In the dark recesses of the ship, something waits. Not for dramatic purposes, that is, but evil incarnate can’t so much as move a muscle till I’ve had my turn.
It’s thanks to this well-mannered state of affairs, and the game’s grid-based layout, that Space Hulk: Tactics ends up resembling a grimy, xenomorph-packed game of chess. Whereas other turn-based strategy games typically give you the freedom to roam the battlefield, here you’re penned in by gloomy corridors and mangled bulkheads. Survival is more than a matter of getting the enemy in your sights; it’s ensuring that, when the smoke’s cleared, you’re not face-to-face with your worst nightmare.
Assuming you’re playing as the gun-toting Space Marines, that is. If you’re a fan of the Warhammer 40,000 gaming system, you’re probably slavering at the prospect of annihilating your way through the alien hordes. Luckily for you, the game’s lore-drenched Space Marine campaign, which sees you exploring a colossal, ruined spacecraft, delivers tension and slaughter in equal measure.
Your foes are the Genestealers, Alien-esque enemies who, appearing initially as radar blips, use stealth and speed to close the distance with your squad before shredding them with their claws. Aside from just blasting them when it’s your turn, your four or five man squad can each enter “overwatch” mode, opening fire when anything crosses their field of vision.
Until, however, you realise you’ve left yourself wide open to attack, because you’ve not got enough action points to retreat to safety. Or that Genestealers are pouring in from the one corridor you were too slow to cover. Like a game of chess, victory is matter of anticipating your opponent’s moves. While the game’s AI can be inconsistent at times, it’s more than capable of giving your Marines a run for their money. Throw in an optional (also turn-based) first person view, and you’re in for the fight of your life.
Space Hulk: Tactics’ card system, however, does rather undermine the game’s strategic elements. True, board games such as Space Hulk and its associated spin-offs have always involved a degree of luck; the game even goes so far as to show you the dice rolls that determine whether or not you successfully slaughter a foe, a nice touch. But the cards you’re dealt prior to each mission can give you a significant advantage or disadvantage, according to the whims of fate. There are no cards in the Space Hulk board game so it’s a little mystifying as to why they’ve been introduced here.
Yet there’s more to Space Hulk: Tactics than being a ludicrously well-armed space racist. The game’s second campaign, which has you playing as the alien Genestealers, will bring joy to any fan of the Alien franchise. I found myself grinning like a lunatic every time I dragged one of these gun-toting interlopers to their doom.
Playing as the Genestealers naturally forces you to adopt an entirely different strategic approach and while the game’s chess-like elements are still present, suddenly, numbers are on your side. And you’re in the position to sacrifice a few pawns, just so you can claw the face off that smug Ultramarine Sergeant. Being the Alien has never been so much fun and, for now, it’s the closest you’re going to get to an actual Aliens game.
You naturally have the opportunity to take the fight to a human opponent but Space Hulk: Tactics’ single-player campaigns can get repetitive at times. Card system aside, the game is fairly faithful to the board game, which means that you’re only ever fighting Genestealers. Both sides have access to four or five unit variations but you’ll always find yourself adopting the same general tactics. But without a human foe to throw a spanner in the works and with little relatively variety in level appearance or layout, Space Hulk: Tactics can become a tad samey.
Nevertheless, taken in reasonable doses, like the board game it’s based on, Space Hulk: Tactics is a rewarding and satisfying strategy game, whether you’re purging the unclean or punching your extendable jaws through an intergalactic fascist’s face. Thanks to its board game roots it’s a more claustrophobic experience than other turn-based strategy games, but set foot aboard this Space Hulk and you’ll have nothing to lose but your spleen.