Retro: Space Hulk

By Alec Meer on March 31st, 2008 at 5:30 pm.

Much as I’m fond of it, I’ve always had one major complaint about Dawn of War. It doesn’t feel very Warhammer 40,000. It certainly looks pretty Warhammer 40,000 – fans are well-serviced by grisly animations and the army painter tool – but I never got much sense of the universe’s character. All that colour, all that cartoonishness, all that replenishing lost troops… I want DARKNESS and FEAR and EVERY MAN DOWN IS LIKE A PUNCH TO THE STOMACH. I want Space Hulk.

It was the right game at the right time. As Kieron’s fond of saying, Games Workshop is what middle-class teenage boys did instead of heroin, and so to find GW mixing up with my other drug of choice, PC gaming, was to step up to speedballs. Things also seemed to happen a lot quicker back in 1993. I don’t remember trembling with anticipation for months; I remember Space Hulk just being there all of a sudden, and the demo being in my hands (thanks to PC Zone, I believe) almost as soon as I knew about the game; Space Hulk instantly became my life. I also remember, with extreme guilt, convincing a monied friend to buy the game and give me the 3.5” floppies it came on, promising that I then would copy them to 5.25” discs for him, as his PC lacked the new-fangled smaller drive. I never did. Probably because I was too busy playing Space Hulk. Still – a bad man.

Most of all though, I remember being puzzled. Space Hulk was not at all a familiar experience. While I’d spent far too long with Wolfenstein 3d, Doom was still six months off when this squad-based action-strategy curio arrived; thus, the first-person shooter was still a wide-eyed child with no idea what it wanted to grow up into. If Doom was the hormonal teenage phase, a wild pursuit of hedonism even as this young creature’s personality solidified, then Space Hulk was those last couple of innocent years just before puberty hit. Polite, inquisitive, determined to impress, not to conquer. There’s an alternate reality where Space Hulk was the smash hit, not Doom, and today’s big FPSes were instead strategic, tense affairs where every shot matters enormously, and patience and resolve were in more demand than reflex.

There is a reason that didn’t happen – for all its atmosphere and thoughtfulness, Space Hulk remains very, very odd. Coming to it today, I immediately craved WASD controls and the ability to strafe like a gazelle riding a skateboard across an oilslick. Space Hulk’s Terminators (a particularly beefy breed of 40K Space Marine) handle like remote-control Daleks with their wheels clogged up by carpet fluff. Every single fight is traumatic, desperately struggling with controls that don’t want to work; if you’re not already facing in the approaching Genestealer’s direction a good six or seven seconds before it reaches you, you’re dead. The image heading this post will be harrowingly familiar to anyone who ever played Space Hulk – just the first splotch of red is enough for the dread knowledge and resignation that one of your Terminators is lost. Stop fighting. It’s over.

Of course, the cumbersome controls are fantastically appropriate. A Terminator’s Tactical Dreanought Armour is built for survival, not mobility. They are, after all, roaming Space Hulks, mashed-up zero-G starship wreckage haunted by bestial aliens and bombarded by space debris, not gallivanting through corn fields laughing at bunny rabbits. Of course they’re going to handle like rusted milk floats. I don’t know to what extent atmosphere-via-unhelpful-control-set was intentional at the time – certainly, any game attempting it now would be lynched – but it’s remarkably effective today. The panic and terror of facing 90 degrees away from your enemy, and knowing that you can’t do a damn thing about it before your lower intestine spills onto your feet, is still something pretty special.

What doesn’t stand up as well, I find, is the relative obviousness with which the original boardgame’s dice-rolls underpin this real-time shooty adaptation. The randomness of chance, of whether any of your shots will ‘splode that ‘Stealer before it reaches you (or, if it does, of whether your powerglove will crush its chitinous skull before its talons take your eyes) is infuriating in a game without mid-level saves. It’s a little more cinematic than the more standard approach of each enemy being able to survive through exactly x number of bullets – combat as chance, not maths – but when you’re unloading a dozen shots straight into the oncoming horror’s head with zero effect, resulting in the waste of ten minutes of careful corridor-creeping, it’s hard not to feel annoyed. Annoyance turns to horror and then to abject dismay as your five sub-screens – one for each squad member – fade to static silence one-by-one. It all happens so fast. All that armour and all those weapons are nothing in the face of a single Genestealer that’s caught you from behind.

Space Hulk is a remarkably difficult game. It’d be considered unforgivably hard in these climes, I suspect. There are ways to combat the difficulty – mostly, the extreme patience of moving your squad one step at a time, pausing, and using the top-down strategy screen to have your entire squad simultaneously rotate to cover all angles – but sometimes the game just seems to decide your number’s up. Chance can destroy a long mission in its twilight moments, but it gets away with it because you’re never in any doubt that you’re in an incredibly dangerous situation.

Digital speech was still a relative luxury at the time, but it’s used to remarkable effect here – there are constant howls and growls from the dim distance, but you’ve no idea from which of the hulk’s twisting, disorientating corridors they originate. Sounds aren’t locational clues – they’re just reminders of how much trouble you’re in. Every step is terror. A motion tracker offers some forewarning (and more undeniable proof of Space Hulk’s heavy Aliens inspiration; the dread static flicker of a fallen Terminator’s HUD is another), but isn’t much use when you’re being besieged from three directions or a Stealer’s coming out of the goddamned walls. Death is miserable, but it’s clear you weren’t ever here to party anyway.

Grimness, pitilessness and brutality. Space Hulk is Warhammer 40,000 all over.

__________________

« | »

, , .

40 Comments »

  1. terry says:

    I played Spacehulk on the Amiga like god intended *folds arms*

  2. Mr.Brand says:

    In the future, there can only be red splotches.

    I remember I had a later game of the sort for the Playstation. It was about the same, with better graphics. The first WHFB game on the PS1 was more fun, though.

  3. lungfish says:

    I remember playing this at a friends house when i was but a wee bairn, must have been around ’96 or so, creeping down into the cellar to play his dad’s games, all of which we had been forbidden to touch. Fun times.
    Anything similar in recent games?

  4. Andrew Mayer says:

    This was definitely a ball-buster. But I enjoyed the hell out of it back in the day.

    It was all the good stuff from the board game without the tedious set-up, figurine paiting, and/or the need to actually have friends come over to play it. Also, it was a hell of a lot cheaper.

  5. Nallen says:

    Boy did i get whooped when I first started playing this again, and there was me thinking I sucked at it :)

    I think the most horryfiying thing about it is as you say the speed you go from totally solid advance to total death. Of course in retrospect diving right in with a two squad mission was probably…optimistic.

  6. Matt Dovey says:

    This was one of the first games I played that genuinely got my pulse up from fear. Seeing those Genestealers advancing down the corridor at an unholy rate of knots, not knowing if any of your bullets would get the kill, knowing that the thin red line could collapse anytime, all combined into the sort of tense experience that wasn’t available anywhere else back then. And as frustrating as it sometimes was, without the game of chance underpinning everything you wouldn’t have felt that fear, that uncertainty.

    I will never forget the survival missions, standing in the corner of a corridor, gunning down huge waves of ‘stealers as they appeared on your map, seeing the heaps of your enemies in front of you as one by one those screens wink out… that may have been the sequel, in all fairness, but it’s stuck with me. Seldom have purple dots been so unnerving.

    It should be noted that I liked those missions best because that way you didn’t have to walk into the belly of the beast, which was utterly terrifying to my 8 year old self.

  7. Space-General Von Poddson says:

    I used to be poop-scared of this game. Infact this and AvP1 are the only games I will acknowledge as being so scary as to effect my performance. In both cases it was a complete unwillingness to move. The corners were safe and covered and that was where I was staying, thankyou very much.

  8. Jae Armstrong says:

    I’ll admit that I’ve never played Space Hulk, but from what I read here it sounds very much like another game, one which I enjoyed immensely- XCOM. In spirit, if not in execution.

    In both games you’re controlling a small team, extremely vulnerable (eventually I began to take HWPs with me in every mission, simply to draw fire in that first unloading round), knowing the enemy is out there but tightly constricted in your ability to ferret them out.

    Similarly, leaving an exposed flank unwatched was an incitement to a quick and bloody death. Similarly, even if you could see the enemy, you were not safe; burst fire had a tendancy to strike everything but the charging monster, and the slower aimed shots still owed enough to Lady Luck to be a nerve-wracking experience (and those Chrysalids…)

    It was terrifying. And exhilarating because of it.

    More of this sort of thing.

  9. Sum0 says:

    I’d love to see a decent FPS in the ultra-realistic tactical military style of GRAW or SWAT 4, say, only set in space, with space marines (of any sort, not necessarily WH40K), beefy futuristic weapons, hard sci-fi, etc. Doom with a PhD, say. Starship Troopers: The Book: The Game, perhaps. It would have purdy next-gen graphics, natch, and every level would just be another gigantic, randomly-generated spaceship to tactically maneuver/blast through.

    I guess Space Hulk is the closest I’ve got for the moment.

  10. Scott says:

    “A Terminator’s Tactical Dreanought Armour is built for survival, not mobility.”

    Right, that’s why they die with one swipe of a Genestealer’s claws. Never really got the whole Space Marine big hulking armor bit. Let’s see, it restricts your vision, impairs your movement, and offers no protection. But hey, it looks cool.

  11. Musenik says:

    Apparently these folks:

    http://www.teardown.se/

    are struggling to let the public play their remake of Space Hulk. If anyone has the ear of THQ, they would really appreciate your help.

    Also, I’ve been playing Warhammer on the DS and it reminds me of Space Hulk a bit, but I’ve just scratched the surface, and the reviews have not been kind. I may just be transferring my nostalgia.

  12. Hypocee says:

    Sum0: If you didn’t catch it the first time around, you might want to take a look at Outwars. It’s very, very not that, but…somewhere within shouting distance. To this day, it’s the closest thing I’ve found to ST:TB:TG, and despite gaping flaws most of it’s a barrowload of fun. Or of course there’s Looking Glass’ Terra Nova, which is actually very close to your remit indeed (commands and tactics matter a lot, reasonable weapons) as long as you don’t specify in what year the visuals are next-gen sexy.

  13. Cycle says:

    “Right, that’s why they die with one swipe of a Genestealer’s claws. Never really got the whole Space Marine big hulking armor bit. Let’s see, it restricts your vision, impairs your movement, and offers no protection. But hey, it looks cool.”

    Haha, my thoughts exactly. Your men were pretty useless! Still, great memories with this baby.

  14. wcaypahwat says:

    Yeah, I’ve been playing Squad Command on DS also. I’m rather enjoying it, since its hard to find a good x-com clone these days (I’m glad certain astute fellows on the interwebs are keeping tabs on some alternatives – Thanks RPS!).

    Brings back memories of me and my friend inching our way through terror from the deep every afternoon after school.

    Still, with all things going on, hopefully there’ll be a good take on the 40k universe soon.

  15. malkav11 says:

    See, that’s just it – against most enemies, Space Marine armour (particularly of the Terminator variety) is nigh-invulnerable. Genestealers are able to peel them like grapes because they’re Just. That. Nasty.

  16. cheapskate says:

    @Jae:

    “eventually I began to take HWPs with me in every mission, simply to draw fire in that first unloading round”

    Recruits were cheaper to use for scouting than HWPs. Hell, if they survive a mission or two, maybe let them have armour.

  17. much2much says:

    The Teardown Space Hulk game is great but is being killed by GW (or THQ ultimately). This is a tragedy. This is brand control gone stupid. The idea of them releasing a similar game (style not setting) for the handhelds or something is the only defense and even then this puts the challenge to them to make theirs better.

  18. Kallahim says:

    A comment about the Terminator armor not being very good, its sorta the opposite way around. From the instruction book read, only Space Marines in Terminator armor had a 10% survival rate vs Genestealers…everything else would be annihilated. And this game gave you that sense that even if you lived it would only be for a short while longer. All those who loved Starcraft should bow down to what inspired it, and run in abject terror to the might of the forces of darkness.

  19. Caiman says:

    Teardown just got confirmation from THQ that they can continue development on their Space Hulk game.

  20. Anthony Damiani says:

    You know, I think the lack of thematic fidelity to the pretentious, self-absorbed, relentlessly grim whiny “darkness” of the 40k setting is a key reason I liked Dawn of War. All the setting stuff is pretty cool– but you just can’t take it seriously. Space Elves versus S&M space elves versus cockney orcs versus fascist power-armored ubertwinks, versus undead robots versus crazy nuns with guns— it’s all a very silly premise, not the stuff of gritty “every man counts” drama and “grim, pitiless brutality.”

    No matter what it says on the box.

    • Josh W says:

      That’s the core of the humour of WH40k though, it takes itself far more seriously than you do when playing it, and if you play it with people, then you can laugh together at it’s overblown absurdities, and the effects of randomness. Maybe that doesn’t come across as much in online games or single player campaigns. If so that would be a shame.

  21. Rich Tysoe says:

    “Teardown just got confirmation from THQ that they can continue development on their Space Hulk game.”

    That had better be true, or it’s the least funny april fool’s thing ever.

  22. groovychainsaw says:

    I used to love the atmosphere in this game – much scarier than doom’s faux-hell imagery. Although your point about modern games using a deliberately contrived control system for atmosphere doens’t stand in one or two modern games, the most obvious example being resident evil 4, where you have to lock you character in position to shoot, waving your gun as you try to get a bead on the opponents head whilst they run at you and you can’t move at all is superbly atmospheric…

  23. Grill says:

    I remember there was a mission (either in the original or in Revenge of the Blood Angels) you could play where you had to kill a Genestealer Magus (psychic guy). I think it was the only mission that had all the weapons unlocked from the start but it was ludicrously difficult – you essentially had two long corridors to walk down that were full of ‘stealers then when you got to the Magus, he just fried you with a mental fireball before you could get a shot off.

    Massively unfair, but I played that level for weeks.

  24. Muzman says:

    Those ‘suits’ aren’t so much suits as mini mechs are they not? (I can’t remember, I’m just trying to picture anyone actually wearing something with shoulders that broad) And wasn’t there a nice FMV/animation of your guy getting the genestealer french kiss when he died? Or am I thinking of something else?

  25. Kieron Gillen says:

    Anthony: It’s very silly and very serious simultaneously. That’s kind of the joy of it.

    Muzman: They’re tactical dreadnought armour!

    KG

  26. Matthew says:

    Muzman – bear in mind that in the fluff, Marines are meant to be at least seven feet tall as a general rule.

  27. Hermes says:

    Best GW computer game ever is…. *drumroll* Chaos Gate.
    Love it when you jump onto the walls of the fort with your assault marines and spread the chainsawsword love to the heretics within! RAOWR!

  28. Nallen says:

    You’ve got to give whoever came up with the name Tactical Dreadnought Armour a fucking cigar, surely.

  29. Nick says:

    It was better in 40k.. almost brokenly so in the edition I had (where it had something like a 3+ save on 2D6 and couldn’t be modified by more than -4 or similar).

  30. Winterborn says:

    Terminator armour was still weak against genestealers in 40K from what I can recall. The big difference was on an open battlefield the majority of genestealers were mowed down before they could get into close combat range.

    I agree with Anthony Damiani on the universe, had friends who were really into it when I was a teenager. I’ve always lumped it mentally into something I call ‘hard man style’ – that is trying very, very hard to be a ‘hard man’.

  31. Switchbreak says:

    This game tought me to swear. The difficulty is positively sadistic on some of those missions. It all paid off, though, when I beat the last level after barely escaping a massacre by putting my last two living guys back-to-back, like a climactic scene in a buddy action movie, and through some miraculous chance mowed down literally hundreds of Genestealers without dying on the final advance to the objective room. Pure brilliance.

  32. Daniel says:

    Boy, I love X-Com, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Space Hulk when it comes to being hard.

    Hell, you play the same mission in X-Com four or five times tops, no matter how difficult, and that’s enough. Not to mention SAVING inside the mission.

    Space Hulk had no save inside mission, and you really could spend weeks trying to finish ONE mission.

    It was that hard.

    Alas, the thing I most loved about it was the intro, including the animation AND the sound track AND the sound effects.

  33. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    Curiously, I’ve begun replaying Space Hulk a couple of weeks ago, well before stumbling on this article thanks to RPS’ Past-O-Vision. To me it still stands the test of time in nearly all aspects, although I must admit to the difficulty being unexpected. Guess my mind blocked out the trauma :)

    Good article indeed. Any chance for a Chaos Gate featurette?

  34. Malloc420 says:

    “Right, that’s why they die with one swipe of a Genestealer’s claws. Never really got the whole Space Marine big hulking armor bit. Let’s see, it restricts your vision, impairs your movement, and offers no protection. But hey, it looks cool.”

    terminator armour is the best a space marine can get BUT the reason genestealer claws cut right through them is because the claws are sooo sharp and the genestealers sooo fast and strong one good lunge is all it takes and even after all this time ( and updates to how things work in warhammer 40.000 ) genestealers can still take apart a terminator squad very quickly. one thing id like to see would be space hulk remade for the nintendo ds that COULD be awsome or remade for the xbox 360 / ps3 because with updated graphics and downloadable content and all it COULD be even more awsome that what it used to be

  35. jason says:

    man space hulk was the best! i would love to get my hands on some the audio to start and stop my computer too.

    BLESS YOUR WEAPONS!!!

    GLORY!!!!!

  36. apa says:

    so… is there any hope for the Teardown Space Hulk to be released?

  37. Nano says:

    It seems good. Something like that heppened to me with the super-archi-dooper-excellent Duke Nukem 3D (Duke3D for friends :)

  38. Tim says:

    They way I figure it, terminator armour is probably the minimum required to keep a marine alive in a hostile environment and *physically carry* a weapon big enough to take down a genestealer.

    A hardier choice might’ve been a dreadnought, but I don’t think they’d fit through those low hallways ;)

  39. Shalrath says:

    “Best GW computer game ever is…. *drumroll* Chaos Gate.”

    I still own the boxed copy of it. Fuck it’s fun. I can’t get it running on my XP 64 box though, I might have to check out VOGONS and see what they say about it.

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>