Warhammer and its spinoffs seems to be a very popular franchise. I even met a professor at university who professed his love for '40K' on his institute website right next to the list of scientific papers and books he had written and and who used pictures of 'hulks' as the screensaver of his laptop. My first contact with this 'universe' was actually the computer game Space Hulk, and that's the very game this review is about. What an amazing coincidence!
The game is set against a war-in-space background: aggressive aliens, the Gene Stealers versus highly-trained human super soldiers, the Terminators. The player, of course, controls the side of the Terminators in quite an impressive number of missions. These usually consist of infiltrating a 'Hulk' (a giant space ship), clearing it of Gene Stealers, retrieving alien artifacts or merely getting out alive.
While a basic turned-based approached would have been the obvious choice, of course, Space Hulk uses an interesting concept of interruptable real time. The action can be frozen at any time, but commands can still be issued to the squad members (usually up to five; sometimes, you get to control two squads at once). However, this feature is of limited use. While frozen, the remaining freeze time is counted down. When it runs out, everything starts moving again if you want it or not. On the other hand, the freeze time replenishes slowly when the action is not frozen. This system allows for careful tactical planning on the one hand, but keeps a sense of urgency up on the other hand.
By virtue of this system and the generally well-done atmosphere, the game is always full of tension, even to the verge of being frightening and creepy. In this respect, it is one of the most immersive games I've ever had my hands on!
Yet, Space Hulk still fails on the whole. It is apparantely the concept of the game that the Gene Stealers don't have any ranged weapons, but are extremely deadly in close combat. Or the other way round: Once one of them gets near one of your Terminators, the oh-so-highly-powered guy with his heavy armor is useless. Although there even are weapons designed for hand-to-hand combat which Terminators can be equipped with (the inspiration obviously came from the Masters of the Universe here: it's Skeletor's Terror Claws and He-Man's Power Sword), even those are virtually useless, and as soon as you get to see one of the aliens in closeup in the 3D view, you might as well give up on that soldier.
The problem with this is that most missions are designed so that you have to move around the winding corridors. If an enemy is waiting behind a corner, that's it most of the time, because you'll be sliced up before you can even turn to face him. Even if you're just trying to block a narrow passageway, your technologically advanced gun will jam sooner or later (in fact, they seem to jam all the time), and when that happens, yet another Terminator is turned into cat foot.
Worst of all, many of the missions seem to be designed in a very time-critical way. I.e. you don't have any time to take just one single wrong step at all. If you don't send your Terminators to the exactly right spots using exactly the right route, you'll find yourself in a rut within seconds. Usually, you'll have your soldiers standing back-to-back somewhere then, shooting dozens of Gene Stealers, but more and more will keep coming - and you won't be able to advance, because your target area is already filled with them (once again, waiting around a corner). Two options: Give up immediately or keep watching as the inevitable gun jamming occurs and your team is slaughtered.
So there it is. Space Hulk is a colossal failure. Very professionally made, a concept bordering to ingenuity, yet totally unplayable. This future is indeed very grim.