By Kieron Gillen on February 20th, 2008 at 4:29 pm.
Space Hulk was on my mind anyway – I was thinking of group-based tactical games with a claustrophobic atmosphere after playing Spectrum-Aliens-remake LV-426 (Which, were I making Bioshock 2, I’d rip off completely). So when news of a just-released Space Hulk remake reached me, I was overjoyed, making plans to step back into the early nineties of EA’s multi-windowed paranoia-fest. Except then I realised that while they have EA’s (And Games Workshop’s) permission to do this, it isn’t based on the computer game at all. It’s based on the board game. So it looks like this:
But I was overjoyed anyway, because Space Hulk was one of my favourite board games of my teenage years and, in this form, it’s is the sort of focused turn-based strategy game that hits that Julian Gollop (Rebelstar Raiders, Laser Squad, Chaos, X-COM) spot straight on.
It’s an asymmetrical war-game basically. Set aboard the hulking pieces of space-wreckage known, for some reason, as Space Hulks in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, there’s two groups. One one side, are the Terminator Space Marines who have guns. On the other sides, you have Genestealers, who don’t. But they do have the sort of claws that can rend through the marines’ Tactical Dreadnought Armour if they get close enough, lightning speed and endless numbers. While on the board-game version you could play either, in this one the computer plays the Genestealers leaving you to wrestle with the more sophisticated Space Marines.
Clearly taking heavily from the Aliens films, it’s a game of extreme tension. The marines are normally the team which has to press forward and achieve an objective… but being far more cumbersome than the ‘stealers, that’s the last thing they want to do. Trying to work out how to advance while you know ‘stealers are around the corner, unseen is the core of the game. Unseen is another large part – all of the aliens appear as blips on your radar. However, until you’ve actually sighted the blips, they’re an “unconfirmed” blip, which could be a small or larger number of the creatures. Or even none – and there’s few feelings worst than having your advance fall to a halt due to a mysterious blip lurking, and when you finally press forward, it’s revealed that nothing’s there and your scanners were just playing up. Of course, the delay has allowed the enemy to regroup, and your fascist death machines are now surrounded (and shortly eaten).
But the marines have guns. And guns are good. As well as shooting at whatever you can actually see, you’re also able to enter Overwatch, which will take a single shot at anything that steps into your firing line. If you’re lucky, you can mow down an entire way of enemies, especially if you position them at chokepoints down long corridors. If you’re unlucky, the guns jam and the genestealers rush forward unharmed.
The amount of random elements is probably Space Hulk’s worst feature – but it’s also the one which gives the game its incredible tension. While you can play the odds well – that it’s a relatively simple game compared to the complexities of 40K proper means that there’s a real purity to its maths – you can’t ever be sure. For me, I’d argue that the worst thing in this version – except the apparent lack of an undo key, which is especially annoying when action-points are as limited as they are in Space Hulk – is that it hides its maths a little too much. If you’ve played the board game, you’ll know the rough odds of combat. If you haven’t, it might as well be magic. From memory… well, Stealers roll three dice. Marines roll one. Whoever gets highest wins and kills the opposition. Draw equals a draw. Marine Sergeants with Power Swords get a plus one. In short, Marines are screwed in close combat. Similarly, over-watch fire. If I remember rightly, if you roll a double, the guns jam. You need either dice to be a six to kill the stealer outright. But… well, I don’t really know the real odds from playing the game, and when it’s a game that’s based so strongly on playing the odds, its’ an annoyance.
The second major problem for me was something that I found bewildering – simply, I thought they didn’t know the rules since its removal wasn’t mentioned in the things they’ve changed from the original (Another problem: I wish they kept the advance and fire move, because it was a cornerstone of a load of my strategies). You can’t spend command points during the ‘stealers turn. Except it seems that ability was removed in the second edition of the game, which strikes me as reducing Marine strategy in a less interesting manner. To explain why, I’ve got to talk about the command point system… and that’s probably a good idea anyway, as its a mechanism which you’ll need to know about if you want to have a crack.
Each marine has four action points a round. Takes a point to advance, a point to fire, two points to fire a heavy flamer (if they have one), two points to walk backwards, one point to turn. As you can see, that’s tight as hell, especially when you realise Genestealers have six and don’t need to pay points to turn around. However, the Marines also have between one and six command points a round. This is a reservoir of extra points you can spend on any of your marines (and it’s generally higher if you have better commanders). This means that the guy who really has to do extra stuff is able to do it. How you use them each round is the cornerstone of Marine stategy.
However, in the original edition, you were also able to use them as a reaction-move in the Stealer’s phase, assuming you have some left. Having to decide whether you want to save any is another worthwhile strategic aspect. Similarly, you could use it to unjam your gun and perhaps even go back into overwatch or take another shot. In other words, if you knew that you were in a defensive position and jamming would be fatal, you would keep command points in reserve to mitigate against that. The removal of this makes it a whole lot harder for the marine player – not impossible, as my cheery stomp through the stealers shows, but when luck is against you it seems more frustrating. There really was nothing you can do.
(The fact that movement is no longer on a piece-by-piece basis also helps the stealers more than the marines, I suspect.)
I still think this is worth playing. It’s a very pure combat game, about movement, cover and more than a little bit of luck, and remains strikingly atmospheric – and the ability to design your own levels and campaigns is another welcome touch. Equally, with all the dice rolling and figure moving taken care of, it moves at a pace almost as blinding as the xenomorphs you’re facing.