Friday, 16 August 2013

Space Hulk PC Game Guest Review by Matt Clarke

OK, so. Space Hulk. As the original board game is what got me into Games Workshop in the first place you could say that I have a slight attachment to this game. I spent hours paying the old game with those atrocious plastic Terminators and countless shoebox-wielding helpless Astartes 'veterans' perished at my teenage paws. Well, the Deathwing expansion rolled around and I grabbed that m0f0 with both hands and got stuck into the psykers, rubble, assault cannons, multi-level maps, power fist-mounted grenade launchers (oh I miss those, the Terminator Captain model was magnificent), chain fists, lightning claws, thunder hammers...oh, you get the drift. Along with this was the revelation of metal Terminators! Rejoice; no more hunched slopey plastic atrocities for now I had detailed metal chaps to send to their doom instead! And the Deathwing story was excellent. Following that there was the Genestealer expansion with hybrids, conversion beamers, autocannons, missile launchers, 'Stealer psykers...but we don't care about them so much...aaand theeeen was the Space Hulk Campaigns book with rules for Marines in power armour and all sorts of excellent stuff. I still couldn't really justify making up rules for using my thudd gun in there though...

ANYWAY, after the board games were the old Amiga & PC computer games versions of Space Hulk and man, the first of these damn things was a beautifully presented exercise in frustration that could only be the infernal spoor of some wretched sadist. It was great, but had a bit of a shelf life as there were only so many times that you could see your squad's camera feeds fill up with Genestealer faces followed by claws and static. Unforgiving ain't the word and the second one I vaguely remember being pretty similar. Roll on the last half of 2013...

Today saw the release of the third digital incarnation of Troll Hulk, courtesy of the Danes over at Full Control. Straight up: I've never heard of them! Checking them out reveals that they focus on pick-up strategy games for the older gamer who may not have hours to sink into the latest FPS or MMO which makes them sound like they're perfect to develop the mission-based Space Hulk without an insane budget. And to be fair, I think they've done a pretty top-notch job. The game is clearly based on the most recent 2009 limited edition version of the board game with the Terminators at your...disposal...lifted straight from the miniatures from that game, complete with the same names. The game kicks off with a menu screen which was displayed in my TFT's native HD 1920x1080 full-screen res with no graphics faffery on my part at all, which was refreshing. From there you can check out the three gameplay types of single-player Campaign, Hot Seat multiplayer and online Multiplayer, faff with graphical, audio & gameplay options and check your eDong Steam achievements.

I've not tried any of the multiplayer stuff yet so I can't report back on that, but spending an hour on the three pre-boarding missions and the first two main Campaign missions quickly cuts to the quick of things. The game itself is displayed in fully rotate-able (is that even a word?) certainly-adequate-and-fairly-pretty isometric 3D with a very good depth of zoom that allows up close viewing of the carnage and a far more useful zoomed-out view for tactical planning (and weeping a single man-tear as you assess just how buggered your remaining lone Terminator is). Scattered around the main screen are the items that allow you to play the game: the objectives list dwells up in the top-left corner, the currently selected Terminator's shoulder cam nestles in the top-right, the info log lives in the bottom-right corner along with several buttons for an overview map, moving the display around and game options. The squad panel is bottom-middle and it's here that you view remaining Action Points/APs for each unit, their weapon load-out, assign orders and change squads if you've got more than five guys in the deep space meat grinder. The bottom-left corner houses the squad summary where you can see at a glance who’s still breathing, what their main weapon is, their remaining APs and your remaining Command Points/CPs for that turn.

Missions are introduced by a written and verbal briefing (by someone doing their best Mark Strong impression which is fitting). There's no music as such in-game; it's all slow clomping Terminator steps, gunfire, and 'Stealer hisses echoing down metal corridors with some ambient sounds filling the gaps. There's a comms response to every order, jam, kill and death. The shoulder cams are a good touch with the unit's weapon weaving into view as they lumber about and fight with the occasional fuzz and interference ghosting the feed. For every death the camera zooms in for a closeup of the brutality, be it by melee or ranged weapons. There's twelve Sin Of Damnation missions in total that have to be played as a campaign to be unlocked. I started the second one this morning and the map looks bigger than the first so it'll be interesting.

To the uninitiated the game unfolds as thus (and if you’ve played any version of the board game then you’ll already know what to expect so can skip this paragraph): you are given 2-10 guys, depending on the mission at hand, to complete your objectives; a full squad of five Terminators are generally kitted out as three standard fellows with double-barrel storm bolters + power fists, one Sergeant with a storm bolter + power sword & one heavier weapon chap with a heavy flamer (or assault cannon) and power fist. Power fists are big chunky energised gauntlets that are slow but very effective at bludgeoning doors/skulls, following on from this a power sword is fairly self-explanatory, storm bolters are a capable ranged weapon with unlimited ammo but prone to jamming and heavy flamers can impede movement and incinerate multiple targets at once by setting sections of the map ablaze but this can hinder your troops as well as keep hostiles off your back…and they only have six shots. From these five victims you choose who teleports in where in the deployment area when presented with the mission area’s map of rooms and interlinking corridors, they appear in a blaze of teleportation flare and the game is afoot. Genestealer blips enter the area from set points around the map and here is one of the main mechanics that make Space Hulk such a blast: a blip can be 1-3 ‘Stealers and you’ll only find out when one of your Terminators claps eyes on it. That room with three blips in…are you dealing with three ‘Stealers who can probably be dealt with by one or two of your guys at range or are you about to suddenly be charged by nine of these bad boys which may be a complete game-changer for your plan. You had a plan, right? Missions generally involve moving your alien-fodder from the starting area A to objective unit/room B and sometimes then on to point C to teleport out, the success of meeting your mission objectives will almost always depend on Your Plan. Just setting off without a plan in mind is a good way to have a quick game, just not usually a victorious one. Some scenarios depend on you burning a certain area of the map, which requires the heavy flamer, which requires that particular Terminator to survive long enough to get to the objective with enough ammo to do what’s needed.

Performing actions in Space Hulk costs lives…er…sorry, ‘points’, be it Action Points or Command Points. Each Terminator starts your turn with 4 APs; moving forward one square costs 1 AP, turning on the spot 90 degrees costs 1 AP, firing a storm bolter costs 1 AP, opening/closing doors costs 1 AP, passing a mission-critical item from one unit to another costs 1 AP, clearing a bolter jam (heh) costs 1 AP and more significant tasks like setting overwatch with a storm bolter model or firing a heavy flamer cost 2 APs…so you can quickly see that your chaps aren’t going to be mowing down hordes or winning marathons each turn. This is compounded by the fact that the Marine player has two minutes to complete their turn in and as if that didn’t make the novice’s eye twitch enough, Genestealers have 6 APs each with which to get in your face and take it off. The aliens don’t have ranged weapons, which is a blessing, but some of the Hulk’s corridors are pretty short or have closed doors which unless opened or blown away can provide an unknown quantity of hostiles to close in unseen and therefore unmolested. Terminators may be double-‘ard m0f0s on the battlefield, but in the confines of a Space Hulk they don’t have a great deal of room to manoeuvre and, compared to Genestealers, are damn slow, two facts which conspire against your chaps when you find them in the loving rending embrace of a ‘Stealer who certainly has the advantage when up close. In short, you want to be killing at a distance and keeping the wretched things away from your guys at all costs; I’ve not seen thunder hammers or lightning claws in action yet but even though your Sarge has a nifty power sword it only makes him marginally more survivable than the rest of your chaps – don’t rely on it to carry the melee. Losing your Sergeant also bins your ability to re-roll your turn’s allocation of 1-6 Command Points so if you start a turn and are unlucky enough to just get allocated a single CP then you’re stuck with that result.

Yes, it does sound like your squad is slow (they are), prone to be butchered in close combat (they will be) and doomed (they are relying on you to sort that out) but because they are the elite of Humanity’s Finest all is not lost! While each Marine has 4 APs per turn, these can be supplemented from your pool of CPs for that turn. If you’re desperate to get that flamer guy in position to stop your squad getting minced by filling a critical junction with ‘Stealer-blocking/incinerating flame then you can use 4 APs lumbering the chap into sight of the target and then, if you have enough, 2 CPs can then be used from the command pool to fire the flamer and save the day! Or get a storm bolter Marine into a long corridor with 3 of their APs and then use their remaining AP and one CP to set overwatch. But then that’s two less CPs for the rest of the guys to fall back on and use for that turn. Overwatch is a nifty thing; by sacrificing half the troop’s APs (or using CPs) to set them into overwatch that unit will then fire upon any hostile performing an action in his line of sight during the opponent’s turn. This is an absolute life-saver, overwatching storm bolters can fire as many times as actions are performed by an enemy unit that unit can clap eyes on: a Genestealer scoots around a corner into view, your guy opens fire, the ‘Stealer survives and moved forward a square, your guy opens fire, forward again, fires again, and so on until the hostile is dead, has reached the hapless Terminator and killed him (or killed in combat itself, trollolo), the line of sight is obstructed by a wall/door/unit or the storm bolter jams. Yes, jams. Elite veterans have gear trouble too, especially when their armour and weapons are hundreds or thousands of years old and rather grumpy. An AP/CP may be expended in your own turn to clear a jam or if in the opponent’s turn the Terminator will clear the jam himself…as long as there is a CP left over from your turn to do so. Did you really want to use that last CP in your turn? That click of a weapon jam may be fatal… But hey, storm bolters aren’t complete rubbish, they don’t run dry and if firing at the same target continuously a sustained fire bonus comes into play, increasing the chances of mullering the target.

Well, this has gone on for a bit longer than I expected and the girlf has wandered in and given me The Look several times over the last few hours and I’m not even playing the game! The crux (Terminatus, lawl, in-joke) of the matter is that Full Control have done a top-notch job of bringing every ounce of gameplay from the table-top to the small screen. The gameplay is completely faithful to the board-game, the graphics and sound, while not amazing, are pretty decent thus allowing the game to look pretty good while still being run on low-spec hardware (which pleases me when I open up my fairly-ungamey work laptop) which, IMO, is more important in a game of this type than making it astoundingly polished. 

The Genestealer AI, from my fairly limited exposure to it, seems decent enough; the aliens lurk around corners as blips and make some effort to remain hidden until the last moment and don’t seem to do daft things like mill about in confusion or run headlong into a blazing area to a firey death. The experience is everything I’d hoped for with the achievements and banner designing minor bonuses, but on normal difficulty there is a fairly steep learning curve. The three pre-boarding campaign missions take the player through the basis with two guys initially, then two guys introducing the heavy flamer followed by a whole squad needing to escape a small map and by that point you’re on your own but without the 2 minute turn timer. The Campaign proper carries on from there, timer an’ all, but you can lower the difficulty if you’re a new player or getting back into the game.

At this point I like it a lot and look forward to spending more time serving the Emperor and whatnot, uncovering psychic powers and the remaining melee/heavy weapons, possibly even with a mate joining in for some chuckles. I wouldn’t mind a Deathwing skin though…

As a fan I’d give the game a solid 8/10. Nice work, Full Control!

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