excuse, as even the board game released back in the 80s came with multiple gameplay scenarios driven by an overall story. Given the rich amount of lore available for the Warhammer 40k universe, and the high quality of games in recent years to use the license, it’s a shame there isn’t more to make you care. In short: Space Marines are the good guys, Genestealers are the bad guys. The Warhammer 40k universe makes many, many more distinctions than that, but in terms of Space Hulk, that’s all you get.

Even worse, your Space Marines, each with their own name and specialties, can die during any mission. This ought to be a huge blow, considering each death is the loss of a super-soldier, but as long as you succeed in your mission, any of your units that died previously will respawn for the next mission. It’s a case of story giving way to gameplay elements, but this would have been an easy fix – giving Space Marines a random name each game would have helped to preserve whatever element of brevity is present in the game’s story.

Gameplay: 3/5

Space Hulk’s gameplay is, for all intents and purposes, a faithful recreation of the board game that inspired it. Players move their characters through narrow corridors and cramped, intersecting rooms to make their way towards the objective. Each player’s pieces have four Action Points to carry out actions like moving, turning, shooting, opening doors, unjamming weapons, and more. Players also get a pool of Command Points which are randomly awarded each turn, and can be used by any of the player’s pieces like Action Points, but are each shared among all of their pieces. The Space Marines and Genestealers couldn’t be more contrasted from each other – Blood Angels in Terminator armor are slow and ponderous, requiring Action Points just to turn around. They do, however, have the advantage in firepower – Space Marines can wield a large variety of firearms and melee weapons, all inspired by what’s found in the Warhammer 40k universe, including Storm Bolters, Power Fists, Power Swords, and Flamers, among many other instruments of destruction. While Space Marines can tangle with Genestealers in melee combat, there’s no denying that you’ll want to use your forces at range whenever possible. Genestealers are agile and numerous, and you’ll want to use your ranged advantage to take them down before they can swarm your position. Genestealers spawn from designated areas on the board, so you’ll need to plan where to station your forces to stem the tide enough for your other soldiers to complete the objective. A neat inclusion in the game is a shoulder-mounted camera feed, which broadcasts the perspective of your currently-selected Space Marine. It’s a surprisingly nice touch and adds a sense of tension and suspense to the game’s tactical top-down display.

A lucky roll by the Space Marine. Don't count on it happening again.

A lucky roll by the Space Marine. Don’t count on it happening again.

Board game adaptations are tricky to produce on a gaming platform, since a lot of the enjoyment of a board game comes from the interactions between you and the people you play with. In the absence of that, a computer game needs to have some sort of hook to engage the player, whether it be flashy graphics or high production values. It’s obvious that Space Hulk tries to stick as closely to the principles of the board game, and in the end, it was the right decision to make. However, Full Control have taken this to the logical extreme, and presented a very bare-bones gameplay experience. There are many options present to the player, but there’s really only one clear fallback – get a Space Marine into position in a long hallway and turn on Overwatch mode, which lets the Space Marine fire at any enemies that come within range during their turn. Knowing that just one option is clearly the best for victory takes a lot away from the depth of play that is so well-known within the board game and 90s PC games. So long as you’re patient and can conserve your APs, you can have Space Marines on Overwatch stemming any Genestealers that come within range, making a practical runway to your objective. The Genestealers’ AI is somewhat inconsistent as well; sometimes, they’ll try to circle around and flank you, a surefire way to take a Space Marine down. Other times, they’ll rush headlong into your field of fire only to get easily gunned down. By the same token, for those times where you choose to take more direct action, your chances of victory are based wholly around dice rolls. Shots can miss, bolters can jam, and even attempts to bash open stuck doors can take a while to succeed. Such a huge degree of randomness makes it so that a whole scenario (which can take up to an hour to complete) can be won or lost on how lucky you are. The only time skill really comes into play is how you position your forces. Beyond that, it all comes down to chance, and can make for a very frustrating experience. What’s worse, there is no way to skip the lengthy animations of the ponderous Space Marines after giving a move order. You can give multiple orders in parallel by selecting another unit while the first carries out his orders, but each Space Marine can take anywhere from 10-20 seconds just to carry out a simple move order. This puts a real drag on the already-slow gameplay, and sometimes you’ll find yourself tapping your finger against your desk in tedium, waiting for your turn to end.

Space Hulk comes with Hotseat and Multiplayer modes, allowing one player to control the Space Marines and the other in charge of the numerous Genestealers. Hotseat play helps preserve some of the draw of gathering about a table with friends and playing through the board game, and this is really the best experience you can get. Trying to outwit another human opponent really brings the strategic play of Space Hulk into focus. However, its multiplayer showings are much more sparse – there is no server browser to speak of, and no chat functionality before entering a game. All you can do is find a random opponent, and select your desired map and faction beforehand, or allow the game to randomize these. There’s in-game text chat, but it’s not nearly as engaging as having a friend with you in Hotseat mode. Worse, as tedious as it can be playing the game solo, it becomes even more monotonous as you wait for your opponent to make their moves. All in all, the gameplay experience isn’t terrible, but it’s obvious the full effort hasn’t been given, and it’s a real shame with Warhammer 40k’s hallmark for engaging gameplay and lore.

Graphics: 2/5

A Space Hulk is, by design, a cramped, dark, confined space, and given the Warhammer 40k universe’s penchant for grim, gothic overtones, nobody is expecting to find rainbows and flowers in Space Hulk. However, the in-game graphics don’t do a lot to stand out either. While they’re certainly competent for a game released in 2013, cut corners begin to creep in at every turn. Even with the graphics turned up to the best preset, character models lack detail, and look more like plastic action figures rather than hardened combat veterans. Tyranids don’t look much better, but are certainly intimidating and gruesome enough. Animations are also sorely lacking here – the bulky Space Marines barely move at all when firing their weapons, and in general, all characters play the same animations over and over. When a Tyranid closes in on your space marine, he’ll always fend it off with a quick backhand before doing the creature in, or being felled himself. Genestealers, too, seem to recoil slightly from gunfire only to fall on their faces the next. It gets very tired, very fast.

Unfortunately, the in-game graphics can’t match the quality in this action shot.

Sound: 2/5

Another area where Warhammer 40k games are known to excel are their sound direction. From extensive voice-over work to sweeping soundtracks, they’re a big reason for the engrossing melodrama that 40k games are known for. It’s unfortunate, then, that Space Hulk contains no traces of an effective sound design. The title screen sports a dramatic, sweeping tune…and the rest of the game lacks any sort of music. Nor does Space Hulk boast a broad voice cast – in fact, there’s only two discernible voice actors lending their talents – one for the pre-mission briefings, and one for the canned phrases uttered by your Space Marines. The only thing saving Space Hulk from a critical sound score is the quality of what’s actually present. The title music is engaging, and the voice work is spoken with the same poise and deep, powerful tone as is expected from any of the Emperor’s Finest. There really isn’t much else to say – the game’s sound design is just another area where corners have been cut. It’s a real let-down.

The Space Marine "IWIN" button.

The Blood Angels call this maneuver the “I win button”.

Overall Score: 9/20 = 4.5 out of 10

Space Hulk is a game that had so much potential, both from the high quality of the board game it’s based off of as well as the source material Full Control had at its disposal. Warhammer 40k computer games are known for being dramatic, engaging, and extremely immersive. Unfortunately, Space Hulk cuts too many corners for its best aspects, few as they are, to come through. Repetitive, inconsistent gameplay, a nearly non-existent story, shoddy graphics, and a nearly non-existent sound direction make it hard to justify a purchase at $30, even for the most die-hard of 40k fans. Those looking for a grim, war-like strategic game should look to any of the Dawn of War games to get their fix instead.

Space Hulk is currently available on the Steam platform for PC and Mac, retailing at $29.99 USD.

PROs:

+ A straight adaptation of the board game stays faithful to old-school play

+ Hotseat play is the closest thing to simulating a board game session with friends

+ Shoulder-camera view adds a delightful horror factor

CONs:

– Gameplay is dull and repetitive

– Frustratingly reliant on random dice rolls

– Graphics are sub-par

– Inability to skip ponderous Space Marine animations drags each game on

– Nearly non-existent soundtrack

– Only two discernible voice actors

– Unusually thin plot for a 40k game

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy of Space Hulk! Copy reviewed based on the PC version.

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