Suffer not the Xenos
Gather round everyone, it’s been a while. Who am I? You don’t remember? It is me, Old Man Mordaith, that completely not creepy guy who thinks he knows a thing or two about that electronic interactive cinemascope you kids call video games.
So, what are we talking about today? Oh yeah, some fella older than me, the God Emperor. Well, specifically his agents and his enemies. We’ll be looking at a digital board game set in the Warhammer 40k universe: Space Hulk Tactics. Based on the original board game made by Games Workshop, it takes some big nasty fellas in their fancy suits and pits them against some big uglies called Genestealers. The original board game was published in the final years of that Hollywood guy getting in the White House. You know, the one that acted with the orangutan in that family classic, Bedtime for Bonzo. Anyway, not important.
Space Hulk has seen many clones and attempts over the years, some loved by fans, some… Uh, not so much. Now, having been born and raised in the far-flung wilds of the east coast of Canada, your pal Old Man Mordaith never had the chance to play this fine board game when it was out. But boy, do the fans that dropped by my stream like to sound off with how close it mimics the actual board game. Which is excellent, I appreciate a good digital board game. My early comparisons to X-Com quickly fell apart as I realized it was more akin to a brutal, bloody game of chess. Chess with upgradable pawns and different boards. So like Battle Chess Extreme 2018 edition (Someone make this please. Please? Do it for an old guy.)
This particular attempt at the game was made by Cyanide Studio and published by Focus Home Interactive. You can pick it up for roughly 49.99 Canuckbucks (so, you know, about twenty-five toonies) and it is available on Steam, PS4 and Xbox One.
You Are What You Eat
So. Blood Angels. Gonna be honest gang, maybe it is all that anime I’ve been watching lately, but I was really expecting something else. Not sure what, but it wasn’t big hulky scary guys in nasty-looking, rusted armour. Turns out the Blood Angels are some of the Emperor guy’s best and, well, I would say brightest, but bright doesn’t seem to be a thing in this grim-dark universe. So, we will go with the best and most brutal. They’ve been around a long time, are really feared among his servants, and are followers (uh, disciples? Minions?) of some high up guy named Sanguinius. He was something called a Primarch, which is just fancy talk for ‘genetically modified perfected immortal general.’ Show off.
On the other side? The Genestealers. These guys are part of a nomadic hive collective called the Tyranid. Now Old Man Mordaith ain’t an expert 40k historian, and the lore is pretty dense (Seriously, if my slow ol’ brainbox has gotten anything wrong, feel free to mention in the comments, and I’ll fix ‘er up as soon as I can confirm the mistake.) While from my spotty reports on the subject, it would seem that these space beasties are most well known for infiltration, they are also nightmares to fight and do so in numbers. Which is very well reflected in this game.
The game is set on a Space Hulk, which is something that amounts to a mobile Frankenstein ship graveyard. Space Hulks have a bunch of other ships, of all sorts of designs combined into one. They float around, bumping into other ships, asteroids, and planets. Often these collisions just add to their hulk bulk. (As an aside, “Hulk Bulk” sounds like some sort of weight gain product that the Blood Angels would use to get all fit for the Emperor. Games Workshop, feel free to contact me for marketing rights.)
Each side has units that can be upgraded through play and makes use of a card system. Now, cards I can get behind. I always thought dice were just a bit too high tech (yeah yeah, there are dice in this game, but still) and we need some cards to keep us grounded. I mean, playing cards and video games have a strong history. Heck, don’t we all remember when Nintendo was just a playing card company? No? Too far back? Well, it was! Use the googles if you don’t believe me.
Where were we? Oh yes, mechanics. Those listed are pretty much the ends of the main similarities. I was a happy camper to discover how different both sides played.
I started with the Blood Angels, as I determined that I’d get to see some high-quality Japanimation Blood Angels (I’m not bitter. Really. Big scary pocked marked burned men are way better than whatever sexy vampires I was imagining. Honest.) Anyway, grumbling aside, you get an objective, deploy your troops, and start doing the will of the God Emperor. Each unit gets 4 action points. Action points are spent on moving, turning (yeah facing matters – and I love it), shooting, and activating other powers. There are a few other units with special abilities that draw on other resources, like Psy points. But honestly, that sounds like dirty mutant talk. Also, with few exceptions, one hit – one kill. That is pretty much on all units. So he who strikes first and the RNG loves most, will take out the enemy.
You get a hand of three cards and every turn you generate a resource called Command points. Cards have a command point value and to use cards, you guessed it, you spend your command points. Once a turn you can also take a card and convert it to some collective action points for your squad, the amount being listed on the card. And that is the bulk of the mechanics for the (utterly sexy in their own way) Blood Angels. A system so easy, even a disappointed old man, who is not at all a creepy anime nerd, can figure it out.
So I played a day with the Emperor’s beloved sons and then decided to dip my toes into the infinite humanity killing abyss that smells like heresy, the Genestealers. My expectations were, admittedly, neutral. I had been looking at the fancy Tube videos that these game companies like to put out to promote their products, and those videos made it seem like the mechanics for the different sides of the conflict were pretty different. In fact, I found that the Genestealers were so different, I lost the first time playing them because I had a hard time shifting gears from the Blood Angels.
While the Genestealer Menace resource and Command points are nearly identical, Genestealers have spawn spots on the map, and they convert cards not for action points, but for ‘blips.’ Yeah, you heard me. Blips. These are literally radar blips that represent different amounts of units. When converted, a card seems to produce two blips. These are then stored at different spawn spots around the map. When you finish your conversion phase, you can deploy, move and reveal blips. Each blip, when revealed, will release up to three units on the map. You will know how many units because you are the one that placed them. The Blood Angels, theoretically, shouldn’t see until it is too late (or you know, they get a line of site on the blip, at which point your beasties are auto revealed.) Some blips don’t produce units and are false alarms, meant to trick and spook the big grumbly guys.
In general, Genestealers will have more troops and swarm the enemy. The Blood Angels will have more tools up their sleeves, including many attacks that can kill loads of Genestealers every turn, and can even position troops to lock down spawn spots. Easy-to-understand rules with a shocking amount of meat to them. But, how does the AI in the campaign handle a board game where secrecy is critical for one side when the all-knowing friend computer can see all? Well… let us deploy to our next segment.
But That’s Heresy!
Okay. So, the good news. It comes in a straightforward phrase that puts a gleam in my eye and a flutter in my creaky old heart.
“Custom Map Editor.” That’s right, you can build, share, and play online with a massive amount of community content. While I love in my heart of hearts this stuff in practice, it is something that can be handled in a clunky fashion, you know, like how a Blood Angel handles an autograph request from a small mutant child. Dramatically, with tears and fire. However, when a fan of the game dropped by and suggested I look at his map and give it a try, while I was hesitant at first, it turned out to be pretty easy. Quicker than you could say Bedtime for Bonzo, I had the map downloaded, and was well on my way to exclaiming into my mic ‘Why would you do this to me!’
It was fun, I won, and apparently, it was a classic map given new life.
These fan-made (and Cyanide made “official”) maps are for sure going to be the heart of the online community. And it is clear that they want there to be a robust online community. The ability to lay waste to complete strangers or engage with friends in private will be a boon to the game. I really think that this game will shine in the multiplayer aspect, and if you are a fan of this universe, this board game (or board games in general) and don’t give a single flying fig about the single-player campaign, or playing against AI, then pick it up. You’ll like it.
I’m sure you all heard that invisible “however” with my gnarled elderly finger extending crookedly into the sea air. (Full disclosure, I don’t live near the sea, I just ingest way… way too much salt.) And yeah, there is a “However.” Two actually. First the little one.
As I feared when I first started understanding the mechanics, I think AI cheats. This cheating profoundly favours the Blood Angels. So, I suppose, The God Emperor Protects? Let me explain. As Blood Angels, you get an overwatch ability.
Overwatch is a simple mechanic. For two action points (half the usual Blood Angel allotment) you set up a firing line. It’s indicated by green eyeball symbols. Anything hostile that walks through a space gets shot at. It’s pretty vital for the Blood Angels to deal with the massive numbers of Genestealers. But there’s a problem.
The AI Genestealers will flat out not take any risks. They just don’t enter the overwatch area. Or if they do it is so darned rare that it may as well not count. The effect of this is that once you learn a map, you can have a small number of your units lock down entire areas. Corridors become death tunnels, each space towards you means another free shot from the overwatch ability. The right cards can make this even more deadly. Then the remainder of your guys fulfills the objective. I found that once I learned a map, and could predict how the Genestealer AI was going to behave that victory was straightforward.
Now, as the Genestealers, my complaint is more of a suspicion, rather than a confirmed situation. But it looked really shady to me. I had been keeping one of the heavy goons occupied by keeping several blips on the map in a room near him.
He just kept using overwatch to do precisely what I did as a Blood Angel, keep an area secure. Good for the goose, good for the gander, I suppose. I thought I’d get smart and start using cards to spawn dummy blips and put them there. Smart move I thought, since the AI shouldn’t know the difference, I can send what units I had in the room to try their luck and kill the guy, and with the proper use of “dummy Blips” he should just remain and stay in Overwatch. Good in theory. I’m sure ya already guessed what happened. When the last of my real Genestealers died, and all that was there were dummy Blips, that Blood Angel just turned his back on the small group of dummy blips and walked off like nothing was there. Clearly a psychic mutation, we would have been doing the God Emperor a favour killing that deviant. So yeah, my time with the Genestealers was short, I’ll get into that later, so I didn’t have the chance to replicate it. But it still smelled like heresy.
Let’s talk about the single-player campaign. I liked it. Not super long; I think a body going a decent pace could get between 15 and 20 hours. Each faction’s campaign has a different feel and story focus. It was well written and didn’t make an old gaffer like me feel like I was a mother from the 80’s trying to decode what her children and their friends were talking about when discussing Dungeons and Dragons. For a dense, dark universe, the narrative was both welcoming and not overwhelming. For us nooblets to the 40k lore, we were shown the setting, characters and environment, not told it in excessively long exposition or (shudder) instructed to “click here to read more about it.”
Random missions crop up. I only saw the ones in the Blood Angel campaign, because of reasons I’ll get into later. But these random missions were always the same stock of maps. Objectives and all. With no real variation in them. If you brave the rampaging hordes of the Steam forums, you’ll see this complaint of map recycling over and over again. And it’s a valid concern with a simple solution. Whereas a single player experience shouldn’t worry about game balance, why not allow random maps generated by the community to fill in the blanks? Sure it would require an internet connection to download, but it really would be an easy fix. Even grant the player the ability to tag a selection of their favourite maps to appear, or also tag a selected trusted users, so their works show up consistently. Anyway, I think if something like that was added it would be an easy (and cheap) fix for one of the biggest complaints.
It’s in the Genes
Yeah, Yeah, I’ve said graphics aren’t everything. And I stand by it. But when a game can be pretty, truthful to the source, and not wind up hiking the price up? Well gosh darn it, I can get behind that. But, what about the hidden cost? No, not my precious maple syrup scented Canuckbucks.
I mean the development cost. Each level is wonderfully detailed. (really shining in the Ork maps) The character models look good, the cinematics are wonderful, and there is even a, get this, first-person mode. That’s right, with Space Hulk Tactics you can vicariously live your wildest fantasy of being a board game piece. But really, it was cool, even though I used the tactical view, and felt little motivation other than amusement to use the first person mode. Why put it in? As long as it doesn’t affect the dollar price it doesn’t matter, right? Well.. maybe.
The hidden price could have been optimization. The game struggled at points. Like really struggled. While my computer isn’t some state of the art supercomputer, it sure isn’t something I cobbled together out of cardboard to teach myself how to program in BASIC. I run much more graphically intensive games getting excellent framerates, with no stuttering or computer crying or fires. (There weren’t any fires during my play. I swear I was just being silly) My units stuttered, even when I dropped the graphics all the way to the nightmarish setting of low quality. It behaved and chugged the same as if it was on a high.
This early in a release, for a niche title, I’ll be honest: I wasn’t surprised at the optimization issues. Sadly that’s the sort of thing that gets slated to be fixed post-launch these days. I assume if I am not the only one with the problem it will get fixed pretty quick and typically I’m able to slog through in the meantime. It happened with Battletech, and I love that game to bitty battle bits. So I soldiered on. It was most notably bad on the enemy turn, I assume because the AI was desperately trying to figure out over a hundred creative ways to murder me and settling on the most efficient one.
So – what was the problem? Let’s put a pin in that thought for just a moment while we shift gears, and I’ll sing the praises of something I often do: The audio. Audio quality is so important to me. I don’t even rightly know why, while streaming I tried to explain. I think it has something to do with the fact I love sliding on my fancy space-age noise cancelling headphones, you know, the ones from the future. After which I just like how the sounds and music help immerse me in what I am doing. I trust the musical talents to play good tunes that not only set the mood of the game but don’t get dull after hearing it for the fifth time. It isn’t easy to do, but they for sure did it. I love the music. I love the crazy over the top voice acting. I loved the ambient noises. Everything. I loved it too much.
Sadly, the more you love something, the more it can hurt you when it lets you down. And here we come to my major complaint that actually made me quit playing Space Hulk Tactics midstream. Now, I say this with the following note: I wanted to keep playing. I was having a blast playing it. There is also no doubt in my mind that these issues will be fixed quickly in the months, if not weeks to come.
I mentioned the optimization issues. They were so rough that the music, voice acting, ambient noises, and other sound effects decided to act as a time machine an transport me back to the era of the CD Walkman. Every time the AI took its turn the sound started to skip and pop incredibly noticeably and consistently during said turn.
At first, I thought it was just the music. So I turned off the music, opened up Spotify, and loaded up some Warhammer 40k appropriate songs. However, this just made the fact it was affecting all the audio in the game more apparent. Sadly, a couple of hours into the Genestealer campaign I couldn’t handle it anymore. I didn’t want to just kill the audio, as that shouldn’t be necessary. It was a huge bummer of a way to end my time with a game I otherwise enjoyed.
He Who Keeps Silent, Consents
I know it ended on a bit of a downer, but I have faith Cyanide will address these issues promptly. I had a bunch of fun with this game, and if you can handle the fact the AI, at least on the normal difficulty, was pretty predictable, the game has a great deal of potential. The real possibility shows itself in online bouts, and I think if your pals and you have good memories of the Space Hulk board game, this will be a good pick. However, I need to grade accordingly to the current state of the game.
I honestly shrug at the AI, it isn’t that much of an issue for me. If you want a harder mode, you can set it at the higher difficulty or just play against some of the psychotic cyborgs online. The current level of optimization, however, is brutal. So while I’d love to give this game a well deserved 8.5, I’m knocking off points for the repeating maps and grunting optimization. As I mentioned, the only real time the optimization bothered me was where the audio was involved, I honestly may not have noticed the hitching lag of the animations if someone in the stream, with younger sharper cyborg eyes, hadn’t pointed it out to me first.
So, final score – 7/10 – This will be adjusted if I see the game fixes it’s optimization issues and adds some solution for the map repetition . Other than those issues, a solid fun digitized board game, and everyone involved should be happy with what they made, and maybe a bit sheepish when it comes to not releasing it better optimized.
Reviewed by Joshua Smith, aka Old Man Mordaith
Edited by Jesse Roberts