Reviewed on Xbox One
Nearly thirty years after the release of the original Space Hulk board game, Cyanide Studio’s Space Hulk: Tactics has come to bring the intense turn-based battle of Space Marines and Genestealers into the current generation.
It certainly looks and sounds the part. Whether you’re playing entirely in the game’s gorgeously claustrophobic first-person mode or in the more traditional isometric view, the halls of the titular Space Hulk are filled with a near overwhelming amount of fine detail. Walls of skulls, the corpses of Ultramarines, frayed power cables and streaks of deep red blood are all excruciatingly recreated in the unique 40k aesthetic. Combined with a nice lighting system which allows the torches of your Space Marines to cast their large, hulking shadows across the game’s many hallways, Space Hulk is definitely a looker compared to many of its genre contemporaries.
As someone who doesn’t play many tactics-style games, my time stomping and sneaking throughout this derelict vessel was always coated in a thick layer of untested suspense. It didn’t matter if I was playing as a Space Marine or a Genestealer, there was always something to be afraid of. Sometimes I would triumphantly place my sergeant in “overwatch”, a skill that will allow a unit to shoot enemies that enter their field of view, only to be viciously clawed from behind. Sometimes I would devise a clever pincer movement on an unsuspecting team of Blood Angels only for my plan to go to shit once a flame trooper turned around and burnt me to a gene-stealing crisp.
Every fight in Space Hulk: Tactics brings with it new surprises and new ways for you to royally screw everything up
It helps then that both sides of the fight play almost like polar opposites. The jingoistic Blood Angels are slow, lumbering units that (mostly) rely on their heavy firearms and troop-like tactics to simply try and outlast the quick, stealthy Genestealers. Playing on the side of the Blood Angels feels almost orthodox compared to the gameplay style of their six-limbed foes but Space Hulk does manage to at least make that feel unique with the added signature clunk of the Warhammer 40k universe. Your character is so heavy that you have to use up your precious action points on just turning around.
The Genestealers, though, is where the game really shines. Unlike the Space Marines, playing as the bony alien species makes you feel like a true hunter – one to rival the Xenomorphs from Aliens. Each turn is split into two phases: the first tasks you with trading in cards which give you buffs during the action phase in order to gain more blips (spawns); the second tasks you with navigating the map, attacking your foes and carefully deciding when to “reveal” yourself from your native invisibility. It’s always an intense experience of risk vs reward.
Every fight in Space Hulk: Tactics brings with it new surprises and new ways for you to royally screw everything up. While the most hardened tactics veteran may be unphased by the numerous tricks the game will throw at you, a spring-heeled, cocky greenhorn like I was pleasantly and frequently treated to unnoticed ambushes and hordes of angry ETs ready to chomp on my face and turn me into Space Marine Tenders.
Unfortunately, everything Cyanide Studio has done to make Space Hulk a faithful and engaging tactics game doesn’t manage to detract from its very apparent technical issues. Swapping turns takes so long that it brings what was once an exhilarating matchup to a grinding halt. It doesn’t see the same great pace as XCOM or Fire Emblem and in larger matches, it really starts to drag. Of course, with a solid PC you should be able to brute force your way past this, but on console (even Xbox One X) it is a noticeable problem.
There’s no tactics game quite like this on console
Everything from enemy AI to the game’s camera system can frequently decide that it would rather call in sick than turn up to work. One early match tasked me with guarding a control panel for a set amount of turns in an arena guarded by Scorpion turrets. After spawning in my Blood Angels, placing them where I wanted them and then activating ‘Overwatch’, the enemy would just run back and forth the same hallway repeatedly. All I had to do was keep every unit placed in the area-covering skill while the turrets took care of all the work.
When Space Hulk: Tactics works, which is more often than not, it works really well. There’s no tactics game quite like this on console. It can be thrilling, brutal and utterly terrifying as you attempt to either terminate, escape or defend your way through hours of pre-made missions or even custom matches through the games comprehensive mission and map editor mode. There’s a wealth of content that, should the game’s audience be found, could possibly never end.
There is no way that you could say Space Hulk: Tactics isn’t a flawed game. It’s a damaged jewel that could do with a hefty amount of spit and polish but it still has a slight glint underneath all the scratches. If you’re in the mind for a console tactics game and you want a unique experience like the Genestealers campaign, then you can’t go wrong with this one.