Oh, Warhammer. There are so many of you. Know this: there are a lot of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 games. The franchise has spawned many types of games ranging from Action, FPS, Tactical, and Turn-Based Strategy games; they’ve even made a sports title and an endless runner. While some are certainly hit or miss, it’s impressive how many proudly carry the Warhammer stamp and there seem to be more and more each year.
Most recently, we have Space Hulk: Tactics, which is based on the original Space Hulk board game from the late 80’s as well as a few video game adaptations. Developed by Cyanide Studios, it offers fans a turn-based tactical strategy experience reminiscent of recent XCOM games, with a dash of Aliens for maximum terror. While I’ve played a decent amount of other Warhammer games in the past, I’ve never actually played one set in the Space Hulk universe before, making me eager to dive right in.
Initially, the tweaks and adjustments to the genre felt fresh and new. After preparing for the review, I decided to take a peak at gameplay of older Space Hulk games and was surprised to see how many core concepts were shared. So while Space Hulk: Tactics isn’t the most creative or groundbreaking entry, the series as a whole stands out for sticking to certain aesthetics and running with them.
To those new to the series, the main mechanics mirror that of a board game. Your “pieces” are arrayed across the level and need moved to certain spots, using precious AP to interact with or against enemies and other objects. This is fairly basic and intuitive, even by the relatively familiar standards of most games in the genre, though the addition of cards – which can be cashed in to add additional AP to units – adds a welcome element of strategy. Gameplay requires AP for just about everything, including controlling characters and even turning.
That’s right, it takes a single AP point to point your character in a direction. While I understand this serves to add balance to the carnage, but feels clunky and unwieldy at first, almost like a big step backwards from modern game design.
The game’s most cinematic feature of alien blasting is the ability to transition into first-person view when controlling characters. This vantage adds more depth and detail to surrounding areas you could easily miss. The ships feel gritty and the ambient lighting helps put a stronger emphasis on the film property it’s most trying to emulate: Alien. Unfortunately, this serves little to no gameplay advantages. In fact, it actually disrupts the game’s flow as controlling them becomes a slog as you’ll have to wait for “pieces” to move to each spot. I found myself immediately jumping to an overhead view every time the game tried to force me into first-person perspective.
Despite being part of a sprawling universe, Warhammer games have never had great stories. More specifically, most Warhammer 40k titles have fairly similar structures and plot devices that are generally politically-driven with a bit of xenophobia mixed in. Space Hulk: Tactics is no different, with occasional dialogue intermissions offering lots of exposition that never truly amounts to anything worthwhile. That said, there’s an interesting FTL-like story progression that has you choosing paths and collecting currency in-between the bigger story missions. It’s a neat twist that adds a little variety to the campaign.
But the overall story is something that you could easily imagine Ripley running through the halls had this been a licensed Alien game; you essentially find yourself on a ship fighting and defending yourself against aliens known as Genestealers (who resemble a mix of Alien Xenomorphs and the XCOM Aliens) who have infested the ship. It’s a classic setup that never fails to excite, even if the execution feels a bit off.
The Alien aesthetic goes one step further by including “Blips”, which alert you there are enemies hidden within a certain tile – though you never know how many until the blip is within eyesight. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s three; either way it’s bad news. They can get overwhelming fast and one small error could mean the end of a unit or the end of a match entirely.
Parts of the battle can be managed by setting your units on Overwatch, which lets them scout out areas and shoot-on-sight any aliens that might have crept by their line of sight. But even this can become a micromanaging heachache as they can’t actually turn by themselves, which results in many lost soldiers until you make sure to not have any blind spots.
Which brings me to my biggest complaint on the game: the dice rolls. While not a particularly difficult game, once you take your time to make calculated decisions its flow can become nearly seamless. But there were plenty of times when I felt shortchanged by dice rolls I felt I should have easily won. Yes, I know… dice rolls are random, but they often felt like weighed to give the computer AI an unfair advantage, causing me nothing but grief as my poor troops would perish by ‘chance’.
There’s not much that really stands out about Space Hulk: Tactics, despite its pedigree. It’s a very competent tactical-RPG in the vein of XCOM with strong influences from the Aliens films. It looks nice and offers fun board game-style matches that should please fans of the genre – just as long as you’re able to look past its outdated mechanics and generic storyline. Still, even these are wrapped in an attractively flashy package, so if you’ve been anxious for another adventure in the Warhammer 40,000 and Space Hulk universe, this might be enough to tide you over.