Review: Space Hulk: Tactics09 Oct 2018 0
Review: Space Hulk: Tactics
Released 09 Oct 2018
Five Terminators, one Space Hulk, endless Tyranids. That's Space Hulk: Tactics (SHT) in a nutshell -- a turn-based strategy game about armour-clad space marines locked in a deadly skirmish with genocidal beasts at the heart of a gargantuan spaceship.
If the setup sounds familiar, it's because Space Hulk is one of Warhammer 40,000’s most iconic settings – and the progenitor to the 40K world at large. Space Hulks are a legendary congregation of derelict vessels warping in and out of existence, often at random. SHT is actually the fourth Space Hulk-based game in the past five years, after the mostly capable Space Hulk Ascension (2014), the disappointing turn-based Space Hulk (2013), and the even more disappointing co-op FPS Space Hulk: Deathwing (2016). Unlike those, however, Cyanide Studios' newest game is actually quite capable.
Tactics features two campaigns, putting the player in control of the Blood Angels chapter of the Space Marines, or the Genestealers. Both campaigns are similarly set in the cramped confines of a Space Hulk and feature timed objectives, but they also have unique stories, mechanics, and -- most important of all -- different playstyles.
The Genestealers are quick, agile, voracious creatures capable of shredding armour in an instant, made all the more dangerous due to their propensity to come in packs. They are spawned each turn by converting cards into 'blips' that can hold between one and three Tyranids, which roam the corridors looking for things to kill at close range.
The Space Marines, in contrast, can field teams of a maximum of five Terminators who cannot be replaced if they fall in battle, leading to a careful and slow playstyle that suits the plodding crusaders quite well. Unlike Tyranids, the Adeptus Astartes are deadly at range just as much as in melee, making use of overwatch and careful positioning to mow down incoming threats.
The game has an interesting card system that allows players to either play the cards for temporary bonuses like buffs to attacks or convert them into extra action points/Genestealer pings. Converted cards are discarded, with each granting Terminators a specific number of extra Team Action Points that can be used by anyone on the team, while Genestealers’ converted cards give a certain quantity of pings to bring more units into play.
Neither faction uses health-bars and die upon a single hit, creating some tense and occasionally unfair moments. Attacks either succeed or fail, and there’s no dodging, grazing, or even incapacitation that would flesh out the tactical outcomes a bit. Terminators attacked from the front can counterattack the leaping Tyranid and often take it down with them, although this provides little relief in a game where there’s half a dozen xenos spawning every turn.
Space Hulk: Tactics comes close to being a fantastic game that finally breaks the 40K curse -- but like the titular derelicts that come out of nowhere over a planet and ruin all the fun, a couple of Space Hulk’s misguided design choices will eventually come out of nowhere during a playthrough and ruin all the fun.
This is a brutally unforgiving game, offering very little leeway and giving no slack while at the same time failing to provide the tools needed to counteract the challenge. Standard genestealers move almost twice as fast as Terminators, have a very high chance of hitting enemies, and spawn in droves. Terminators, on the other hand, move extremely slow, must use action points even to rotate in place, and sometimes can’t even hit the side of a barn from one tile away in melee or ranged.
The facing mechanic is especially aggravating, as it nonsensically stops Space Marines from attacking an enemy, using a console, or even opening a goddamn door without looking directly at it. Even the Apothecary’s passive ability to revive Terminators who fall in an adjacent tile in front of them only triggers if the medic is looking straight at the person, completely hamstringing the tactical options available to you. Your only choice is to have the medic stare at the back of a Terminator that you think may die, removing any sort of synergy that could be gained by huddling the support unit like a quarterback in the pocket.
The inconsistent hit performance is equally as vexing: Astartes which move can fire their guns without using an action point, but the hit chance is always so low that you can empty whole magazines without killing a single enemy. During my first three hours with the game, I had a blast of a time, killing xenos pretty much every time I gave a fire order. When I came back to the game the next day, all my Terminators became inept buffoons for reasons I cannot pinpoint. I am unsure if there was a sneaky update or some sort of bug, but my campaign was completely derailed after that by the fact none of my soldiers could hit anything, despite the fact corridors are so tight and enemies so numerous that blind firing into the air could cause a massacre.
There are also some issues around immersion: every missions features a turn-timer, with the scenario instantly ending when you complete your objectives, but there’s no real reflection on what actually happened. Killed the three required enemies while a dozen still litter the map? The mission ends anyway, claiming the whole enemy presence has been eliminated. Extracted two terminators from the mission? SHT will claim the whole squad has teleported away. I’ve also found the AI doesn’t always act ‘authentically’, in a way that it seems to be more aware of player actions than it should. On more than one occasion I set-up some traps for Genestealers, who instead decided to just sit just outside of firing range for multiple-turns. Eventually, I surmised that instead of trying to take me out, the AI was simply waiting for my turn-timer to clock out.
Those issues are a shame, because Space Hulk: Tactics really came remarkably close to being the best Warhammer 40,000 strategy title I’ve ever played. The end result though is that the Tyranid campaign is interesting, fair, and maybe even a little too easy, while the Blood Angels campaign feels like it is trying to punish you for picking Space Marines and wanting to have fun.
But SHT must still be praised for its high production values, as well as a very novel idea on the implementation of a first person camera instead of the standard isometric view. It is a solid strategy game in concept. The campaigns are both distinct and largely respectful of the source material, featuring variations of a flat, shallow "overworld" map that allows players to progress deeper into the Space Hulk or relive Hive memories, though that mostly involves moving through “nodes” gathering components/DNA for card upgrades.
Meanwhile, Tactics technical aspects are also really good -- graphics, animation, and sound design are all top of the line, and even the historically spotty voice acting is extremely good. The multiplayer system is surprisingly robust, hitting the Warhammer jackpot by offering players the ability to choose from one of four chapters (Dark Angels, Blood Angels, Ultramarines, and Space Wolves) and allowing customisation of virtually every piece of armour, trinket, and emblem, including battle damage and dirt (it apparently allows you to change colours too, but for some reason I was unable to do so).
In the end, Space Hulk: Tactics comes really close to hitting the mark but is let down by questionable design decisions that hinder enjoyment to the point where choosing the Terminator feels like the ‘wrong’ choice. Luckily, that is easy enough to fix -- the basics in the game are solid, and the relaxing of the Astartes’ facing rules would go a long way to making the experience more bearable. If the developers move quickly, Space Hulk: Tactics might yet be the best strategy game set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. For now, the grim darkness of the far future is still grim and dark -- and not in a good way.