Developer: Cyanide Studio Publisher: Focus Home Interactive Platform(s): PC, PS4, XB1 Review code provided
I never played much of the tabletop Space Hulk game, but the dungeon crawler always looked enticing to me. In it, you took a handful of Space Marine Terminator models and went through a big wreck of corridors and small rooms fighting Tyranids that would pop up here and there. Over the years there has been a number of video game adaptations of the board game and they have mostly been middle of the road games, neither bad nor great and Space Hulk: Tactics fits that description perfectly.
As the name implies, this time around there is a bit more emphasis on the tactics part of the game than in previous Space Hulk games. In an XCOM-like fashion, you lead either your squad of Blood Angel Terminators on a quest to prevent the titular massive amalgamation of derelict ships from crashing into a nearby planet or a group of Tyranids to stop them. The game plays like an XCOM game on a smaller scale and in much tighter environments. You have action points that will allow you to move, shoot, operate machines and go into overwatch. Additionally, you have cards that you can use in battle to boost your characters or convert into extra action points. It works pretty well and is fun once you get the hang of it but sadly the missions rarely force you to make use of the cards or any especially thought out tactics.
The tighter, smaller areas also limit the number of strategies you have available at any given moment. The corridors make flanking maneuvers rare and you can often cover most of your exits by leaving characters behind on overwatch. Marry this with a tendency to reuse maps and missions, and you often end up “solving” a mission type and then it’s just rinse and repeat whenever it comes up again. The gameplay isn’t bad per se, but can feel a bit rote after a while when playing against the AI. Additionally, since much of the game takes place in narrow corridors, you don’t get to utilize the squad much since only the guy at the front can actually do anything.
The structure of the campaign is interesting if a bit underused and its biggest problem is a lack of stakes. You progress through a map with different nodes that can be resources like salvage or a new weapon, but every time you move you risk waking up the hive, which turns a node into a battle you have to fight to progress. It is a an interesting way to build the campaigmn and in theory, it would force you to make some choice about if you want to risk a battle or not. However, there is a very little actual risk to your Terminators in Space Hulk. Sure, they die easily enough and the Genestealers pose a serious threat, but you never lose a character. As soon as they go down they are teleported away and are back again in the next mission without any penalty. You never get the nail-biting tension of having a leveled-up character being flanked and in danger because you will always get him back at the end of the mission.
Character progression is similarly underwhelming. It is fun to gain a few new weapons and boosts but there simply isn’t enough of them which I find astonishing since the Warhammer 40,000 universe is littered with artifacts and gear that could be used to flesh the whole thing out. Between missions, you get some dialogue between your captain and a nearby inquisitor. It’s standard 40K stuff and the voice acting is quite good which sells the bombastic dialogue the universe is known for.
Aside from the Terminator campaign you can, for the first time in the series, take control of the other side and play as Tyranid Genestealers. They are a bit different from the Terminators in that they start out being hidden and they only rely on melee combat. It is a welcome bit of variety and is more fun than I thought it would be, especially when playing multiplayer since the Tyranids emphasis on laying ambushes and subterfuge, which works better when facing another player. Another first for the series is that it also comes with a mission editor that is pretty easy to use. Think Snap-Map for Doom and you are not that far off. It is prefab areas and rooms, but you can still get pretty creative with it. Hopefully, this will give us some interesting scenarios down the line.
Graphics and sound design are probably Space Hulk’s strongest features. It looks and feels exactly the way it should and both Terminators and Tyranids are detailed and looks gorgeous in the Unreal Engine. You even have the option to play the game in first-person to better appreciate the graphics. It’s a neat idea, but is unfortunately not very useful tactically since you always want to be able to see where you and your enemies are. Similarly to XCOM, you also have the action shots that play randomly when something interesting happens. They all look stunning, but much like in XCOM, they get repeated and can get a bit old after a while.
For me, the Space Hulk series has always had a problem with variety. By its nature, you are trapped in a claustrophobic environment. To try and mitigate this, Space Hulk: Tactics has you traversing Eldar and Ork portions of the Hulk, but unfortunately, it still boils down to dark corridors and the occasional room. You also fight the least interesting Warhammer 40,000 faction. The Tyranids are an all-devouring alien race that only lives to kill and eat, they don’t think much of individual lives, so the basic strategy is to just swarm an enemy. This is precisely what they do here as well: they will keep running at you until you either have a weapons malfunction or they die by your overwatch fire. What’s more, Space Hulk: Tactics basically only deals with one type, the Genestealers. Later on, you get some different versions to fight but they still look and play mostly the same. This is, again, unfortunate since the world is literally teeming with things to fight.
Space Hulk: Tactics is not a bad game, but it is not a great game either. Graphics are gorgeous, and the gameplay and design are good, but they feel confined in Space Hulk’s dark corridors. The lack of variety and perhaps sticking too much to the board game is the aspect that ends up really sinking Space Hulk: Tactics. Having a progression system and picking up gear is satisfying but since it doesn’t matter too much it ends up feeling mostly hollow.
The frustrating thing about it is that there is actually a great game hiding just beneath the surface: adding some different enemies/ races, some more unique gear and a good leveling system would make Space Hulk: Tactics feel more complete. As it is now, it is perhaps best played in multiplayer against a human opponent, since then you at least get some variety in strategy and tactics used. Now hurry up and take this engine and make another Chaos Gate already.
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Tactics is almost the tactical Warhammer game of my dreams but a lack of stakes and variety makes it stumble on the finish line.
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