Adapting a board game for the PC is a tough task. Developers are faced with two big questions. Do we play it straight and narrow and just port the basic game? Or do we take advantage of all that the computer has to offer and rev things up with glitzy graphics and new features? You either play up to diehard fans who want nothing but a buttoned-down tribute or go after a wider audience that wants something more involved than the pixelated rehashing of an experience best had on the dining room table.
Full Control Studios went with the "straight and narrow" option in its take on the classic cardboarder Space Hulk. This version of the legendary Games Workshop release from the late 1980s is so locked into re-creating the ancient original that you might as well have dug the game out of a time capsule. The tension and strategic challenge that the original game did so well have weathered the years just fine, proving that the age-old Warhammer 40,000 battle between space marines and rampaging aliens is as compelling today as it was nearly 25 years ago. But the simplistic gameplay lacks the complexity and replayability of contemporary squad-based tactical sims, and the bottom-drawer production values are hardly befitting of such a great license. There is something dissatisfying about most everything here.
Still, this is Space Hulk. It may seem a little cheap, but all of the core elements of the board game are here. You get most of what was included in the box when the first edition hit stores in 1989. What's here also closely resembles the two Space Hulk games that were released for both the PC and consoles back in the mid-'90s. This is still a tactical game pitting the genetically augmented space marines of the Blood Angels chapter against hordes of Genestealer aliens who populate a mass of spaceship garbage, known as a space hulk, roaming the treacherous Warp.
You need some knowledge of Warhammer 40K mythology to understand the previous sentence, but all you really need to know is that one side is composed of the good guys clad in battle armor, and the other side consists of the Genestealers, monstrous killing machines equipped with bulbous purple heads, four arms, and butcher-knife claws.
The gameplay is straightforward. Mission scenarios have all been inspired by those included with the board game and have all been set in the narrow corridors of the space hulk. Solo play sees you commanding the space marines against AI Genestealers, while in the hot seat and online options, one player takes charge of the space marines and the other looks after the big bad ETs. All of the action is turn-based. Each space marine gets four action points along with access to a pool of one to six command points each turn. All of these points are used by marines to move and turn; fire off a weapon like a chaingun, bolter, or flamethrower; or engage in melee combat with power fists or something more intimidating, like a giant power hammer or Wolverine-style lightning claws. Marines vary a little in terms of loadout. Some are basic grunts with bolter guns, others are sergeants with power swords, and the librarian comes with a range of psychic powers that can fry enemies from a distance.
Every space marine is something of a one-man army. But the Genestealers have the numbers, and they can cover ground faster than space marines. They swarm your position in each scenario from spawn points designated by radar blips. Make a couple of missteps, and Genestealers can overwhelm you very quickly. Marines, on the other hand, are ponderous. One action point is needed just to turn around. An action point is needed for basic attacks like shooting a bolter or using a melee weapon, but two are needed to fire the heavy flamer, and you need four to reload the powerhouse assault cannon. Two points are required to go into guard mode or the all-important overwatch sentry position that lets you automatically open up on moving Genestealers during their turn. And another single point is required to unjam a weapon, which is needed depressingly often during firefights.
So it should come as no surprise that it is imperative to make good use of every single action point. You need to plan out movements in advance, making sure that you have enough action points to get where you need to go and to finish off rounds by setting troops on overwatch or guard. Fail to do this, and you're soon shredded by rampaging Genestealers, who are very deadly in melee combat. You also have to save a point or three whenever you're expecting to open fire during the enemy's turn, since you inevitably need to use them to unjam weapons. Life as a space marine is not easy. You are constantly challenged with tough decisions, such as how to use your action points, how to divvy up command points, whether or not you're going to try to save a marine or leave him back as cannon fodder providing covering fire as everybody else streams for the exit, and so forth.
Matters are complicated by the ingeniously designed mission maps. Corridors are so narrow that you can only walk through most of them single file. Genestealer spawn points can be so numerous and so close by that you find yourself battling waves of aliens coming from all directions. Mission objectives and map size gradually increase in complexity. In the beginning, you're running squads of five marines on jobs like finding an exit or sneaking some sort of gadget away from the Genestealers. Later on, you're running two full squads ranging over huge sections of the space hulk looking for an artifact, killing a few dozen of the monster aliens, or something equally suicidal.
The difficulty can be extreme. Maps have to be looked at as puzzles, although there are no single solutions to victory. There is a fair bit of room for creative thinking, especially when it comes to how you employ your marines. Sometimes, for example, you can get away with blasting to an objective with your chaingun and flamer, while at other times you can move a main force ahead slowly while troops keep an eye on your vulnerable flanks with overwatch enabled each and every turn.
It also sounds exactly like what a Space Hulk game should be. And it is, for the most part. But this is where the game stops. Instead of using these basics as a foundation for a new Space Hulk experience, the game settles for re-creating that original game. So things can get repetitive. Missions are tough, yes, but you use the same handful of tactics to get through each one. Watch the flanks, always use overwatch, keep a few points in reserve at the end of every turn to deal with jammed weapons, don't rush things, and so on. Once you wrap a mission, chances are good that you won't feel much of an urge to replay it anytime soon, and there are just 12 missions in total.
Granted, they're pretty good assignments, with a lot of white-knuckle moments, especially after you hit mission six and beyond. But there just aren't enough of them. There is no level editor, either, so when you're done, you're done. By comparison, the Space Hulk PC games released 20 years ago included dozens of missions apiece with story-based campaigns.
All of these limitations stand out when compared to modern tactical games, which offer more depth, more role-playing with squad members, and more missions. There is no leveling up here, for example, no skills to boost, and no experience points to earn. Even the first Space Hulk video game way back in 1993 included the ability to gain experience during its campaign. Here, without any sort of extra RPG layer, there is no bond between you and your marines. You can't build them up to carry a maturing team into new missions. Troops are totally expendable. Marines die in one mission and are resurrected in the next. There is no sense of playing through a campaign or following a story. You're just moving through disconnected scenarios, none of which have any impact on the others, even though missions do build to a crescendo.
Luck is also something of an annoyance. Dice rolling is a huge part of the board game, but the sheer randomness of so many key elements here can be hard to take. Missions can and will be lost on bad dice rolls, and not just in combat. Screw up too many times trying to smash open a door, and you can get delayed long enough that the Genestealers ruin your day. Rolls for command points are equally random. Missions can be won or lost in the final moments depending solely on whether you roll something like a one or a two or luck out with a five or a six.
Production problems cause further issues. Multiplayer hasn't been fully developed. This is the sort of head-to-head game that should thrive online, but it's tough to get into matches because you're stuck with a poor interface where you are limited to setting up one-off matches with random opponents. More features, such as a browser and a chat window, are desperately needed to help re-create the tabletop atmosphere that a game like this has to have to truly come into its own.
Genestealer AI is hit-and-miss. Sometimes they are smartly deployed and work to flank and cut you off. Other times they volunteer themselves for cannon fodder and flood out in a steady stream all following the same routes, making nice target practice for a marine or two on overwatch. Missions move slowly. Scenarios can take up to an hour or more to finish. On the surface, this isn't cause for complaint, since the bread and butter of this precise tactical game is the steadily growing tension. But here you're not so much held in thrall by lengthy, nerve-racking battles as you are gradually annoyed by how slowly marines turn and walk, and how almost every battle is accompanied by canned, unskippable cutscenes featuring close-ups of weapons firing and Genestealers exploding into goo.
Having to look so closely at the action so often is further hampered by how ugly the game is when you're not examining everything from the top-down camera over the tactical map. Animations are jerky, the artwork is lacking in fine detail, and there are tons of fit-and-finish problems like marines killing Genestealers through closed doors and animations clipping through one another. Even little touches are lacking; one actor voices all of the space marine dialogue, for example. And there is little in the way of Warhammer 40K frills, aside from short one-liner factoids on loading screens. Very little atmosphere of the grim universe where "there is only war" is present, aside from the iconic look of the Blood Angels while they're unloading their weapons against Genestealers in the bowels of the space hulk.
As enjoyable as this new take on Space Hulk can be at times, especially if you're nostalgic for the board game, the developers missed out on a big opportunity here. Such a straight remake of the original game has its pluses with easy-to-understand rules and intense tactical challenges. But additions like skill progression and map editing could have deepened the game and extended its replayability. This is a satisfying game--especially to the longtime Warhammer 40K devotees who have been waiting for a new Space Hulk video game for nearly two decades--but it could have been so much more.