Space Hulk is perhaps the most iconic of Games Workshop’s board games. Sure, there’s the whole Warhammer 40,000 universe and the fantasy battles of Warhammer, but there’s something pure about guiding a small group of Terminator Space Marines through the corridors of the hulk, leaning on imagery from popular sci-fi action films. Where previous Space Hulk games have stayed true to the board game’s form, Space Hulk: Deathwing is a more ambitious attempt to adapt it into a cooperative first person shooter.
One thing that Streum On get absolutely right is the look and feel of the space hulk Olethros into which you venture. Each mission takes you through one of the many derelict ships that have come to form the hulk, with gothic architecture and heavy industry blending together in the ships of the Imperium. You’ll go from cramped corridors and tunnels with bare pipes and metal walkways to these cavernous and majestic cathedrals and halls, with light streaming through the stained glass windows.
Stomping through the derelict ships, you feel like the ponderous but ultimately very powerful Terminator Space Marines that you play as. These are the most experienced and powerful of an already tiny elite military force, used to spearhead assaults and more than able to live on the frontlines of battle. You can tone it down, but there’s a satisfying heft to the camera shake as you walk or run through the hulk.
The same can’t be said of the weaponry, which rarely feel that satisfying to use. The basic Storm Bolter is by far the most reliable weapon, it’s accurate and it never jams, and you can use it alongside a Power Sword or Power Axe. Besides that there are shorter ranged shotgun and toxic bullet variants, the Assault Cannon, Flamethrower and Plasma Cannons, but to varying degrees, they all feel more awkward than they’re worth. The Assault Cannon shakes your view point and struggles to hit anything at range, Plasma Cannon shots feel inconsistent in hitting the target with splash damage and the handful of melee weapons are ill suited to combating the enemies in the game, who aim to whittle your armour down with melee of their own.
There’s two main groups of enemies, the Genestealers and the human-stealer Hybrids. You have ranged and melee enemies to worry about, and they get tougher as you progress. Psycker Hybrids are particularly troublesome, as they arc lightning across the room at you, while there are near invisible camoflagued genestealers, and the Broodlords are ridiculously powerful, able to kill you or your companions in just a few swipes. It’s a bit ridiculous when the game hurls three of them at you all at once, as it does on several occasions, but you can stagger them with heavier weapons.
Furthering your arsenal of weapons, you’re a Librarian-class Terminator and so you also have a range of psycker abilities to use. You can unleash chains of lightning, a difficult to control pillar of fire, and several other attacks. They’re not quite as devastating as they sound, until you earn and allocate Valor points to unlock the much later ones, but they can be useful in a pinch. It’s your ability to manipulate the Warp that lets you use Psygates and teleport back to your mothership to recover and change your load out, but the number of times you can do this per mission is limited.
In single player, you’re flanked by two AI Terminators, who will back you up and can be ordered around. They do a decent job of assisting you most of the time, but have a tendency to get in the way of your shots and can struggle to deal with certain situations or make odd decisions. There’s little real need to get them to open doors for you, as it’s easier just to do things yourself, and I simply had them follow me around and cover our rear. Outside of laying down heavy fire, the Apothecary is also able to patch your team up on the fly when told to do so.
What story is there is largely forgettable. You’re heading into the Olethros in order to find a lost Dark Angels ship, and secure its precious artefacts from the Genestealers onboard and the rapidly approaching Tyranid invasion fleet. There’s the glimmer of something interesting there, steeped in the lore of the 40K universe, but it’s smothered by the last few missions sending you on a tedious escort mission and forcing you to track back through maps you’ve already seen. The way that enemies attack you lacks the dynamism of Left 4 Dead, relying more on scripted moments, but even then, there’s too many lulls in the action, too many times where I’m waiting and thinking, “Did that checkpoint trigger? What’s my next objective?” It could have played up to classic action films like Aliens and Starship Troopers in its scale and set pieces, but it misses the mark.
The gameplay balance is rejigged when you head online, with up to four players in the team. Duties such as healing and hacking are split up between the five classes on offer, and these also determing which weapons you can carry. As you play through a level, you earn experience and unlock further weapons and abilities for that class, but Deathwing is unusual in that you always start from scratch at the beginning of a level, instead of having a persistent progression. If the host enables Codex Rules, however, everything is unlocked from the beginning, but you can no longer change your loadout mid-mission… Oh, and it turns friendly fire on and lengthens the time before downed players can respawn, so choose you partners wisely.
In the month since the PC launch, Streum On have worked hard to banish the bugs that the game shipped with. Online play is now a lot more stable in my experience, there are story elements when playing co-op, and performance bugs have been reduced. However, performance still isn’t great, and running medium settings with an overclocked Core i5 3570K and a Radeon RX480, the game would still drop frame rate quite dramatically below 60fps at various times. We’ll see how performance fares when it releases on console, but chances are it will target 30fps.
Space Hulk: Deathwing does a great job of capturing the look and feel of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, but it doesn’t manage to wrap that around a compelling co-op shooter. The missions are ponderous, the story already forgotten, and the core gunplay leaves something to be desired. Those with a fondness for Games Workshop or fraught co-op action will have wanted this to be great, but it’s merely OK.
Version tested: PC