Space Hulk is hard. Really hard. During my hands-on demo I stalked through its tight corridors with my heavily armoured Terminators, shooting aliens and avoiding sharp claws. It's a claustrophobic turn-based strategy game, and progress was slow as the pair of units under my control plodded into the positions I'd sent them to.
A circle flashed in the darkness of an adjacent corridor, illustrating that an enemy was heading my way from that direction. At that moment there was nothing to shoot at, so I hit end turn. Then during the AI's turn a Genestealer rounded the corner, but I'd set my soldier to overwatch and he gunned it down as soon as it appeared. One nil to me. More arrived from the same direction in the next turn, but this time my Terminator's aim was not as true, and only one of the aliens bit the dust. The other got close and slashed at the trooper. He instantly keeled over and died. Death is easy. Welcome to Space Hulk.
Space Hulk was originally a board game, set in the Warhammer 40K universe, that put players into conflict with Giger-esque Genestealers; clawed aliens with four arms and a bad attitude. It differs from the more traditional 40K offerings because of the focus on micro-managing your units in tense skirmishes, rather than the epic scuffles that the series is so well known for.
Here, Genestealers have the advantage when the action gets up close and personal. The essence of the game is to keep them at range and utilise your superior firepower. Let them get close enough, and despite your bulky armour they can swipe you down with ease, as I learned all too quickly.
My remaining unit managed to dispatch a handful more enemies before he too ate a claw sandwich. Sadly I hadn't done enough to satisfy my quota of kills, and so the level was lost. And this was only the first stage of the prequel campaign, supposed to be a (gentler) introduction to the game and how it all works.
"The prequel campaign was actually something we came up with to ease people into what Space Hulk is, and the difficulty level that the game has," Full Control's Thomas Lund told me during the demonstration. "If we threw players into the campaign straight away, many players wouldn't make it past mission one."
"Players learn that this is not a Rambo, I-run-around-and-kill-thousands-of-Orcs-and-Genestealers kind of game," he added, and he's not kidding. My initial experience with Space Hulk was briefer than I'd have liked, but it outlined exactly what type of experience gamers will be having when the game launches later this year. You will fail from time to time, instead of holding you by the hand, Full Control's game occasionally likes to rip it off and wiggle it in your face.
It comes from the board game of the same name, a classic made by Games Workshop nearly 25 years ago and set in the Warhammer 40K universe. My experience from the IP comes not from that game - I think I played it once or twice many years ago - but from the EA game released in the mid-nineties. A lot of things have changed since then, but at the same time as feeling like a modern title, Space Hulk also has a distinctive old-school feel to it. This "old-school feel" is exemplified by the razor-sharp difficulty that resulted in the quick death of my Terminators in the moody corridors of the hulking spaceship.
Players will have several tactical choices as they approach each mission. They'll be able to block off the directions that the Genestealers come from to win, or hunker down in the intersecting rooms and play defensive, killing enough enemies to proceed to the next level. Within that there'll be further options, coming in the form of different weapons. The standard bolt pistol is effective up to a point, but the assault cannon is deadly when used efficiently (it's described to me as "absurdly powerful" and was originally designed to rip through tanks in 40K). There's also some melee options, with players able to equip hammers and lightning claws, even if getting close to the enemy is far from advisable.
While it sticks closely to the ruleset provided by the board game, there's other clear influences in there. Xcom: Enemy Unknown is the obvious example, and not just in terms of presentation. Firaxis' turn-based strategy title proved that there's still an appetite for games like this, and for those who didn't play the board game, an appreciation of Xcom might well be enough to pique interest in this direction.
Like Xcom there's a handy overwatch feature. Units can move across a certain number of tiles before their actions are spent, and at the end of their move, if they have an action left, they can set their unit to attack any enemies that appear in the AI's subsequent turn. The blot pistol equipped by the standard Terminator is a bit hit and miss, but the aforementioned assault cannon nearly always wins out in such circumstances (though there is a finite amount of ammo, and only one reload, and there's a chance that a malfunction can cause a reload to turn into a devastating explosion).
During combat a little window in the top-right of the screen allows players to view the action from a first-person perspective. "We really wanted to see how we could fit that into the UI when we redesigned it a few weeks ago," Lund explained. Whilst hardly essential to the overall experience, it's a nice twist, and makes the action feel more immediate when it goes down.
The action itself is blissfully simple. There's no hit points. You hit or miss. You win or lose. You can see the numbers bubbling under the surface should you wish as they're optionally transparent. If you want to know how it works and what your chances are, you can toggle this information off and on. The more informed you are, the better your strategy will be in the long run.
Strategy will be of paramount importance. Strategy, and a little bit of luck. There's a lot to take in, and during our demonstration we only scratch the surface of what's on offer. Fans of the original will no doubt be looking forward to getting their hands on what is a faithful recreation of the iconic board game, but there's enough to it that it should also appeal to newcomers to IP.
It certainly looks the part. Whilst Full Control has had a fair amount of latitude when it comes to creating the spaceship interiors, the various assets are drawn from a long established and cohesive setting. It's not the sort of thing that you can tinker with. Not that they'd want to, the studio are clearly big fans of the source material that they're working with, and they're taking care to make sure it looks authentic.
After getting owned in the single-player campaign, we sat down with Thomas Lund and found out more about the game and how it came to be, discussed the challenges of working with such an established IP, and discovered why the game is so damn hard.
How does the campaign wrap around the individual missions?
Overall the campaign is taken from the third edition board game, so it's a distillation of the individual missions that were made throughout the first and second editions of the board game, wrapped into a package where the overall story is about a Blood Angel Chapter. A Space Hulk enters Blood Angel territory. Hundreds of years before this one came there was another Space Hulk, and a Blood Angel Terminator crew was entering it and they made some tactical mistakes and actually got their asses kicked. It doesn't happen often, but the honour was broken for the Blood Angels. One of the survivors is now the captain of this expedition going into this, so he's going to redeem the honour of the Blood Angels, by doing it right this time.
As he enters the Space Hulk and starts clearing it out, first preventing the Genestealers from exiting by flaming the control rooms for the lifeboats, getting deeper inside the Space Hulk they start discovering that there is an ancient Blood Angel Battle Barge deep inside the Space Hulk. Space Hulks are these mangled up, derelict spaceships that have been put together as one big thing. So inside there is this Battle Barge, and they discover an artifact. Which you then, as a side mission, you start going in and recover the artifact and get out again.
How true to the ruleset of the board game is Space Hulk?
Space Hulk is 98-99% true to the board game. Every board game Space Hulk fan will immediately recognise and feel that they're playing the board game, which is the feeling that we really strive for. We wanted to make this a video game inspired by the board game, not a direct copy, but something that plays very true to the hardcore fans. This is not a mass-market, million units kind of thing. We wanted to have 40K fans, Space Hulk fans go: "Yes, finally!" That's the feeling we're going for.
I've heard the origins story of the game, and how you met Ian Livingstone (check out a GRTV interview below this text to hear that story yourself). How much contact have you had with Games Workshop and how have they helped? Did they basically just give you the rules and tell you to go and make your game? Or have they been a bit more hands-on?
Yes and no. They are obviously very protective of their IP, in a positive way as well. They don't want their IP to misrepresented in anyway. So obviously everything we do they have some kind of control over and quality checks. But actually working with them throughout this project has been absolutely fantastic. Also, from a fan point of view; we are fans ourselves. One of the examples is that there's never been a representation of interiors of spaceships in the 40K universe. There has been EA games with the pixel-art back in the 90s, there has been very few attempts of drawing them in the codecs and so on. Nobody has ever really said "how does it actually look inside the corridors?" And Games Workshop basically gave us free-hands to come up with that. If we look at it and it looks 40K, that's it.
So whilst you're working with an established, almost inflexible set of game rules, I guess the freedom has come from your ability to affect something that may eventually become part of the lore for the wider universe?
Yeah, I see it as this great thing that I got this framework: I got game design rules, I got the overall campaign, mission structures. I can't touch rules really, but everything else between I've been able to, as a fan, represent the way and the the vision that I want it to have. As long as it's inside of 40K, Games Workshop just go thumbs up, and the product really shows that we've put in so much love into this, it really shines through.
There seems to be a lot of games that are shunning "easy" at the moment. I played the demo and I felt like I was in over my head straight away. You've gone for that more hardcore approach. What was the reasoning behind that?
Personally, as a gamer, I dislike all these too easy games, mass market games that have been coming over the past ten years where it ends up being more like an interactive movie that I play, and I really don't feel challenged. As a hardcore old-school gamer, I grew up with death being part of the challenge, learning the game. Old-school platformers and the original Space Hulk, they were all about dying and trying, and actually challenging yourself to complete it and getting that "yes, I actually beat the game" kind of feeling. And that feeling hasn't been present in recent games very much. So bringing that back - and especially with Space Hulk which at its core is this tough, challenging game that gives you that feeling of "Yes! I actually beat it, just by the thread of a hair". And with the recent Xcom [Enemy Unknown] relaunch, which is itself a hard game, showing that there are more people out there than anyone had thought, even ourselves, there's still a hardcore crowd that wants these types of games. It's perfect timing for us, and thanks to Firaxis for making this.
One of the things that resonated so strongly with Xcom: Enemy Unknown was permadeath. How many troops do you have in Space Hulk? Are they a permanent resource or do you have permadeath in some form?
No. That was one of those things that in the board game there was no permadeath, the characters move on throughout the story as such. The campaign that's set around it dictates who is in what mission. So having these characters die and having them permanently removed from your crew is not an option. Within each mission, yes, you will lose Terminators, but they reappear further down the campaign.
We are experimenting a little with difficulty levels, and one of the features that we're adding in is that you can exchange one of the named heroes that are in the board game with a character that you create yourself, and he will start off pretty plain, and as you progress through the game and actually play with him he will unlock Purity Seals, a shoulder pad or weaponry he can adorn and so on. If we're going to add permadeath to those it might be an interesting twist on things if you play it at a higher difficulty level. Haven't thought about it yet, but that would be one those additional things, if you play it on ultimate nightmare level, you could lose characters that you spent three/four/five hours on customising.
Does losing a character literally come down to something as random as a dice roll?
It is literally as random as a dice roll. We mathematically do something different under the hood. Random is nice thing when you have the dice in your hand and you're physically rolling them. When it's a computer doing it many players don't like dice rolls because random is a fickle thing. Even though there's a 99% chance of something happening, statistically it doesn't matter what you roll previously, so you can have multiple misses even if there's a 99% chance of a hit. People don't think about that... So what we do is pre-roll a lot of dice and shuffle them around so... so the spread is true to the statistics, but they lean more to what the players expect."
And where are you now in terms of development? What's the road ahead looking like?
"We got the alpha level, which means that all fifteen missions are fully playable. So we're dressing it up right now, adding nice menus, polish, adding all these action camera shots, different angles. Basically polishing the game up for release, which will happen early Fall."