Written by: Rik

Date posted: June 13, 2001


This is about as close as you want to let them get.

This is exactly the sort of game you’d expect to find on a site like this. You know, the sort that caused you to think ‘hmm…this looks quite good’ when it was in the shops, without ever seriously tempting you to part with your cash. And, although it was indeed by all accounts a solid game, there was a little too much hmm-ing and not enough buying on the part of the public, even after an early budget release. Yup, it’s the same old ‘good game, poor sales’ story, so here we go with a glowing review, echoing the positive sentiments expressed by numerous reviewers several years ago.

Well, that’s one option. However, it’s time to ‘fess up. You see, I never really got that far with Space Hulk: VOTBA. I had assumed it was down to my general gaming incompetence until Stoo (who is pretty good at these things) mentioned the game was also a bit too tough for him. Our respective copies had sat idle on the shelves for some time before we decided to launch a joint effort one afternoon. The result? Humiliating failure.

Given that we’re both reasonably able as far as playing games is concerned, this was a little bit disappointing. Yet, it convinced me further that this sort of thing must happen to games journalists all the time. Put yourself in their place: you receive a game to review and – shit! – you find it really difficult. Deadlines are piling up, and you just haven’t got time to practise, so what do you do? Confess all and risk the derision of your editor, fellow office-members and your national readership? Or use what you know about the game to bluff your way through a review, safe in the knowledge that no-one is really going to know? Well, I know what I’d do. But since we’re not in their situation, the truth is probably the best option. Make no mistake, both Stoo and I find Space Hulk: VOTBA bloody hard work and this fact can’t help but influence our conclusions about the game. However, more on that later; let’s talk about the game, shall we?

Time to panic. You can try clobbering them hand-to-hand, but it's a very risky business.

Based in some kind of Games Workshop universe, you control a group of battle-hardened marines taking on some super-aliens on an large abandoned ship (yes, they do all have proper names, but I just don’t care). It’s best described as a strategy-shooter – you work out your tactics and movements on a 2D map screen and then view them being carried out in first-person, with the option to take direct control of one of your team (a la Doom) should you so wish. The game system is well thought out: you pause the game to bring up the map/planning screen, but you only get a certain amount of ‘freeze’ time before you have return to the real-time action. The intention is undoubtedly to help balance the amount of strategy and action; you won’t stand a chance playing it FPS style (of course, you try it anyway) but you can’t spend eons on the pause screen agonising over your next move, so you have to think on your feet. The ‘freeze’ time builds up the more time you spend in real-time, so you can buy yourself time by merely keeping enemies at bay for a while. By and large, it works rather well, and it’s pretty easy to use, if a little fiddly in ‘map’ mode.

Generally, the levels are fairly straightforward in terms of design – a bunch of rectangular, empty rooms joined by narrow corridors. Tasks usually involve the retrieval of objects, clearing rooms of aliens, progressing to a certain area, or simply surviving for a certain amount of time. It all sounds simple enough here; and when these objectives are spelled out to you during briefing new players could be forgiven for thinking: “Is that it?”

Firing from a safe distance - while knee-deep in the blood of former squad-mates...

But, as mentioned earlier, Space Hulk is pretty hard, and even the most basic-sounding missions can prove to be problematic. Play this game and you will die. A lot. And, this being a squad-based game, you can (and often do) meet a grisly end several times over in the same mission. One guy dies, the camera switches to another – then he dies, and so on. It all gets quite depressing, especially as this can happen even during the training missions. So why is Space Hulk so challenging?

For a start, there’s a general feeling of uneasiness present at all times during play. It’s a pretty tense game and oozes atmosphere from every crevice. Graphically, it’s been long left behind, and while it doesn’t match Aliens vs. Predator in the scare stakes, things can still get pretty unpleasant. The setting is very similar to the Aliens movie (aside from all the Games Workshop claptrap) and long periods are spent in dimly lit corridors, waiting for the inevitable attack. When it comes, it still makes you jump and panic – even the bog-standard enemy, the Genestealer, is damn scary and usually hunts in large packs. On some levels, you just have to keep fending off wave after wave of the things while another member of your team does something, or you run down the clock.

Probably don't go in there for a while.

But while the action can get the adrenalin pumping, you then have to think calmly and rationally during your ‘freeze’ time to work out a strategy. And this can prove difficult. You can literally hear your time ticking away over the speakers, and, since the map screen appears on top of the game view, you can often see a group of enemies poised to rip your marine to shreds the moment you return to real-time. In short, the main difficulty is coordinating the strategy and action elements of the game. The system of ‘freeze time’ that the game uses should work, it just never seems to work for you when you’re in the thick of a mission. It’s one of those cases where you do the first training level (go into a room, pick something up, leave the level) and you instantly ‘get it’, but when it comes to an actual mission, it’s just too difficult to keep it all together. When you try and formulate a quick strategy to cover all corners, everyone usually dies; the other extreme is to concentrate on one of your guys and use him to take out as many enemies as possible, and, again, everyone usually dies, albeit in a slightly more glorious way.

There’s a nagging feeling that there’s a good game lurking in VOTBA somewhere, but when you can barely scratch the surface of it without getting nailed, it really is difficult to recommend it. The game’s intro details at length how tough the Genestealers are, and in the game they live up to their billing (you have got to shoot them from a distance or else you’re dead), but then open up the manual (or alternatively get quite further into the game) and you’ll realise that there’s even worse to come. If you like a challenge, can think on your feet, and aren’t easily scared by seven-year-old computer games, then you may get far enough into the game to enjoy it. Otherwise, unless you’re some kind of masochist who relishes skull-bashing frustration, you’re probably best off leaving it well alone.