In the grim darkness of the far future, (where there is – apparently – only war), dilapidated space-borne freightliners called “Space Hulks” drift, abandoned in deep space and almost forgotten by their original owners. But they are not empty, far from it, just like the rat-infested ghost ships of the 20th century, these 41st millennium analogues are teeming with scaly, bug-like creatures called Genestealers.
These floating colonies are somehow anathema to the all-powerful Imperium of Man, fearful that the great Tyrannid hive minds that control the creatures might use the hulks as vectors for incursion onto the homeworlds of the iconic genetically-enhanced super soldiers known as the Space Marines.
In an effort to curb the proliferation of Tyrannids across Imperial space, cadres of Space Marines clad in the thickest, most impractical terminator armour, (though for the most part open at the face – what are they thinking!?) are dispatched onto the Space Hulks to cleanse them of infestation. Unfortunately for them, Genestealer claws are basically made for opening terminator armour and anyone who’s come to this party without a storm bolter and their wits about them is just asking for trouble…
Obviously this game is going to suffer from infavourable comparisons to the XCOM franchise – it is a turn-based strategy game in a sci-fi setting, after all, but it is significantly different enough to warrant a second look. The claustrophobic, dark atmosphere of the Space Hulk’s corridors and the limited mobility of the terminators makes for a game that’s all about positioning and thinking a few moves ahead – I hesitate to compare it to chess, but it’s got a similar vibe about it. Having played the recently re-released board game of Space Hulk at my weekly game group, I can attest to how faithful it is to the source material; you really need to think about how you use your action points, where you move your troops and in what order. You never want to leave someone exposed or deliberately take on a genestealer in hand-to-hand combat, (seriously – their hands are basically tin-openers, who would want to go up against that one-on-one?).
As faithful as it is to the board game, the video game aspects that Ascension brings are welcome – being able to upgrade and improve upon the basic terminators, as well as customise them, (helmets please!) adds a feeling of being connected to your men in a way that has been pioneered by the XCOM franchise and works very well to change your mindset away from thinking of them as merely cannon-fodder. Quickly you can become attached to particular super soldiers who’ve done you proud and are appropriately sad when they are – inevitably – scythed from groin to sternum by the razor-sharp claw of a purple monster just because you accidentally positioned them out in the open, facing the wrong way.
Space Hulk is pretty unforgiving – I played the game on normal difficulty and I had a hard time of it, only managing to keep all of my terminators alive on a couple of missions. But it is very enjoyable, and that’s what counts. Even if the story isn’t particularly engaging and likely only of interest to those with a keen interest in Warhammer 40,000 lore, it makes for a good backdrop and provides for some variety in the form of different Space Marine chapters with their own strengths and weaknesses. There’s a lot of game here and it’s not as repetitive as you might expect – the developers have clearly put a lot of thought into replayability.
The things I didn’t like about the game are niggling small things that likely stem from being spoiled by XCOM. For example, control doesn’t automatically switch between terminators after you’ve used the current one’s action points which means you either have to be hyper vigilant about who has how many AP left or end up gimping yourself by pressing “next turn” before you’ve really finished. Focus also doesn’t switch to terminators that are being attacked on the Tyrannid turn, (although the grainy “shoulder-cam” footage does show the action), something which left me a tad confused a couple of times before I got used to it. Clearly some of these things are a choice – Space Hulk doesn’t hold your hand as much as XCOM, in some ways, and some people will prefer it that way.