Space Hulk: Tactics Review

October 25, 2018
Also on: PS4, Xbox One
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I want to like this game. I really, really do.

I wish I could tell you: this is it. This is the game that ten-year-old me has been waiting for. The kid that spent hours upon hours poring over copies of White Dwarf and codices, immersed in the deep and twisty lore of 40K. The kid that watched the other older kids playing Space Hulk, a tabletop game that at the time seemed too complex for me to ever understand. A game of chance, skill, and patience.

But here, Space Hulk: Tactics is a potentially brilliant game, held back by frustrating design choices.

Just 250 simple pieces, two hours of set-up, and we’re good to go.

Space Hulk: Tactics is probably as close as you can get to a straight-up adaptation of the original board game, including the tactics, the planning, the dice rolls, and absurdly steep difficulty curve. The tabletop version of Space Hulk was so interesting because of its unique two-player asymmetric setup.

On one side are the Terminators – or Termies – super-jacked mega-soldiers, who slowly stomp into battle wrapped in thick plates of powered armour, wielding deadly storm-bolters. Lore alarm: these are .75 calibre monstrosities which fire rocket-propelled explosive bullets – yes, rocket bullets – which you can read all about here. Seriously, there is a lot of lore. Aliens would have been a very different movie with a platoon of these guys involved.

All dressed up, with nowhere to go.

On the opposing side, the Tyranids – or Nids – are deadly aliens who creep and scuttle through the corridors of the titular Space Hulks: vast conglomerations of ships that drift through space in a menacing fashion. Like London’s fatberg, but with wrecked spaceships and stabby monsters instead of wet wipes and condoms. They are fast, nimble, and enjoy long walks on the beach, original Netflix content, and skewering hapless Terminators on their chitinous claws.

Hissing intensifies.

You can play both sides in this game, which is a refreshing change of pace from many previous Warhammer offerings, where you’re usually locked into a single race. Both sides play very differently. Terminators move with the urgency of a lead blimp, and are deadly from range – when the dice rolls are right. Nids on the other hand can hide in the shadows, emerging suddenly from the dark, with the aim of getting underneath the guns of the Terminators, and making like foxes in a chicken coop.

One thing the game has nailed is atmosphere. There is an incredible amount of complexity in the lore of 40K, and Cyanide Studio clearly know it well. Expect servo skulls aplenty amongst great voice acting, and an emergent story that expands as your squad explores the wreckage of the hulk.

Just a couple a guys, talkin’ ‘bout guy stuff.

So far, so good. But after an hour or so, there are glaring issues. The AI is terrible. Set up a Terminator to watch a door, and Tyranids will gather outside like a group of naughty teenagers, daring each other to ring the doorbell before they scarper. I couldn’t make sense of this at all until I actually played Tyranids, and realised that you cannot move an unrevealed unit into an overwatch zone. This seems completely at odds to the idea of rushing the Terminators as fast as you can. As Tyranids, the Terminator AI seems to have an abiding hatred for any closed door, and will go out of its way to blast them while ignoring all other threats, including the deadly aliens waiting behind the door.

The developers have actually responded to comments from other players about AI, saying that the system is limited at the beginning of the game and opens up more as you progress. While I understand what they were trying to do, it just doesn’t feel right during the early game, and makes the difficulty curve feel really wonky. Hopefully they’ll come up with some fixes in the future.

Fair play.

But now: let’s talk pacing.

I appreciate patient and well-thought out gameplay as much as the next person, but this game is slower than a sloth on Valium. Initially, I enjoyed the way combat as a Terminator was almost like submarine warfare. Orientation is key, and if you’re facing the wrong way, you can’t just whip around and face the threat. You have to plan every move meticulously, and you can win or lose a game based on a choice you made ten minutes before.

But, when it can take thirty minutes to move a squad of Terminators fifteen squares, every turn fast becomes an exercise in endurance. Unlike similar games, where you’re able to skip ahead once you’ve made your movement choices – or even move multiple units at once – Space Hulk: Tactics forces you to watch every single move take place in real time. It’s like that friend who makes you sit through YouTube videos, who keeps saying “the good bit is coming right up!” It’s a poor gameplay choice, and drove me completely nuts. Again, the devs have responded to player comments, and there is a potential speed update on the horizon at some point.

Other aspects of the game just aren’t friendly to new players. The interface is cluttered, there are no tooltips, and it doesn’t communicate information well. The card system, while inventive, made absolutely no sense to me for about three hours, then suddenly clicked (at which point, it is a great system). There are no safeguard actions, so you can accidentally melt fellow Terminators with the flamethrower. I get the feeling the devs didn’t want the game to hold your hand at any point – which is admirable, honestly – but this vision shouldn’t come at the expense of basic gameplay systems.

First-person mode lets you do exciting things like... look at things.

Finally, for a game that is so tough on players, it’s strange that there are no long lasting consequences to failure. If your Terminators die on one mission, they simply reappear again in your roster to replay the same mission all over again. Why is there no restart button for missions? It lacks all of the punch that a similar game like XCOM 2 manages when you lose a highly decorated soldier.

I’ll be honest, with a few tweaks, this game would be fantastic. I have a feeling that over the next twelve months, with some love from the devs, this will turn into one of the best Space Hulk adaptations created. But for now? Unless you’re a hardcore Space Hulk fan, this edition falls disappointingly short, and that’s a real shame.

Note: since the time of writing, a patch targeting AI issues and other bugs has been released. View the dev notes here.

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All the elements of a great game exist here, but they are hampered by poor design choices, and frustrating gameplay. With a little extra polish Space Hulk: Tactics could shine, but in its current state? It’s lost in space.
Shaun McHugh

In the winter of 1998, my father made a terrible mistake. He bought me a gift that would forever change my life. That gift? The DMG-01 Nintendo GameBoy. Since then, life has been a blur of consoles, gaming rigs, and modding it till it breaks.