The passion of fandom can be a double-edged sword. In the case of Space Hulk, it's a power sword wielded by a man in ridiculously chunky armour, but it still cuts deeply.
This is the first Space Hulk game since 1993, a fact that Danish indie Full Control is sure to remind you of whenever the loading screens get a chance. There's pent up demand for another digital version of Games Workshop's influential 1980s board game and the developer is clearly such a fan of the source material that it often trips over its own feet, producing a game that is both incredibly faithful and distractingly scrappy. It's more awestruck tribute than actual adaptation.
The game itself is ingenious, thanks to Games Workshop's ruthlessly simple yet devilishly unforgiving ruleset. Space Hulk is an asymmetrical turn-based strategy game, pitting bulky armoured space marines against skittering alien Genestealers inside the belly of an abandoned and drifting spaceship.
The marines - drawn from Warhammer 40k's universe of religious fervour and endless, blood-soaked war - are slow to move but blessed with weaponry that makes them lethal at long range. Each has only four action points to spend each turn, and when those are used up by simply moving, rotating and opening doors, progress is painstaking. To offer flexibility, each turn also provides a randomly rolled communal top-up of command points, between one and six, that can be used to complete orders for any of your men.
It's a set-up that requires constant planning and foresight. Corridors are long and narrow, meaning there's no room to pass each other, so leaving a vulnerable trooper at the rear is asking for trouble. Covering the flanks and carefully navigating the ambush-prone small rooms and junctions are the keys to survival. Also key is Overwatch. This is the opportunity fire state that will keep your troops alive. Enabling a marine to open fire on any alien that crosses his path, this ability is not optional: forget to cover every angle at the end of a turn, and you're dead.
That's because while the Genestealers have no weaponry or long range attacks, they're absolutely deadly up close. These alien creatures are spawned at marked entry points as "blips" - red markers that let you know that enemies are close by without revealing their numbers. Each blip can contain between one and three genestealers, adding to the uncertainty for the marines. Should a Genestealer get within attack range, the tables are turned. Marines have some melee options, but not enough to make a face-to-face confrontation preferable. If you've got more than one Genestealer within striking range, you're going down.
It's a beautifully balanced system for battle between mismatched foes, with each side having advantages to exploit and disadvantages to minimise
It's a beautifully balanced system for battle between mismatched foes, with each side having advantages to exploit and disadvantages to minimise. Each campaign mission - of which there are 12, plus three tutorials - falls into a nervous rhythm of cautious progression followed by violent standoffs, as Genestealers barrel down corridors or lunge around corners, and the marines hope to hold them back without their guns jamming.
For newcomers, this unreliable weaponry will be the sink-or-swim element of the game. Weapons jam frequently, and must be unjammed with a dice roll or unclogged in the next turn at the cost of precious action points. Considering that having your defensive line fail often means inevitable failure for the marines, it's a gameplay mechanic that creates frustration more than tension.
What thrills Space Hulk provides can all be traced back to this graceful, interlocking game design, but credit for that must go to Games Workshop, not Full Control. The studio has opted not to evolve or enhance the game in any way, preferring to simply render the board game in pixels, with almost no flourishes.
Where the move to computer does make itself felt, it always weakens the experience. The game's methodical pace is slowed down further by having to wait for all the marines to finish clanking through their moves before the turn can end. Control is twitchy, meaning it's easy to end up with marines facing the wrong way or leaving themselves exposed, forcing the player to either waste more action points or use a controversial "undo" command that seems to have been implemented precisely because such occasions keep occurring. A less empirical, but no less damaging, problem: the game just isn't as tense or scary. It feels sterile and mechanical, a cover version rather than a new composition inspired by a classic.
It's a pretty ugly game, too, with lots of attention lavished on the characters - those digital versions of the hand-painted miniatures - but very little on environments, animation or even basic things like collision detection. The result is a game that swings from acceptable to jerky mess and back again as the camera swoops in for ill-advised cinematic kill shots that are so clumsy they bleed the excitement out of the game rather than ramping it up. Characters glitch through walls and doors, everything flickers and jerks. Top-notch blockbuster gloss isn't required, but Space Hulk takes so little pride in its presentation that it can't help but irritate.
Online multiplayer is decent - when you can get a match going that doesn't end with a stranger forfeiting in the first five minutes - and the offline hot-seat two-player mode has improved in the two weeks since launch: the number of Genestealers hidden behind a blip was originally on display for both players to see, thus completely breaking one of the game's key tactical mechanisms. Now, only the Genestealer player can opt to reveal the numbers, having made sure their opponent isn't looking.
Space Hulk is clearly born of a deep and abiding love for the original game, but beyond that nostalgia, it's unclear what Full Control brings to the franchise
Space Hulk is clearly born of a deep and abiding love for the original game, but beyond that nostalgia, it's unclear what Full Control brings to the franchise. The game doesn't even offer a new campaign, instead basing its missions on the Sin of Damnation content from the board game. Space Hulk worked in 1989 because it was fresh and unexpected, and that in turn made it thrilling. This version is familiar and nostalgic, relying on rekindled emotion rather than generating any experiences of its own. You might as well dust off the board game.
Yes, that board game is great, but it's not hard to see areas where its design could have been enhanced by the move to keyboard and screen. There's no continuity between missions, for example, so characters killed in one will return for the next with no ill effect. There's no way to change your characters - tweaking their equipment, adding new skills - so there's no sense of progression or reward. The game is so delicately balanced in its original form that it's easy to understand why purists would balk at any changes, but without some sense of evolution - or anything to justify the move from board to screen - there's no real reason for this game to exist on computer other than the fact that, for 17 years, it didn't.
The board game has been out of print since 2009, with copies selling for over Ł100, so this well-intentioned but scruffy recreation is the most affordable option for fans looking to relive the experience. That quirk of the market doesn't excuse the fact that Space Hulk could have - and should have - been better than this.