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.