Me, in 2013: “Man, Games Workshop have all of these awesome licenses lying around for boardgames that they no longer make. They should give some of them to game developers so that they can make digital adaptions. Like Space Hulk. A Space Hulk video game would be very good.”
Me, in 2018: “Please stop making Space Hulk video games.”
Space Hulk: Tactics is the third Space Hulk adaptation to be released in the last five years, and the fourth if you count the Space Hulk: Ascension rerelease. Full Control’s Space Hulk was the first, completely straight adaptation of the ruleset, and it was very, very bad. I reviewed it a while back, which is convenient because it means I don’t have to waste any time here describing what Space Hulk is; you can just go and read the 2014 review. Streum On Studio then took the series first-person with Deathwing in an attempt to make an objective-based horde shooter along the lines of Left 4 Dead or Vermintide, and this was also very, very bad. I bought it on release and it wouldn’t even boot; thankfully this was just after the introduction of Steam refunds1 so I spent the money on something more worthwhile. I later tried the “remastered” version of Deathwing that supposedly fixed all of the bugs and balancing problems, only to discover that Streum On Studio are yet another developer that do not understand Space Hulk. If they understood Space Hulk they wouldn’t have made the Terminators’ Storm Bolters feel like they were pelting my genestealer enemies with balls of wet tissue paper, and they wouldn’t have made the Power Sword feel like whacking them with a foam baton, and they definitely would have come up with some more interesting mission concepts than “wander around inside a brown toilet for fifty minutes so that you can find and push a button”.
In short, Space Hulk has not had a happy history since Games Workshop reversed their previous licence-shy policy and started throwing them at anyone with a terrible Castle Crusher knockoff in need of reskinning, so I’m a little surprised that Cyanide have decided to try and break the curse with Space Hulk: Tactics. Tactics goes back to the Full Control model of doing a straight adaption of the boardgame rules, and all of the core mechanics are present and correct — Action Points, Overwatch, narrow corridors, bolter jams, and so on. However, Cyanide have also been responsible for three separate adaptations of Blood Bowl for PC and console so they’ve gotten some valuable experience that’s enabled them to avoid the more obvious pitfalls that claimed Full Control’s version, and thanks to that cautionary tale they’ve also grasped that they need to go above and beyond those core mechanics in order to make Space Hulk work as a video game.
Space Hulk: Tactics therefore includes a Terminator campaign where your squad explores the space hulk via a simple node-based map. The hulk is split into chunks, and at the end of each chunk is an unavoidable scripted mission very similar to the ones in the Sin Of Damnation campaign (so they have generic objectives like push a button, flame a room and so on), but before you get there you have to navigate around locked doors, through warp gates, can detour to pick up resources for upgrades etc. Each node you visit ticks up a threat counter at the side of the map, and once the threat counter hits certain milestones it’ll either splat a bunch of Genestealer icons onto the map, which trigger a randomised battle when you walk onto them, or else just straight up throws you into a randomised battle. These quickly become tedious since the rewards you get from them are marginal; Tactics does throw you a bone by allowing you to leave behind a randomly-selected member of the squad to hold off the Genestealers and thus skip the battle, but this means that they won’t be available for the next scripted mission and so if the game has randomly selected your Assault Cannon Terminator you don’t really have much choice but to sit through the battle instead. You can spend the resources you pick up on the campaign map on an extremely vestigial set of upgrades for your Terminators that mostly consist of unlocking weapons that are usually standard issue in the boardgame, like Lightning Claws and Chainfists.
This campaign layer is so unimpactful that I’m not entirely sure why Cyanide bothered, except that it allows them to pad out the campaign’s running time while the game’s talking heads vomit out some of the most atrociously hackneyed dialogue I have ever seen in a video game. The Warhammer 40k IP is no stranger to writing so bad it barely qualifies as fanfiction, but even by these standards Space Hulk: Tactics’ dialogue sounds like the sort of thing I’d expect an eleven year-old to come up with in their creative writing classes, to the point where I felt very sorry for the poor voice actors who had to read it. The new in-mission additions are slightly better, consisting of a collection of cards that can be played during your turn to provide buffs to your Terminators and debuffs to the Genestealers. Many of these buffs are, well, a bit duff, but some of them are very powerful, such as the one that gives a Terminator four extra action points. In theory the buffs could be quite useful — there’s cards which boost Terminator melee rolls or take away melee dice from Genestealers — but there are some horrendous AI issues that mean you’ll almost never use them. I’ll be getting to the AI in just a moment, but the shortcomings there ensured that the main use I found for the tactics cards was to convert them to squad-wide action points — you can only convert a single card per turn and each card is worth a different amount of AP, but any amount of extra AP is useful to boost the mobility of your ponderous Terminator lumps.
In terms of the actual Space Hulk gameplay, Tactics is a much better implementation than the Full Control Space Hulk. If you’ve read my review of the Full Control Space Hulk, you’ll know that this is a case of damning it with faint praise as Full Control set a very low bar for Cyanide to clear. Tactics has an interface that (bafflingly) is clearly designed for gamepads and which is awkward to use with a mouse and keyboard, and this time there’s no option to speed up the game and the Cyanide Terminators are just as slow as the Full Control ones. However, while there’s no way to move Terminators simultaneously you can at least queue up orders while you’re waiting for a Terminator to complete their move, cutting down somewhat on the feeling of time-wasting frustration, and the UI is a little more friendly and incorporates many of the lessons that Cyanide have learned from spending the last decade working on Blood Bowl games. There’s a clear distinction between movement that uses Terminator AP and movement that will require the extra squad-wide AP points, and Tactics will even helpfully point out all of the squares that are potentially in range of Genestealer movement and melee attacks. Cyanide make the same mistake Full Control did by representing attack success odds as a percentage chance instead of the dice rolls that it’s actually doing, but it does at least show you the outcome of those dice rolls without your having to delve into a combat log to get to them. In terms of feel, Tactics correctly portrays Storm Bolters as the automatic hand cannons that they are supposed to be, and the melee animations are meaty and satisfying. If you asked me which Space Hulk adaptation I prefer I’d first ask if I had to play one at all, but after some prodding I’d probably go for Space Hulk: Tactics as the least painful to deal with; it has more than its fair share of problems, but is at least borderline playable without driving the user to distraction.
That is, until you notice that the AI is utter shit.
I genuinely don’t understand what’s so difficult about coding a competent Genestealer AI for a Space Hulk game. This isn’t Civilization or Total War. The maps are static; they’ve been hand-crafted by a human and there’s nothing procedural about them. The objectives are static. The Terminator spawn points are static. The Genestealer spawn points are static. The actual behaviour that you have to code in for the Genestealers is not overly complicated: spawn a bunch of blips relatively close to the Terminators, move towards them avoiding Overwatch squares if you can, and then once you have enough Genestealers to overwhelm a Terminator’s Overwatch rolls you rush them. If the AI has got five Genestealers waiting around the corner and they have to travel over three squares of Overwatch to get to a Terminator it should be able to figure out roughly what its odds of success are based on the number of to-hit rolls that are likely to be made and their required result: my back-of-the-envelope calculations make it around a 50% chance of at least one Genestealer making it close enough to punch the Terminator in the face, and that’s without factoring in the Terminator having to make so many Overwatch rolls that his Storm Bolter will likely jam. Those aren’t the best odds, but they’re not terrible either; if I were playing the Genestealers I’d definitely take a punt because my Genestealers are absolutely replaceable while any Terminators I kill stay dead forever2.
The Space Hulk: Tactics AI disagrees, however. The Tactics Genestealer AI has a pathological fear of wandering into Overwatch firing arcs; if it only has to go over a single square it might decide to chance it, but it will never attempt to charge down two or more squares covered by Overwatch. This makes it pathetically easy to lock off huge portions of the ship. I have many, many screenshots — some of which you can find in this review — of eight or nine Genestealers and blips bunched up in corridors and intersections who refuse to move any further because of Overwatch. Admittedly the Genestealers’ odds in some of these scenarios were pretty bad, but a human player would figure that their biologically-engineered killing machines aren’t doing a whole lot of good sitting around a corner playing cards and decide to try their luck, and I don’t understand why the AI can’t do the same. To make things even worse, if you’ve locked off one of the Genestealer spawn points by setting up Overwatch that covers the exit from the access corridor, the AI will still continue to spawn blips there until it physically can’t fit any more into the available space. This is an issue that becomes particularly pronounced when you get the Librarian and his Psychic Barrier power, which has a huge range and can be used to neutralise eight or nine Genestealer blips by blocking them in.
And of course because the AI is spawning all of its blips into a corridor that terminates in either a raging torrent of psychic hellfire or an extremely grumpy Terminator with an Assault Cannon, that means the rest of your squad has far fewer Genestealers to contend with and can get on with completing the mission objectives. The missions all come with twenty turn time limits, which is absurd when the AI is such a pushover you’ll be able to complete them in the six turns it takes your Terminators to physically walk to the objective. The supine AI also renders those tactics cards somewhat pointless as most of them are used to improve your odds of fighting Genestealers, but you’re never actually fighting Genestealers because they’re all hiding around the corner and refuse to come out and play.
The Space Hulk: Tactics single-player campaign is consequently a braindead cakewalk that self-sabotages the few new elements it introduces to the Space Hulk formula, and is absolutely not worth the frankly absurd asking price of £35. Tactics does have what appears to be a fairly comprehensive set of multiplayer functionality, but after my experiences playing Blood Bowl online I wasn’t in any great hurry to try this out, and anyway if I want to play Space Hulk with a human being I could just use Full Control’s version, which implements the core ruleset just as faithfully and for less money, or I could use my copy of the actual boardgame. Oh, and I did try a couple of missions of the Genestealer campaign just to see what it was like, but — predictably — the Terminator AI was even worse than the Genestealer AI since it blundered multiple Terminators into range of my Genestealers and then turned its back on them instead of going into Overwatch. Those Terminator squads didn’t last long, and neither did my time with Space Hulk: Tactics; my biggest regret is that the six hours I spent with it means I can’t get a refund the way I did with Deathwing, and so my Steam account is now stuck with a second subpar Space Hulk adaptation for the foreseeable future.