What is it with Games Workshop and shoddy/unimaginative conversions of their board games?
Okay, that’s not quite fair on Full Control. I am coming to their attempt at Space Hulk nearly a year after it was released, and while I heard some nasty things about it being a bug-ridden mess at the time I haven’t had a single technical problem with it, indicating that they’ve done some comprehensive patching work in the intervening period. That alone puts them above Cyanide, who still haven’t released a properly-functioning Blood Bowl game1 after three attempts. Still, there’s something distinctly unambitious and characterless about this conversion, and I think it’s proof that EA had the right idea when they went for their semi-real-time first person take on the game all those years ago. Full Control have done exactly what the fans asked for and made a perfect 1:1 conversion of the board game rules, except that Space Hulk then runs into the same problem most straight board game conversions do: without the models and the setup and the dice rolling I feel that there’s nothing left to camouflage the fact that Space Hulk is, ultimately, a rather soulless experience.
Space Hulk is a turn-based asymmetric two-player game. One player controls a squad or two of Space Marine Terminators, heavily armoured super-soldiers with a wide variety of lethal projectile weaponry. The other player takes control of an unlimited number of slavering Genestealers, six-limbed monstrosities with a can opener on the end of each arm. The Terminator player deploys their squads and is given an objective to complete – usually retrieving an object from depths of the hulk’s narrow, winding interior and then escaping the map – and the Genestealer player has to stop them by spawning Genestealers from the many, many Genestealer entry points around the edge of the map and using them to kill enough Terminators to make successful completion of the objective impossible. Genestealers have no ranged attack, and while Terminators can only fire at things directly in their line of sight they can set up fields of fire that make it very, very difficult for the Genestealers to get close. If they manage to close to melee range, however, the tables are turned; Genestealers are sickeningly powerful in close combat and can easily tear open Terminator armour like it’s paper. Terminators are slow and ponderous, while Genestealers are quick and agile; the Genestealer player has to make use of that speed to flank the Terminators or else overwhelm them with sheer numbers.
Now, as an adversarial two-player game Space Hulk has a very high reputation amongst boardgamers, and it’s one which is boosted by the game’s comparative rarity; aside from a limited edition run back in 2009 (which sold out within a couple of weeks) it’s been out of production for twenty years. The idea of a faithful computer game adaptation is therefore doubly appealing; not only does it open up the series to an audience that wouldn’t be able to experience it otherwise but it affords the developer the opportunity to code an AI that can take the place of the Genestealer player, whose job was always more to simulate a competent AI opponent for the Terminator player than it was to win the game for its own sake anyway. As far as the first part goes, Space Hulk is a smashing success. What’s here is a 100% accurate reproduction of the Sin of Damnation campaign found in the boxed version of the game, along with a bunch of DLC campaigns you can purchase if you feel so inclined. If you ever wanted to try Space Hulk to see what all the fuss was about then you should absolutely consider Full Control’s version as an alternative to the boxed product. If you have a friend to play with I might even say that this is a good idea, since it means you’ll get the most out of the experience. Space Hulk has some weaknesses in the core ruleset, but that’s not the conversion’s fault and it performs admirably as a stand-in for the real thing.
If, on the other hand, you’re interested in Space Hulk primarily as a single-player experience then I have some bad news. Without the adversarial nature of the two-player and the actual physical experience of handling a board and playing pieces to back it up, Space Hulk is exposed as a rather shallow game. It’s entirely reliant on odds-based dice rolling – roll 6 on either of two dice to kill a Genestealer with a storm bolter, roll higher on one dice than they do on three to kill them in melee combat – and Full Control have made the terrible decision to abstract these dice rolls out of the game entirely. They still happen, but they happen automatically in a little window at the corner of the screen, often too fast to follow and with no human input required in most places. I can understand the intent behind this – there is a lot of dice rolling in Space Hulk, and one of the advantages of doing a computer conversion is that you can streamline stuff like that – but there’s a difference between streamlining and almost removing it from the game entirely, especially when rolling those dice is practically all the game is.
Take the Overwatch mechanic. In general if you’re actually shooting at Genestealers during your turn in Space Hulk you or the Genestealer player have fucked up somewhere; either you let them get close or they let their Genestealers get exposed to bolter fire. It’s not something that happens all that often. Instead, the Terminator player’s main concern is to set their Terminators up in Overwatch and then end the turn; a Terminator in Overwatch will automatically fire at any Genestealer that enters their field of view, and they’ll fire every single time the Genestealer moves within that field of view. The odds of hitting the Genestealer are quite low – as previously mentioned, you have to roll 6 on either of two six-sided dice for the first shot, dropping to 5 for subsequent shots – but since a Genestealer must endure continual fire as they advance towards the Terminator the odds are in the Terminator’s favour – that is, unless they roll a double and their bolter jams. Jams can be cleared by spending a command point, but there’s only a limited pool of those to go around the entire squad and if you ever run out then the bolters dry up and suddenly you’re looking at a whole corridor full of Genestealer.
Understanding how these rolls work is very important for the sense of tension present in the board game version of Space Hulk. A Genestealer appears. Your Terminator takes a shot. He misses. The Genestealer moves closer. Your Terminator takes a shot. He misses. The Genestealer moves closer. Your Terminator takes a shot. He hits, and the Genestealer dies. Another Genestealer appears. Your Terminator’s bolter jams. The Genestealer moves closer. Your Terminator clears the jam and takes a shot. He misses. It’s this continual rolling of dice while this threshing machine on legs inches ever closer to your squad that gives Space Hulk its appeal – and it’s an appeal that’s been almost forcibly removed from this computer adaptation. In Space Hulk the video game, a Genestealer appears. He immediately darts forward three squares and gets shot in the space of about half a second while the computer makes all the ranged attack rolls in the background. Another Genestealer appears. He darts forward two squares before your Terminator announces he has a jam, and then that he’s automatically spent a command point to clear it (no input on your part necessary), and then the Genestealer dashes forward another two squares before being gunned down, again in the space of about a second.
This is much much faster than the boardgame, but far less interesting. It’s so fast, in fact, that most of the time you’ll only see the hits as the Genestealer goes through its death animation and won’t even notice the misses, and without a highly visible fail state to give context to the successes the game loses much of its sense of risk. Space Hulk goes out of its way to obfuscate the dice rolling, preferring instead to represent its dice rolls as percentages. Yes, I suppose the chance of rolling a 6 on either of two dice is technically 31%, but the human brain is actually very bad at understanding percentage chances (we tend to think that making that roll three times would lead to at least one success, when in fact it only gives you a two-thirds chance of making a successful roll) while we can instinctively relate to the concept of rolling a six on two dice. Severing the game’s connection to this real-world concept and having all the number-crunching happen in the background both makes it more difficult for the player to understand what’s going on and diminishes Space Hulk’s usually omnipresent feeling of tension.
This catastrophic neutering of what I always considered to be Space Hulk’s unique selling point exposes Space Hulk for what it ultimately is: a series of Genestealers running at you repeatedly, one after another, in the hope that eventually you’ll get unlucky and run out of command points with which to clear bolter jams. There’s some thought required in how to sequence your orders to the Terminators so that you don’t leave any gaping holes in your defence, but I suspect that it wouldn’t matter even if you did because the Genestealer AI is laughably bad. I should state up front that I am not an AI coder and have little idea of the intricacies of developing an AI which is a competent opponent, but I suspect it’s slightly easier to do for a game like Space Hulk, with its static maps, Genestealer spawn points and limited selection of paths, than it is something like Total War. As it is the AI will almost unfailingly spawn Genestealers from the spawn point nearest to your Terminators, who then follow the shortest possible route to reach them and try to kill them. It doesn’t spread out its Genestealer blips and it never tries to flank you, making it pretty much the dumbest AI you could possibly implement and one which is totally inadequate for providing any sort of challenge. It gets absurd at times, with the AI spawning all of its Genestealers into a corridor being covered by a Terminator with a Heavy Flamer and happily continuing to send them to their fiery doom until he runs out of ammo, and thanks to its predictability it is also incredibly easy to bait it into repeatedly attacking one of your Terminators set up in Overwatch while the rest complete the mission objective.
Now, for what it’s worth I don’t think the AI would have turned out anywhere near as badly as it did if it wasn’t for Full Control’s slavish dedication to replicating the Sin of Damnation campaign’s map layouts. Most of them don’t provide that many avenues for attacking the Terminators in the first place and give the Terminator player the luxury of picking and choosing their battles, and I think it’s fairly telling that during the one mission where the map was fairly open and I couldn’t bait the AI thanks to the mission objective which meant I had to walk across the whole damn thing, I lost two-thirds of the squad and just barely made it out by the skin of my teeth thanks to my Librarian getting lucky and managing to kill a Broodlord in close combat2. If every mission had been like that Space Hulk would have been a much better game. It should be an oppressive, tense battle against an overwhelming opponent, not the outer space equivalent of a turkey shoot.
Did I like anything about Space Hulk? Well, the visual design does appropriately communicate how claustrophobic the environs of the space hulk actually are and effectively contrasts that with how huge and cumbersome your Terminators are when placed inside of it. Even here, though, the game manages to fuck up slightly by not giving you the ability to skip to the end of Terminator move animations by pressing space or clicking the mouse button, instead making you watch them spend five or six seconds waddling forward four squares unless you set animation speeds to fast in the options menu – which then means everything happens at 6x speed. The UI is also pretty good for the most part, but fails to tell you which moves will require your limited stock of command points unless you physically mouse over the square you want to move to. If you accidentally waste CPs this way there is a handy undo option, but it’s a really basic piece of UI design that (for example) Blood Bowl manages to get right with its Go For It moves by highlighting those squares in a different colour entirely, allowing you to tell at a glance when you’re going to be taking a risk.
All in all, then, Space Hulk is a very disappointing game. Mechanically it’s a perfect conversion, but Full Control have streamlined in places where they really shouldn’t, failed to streamline in places where they should, and have saddled it with one of the worst AIs I’ve seen in modern video gaming. I read a lot of previews where it was stated that Full Control “got” Space Hulk, but having played their take on it now I’d say nothing could be further from the truth. They don’t get Space Hulk, and never have; if they had they’d have understood that if you’re going to make a 1:1 conversion to try to capture what makes the board game so great you need to convert everything present in the board game, even the physical process of rolling the dice. If they take that out then they need to make other changes to compensate, a la the first videogame adaptation of Space Hulk twenty-one years ago. That’s why that game was a far better Space Hulk despite tossing most of the rules and implementing its own weird first-person with limited freeze-time mechanic in their place, while this one just kind of sucks.
- As far as I’m aware you still have to open ports for multiplayer Blood Bowl on certain connections, and even then connecting to an opponent is a crap shoot. Meanwhile the freeware FUMBBL has more teams and a rock solid client despite being a community project given away for free. ↩
- Of course if I didn’t already know the odds I wouldn’t know just how badass that Librarian was, because the game doesn’t tell you. ↩