Space Hulk has had several video game iterations over the years but many of them have been based on recreating the tabletop action – what would happen if instead of turn-based you could jump directly into the hulking ceramic armour of the most elite Space Marines, the Terminators?
Space Hulk Deathwing allows you to do just that. Playing as a Space Marine Librarian, who can attack with psychic powers, and with two battle brothers at your side, you must venture onto the massive Space Hulk. Played from the first-person perspective of the Dark Angels, the main objective is to purge the Olethros of the Xenos nightmare. As you travel deeper into the mass tangle of ships that makes up a Space Hulk, a more dangerous and curious objective reveals itself – a Dark Angels vessel from the Horus Heresy is among the ships that make up the Olethros.
Safe within the hulking mass of Terminator armour and heavily armed, Space Hulk is still wonderfully tense, especially when a swarm attacks. Chaos ensues. Gunfire bleated out. I thrashed my sword around and when all was said and done, the three of us had stood firm. It was like that scene from Aliens when the Colonial Marines first get attacked, minus the fact that I didn’t lose any of my squad.
Similar in style to Vermintide, Space Hulk Deathwing is an intense action-packed shooter. Matching the board game, spawn points are always nearby and you constantly get mauled by swarms of Genestealers, which span all the usual tropes of enemy types. They claw away at your heels, slowing you down and chip away at your health, which can be replenished from a limited number of buffs from your Apothecary teammate or by accessing a Psygate – a mobile command centre that restores health and fallen allies.
Even though using the Psygate cheats the permadeath nature of Space Hulk, it’s a welcome addition to the game – the friendly AI is infuriatingly stupid, which is a huge problem during later chapters when you face the more powerful Scythe-strain and Broodlord Genestealers. Despite a limited set of squad commands, the AI are complete boneheads – standing in front of gunfire, putting themselves in harm’s way or just idly standing around.
It’s a shame that the tactical squad-based nature of Space Hulk hasn’t translated well – even though some games have done this well. Star Wars Republic Commando was very competent at integrating a squad vibe without taking too much away from the first person action, while there are also numerous third person shooters that nail squad commands.
The world of Deathwing is wonderfully crafted. Not content with just drawing inspiration from the board game, Deathwing draws on 40k as a whole. The environment changes the deeper you go into the Space Hulk and the labyrinth design of each level is fantastic, offering choke points, vast areas for set pieces and tight environments that gives the combat a wonderful intensity where chaos ensues.
The dark dank corridors of the Space Hulk can be particularly claustrophobic and yet your team is surprisingly nimble and can easily pass one another. Light bounces off of the metallic skin of the ships, flicking past vents that could be home to potential Genestealer swarms. This very present danger is made all the more unnerving by the audio, which plays on your senses with clangs and the sound of scurrying that surrounds your ears.
The essence of the board game has been perfectly distilled, although I feel that procedurally generated maps could have really ramped up the replayability of the game, which instead is reserved for Special Missions, which put you back on the Olethros to complete randomly generated missions.
Special Missions are a lot tougher and like the multiplayer mode, Psygates are only rewarded when objectives are completed, so it’s just you and your team against the Genestealers. Random mission objectives keep you on your toes for what’s next and it’s during these missions (and in multiplayer) that you are able to choose your class and earn XP that can be invested into customisation options. Ranging from aesthetic options to perks and modifications to your weapons, this journey of customisation is also shared with multiplayer.
Unlike the solo campaign, multiplayer is far more brutal, with one of my team dying as quickly as those Colonial Marines when they first entered the colony on LV-426. More Genestealers are thrown into the mix, including several Broodlords and Scythe strains – thankfully even the worst online players are more competent than the campaign AI and once you have unlocked some modifications to your weapons, even the hardest of chapters can be beaten.
As intense as the action is – and it does get super intense when up against a large attack – the action is very samey. Stand fast. Pour everything into the horde before going in for close quarters melee combat. Heal up, reload then await the next attack. This is essentially the epitome of the board game, but being an FPS I expected a little more.
One thing that does stand out from standard shooters is limb damage. Each part of your armour can only withstand so much before essentially being rendered useless, meaning you may not be able to use your weapons to defend yourself or run for cover. Take too much damage – or get hit in a vital area – and death will be imminent.
If you have tackled the board or card game, then the sense of desperation against overwhelming odds where death is always very close will ring true. For Deathwing, the game is focused far too heavily on the aggressive power of the Terminators and while intense, I never felt too threatened by the odds stacking up – ultimately you are a wrecking ball that is smashing its way through a haunted house rollercoaster ride. It’s fun, but nothing you haven’t seen before.
If you are a fan of Space Hulk and enjoyed the combat and intensity of Vermintide – slaughtering waves of enemies that can jump on you at any time – then Deathwing’s shortcomings are easily overlooked, although shooter fans may find its repetitive gameplay and the need to grind to unlock multiplayer character customisations a chore.