Hulking Out

I have a theory.

About 15 years ago, shortly after SSI released the PC game “Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate”, somebody at Games Workshop behaved in a rude manner toward a computer programmer somewhere. Seeking vengeance, the programmer cursed Games Workshop. And that curse has stuck. Since Chaos Gate — 15 long years — every single computer game based on the very popular Warhammer 40k tabletop game franchise has been a disappointment.

Ready for my closeup CB
That’s all I can figure. There has to be a Curse of the Rude Englishman. I mean, the tabletop version of the game continues to thrive despite its ridiculous expense. Spin-off games like the third edition of Space Hulk and the Death Angel card game are popular and well-received. Fantasy Flight Games has several thriving lines of Warhammer 40k role playing games. The Black Library can’t print 40k themed books and fluff fast enough.

Relic didn’t do a bad job with Dawn of War, but that wasn’t as much “digital 40k” as it was just another RTS game with a 40k theme. So from my perspective, a satisfying computer gaming experience has eluded fans of the 40k tabletop experience since 1998.

Well, there’s a new kid on the block and he’s trying to break the Curse of the Rude Englishman. On August 15, “Space Hulk” was released by Full Control Studios. Not to be confused with the long-ago “Space Hulk” video game FPS, this new version of Space Hulk is a turn-based, isometric view tactical game that hews extremely close to the structure and game play of the board game Space Hulk Third Edition. In fact, it will probably clear up a lot of questions you may have if you simply think of this new PC game as more or less a straight ‘port’ of the board game into a computer-driven, digital format.

I pre-ordered Space Hulk through Steam a few weeks back, then managed to download and get the thing running on the first day of release. I’ve had a chance to play about half of the missions now, which has given me a good enough overview (I think) to share a few thoughts on the game.  To be perfectly clear, I’m not a fanboi of the Space Hulk board game. I’ve played it. It’s fine. Not as interesting as the full tabletop version of 40k, but easier to grasp and especially entertaining to play against opponents who are given to drama and histrionics when their well-considered plans crumble under the assault of unfriendly dice rolls.

For a tactical PC game, Space Hulk couldn’t get much simpler. If you’re familiar with the board game, then you can be up and dying in the computer version in about three minutes. Folks completely new to the Space Hulk environment probably need another five minutes to read through the “Librarium” documentation screens to get a good grasp of available actions. So there’s no steep learning curve, no arcane menu of actions. Move, shoot, die (usually).

As with almost every PC game new release, Space Hulk has some bugs — technical bugs, not just plentiful Tyranid Genestealer “bugs”. Some are the result, no doubt, of building versions for a wide range of hardware platforms. There are versions for PC, Mac and iOS; many of the bug reports I’ve seen appear to be related to the Mac version. Most seem quite fixable. The most embarrassing to date is probably the V 1.0 bug in Mission 6 that reports a “failed” mission when you achieve the victory conditions. Ooops. Other bugs are the kind of silly, sloppy stuff you find in games when devs are still working on it the night before release (which they were). Those Librarium documentation screens I mentioned above, for example, are just scaled-down versions of the modal windows that appear as tutorials during game play. Unfortunately, the text is scaled down to a very tiny size and some of the graphics don’t display properly. Somebody on the dev team needed to run spell check on all of the game text.  That sort of stuff. As of this writing, v1.03 is the current version, so they’re trying to stay on top of things.

From a game play standpoint, Space Hulk is faithful to the board game experience in most respects. There’s even an option to turn on an in-game timer to recreate the timed game turn experience that’s given so many Terminator players serious heart burn in the board game. In fact, it’s faithful to the point that a lot of the elements you expect to find in computer “tactical” games aren’t there.

The single-player campaign game is a “campaign” only in the sense that you have to play the scenarios in sequence — and win them — in order to unlock the next scenario in the campaign. Otherwise? Nothing else connects them. Your Terminators don’t collect experience, or gain skills or win honors for their gallantry. You can’t choose your weapon and ammo loadouts. You start each scenario with the guys and guns the setup gives you, and that’s it. That’s exactly what happens in the board game version, but compared to other modern tactical games — or even compared to 1998′s Chaos Gate — it seems a bit of a lost opportunity.

Environmentally, Space Hulk is a bit bland. The soundscape isn’t very evocative. Lighting effects are very basic stuff. Forget about pulse-pounding background music. And what is it about the 40k universe that turns nearly every voice actor into a lobotimized schlub? Seriously. I can’t blame Space Hulk for this specific flaw — it must be something to do with karma or bad gris-gris. Even ‘name’ actors like Terence Stamp and Sean Pertwee, who both sounded half-dead in the animated movie “Space Marine”, couldn’t kick the dreaded 40k Drone. Maybe that’s how people will talk in the 40th Millennium? I dunno.

The game graphics get in some decent swings. The in-game user interface is nicely overlaid, crisp and easy to decode. The game engine graphics are pretty good, excepting the previously mentioned lack of environmental effects. But the in-game “kill” animations aren’t up to snuff. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by games like Fallout: New Vegas, which uses the game engine to build slow-motion kill scenes? In Space Hulk, they’re all old-school, cut scenes that don’t resemble the rest of the game graphics in any way. They look like scenes created for a different game, and are something of a visual mismatch with everything else in the game.

I understand that the gang at Full Control doesn’t have a team of 50 devs to throw at the project, but I think the proper standard of comparison is other games in the genre, period, and not just “games developed by a small team”. After all, Warhammer 40k is one of board gaming’s major league franchises. Consequently, the computer game’s development needs to meet major league standards. Maybe continuing development and add-ons will push this one up another notch or two, but right now some of the inconsistencies keep it in “average” territory — although I do give the devs plenty of credit for their dedication to churning out fixes.

Of course, the overriding question is: Does Space Hulk break the 15 year long Curse of the Rude Englishman?

My answer is this: That depends on what you think the franchise needs to break the curse. If you think it needs a gloriously state-of-the-art PC game with top-notch effects and deep immersion in the 40k universe, then you’ll likely say “no”. But if you think a reasonably enjoyable, straight-up port of the Space Hulk board game does it, then you might rate it a solid “maybe; let’s see what happens a few versions down the road.”

My personal take on the game is that it’s “okay”. It’s not bad, but it isn’t what it could have been. I’ll enjoy playing it through more than once, no doubt, although it’s not a game that’s going to develop into an addiction.

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