For tabletop gaming aficionados, Warhammer 40,000 is a well-known property. Being more of an on-screen gamer myself, I knew very little about Warhammer 40k prior to firing up Space Hulk: Tactics. How it was played, the world, the races–I went in pretty cold. From what I can tell, Tactics is a fairly faithful adaptation of the classic and beloved board game, though with some issues that keep it from being a recommendation for anyone who isn’t already steeped in Warhammer 40k lore.
The plot doesn’t provide much setup or background, probably assuming its audience is already aware of what a Terminator is, or what threat the Genestealers pose, but here it is as best as I can figure. In the far (far, far) distant future, the universe is in pretty bad shape. One fateful day, a giant ship, known as a Space Hulk, emerges from some sort of hyperspace warp on a collision course with an occupied planet. The ship isn’t being manned; no, it’s basically abandoned and floating through space, so there’s no chance of using diplomacy. A group of soldiers, called Terminators, is sent in to dismantle the ship from the inside in order to save countless lives. A problem becomes immediately apparent, however: the Space Hulk is not as abandoned as it initially seemed. It’s infested with Genestealers, a horrifying race of xenomorph-style aliens. The Terminators will have to battle their way through this mass of killer beasts in order to complete their mission.
In theory, I like the world of Space Hulk, but the actually presentation falls short. Everything is just so oppressively dark. Each character speaks with the sort of low, masculine growl we’ve come to associate with movie villains, and all of them seem to have a rough, angular appearance that does them no favors in the likability department. The storytellers lean far too much into generic grimdark territory for the story or characters to truly be interesting. That’s not to say I don’t think dark sci-fi is doable; it’s just not done well here.
The game features two full-fledged campaign modes, one for the Terminators and one for the Genestealers. Of the two, the Terminator campaign is by far the most interesting. In addition to combat scenarios and named characters with dialog, it also features a between-missions mini game of sorts where players move an icon around a map of the Space Hulk, unlocking components that can be used to upgrade their forces. It’s not a particularly interesting mini game, but it does break up the experience and provides some nice downtime between skirmishes. The Genestealer campaign is largely about killing all the Terminators before they can complete their objectives. While it’s not interesting from a story perspective, it can be a bit of fun to take on the role of the villain from time to time.
The real villain in Space Hulk: Tactics, however, isn’t the Genestealers. It’s the game itself. I’ll explain. In a skirmish, you begin by placing your commander in one of a handful of available spots. (That is, if you are playing as the Terminators. If you’re taking the role of Genestealers, your setup is a bit different; I’ll get to that.) Once you’re set, you begin moving your characters one at a time through the environment. Each character has a set number of Action Points (AP) they can use each round. Managing your AP is crucial to success. Actions as simple as moving and turning all consume AP, not to mention shooting and melee attacks. Positioning your troops to cover the most area is important, as is holding onto enough AP to enter Overwatch mode. If you spend two AP, you can have a character maintain a watch on an area — Overwatch. If an enemy steps into your line of sight while you’re in Overwatch, your character will fire on them automatically. Given that this is a game about behind-the-scenes dice rolls (characters don’t have Hit Points, so you can be easily taken out in one swift attack), you’ll pretty much want to always have troops on Overwatch to keep the horde at bay.
Overwatch in and of itself is a good feature, but it does pretty severely limit your movement. Requiring half your AP per character means your trip from one end of the map to the other is going to be slow. Still, it’s better than dying.
To gain more AP in a turn, you can draw a “card” and convert it to Squad AP, which can be used on any troop member whom you’d like to give an additional action to. Cards have different values, and you can only use one per turn. If you’d rather, you can use a card instead of converting it for AP. Using a card gives you the benefit written on it: for example, increasing a Terminator’s melee combat for one round.
When your turn is over, the AI begins. Herein lies another problem, unfortunately, and it’s one I can’t quite figure out the reason for. There is a lengthy delay before the AI begins its turn. The only thing I can think is that the game is . . . calculating. As in, it’s “thinking” about what it wants to do. Now, I’m running the game on a PS4 Pro. There’s no lack of computing power available (especially considering the graphics are pretty low-fi). I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s so complicated that the game needs upwards of 30 seconds to come to a decision. The maps are pretty simple, just a series of hallways and rooms, with the occasional trap, such as an unmanned turret. This delay is in addition to the loading times going into and out of battle, which are a great deal longer than you would think necessary.
The Genestealers don’t really fare any better. Their turn in combat differs from the Terminators in that it is made up of two parts. The first part involves populating “blips.” Blips are groups of between 0 and several Genestealers that you can move around the map. The number of Genestealers in a blip is not revealed until a Terminator makes visual contact with it, which means you can send an empty blip out as a decoy if you so choose. Once you’ve converted cards to create AP that allows you to add Genestealers to blips, you move on to step two, which is the actual movement phase. However, I ran into issues here, beyond the issues I’ve already mentioned. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what was happening, but I got the sense that, because the Terminators near me were in Overwatch mode, I wasn’t able to move a blip into their line of sight. This effectively locked my blips into their starting space, which meant I couldn’t move or attack at all. I simply had to end my turn and hope the Terminators moved away. (They didn’t.)
In addition to online modes (which I wasn’t able to test, as I couldn’t find anyone online to play against), there is a simple mission builder mode that could be a bit of fun for hardcore Space Hulk fans. The options are fairly limited, but, to be fair, the environments in the game are just as limited. So in reality, you can construct maps that are just as complex and interesting as any you find in the main game. It’s easy to pop in and out of a map to test it out, and the granularity of options available is pretty cool. If I found myself more invested in this game, I’d definitely be spending a good chunk of time building my own missions.
I will say this: I think there’s a solid board game under the technical flaws in Space Hulk: Tactics. It’s made me interested in checking out the physical game, and Warhammer 40,000 in general. But if you’re not already a fan, go ahead and pass on this. Its technical flaws keep it from being entertaining beyond its small, target audience.