When developer Full Control released Space Hulk last year, the potential for a great adaptation of the classic boardgame was clearly there but it was largely undone by a number of nagging issues. A little over one year later and Space Hulk Ascension is now with us; a rejuvenation of the original game that ably fulfils the lofty promise of its forebear with a raft of improvements and a veritable mountain of content. It’s still not perfect, but Space Hulk Ascension not only stands as the absolute closest players will get to the boardgame made digital, but it also cuts a fine figure as a formidable turn-based strategy effort in its own right.
From the beginning, the game is welcoming to new, unpractised hands. An in-depth tutorial helps rookies get started and proves to be up to the task of establishing the myriad of mechanics encompassed within the game. Once into the game proper, Ascension confronts the player with a choice of three different space marine chapters, the Ultramarines, the Blood Angels and the Space Wolves. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses in ranged and melee skills and other than one additional weapon type, they all play pretty similarly.
Space Hulk Ascension's RPG leanings allow you to invest XP into customising and specialising your Terminators.
After choosing a chapter with which to swear intergalactic, alien-skull bashing fealty to, Ascension then presents the player with not one or two, but instead three stupendously massive campaigns to choose from. Even more ridiculous is the fact that between all three campaigns, there are over one-hundred unique missions; a far cry from the meagre offering of last year’s effort and more than enough content for even the most die-hard Space Hulk aficionado to get stuck into.
If there’s one gripe with the presentation of the missions, it would be that they’re not framed particularly impressively from a narrative standpoint. For many folks who come here for the strategy and the progression side of things that won’t matter, but for others who hunger for something a little more substantial from their storytelling, the litany of text-based mission descriptors will prove at least a little unsatisfying.
Once on the squad screen, one of the biggest improvements over Space Hulk’s 2013 debut comes into clear view. A welcome departure from the relatively vanilla marines of before, Ascension allows players to change equipment loadouts, appearance and upgrade skills from XP earned from kills and objectives completed during missions. It’s a breath of fresh air quite frankly and it’s one that helps provide a significant impetus to press on through Ascension’s mammoth campaigns.
Each of these missions tend to also have multiple objectives too, including such tasks as deactivating shields, killing a particular enemy, retrieving an item and of course, getting your Terminator units to safety (something which is especially important if you want to keep the older and more capable marines in one piece for later missions).
As mentioned previously, the missions themselves play out in a top-down, turn-based format, with the all important stat AP (Agility Points) governing how much action each Terminator unit can take before moving onto the next. Everything from simply turning in a direction, to firing a weapon causes AP to be spent and as a result, careful planning in advance is crucial to not spending these points where they aren’t best required.
Unfortunately, because the UI is too closely knit around each Terminator unit, it can be all too easy to waste crucial AP by turning instead of using the ability or action that you desire. So in a situation which means the difference between life or death, fluffing up your AP stack because you turned instead of reloading your weapon can frustratingly often lead to the latter occurring instead of the former. While asking for an ‘undo’ button would be a step too far and borderline cheating, the subsequent need to save after every turn thus proves to be a tedious, but essential workaround to perform.
Really, the UI as a whole simply needs more polish. Another example of this is that it would be nice if when you click on the portraits of your Terminators, you are taken straight to their location on the map rather than having them being selected off screen. As it currently stands, when you select a Terminator, you have to scroll around the map to find them which seems, well, terribly backwards from a usability standpoint.
Establishing choke-points and securing corridors is the only way your squad will make it out alive.
UI clunkiness aside though, Space Hulk Ascension does its best work in how the missions themselves play out, with the multiple objectives and omnipresent Genestealer menace providing ample creative scope for the application of effective strategy and tactics.
The thing is though, while you can see where the objectives are on the map, the expanse between these waypoints and your squads is shrouded in complete darkness. This means that you’ll be taking your squads through unexplored corridors and rooms that could all be potentially fraught with danger. Aside from the wonderful anxiety which accompanies not knowing what lurks around the next corner, the exploration of these areas also highlights a stylish visual flourish, as your Terminator units turn round a corner with their lights illuminating only what they actually see and nothing else.
Furthermore, while each of the the maps might seem small, it can take an absolute age for the player to move their squads from one end of it to the other. The problem however, comes not in the form of the slow movement of the units themselves (a pretty brisk five spaces of movement is a standard average), but rather because of the omnipresent Genestealer menace that can appear from any unsecured corridor or angle and tear your squad to pieces.
Absolutely unrelenting and extremely deadly, the nightmarish Genestealers can instantly kill each of your Terminators in a single-turn and in the harder difficulty levels where your fallen units are not replaced with those of equal stature, there will be times, many times, where you end up sacrificing green rookies to preserve the more-skilled and grizzled veterans. This is something that rings especially true when it’s a Terminator that you’ve spent many missions painstakingly upgrading their abilities and specialising them. Simply put, the player develops the sort of ownership over their digital legion that won’t be uncommon to players of 2K’s XCOM games.
As a result of this, because the Genestealers, Brood Lords and everything else that wants to tear your squad to pieces pour down almost every corridor, you end up moving your characters only a few spaces rather than their entire allotted amount. The reason for this is simple; because all sides need to be covered by firing lines in order to prevent utter annihilation, it becomes essential to have marines guarding corridors and creating killzones. Furthermore, on some missions, Genestealers will have spawn zones which if not blocked by a Terminator in their vicinity, will cause them to swarm out unopposed.
The upshot of all of this is that progress through Space Hulk Ascension’s missions feels nail-bitingly tense, but the plodding, piecemeal approach might seem excruciating for some players less familiar with this particular brand of strategy. Other things to consider include jamming weapons and reloading them, too. Far more fair than the system in last years game, in Ascension you can plan when you need to reload your weapon or cool them down with either act taking a set amount of AP, rather than having your weapons jamming on you every other turn.
Elsewhere, the matter of combat itself is carried out with aplomb as massively improved animations and a refined first-person camera (echoing the Space Hulk games of the 90’s) helps convey the visceral confrontations which are commonplace throughout the game. Under the hood, Ascension has had a sizeable rework too; feeling far less haphazard than it did a year ago, the developer has introduced a new system that relies on percentage chance to hit in addition to the player being able to trade-off AP for an increased chance at doing so.
Though impressive and devastating, heavy weapons such as the flamer must be used sparingly.
In light of this new system and combined with the specialisations (Hand-to-hand combat isn’t such a suicidal premise as it was before), abilities and additional weapons, Ascension feels far closer to the likes of XCOM than the cloying and seemingly unfair combat system of last year’s game.
Of course, it would be easy to be cynical and say that all of this content should have been in there in the first place, but that would be missing the point a little. Space Hulk Ascension feels far more akin to Space Hulk 2.0 rather than a load of director’s cut material which has been scooped off the floor and then unceremoniously dumped onto an older game.
SPACE HULK ASCENSION EDITION VERDICT
With some of the most nerve-shredding strategy you can engage in and a real embarrassment of riches when it comes to content, Space Hulk Ascension’s niggles aren’t nearly enough to derail it from being both the best Space Hulk title and one of the better turn-based strategy titles available right now.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Letting rip with the flamer in a room full of Genestealers, leaving them all extra crispy.
Three absolutely massive campaigns to get stuck into.
Nail-biting strategy ably complimented by decent RPG progression elements.
Slow and clunky pace might grate with some.
Troublesome UI ensures making mistakes is a little too easy sometimes.