Wot I Think: Space Hulk
Emperor, forgive me for what I'm about to write. It's me, Rab Florence. You know I love Space Hulk. You know I have every edition of the game. You know I am pure.
But it's three in the morning, and I've been playing Space Hulk on PC for six hours, and that's more than enough. It's been a painful, heartbreaking six hours, and the thought of a seventh is unbearable. Let me tell you why.
Let's start by quickly explaining why Space Hulk, in its board game form, is one of the greatest games ever designed. It's a stripped down, sleek, beautiful thing. One player takes control of a squad of Space Marine Terminators. The other player controls a horde of alien creatures called Genestealers. Each Terminator has Action Points, giving them movement and attacks. You roll for Command Points too, providing extra actions that can be shared across the squad. The Genestealers are more simple beasts – playing the Genestealers is all about moving around outside the Terminators' line of sight as a little blip token, and choosing the perfect time to reveal how many monsters are attached to that blip. Each mission throws a new scenario at the players, but there is a great deal of comfort to be found in how the game plays with such familiarity from moment to moment. Move – open door – cover corridor – activate overwatch. Move blip – lurk – reveal – ATTACK. Head-to-head, across a table, Space Hulk comes alive in spectacular fashion. It's like one of those knife-fight in a phone booth deals, except the knives are dice, and the phone booth is a cramped room inside an ancient spaceship. And there is beer on the table, just to the right of all that.
Crucially, the Space Hulk board game feels like a distillation of the very best turn-based strategy mechanics. Just the good stuff. All killer, no filler. So why is this PC game so bad? I mean – how can that even happen?
ACTIVATE NEGATIVE ELEMENT OVERWATCH
Target Detected – Someone made the decision, early in development, to fully animate every Terminator and every Genestealer in the game. Now, okay, it's a fancy-schmancy PC game, so maybe those animations are expected. But listen – when you start to realistically animate these big heavy Terminator dudes, you are asking the player to sit for a really fucking long time waiting for every command to resolve. All the immediacy of the board game is gone in an instant. When I play Space Hulk on my table, I can move a Terminator three spaces and turn him 90 degrees in one second. In the PC game I have to watch the little fella go THUNK-THUNK-THUNK-THUNK-THUNK for considerably longer than that. I actually couldn't believe there wasn't an option to turn the animations off. The recent Nintendo 3DS game “Crimson Shroud” features 3d-rendered miniatures, mounted on little bases, and they look beautiful. They can also be moved as quickly as lifting a miniature and placing it onto another space. There's no reason why there couldn't have been something similar here. Space Hulk is an adaptation of a board game after all – would it hurt to give us the option to simplify all that fancy, fussy video game crap?
Target Detected – I know pretty much every Space Hulk mission like the back of my hand. Because I know Space Hulk, I know where the doors are on every map. Someone coming into this game fresh is going to miss doors. I guarantee it. You will move a guy, then a door will open somewhere, and you will say “OH SHIT. I DIDN'T SEE THAT DOOR.” When you miss a door in Space Hulk, you are in big trouble. The cluttered, muddy graphics and the sub-optimal camera angles make doors easy to miss. That's just not good enough. Basic stuff too. Ugh.
Target Detected – I want blips in my Space Hulk. Not glitches. Let me tell you about something funny that happened to me tonight - by “funny” I mean “not at all funny”. In the first mission of the game, the classic “Suicide Mission”, I found myself opening fire on a group of hungry Genestealers. I took all of them down except one. I spent the next turn readying my Terminators to deal with that lone Genestealer. On the Genestealer turn, that lone Genestealer didn't move. Weird, right? Not really. I discovered that the Genestealer I was worried about didn't actually exist. I mean, he was there – he was standing right there – but he didn't exist. I stared at him for a while, his little animation looping, and wondered if maybe he was one of the dead Genestealers, whose soul had got trapped inside a bad computer game as punishment for his sins. It's also worth looking out for other “funny” glitches, such as gunfire firing upwards out of the map towards your face, and Terminators walking right off the map into the blackness of fuck knows where. Oh, and missions ending in failure when they shouldn't. Classic stuff. It's only a BOARD GAME you are adapting here, fellas. This shouldn't be so difficult.
Target Detected – Unless I'm some kind of idiot, and I hope I'm not some kind of idiot, the Hotseat Mode might as well not even exist. The idea of sitting and playing against someone at the same PC is great, but – oh, here we go. You know those blips I mentioned? In the board game, the Genestealer player has blips of different values. A blip might be hiding one Genestealer under it, which is bad enough. But it might be hiding three, which is sheer terror. A big part of the game is that tension of not knowing how many Genestealers that blip you can see actually represents. Well, in Hotseat mode, the number of Genestealers attached to a blip is open information. I mean, it says 1 or 3 right there on the fucking thing. I went back and forth with a few people, asking them if they knew how to turn that off. Surely there must be a hotkey that hides it or something? But we were all stumped. We were all mystified. We were all saying “THIS CAN NOT POSSIBLY BE AS STUPID AS THIS WHAT IS GOING ON WHAT YEAR IS THIS IS THIS ON THE VIC-20?”
Target Detected – Okay, in the online multiplayer you can't see how many Genestealers are under the blips. Hooray! But this multiplayer is only going to work with friends. I played with a few randoms tonight, and one took so long over a turn I went and made a cup of tea, another quit out a few turns in, and the last one made one move and then just stopped playing. I think the games keep running, so that turns can be made hours apart in glorious asynchronous - OH GOD. This is Space Hulk! This is one of the most EXCITING board games ever made. This multiplayer turns it into something akin to those weird play-by-mail games you'd see advertised in old comics.
Okay – give me a moment here. Space Hulk is a board game. You know what I mean? It is a board game. It's a game that demands your opponent is right there with you, shaking dice. You need to be able to laugh at your opponent's misfortune, in his face, at the exact moment it happens. You need to be within punching distance. There is a LOT of luck in Space Hulk. To make that luck factor palatable, you need that thrill of throwing the old bones down on the table right in front of your opponent. When you're playing against some slow, unseen stranger, who isn't even rolling any dice? Those moments of ill fortune just make you angry. That's all. Angry. Oh, and an undo button? Really? GO AWAY.
Target Detected – Another thing. Forget about all the shitty parts of this game for a moment. Even the stuff that works okay could have been executed far better. For me, the most thrilling part of Space Hulk is during Overwatch. Let me elaborate.
A Terminator is on Overwatch. A Genestealer turns the corner and starts moving towards that Terminator. He fires at the monster. It's a miss. It moves closer. He fires again. Another miss! It moves closer. He fires again. ANOTHER miss. It moves even CLOSER! (At this point, playing the board game, the two players are screaming at each other in excitement and fright.) The Terminator fires again. His weapon JAMS. The Genestealer moves CLOSER. OH. MY. GOD.
In this PC adaptation, these moments just happen. You know what I mean? They just play out, and pass you by. There's no wit or craft shown in how these moments are presented. The music could have changed, maybe. The camera could zoom closer with every miss. Surely something could have been put in there to say – “Hey, this is one of the cool parts of this classic game design! Sit up and pay attention!” Instead it just shows you the mechanics of the thing playing out, like it's just another phase of the game. Or like, I dunno, like the developers didn't really care.
And that really sums this scrappy, boring adaptation up. A lack of care. It's about as bad as it could possibly be. I've played through half of the campaign missions, missions that are close to my heart, and I've hated every one of them. I stopped at exactly halfway, because the game told me I'd lost a mission I'd just won. And that was the final straw. What an achievement that is, to turn magic into soup. To turn a thing of such celebrated greatness into a thing of such grated celeryness. It sickens me to think that some people will play this game and think that this is what Space Hulk is – a leaden, dated bore. That's not a Space Hulk I recognise.
Sure, you might still want to buy this expensive disaster purely because it's Space Hulk.
But this is not Space Hulk.
I will not accept it. I just won't.