In the city where I work, there’s a branch of a store called Games Workshop. I must confess that I’ve never set foot inside it. Games Workshop kind of terrifies me. I’ve heard of Warhammer, but it’s never something I’ve tried or known how to get into. There are levels of geekdom beyond my own that I have no knowledge of. How does one actually play Warhammer Fantasy Battle or The Lord of the Rings Battle Strategy? To this day, the answer continues to elude me. However, I now have a reasonable idea of what would be involved in playing a round of Space Hulk, an associated board game set within the Warhammer 40k universe. This is thanks to the new “remake of a remake” videogame, Space Hulk Ascension, which is both a sequel to the videogame Space Hulk from 2013 and a re-imagining of the original board game. Ascension will not simply show you how to play Space Hulk. Instead, it creates a unique, tangential experience with a slightly different rule set more suited for videogames, and less dependence on the role of the dice. Space Hulk Ascension is a challenging game which demands your full attention, and punishment for failure is brutal and unforgiving. Nonetheless, whilst it does a good job of conveying the tense atmosphere of the Space Marines’ deadly combat with the Genestealers, the brutal learning curve means this is a clearly a game where the most hardened Warhammer veterans are going to get the most out of it and stick it out through a whole campaign.
First off, what’s a Space Hulk? Originally, Space Hulk was a board game, designed in 1989 by Games Workshop. The game is set on a massive lump of derelict ancient spaceships, asteroids and other detritus that have fused together over time to form the aforementioned hulk, floating across the gulfs of space. The Space Marines (genetically enhanced super soldiers from the militaristic, theocratic empire of the Imperium) have been sent in to secure the hulk and to cleanse it of Genestealers; an alien race of monsters who kill with ruthless efficiency. Space Hulk first got a videogame version in 1993, and then again in 2013. The 2013 game especially was for all intent and purposes a straight port of the board game, with the same rules and reliance on chance. Ascension on the other hand builds on the 2013 game but tailors the experience, presenting a game that has more overlap with XCOM than anything else, being a top-down turn-based strategy game. Each mission has you leading a squad of Space Marines through a region of a Space Hulk, to secure the area, destroy any Genestealers, or achieve secondary objectives.
There are three lengthy campaigns in Ascension, each following a different group of Space Marines and a different story. Whilst there is a plot to each campaign, it’s delivered entirely through pre-mission briefings summarized in a terse fashion, so don’t expect a nuanced story with lots of voice acting. Each mission has you outfitting your group of Marines with appropriate weaponry and armour, before beaming them on board the Space Hulk to start the mission. The game is highly tactical in nature; the Marines can only move a limited number of squares each turn and due to their incredibly weighty armour can’t really get anywhere in a hurry. Similarly, if one of the Genestealers manage to sneak up behind a Marine, he is very likely to be killed immediately as the Genestealers signature move is to ambush unsuspecting soldiers. Like XCOM, there is a pool of action points each turn which each of your Marines has, which is depleted by moving, shooting, reloading or going into Overwatch (readying to shoot if an enemy appears). The difference with XCOM is that there is no cover system here; you will want to move your Marines as a group and protect the rear and flanks at all times. When your Marines have a Genestealer in their sights, they have a chance to hit the target which is affected by their distance and skill, again like XCOM.
The UI is a bit more fiddly than it rightly should be. Cancelling an action means clicking off a Marine rather than pressing undo, and you may find yourself accidentally moving Marines you didn’t mean to, with no option to rewind your turn. In a game where one false move can cause disaster, this is more than a little infuriating. Similarly, selecting what shot you want your Marine to take involves selecting the shoot command and then specifying the shot type separately, which is more clicks than strictly necessary. Graphically the game is decent; whilst the interior of the hulk isn’t particularly pretty, it is grimy menacing in the right way with flickering lights and narrow, metallic corridors splattered with alien viscera, reminiscent of the randomized nature of the old board game. It’s a shame the game doesn’t contain more music, because aside from menu music the actual levels rely purely on the creaking noises of the hulk and the gruff voices of the Marines intoning “The Emperor’s finest!”
The biggest issue facing Ascension though is the punishing difficulty. For the first few levels, it’s simple enough to romp through with relative ease, without getting a sense of what a threat the Genestealers pose. Around the fourth level, however, suddenly the difficulty spikes and the Genestealers really mean business. Time and time again my entire squad would be wiped out in just a couple of turns, and when this happens you unfortunately have to restart the level from the beginning. One wrong step, or one soldier not set to Overwatch can mean the squad being overrun and darkness befalling the Space Marines. If you enjoy a challenge, look no further.
Whilst it does crib a fair bit of its gameplay from XCOM, Ascension is a significantly different animal. If you are a fan of Warhammer 40k, Space Hulk Ascension is an unequivocal recommendation. For everyone else, the answer is a bit more nuanced. For those who love to be punished and are looking for a new challenging fight, Ascension will provide handsomely, with a rounded, interesting turn-based strategy experience. However, if you’re a bit more placid and prefer your games to be fairer to the player, Ascension may leave you feeling frustrated and disappointed.