Cyclopean aggregations of derelict ships, made of stone and ice, Space Hulks slowly drift away in space and dimensions, until they cross the path of a planet. That's when they become a cataclysmic threat. There is only one way to counter it, send a team in the belly of the beast to set up powerful explosive charges, but the Hulks are usually infested with Genestealers, the local version of Ridley Scott's alien. We were sent a review copy of Space Hulk: Tactics, guess who's been assigned to the task?
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I won't lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies
While the ever expanding Warhammer 40k universe can be intimidating, the Space Hulk board game remains an easy entry point, focusing on three core elements: heavy armed space marines, fearsome aliens and narrow corridors. After an attempt to turn the licence into an FPS with Deathwing, Focus Interactive takes us back to the turn-based roots of the game with Tactics. Of course, the usual suspects are there : square-based battlefields, action points, precision rates… but you'll soon realize that Space Hulk offers a different and way more unforgiving experience. A good example is the life points management system, or rather the lack of it. Yes, that's right, marines and genestealers are down at the first hit. And that's only the beginning. Humans are slow, can't take cover, only aim in one direction at a time, theirs weapons get jammed, the default precision rate hovers around 30 % and corridors force a progression in line (of course no shooting through allowed). Life is not easier on the Genestealers' side since they can only perform melee attacks and lack the versatility of Space Marines. So, is this a game for masochistic players?
The death row
Not Quite. You just need to understand and embrace the game's approach. XCOM-likes pretty much rely on a single attack (or counter-attack) per turn. To increase its precision, you get better equipment, you try to get closer to the target or flank it… In Space Hulk Tactics, it's rare (and always temporary) to be able to boost your precision BUT, you can perform several attacks per turn. When a Space Marine is on Overwatch, he will shoot any target in his line of sight, each time it moves one square. So if a Genestealer must run through a six squares corridor to reach a Marine, it will have to evade six 30 % precision shoots which is… unlikely. The encounters quickly turn into a space control game. Genestealers pack around corners, waiting for a mistake in placement or provoking it by using decoys. Space Marines try to cover each of their flanks by taking control of long corridors and by progressing slowly toward the objective, even if it sometimes implies some sacrifice for the rear guard. After all, victory usually does not require evacuation, just a specific action. The result is tense, very tactical, and the game adds some welcome funny mechanics (teleporters, turrets, locked doors…).
Cyanide also took the initiative to add a new layer to the board game, in the form of upgradable cards attached to units. On the Genestealers side, they are mainly used to call for reinforcements. On the human side, you can use them for buffs or turn them into bonus action points. It provides some flexibility to flip over bad situations. So we've got a good adaptation of the Space Hulk board game with some neat new ideas, very respectful of the licence in its visuals, sound design and tone. The map editor is also a nice bonus. But, as always with Cyanide's productions, some "why, but why" hinder the initial enthusiasm. Like the "why, but why is it so slooooow?". Units move very slowly and the game prevent you from giving new orders until they reach their destination. Its laborious and online matches can go well beyond 45 minutes. Also, the "why but why is this interface so messy?", that sometimes causes you to waste your last action point attacking some dumb mushroom instead of the Genestealers smiling right at your face. just a piece of advice: use the gamepad (even on PC) and take some time to read the descriptions because the game simply forgets to teach you some vital rules.
I want more
Let's not forget the smaller "why but why such laziness?". The human campaign is quite generous in terms of content, with a serviceable story to follow. A bunch of nice upgrades and unlockables bring more versatility to the squad and main missions are nicely designed. But the many, many random encounters always bring us back to the exact same 5-6 maps. Guys, you have a map editor! The Genestealers campaign is nothing more than a big tutorial, so you can call it a bit lazy. Last but not least, "why but why so few different units?". Granted, it's not really the developer's fault, but rather the board game's limited scope. Still, other turn-based video games have more content and it would be nice to see Space Hulk Tactics brings some Orks or Eldars on board.
When it comes to the interface, overall diversity or depth, Space Hulk Tactics can't compete with XCOM. Also, it's clearly not a game to initiate novice players to turn-based games. However, it fulfills two important contracts. First, it's a really good (maybe the best) conversion of the Space Hulk Board game, which will undoubtedly please the fans. Second, its tactical approach is quite unique among often very similar turn-based games, and this is really cool. Almost as much as crushing a Genestealer's face with a Thunder Hammer.
- On the plus side
- Truthful to the licence
- Good production values
- Original mechanics
- Cards are a good addition
- Two very different factions
- The map editor
- Space Marines rules and are great to play with...
- On the downside
- … but the Genestealers lack versatility
- It's so slooooow
- lacking interface and explanations
- Uneven campaigns