Those of us of a certain age will remember our floppy disc-guzzling Amiga computers as being the superior alternative to the emerging console market of the nineties. If your machine is still turning yellow and gathering dust in the darkest corner of your roof space, then chances are that the Space Hulk discs aren’t too far away either. As a faithful adaptation of Games Workshop’s 1989 board game, the original tactical strategy sim was praised for creating a brooding, terrifying atmosphere and is fondly remembered by most as one of the best Warhammer 40K inspired titles ever made.
Twenty years later and Danish studio Full Control had brought Space Hulk back from the dead in a nostalgic remake for Windows, Mac and iOS devices. Graphical redesign and gameplay overhaul aside, this new incarnation of the game was a welcome trip down memory lane that included all the claustrophobic terror and tactical strategy of the original. It would take a further two years for the game to appear on the PlayStation Network where it would find a new home on the Sony’s floundering flagship handheld. Unfortunately, all the problems and issues that plagued Full Control’s reimagining have transferred to the Vita and despite the small screen size, these faults are perhaps more visible than ever.
Set in deep space in the far off future, the game revolves around the Blood Angel chapter of the religiously fanatical, physically-enhanced Space Marines, an elite legion of human warriors who devote their life to serving their emperor. Tasked with the retrieval of lost information or ancient artifacts from the wreckage and debris of decaying space vessels, these super soldiers soon find themselves up against the dreaded Tyranid Genestealers, an infesting alien threat who live to spread their genetic code across galaxy.
The campaign is divided over six chapters, comprised of a varying number of levels. You’ll have a series of objectives to complete if you’re to progress through the game, including making it from one end of the level to the other, exterminating a number of enemy units, retrieving items and making sure important members of your squad survive the mission. Some of these parameters are insanely restrictive, meaning that if you fail, you’ll be forced to restart the mission from scratch, making for gameplay that pushes your tactical skills to the limit but at the same time can be incredibly frustrating to master.
The squared-off level designs replicate the cramped conditions a lumbering Space Marine would face while navigating the tight passages and narrow corridors of a derelict space craft. At the start of your turn, you’ll be given four allotted points per unit that can be exchanged for various actions such as movement and attacking. Once you’ve used up all of your ability points, you’ll have to wait until the enemy completes their turn before they are replenished. You’ll also have access to six shared command points that can be distributed amongst your squad for extra maneuvering and engaging in further actions. These bonus points come in handy should you find yourself confronted by an enemy or be within dashing distance of your target objective.
While most of your basic units will be equipped with a bolter gun, some of the more prestigious units carry deadly weapons and abilities that can also be utilized to fend of the swarming Genestealer army that emerge from spawn points across the map. These special moves cost a little more than your basic set of commands, but will not only give you the advantage in battle, but are often essential to fulfilling specific objectives. Flamethrowers, chain guns, power swords and even psychic abilities are all great fun to use, particularly during the game’s cutaway video scenes that show your attack in action. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as watching your unit riddle an enemy full of bullets or slicing them into two, complete with full-bodied blood and gore.
While the Space Marines are stocked to the gills with tools and weapons, the Genestealers have the numerical advantage and if you aren’t careful, it won’t take long before you walk right into a trap. Terrifying as it is to be a mere 90 degree angle away from looking your enemy in the eye, it can also lead to feelings of frustration and annoyance, knowing that all your hard work and forward thinking so far has gone to waste, and that the mission is a now a complete bust all thanks to one misused action point or badly positioned trooper. Weapons can jam and defensive stances can fail, meaning that the gods of chance also play a vital role in the game. It all comes down to the roll of the dice and whether you’re caught in the middle of an enemy bombardment or just trying to open a locked door, the difference between throwing a one or a six can be all that stands between victory or defeat. Losing a throw generally leads to wasted time, giving your enemies plenty of opportunity to move in, claws at the ready to rip your head off.
There are a number of defensive options that can be used ahead of the enemy’s turn to help you out of sticky situations. The overwatch stance allows you to gun down incoming enemies during their turn, and is a vital part of any mission. However, even selecting this move can be a bit of a gamble at times so it’s best to have a plan B at the ready should you fail to complete this action. It’s great to see game lift these elements of strategy and chance directly from the tabletop original, but as far as gameplay goes, it becomes a nuisance to have to constantly restart the mission and hope that you’ve learned from your past mistakes. As map sizes increase, so does the complexity of every mission. Smashing open busted doors and locating mission critical items means that every ability point must be spent wisely and with caution. A combination of skill and luck make for a rather steep learning curve, even on easy and medium difficulties. Even the most battle-hardened armchair generals will find this a challenge and gradually you’ll learn to use your resources wisely, watch your flanks and generally make sure you’re always the one in control of the level.
The controls thankfully aren’t too difficult to get a handle on. The left analogue stick will position your cursor for selecting units and movement squares, while the D-Pad will give you full access to your unit’s various abilities. The right stick will move the camera and the symbol buttons will issue your orders, undo your last move or end the turn. Mastering the controls is simple, but navigating the in-game commands is a little more tedious. With so many options available, it’s surprising that the Vita doesn’t make better use of the touchscreen, especially considering that the main menu relies on it, with little to no option to use the buttons or sticks. It feels like this particular version of the game is either unfinished or glaringly missing some key functions supported by the system.
Completing a mission brings a certain amount of overwhelming satisfaction, to the point where you’ll never want to go back and replay it ever again, making Space Hulk a rather limiting experience. With little to no room for error, you’ll be glad to see the back of one mission, only to rinse and repeat for the next one. Waiting for your turn to come around requires patience and even having to watch every unit slowly pace forward through the ruins of derelict spacecraft can be a tedious task. The load times alone are a turn off and further waiting around during the game makes Space Hulk a rather slow, time-consuming experience. Some will enjoy the faithfulness to the tabletop original and the first digital incarnation, but for most, the game will be a slog, struggling to muster up the perseverance to play more than a handful of missions per sitting.
Thankfully, outside of the campaign, there’s also the Hotseat mode which allows you to play the game with a friend, using just one device. This two player version of the game follows the same rules as the campaign, with the critical difference being that the second player can control the Genestealer faction. It’s a unique inclusion that works well with the Vita version, but it also draws attention to the lack of online features in Space Hulk. An online version of the game would have been perfect but is noticeably missing at the moment.
The overall presentation of the game also suffers on the Vita version. As this is a somewhat condensed version of the PC game, the ugliness is minimized but with text being as small as it is, you can’t help but bring the device close to your eyes and get up-close-and-personal with the game’s mediocre graphics. Character models are lacking in detail, and the voice acting is limited, especially when you consider each marine shares the same voice actor. Even the music doesn’t quite instil the same terror quite as the creepy 1993 soundtrack. Animations are clunky and limited during the action sequences while the splatter of blood looks like it’s been layered on as an afterthought, not quite gelling in with the rest of the game’s aesthetics. The picture-in-picture first-person view that pops up during movement is a great nod to the original, but given that the level mazes all look fairly similarly, it loses it’s charm fairly quickly. Once you’ve seen one darkened corridor, you’ve seen them all which adds to the disappointment, when you consider just how vibrant and rich the Warhammer 40K tabletop game is. This is a universe begging for further exploration but unfortunately we’re restricted to the same repeated graphics and cutscenes time and time again.
On paper, this updated version of an Amiga classic is in every sense an upgrade on the original. The turn-based style of gameplay seems suited to the Vita, a console which is very easy to pick-up-and-play in short bursts. However, being repackaged with a shiny new exterior isn’t enough to distract from the glitchy, time-consuming interior that makes up the core of the game. Devoutly faithful to the Warhammer 40K board game that inspired it, Space Hulk seems to have floated passed a whole host of unique opportunities that would introduce a universe normally brimming with colour and vibrancy to a new audience.
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