Wot I Think: Space Hulk Ascension

Space Hulk is back. Again. From developers Full Control, who were responsible for last year’s digital release, Ascension is a sequel of sorts, with a new approach to campaigns, with persistent stat progression, and over a hundred missions. It’s an improvement over the company’s first attempt in many ways but there are still plenty of reasons to have a bit of a space sulk.

I appreciate digital conversions of boardgames, even though there’s been an increased amount of cardboard in my life in recent years. There are many reasons to play on a computer rather than a table, ranging from the availability of a particular game or suitable players, to the complexity of setup and the time taken to play. Or perhaps, like me, you’re foolish enough to embrace the unimaginable blasphemy of a fully expanded Arkham Horror, which requires more floorspace than I have in my current apartment.

Space Hulk’s scarcity justifies the excitement that greeted the news of a new digital version. It’s not a game that can derive many benefits from the conversion – unlike the aforementioned Arkham Horror, which requires its players to keep track of a hundred tokens and stoke the fires of the machine at its heart.

Space Hulk is relatively simple and attempting to complicate the design might well compromise its tactical brilliance. Forget the Warhammer 40k lore for a moment, cast aside the genestealers and Terminators, and consider what Space Hulk is actually about. It’s a squad-based game about controlling space. As the squad advances across a map, whatever their ultimate object, their task on each turn is to lock down an area, plugging spawn points and junctions, and creating a defensive perimeter.

Often, the core challenge of a mission is in the requirement to move the perimeter across hostile territory, dismantling and reconstructing as new threats and targets become priorities. Varied weapon loadouts mean that some Terminators are suitable for standing guard, while others are best utilised as punchy frontline assault weapons. Occasionally, a specific piece of equipment is needed to complete an objective.

In an abstract sense, the Terminators are resources and the player, from a position of tactical oversight, shifts those resources into position, attempting to create an invincible entity made up of several moving parts. Precision is important – one mispent action point can cause the whole edifice to crumble – and Space Hulk Ascension’s most striking problem is in the muddiness of its interface and graphics. It’s hard to get a handle on the delicacy of a situation when the interface and maps are often obstructive rather than instructive.

The murkiness of the corridors and rooms means that it’s difficult to pick out the details of the space you’re attempting to control. I’ve failed to notice a door or vent because the surfaces blend into one another, and when a misunderstanding regarding the layout of the map is responsible for failure, I feel cheated. The same is true when I click to move a Terminator and leave him facing in the wrong direction – the margin for error when positioning units is so fine, given the clutter of the background graphics, as to be punishing.

Ascension is desperately in need of a clean tactical map, to sit alongside its moody isometric representation of the claustrophobic corridors. There’s a first-person camera shown at the top-right of the screen whenever a unit is selected, and it’s a lovely atmospheric touch that calls back to the 1993 adaptation and its panic-inducing time-limited engagements.

Robbing the Terminator player of the safety of a turn-based mode was the original computer adaptation’s big gamble. Each mission, crucially, still followed the formula explained above – control of space and perimeters – but planning for survival and victory was a panicked and pressured affair. Ascension doesn’t attempt anything quite so bold but does build on the boardgame and last year’s release by introducing persistent abilities and choices across three campaigns.

The campaigns work. Three Space Marine chapters are represented, with the Ultramarines a completely new addition (the others are last year’s Blood Angels and the Space Wolves, previously available as DLC). There are branching missions, weapon and skill upgrades and flash points at which mini-missions within missions are triggered, offering high risks for (possible) plentiful rewards.

It’s a rich bounty, with more than a hundred missions across the trio of campaigns, and Full Control have given their digital adaptation a life beyond the tight rules of the boardgame, without directly contravening or discarding them. As well as automating genestealer movement, in a similar fashion to the boardgame’s Deathwing expansion, Ascension adds layers of complexity in the guise of new weapon and enemy types.

However, no matter how intriguing the additions to the game are, the wrapper that contains it is about as robust as a balsa wood Logan Grimnar cosplay outfit. The combination of the sometimes illegible layouts and fog of war makes exploration a chore of zooming, checking and rechecking to make sure a misunderstanding won’t lead to the death of your whole squad. The interface, with radial buttons appearing when a Terminator is selected, is fiddly rather than entirely unfit for purpose, but even after hours of playing I was running up against the same misclicks and mild frustrations.

The consequence of one major complaint – the lack of a clear tactical map – and many minor complaints is that I’m reluctant to recommend Space Hulk Ascension, despite the hugely improved campaign structure and increased variety. There’s a good game hidden in the grimdark corridors, and it’s best qualities aren’t just borrowings from Games Workshop, but Ascension has taken two steps forward and one step back. And, as in the game, the backwards step is twice as costly.

Space Hulk Ascension is available now.

48 Comments

  1. Senethro says:

    Don’t quite understand how this merits a standalone priced similarly to the first, and not a paid upgrade for £4.99

    Oh wait, Games Workshop, thats why.

    • Volcanu says:

      Well to be fair Games Workshop don’t make these games themselves, rather they collect a license fee. I’m sure the license fee means that developers need to charge a bit more than would otherwise be the case, but in this instance 100 odd missions seems like reasonable value, given that the base game lasted me around an hour per mission.

      I will probably wait for it to be c.£15, but more because of a backlog of stuff, rather than anything else. Personally I preferred playing the base edition on my iPad as the format was very well suited to it, (and there is a dearth of quality games on the iOs store), but I expect I will pick this up in due course.

    • C.J.Geringer says:

      Actually, considering there is a fairly important reworking of basic rules I think an stand-alone release with a discount for owners of the previous edition like they are doing is the way to go.

      The first one´s objective was a faithful recreation of the tabletop rules, this one is an attempt to capture the feel, without being constrained by needing to be a faithful adaptation of the rules themselves. I found the previous interview about space hulk her eon RPS very interesting, and I agree with the developer´s thinking.

      I will probably by this one, but I would be annoyed having to pay for the previous version.

  2. SkittleDiddler says:

    The “Edition” in Space Hulk Ascension Edition implies that this should have been a free update for the original game. The devs are essentially packaging fixes for an older game as a new product, and that means they can kiss my ass.

    • Rich says:

      Except that “Game of the Year Edition”, or “Special Edition” is quite a common name for the game bundled with extra stuff.
      Of course, if this is really just bug fixes, then it really should have been free to owners of the original.

    • Premium User Badge

      tigerfort says:

      Just like a “Game of the Year Edition”, you mean?

    • SkittleDiddler says:

      Last time I checked, guys, most GOTY editions are not made up exclusively of patches and gameplay improvements.

      • pantognost says:

        You mean to tell me that putting more than 3 times content in a game does not justify it as a paying product.
        Oh the self entitlement of the internetz…

      • liquidsoap89 says:

        Neither is this game. The original was basically a digital version of the Board Game. This one is more “video game adaptation” than recreation. It has more gamey elements like RPG character levels and stuff to differentiate it from the original.

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      No. One is a digital version of a board game and the other is a turn-based strategy game based on a board game.

  3. Loyal_Viggo says:

    All of this is inconsequential.

    / WH40k nerd rage on

    By the Beard of Zeus we demand NECROMUNDA and BATTLEFLEET GOTHIC to be faithfully remade for PC.

    / WH40k nerd rage off

    • phelix says:

      Offtopic, but whenever I see someone write in all caps about WH40K I cannot help but read their comment in Boreale’s deliciously hammy voice (as in: BATTLE BROTHERS! CODEX ASTARTES NAMES ZIS MANEUVER STEEL REHN).

      • Loyal_Viggo says:

        Oh you really know how to float my boat.

      • SomeDuder says:

        ANGRY MARINES – ALWAYS ANGRY ALL THE TIME

      • bleeters says:

        I am completely ok with what the internet at large has done with Boreale’s dialogue. Case in point.

        Must be a side effect of the Blood Raven gene mods. Captain Titus was so quiet and reserved by comparison.

    • Gastbot says:

      If you’re after Necromunda you’re best bet might be to back Mordheim, which has just released early access, and looks pretty good. Hopefully the Dev and GW will capitalise on the similar game design.

      Personally I’d love to see a tactical Necromunda game wrapped in an (optional!) metagame MMO thing. With each game contributing toward an overall battle for control of a massive hive.

  4. Radiant says:

    I said this before but if you want to see beautiful board game aesthetics done right take a look at Hitman GO on mobile stuff.

    With Space Hulk a large chunk of the joy is in the model detail and quality of the tiles and another large chunk is the simplicity of the thing, be it tactics or dice roll a look similar to GO would have brought all of that to the front.
    Well a look like GO but with the lights out anyway.

  5. pseudoart says:

    A shame the UI/UX is terrible. Otherwise it could have been good, it sounds like.

    • pantognost says:

      You know, what troubles me is that when I played the original I did not find any of the alleged misgivings attributed to it by RPS.
      So I’ll give this one, too, the benefit of the doubt…

  6. Hex says:

    Aren’t owners of the other Space Hulk game supposed to get some sort of discount on this one? Any idea how that’s supposed to work? (It would easy enough for them to chuck Steam coupons at me, as Amplitude has done over and over.)

    (Amplitude is the fucking best.)

    • Senethro says:

      A generous 15%

      • Loyal_Viggo says:

        DISCOUNTS FOR THE SKULL THRONE!!! No, wait….

        SKULLS FOR THE DISCOUNT THRONE!!! Hmmm, still not right.

        • SomeDuder says:

          MONEY FOR THE GAMES WORKSHOP THRONE?

          • Nihilist says:

            As owner of the previous Space Hulk the discounts add up, which will be 25%. I paid about 20 Euro. You won’t regret it.

          • eggy toast says:

            If I paid €20 for a stand alone version of a bug fix patch you bet I’d regret it

          • pantognost says:

            Only thing, eggytoast, is that you’re not. The content here is more than 3 times what was in the original game. So…You’re right…but you’re wrong :)

  7. Nihilist says:

    On the other hand…they did exactly what this game needed. They polished it into a computer game and they did right. Funnily enough I love the darkness of the maps, it just adds to the suspense.

    For me there are Space Marines and not Rrescources, for me this is about entering an unknown and very hostile space and not about Terrain. Adam, where is your sense of wonder? Your imagination?
    You can reduce every game down to its pure mechanics, but then we don’t need atmospheric graphics or background stories. Then mere 3Dmodels without textures are enough. Then I will say too: needs a tactical map.

    I played the Space Hulk Boardgame and loved it. The first Space Hulk from Full Control did nothing for me. The translation was to literal, but Ascension is perfect in this regard. It is the game I expected the first time round. And the dark maps are a brilliant idea.

    I heartily recommend Space Hulk: Ascension.

    • Radiant says:

      Do you play single or multiplayer? How is the ai?

      • Nihilist says:

        Single Player. AI is okay. Realistically it doesn’t need a very clever AI, so everything is fine aaaand the harder difficulty settings are really brutal, at least in the beginning.

  8. buzzmong says:

    I’ve been playing this on and off this week, I’ve enjoyed it for the most part.
    The new way of going about campaign(s) is nice, and the bigger freedom in loadouts and equipment is good and makes a nice change from last game.
    Having a bit of a light RPG system certainly improves the game.

    The general changes do make it into a better computer game than the previous version and I can certainly see myself spending a bit more time with it.

    I do have some gripes, aside from the mentioned UI and missing tactical map, but they’re mostly small. Things like the Space Wolves having both a Power Sword and Frost Sword, but being identical in stats and 3d model makes me question if the game was either done on a tight budget or forced out the door a bit too quickly. Things like adding Combi weapons for the ranged terminators, but not giving the “heavy” class anything new (a plasma cannon or lascannon would have been nice) also play to that.

    It’s certainly a competent development effort, but it just feels as if some corners have been cut and it’s not had a final polishing pass on the design.

    I’d recommend it but not at the current price, it’s worth a tenner though.

  9. tumbleworld says:

    I’d raise Yog-Sothoth itself for an even half-decent electronic version of Arkham Horror. Even Eldritch Horror would be a nice start. *mutters*.

    • Shadowcat says:

      Sounds like cultist poker. “I see your unspeakable horror, and raise you Yog-Sothoth.”

    • pantognost says:

      I would gladly join your cult of creating the Ultimate AH EH computer cornucopia. Then we could summon the ancient elders and enjoy eternity in the supernatural roaring 20s!

  10. Shardz says:

    Geez. That’s an original name for a game. I’d be more impressed to see it called “Descension”, even though that’s not a real word apparently.

    Speaking of Ascension, I shall be playing some of that on my tabby tonight!

  11. Shadowcat says:

    RPS: Do we need to have the “isometric” discussion yet again? It appears to be a continuing source of confusion for the writers, so I propose that you simply remove the word entirely from your hive mind vocabulary. Almost no one makes isometric games these days, so it’s not as if you’d be missing opportunities to use it correctly. Try using “aerial” instead? It’s just as descriptive, and has the added bonus of not being 100% incorrect.

    • Zero_hu says:

      I watched a video on the history of video game graphics, and I was completely surprised, that “vector graphics” was achieved by directly manipulating the electron stream in a CRT screen.

      The whole gaming press back then, and the internet still calls unfilled polygons vector graphics. It turns out, they were wrong.
      I think it’s the same memetic mutation. ELITE looked like Asteroids, from afar and squinted, so they called that vector graphics too. This one looks like X-COM, so it’s “isometric”.

      And I think it’s hopeless to erase it from the hivemind, once it’s there. It’s the big downside of a hivemind.

      • Shadowcat says:

        I know what you’re saying, but there’s quite a difference between those two cases.

        With the vector graphics issue, the difference is in the physical display technology, but the images being displayed are mathematically equivalent (although in any case, when Elite came out everyone actually referred to it as “wire-frame” graphics — at least from my experience).

        Vector vs Raster is a hugely important distinction if you’re discussing display technology, but I’d have to argue that it’s dramatically less important if you’re instead discussing the representation of the game environment.

        With the “isometric” issue, the images being displayed are not equivalent in any sense! Regardless of the physical display, an aerial perspective 3D scene and a dimetric scene based on the same data cannot look the same (unless the display is somehow transforming one to the other).

  12. bill says:

    Surely this game is crying out for a simple neon-style overlay that shows the corridors, doors, terminators, aliens, etc.. Press tab to overlay on the standard 3d view.

    Anyway, have the devs said if they are going to back-port any of this to the original game? I’m actually more interested in the original rules version due to childhood nostalgia, but it seems it’d be relatively trivial to port the improvements (lighting, ui(?) etc..) back to that, package it with all the DLC and sell it as a Gold Edition or something.
    The devs seem to pop up in the comments, so I’m hoping they’ll answer this.

  13. bill says:

    On a separate note, Space Hulk: Vengeance of the Blood Angels was an awesome game! ( hear the first space hulk game was great too, but I came to it after VotBA and the lwo res graphics were too big a hurdle for me).

    They so much nailed the atmosphere, the panic, the tactics, etc.., but also did it in mostly real time.
    I continue to proclaim that their ‘command time*’ idea was awesome and should have been included in more/all 3d/pause combat games from that point on.
    If it had just had full 3d graphics and decent mouse support, it would have been a classic.

    *For those that don’t know, you basically controlled the terminators in real time first person, and could switch between them**. But you also had a 2d overlay map that you could use to give commands. You also had a ‘command time bar’ that allowed you to pause the game to issue said commands, but it rapidly depleted when paused and if you hadn’t finished then the game would just resume as you finished your tactics. Command Time replenished in first person mode.
    So, you had an incredibly tense situation where you had to balance your time between the first person and tactics modes and could never relax.

    **Well, at the beginning you only controlled one lowly marine, and had to go where the squad leader told you. later you became the squad leader and could start issuing commands.

    • Zero_hu says:

      If you find a way to get it run on a modern PC and Win7, let me know!

      I tried everything I could think of, to no avail. The closest I get to playing it was with a 3DO emulator, I could start the first mission. It has a slight problem, though. It crashed to desktop with 75% chance when an FMV started to play…

      • Maximum Fish says:

        This page:
        link to systemshock.org

        has a Windows 7 / Vista “patch” for the game that should get it to work for you. It’s pretty easy to setup, and the thread linked has step by step directions (also a pdf of the manual!). I’m running it on Vista 64 without any issues, and it has yet to crash on me (just got to the promotion bit when i can start ordering my squad around).

        Hopefully it works for you also. This game (vengeance of the blood angels that is) was a tremendously underrated classic in my opinion, and i really hope next year’s Deathwing game takes the same pause-time strategy/shooter hybrid approach, rather than just a straightforward shooter.