Being a fan of tabletop games, the idea of creating video game adaptations for popular titles is an intriguing topic to ponder. Whenever I venture into this realm of thinking, the same question always leaves me stumped. Will this tabletop board game function successfully as a hit video game title? Space Hulk Ascension, created by Full Control Studios, is a turned-based strategy RPG based on the tabletop game Space Hulk by Games Workshop. When asking myself that question after playing this game, it makes me hesitant to wish my favorite board games be turned into digital form. I feel Space hulk Ascension is a visually appealing game which utilizes features that enhances the tactical experience while also falling short in many categories that are critical when dealing with this specific genre. At the end of the day, Space Hulk Ascension played more like a board game with an identity crisis, lost in unfamiliar territory.
I want to start by mentioning that I have no prior exposure to the WarHammer franchise so my apologies if I sound naïve when discussing the story presented in the game. This game is based around exploring abandoned space stations, known as space hulks, and is split into four different campaigns, one of them bought separately as DLC. In each campaign, you play as Space Marine Terminators, choosing between one of four factions known as Chapters. The chapters currently available are the Ultramarines, Blood Angels, Space Wolves and Imperial Fists which come with the DLC.
Each campaign is split into various missions which cause your Terminators to explore a space hulk infested with an alien race known as Genestealers. After choosing a mission, text appears on the screen explaining the perilous situation, the reason for the encounter and your mission details. This is the extent of the story in Space Hulk Ascension, based on the content I played through. The story felt like something I would experience from a board game when reading the details of a mission that was featured for that game night. It was a nice touch and I have nothing against the story presented to me in the game, but I feel they could have done more to bring the story to life, given the tools available when creating a video game. Instead, the story was there merely to set the stage for each mission, relying on the gameplay to dramatize the situation. Each mission felt like another hopeless crisis among the countless others that I had already barely escaped from with no end or hope in sight. Since I never completed a campaign I’m not sure if the story becomes more involved but when only grading the game on the story, there was not enough meat to keep me attached until the end.
Luckily, the mood of the game was able to compensate for the lack of story and found a way to draw me in by only relying on visuals and audio. Space Hulk Ascension incorporates a feature I’ve never seen in a tactical RPG, a first person camera view. This first person camera sits at the top right-hand corner of the screen and has multiple different functions like switching to infrared vision and altering the size of the screen. I absolutely loved being able to see the action from the eyes of my soldiers while watching the events unfold overhead and it created a type of immersion that I’ve never really experienced in this genre.
Every mission takes place in the abandon halls of a space hulk and the graphics set the bleak, eerie atmosphere perfectly. The game was visually appealing and displayed a dark undertone that carried over into every level. The only downside was each portion of the space hulk explored looked exactly the same. The only differences was the level layout and, even when playing through the other campaigns, taking place on separate space hulks, there were no visual clues to indicate that I was exploring a different ship. Given the setting of the game, finding ways to customize each level visually is nearly impossible and with the darker ambiance, it would be hard to identify any differences. Due to those reasons, I don’t feel the level design took away from the experience at all aside from giving the game a repetitive feel. Just like a tabletop game, that did not cause me to lose interest in the game, but made it hard to play multiple missions during one sitting.
Like the rest of the game thus far, the gameplay left me pleased with the unique feel, but failed to hook me to the point of falling into that ‘one more turn’ state of mind. I saw a lot of features similar to the famous XCOM series, like the size of the squads, the enemy animations and game’s accuracy mechanics. I was not displeased with this since they altered the overall feel enough to avoid feeling like a spin-off and they utilized these features properly. Instead of analyzing those common features, I want to focus on the aspects of the gameplay that caught my eye.
The component that stood out the most to me was the unique movement system programmed into the game. Like most tactical turned based games, each unit on the field has a limited number of actions that can be used each turn. They can be spent by moving, reloading weapon, using a skill/item, or engaging in combat. Turning your units in this game also eats away at your action points, resulting in the direction the unit is facing becoming a matter of life or death. Yes, you can waste your whole turn spinning in a circle if that strikes your fancy. I feel this adds an intense layer of difficulty to the game since conserving points to properly position your units could be the deciding factor that determines which side rises from the ashes.
That brings me to the other unique aspect of gameplay in this title. There are no health bars. If a Genestealer catches your unit off guard, the unit has a higher chance of dying. If the unit is attacked from behind, it suffers instant death. Even during a normal encounter, your fate is decided by the RNG (random number generator). The higher the percentage linked to the attack, the higher your chances of landing the attack and surviving the encounter. Every result in the game controlled by RNG resembles board game dice rolls. This, combined with the positioning mechanics, adds a dimension of gameplay that is both appealing and utterly frustrating at the same time. However, it is also something that can only be recreated by playing this game. Unit placement is always an important aspect in any tactical title but this propels it to a whole new level.
When it comes to a unit’s level progression, it is pretty standard. You have different unit classes, skills and weapons. As a unit levels up, new items and skills become available, adding extra levels of strategy. Each class has different weapons they can choose from that are unlocked by acquiring them in-game or by level-up. I feel like this game has all the components that make up a successful tactical title with added mechanics that gives it a unique place in the overly populated genre. The difficulty you are playing on determines what happens when a unit dies. On easy, nothing happens. On normal, the unit is replaced with another of the same level. When playing on hard or higher, your defeated units are replaced with a rookie soldier.
The only thing I could say is that I wish the customization aspects of the game were a little more involved. Using XCOM as an example, you have to spend research points in order to discover new technology that could be used during your play through and provides many different paths to explore, allowing the user to build up their arsenal to fit their play style. From there, you also have to acquire materials and money in order to obtain the items you desire. I am not saying that I wished those exact features were shown, but Space Hulk Ascension did not explore different ways to add depth to character development. This, for me, took away from the immersive experience they were aiming for.
Space Hulk Ascension was a great attempt at taking a popular tabletop title and converting it into video game format. From the research I’ve done, I can tell that they held true to the roots in which this title came from and I’m sure this will make any fan of the series satisfied, having the ability to play their favorite table top title without the set-up and hassle of planning a gathering of friends in one place. Looking at this as a stand-alone gaming title, I think it is a great game overall. The issues I see with the game are lack of level variety, a story that never really draws you in and customization that leaves something to be desired. With that being said, I enjoyed every minute spent with this game and will most likely revisit this game when I need a tactical fix, but I don’t see myself playing it into the early morning hours. For those reasons, I give Space Hulk Ascension a 4/5. If you would like to experience a game that will test your skills as a tactician, check out it out here.
So tell me, which tabletop titles would you love to see in video game format, and which aspects would you add or remove to make it an enjoyable experience?