Space Hulk: Ascension Review

By Lucy Wood, 5 months ago
Space Hulk: Ascension walks a fine line between turn-based strategy and turn-based gambling, rolling virtual dice countless times throughout each encounter. Set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the action takes place aboard vast derelict vessels known as space hulks. It pits superhuman Space Marine Terminators against alien Genestealers in turn-based strategy battles on 3D maps with a top-down view.

Real men are not afraid to wield pink swordsReal men are not afraid to wield pink swords

Space Hulk: Ascension comes from the world of tabletop gaming, a background which has shaped it both for better and worse. Full Control Studios initially set out to faithfully adapt Games Workshop’s classic Space Hulk board game, using the Third Edition rules as the basis of the game mechanics. Their 2013 Steam release of Space Hulk received a mixed response, so they reworked the concept as a single-player only title and released it as Space Hulk: Ascension the following year. The new version incorporates RPG elements to create a more rounded and better-received tactical gaming experience and has since been ported to consoles by Hoplite Studios. There are six campaigns to play in addition to a Rogue Mode which challenges players to complete a randomly generated series of missions using squads imported from existing save files. It’s the video game equivalent of a bumper book of sudoku puzzles – it can be a lot of fun but only if you enjoy tackling similar challenges again and again. Each campaign follows the exploration of a single space hulk, with branching paths that don't affect outcomes and a gradual difficulty increase from Normal to Impossible. Missions have unique maps, but there is repetition in the objectives and constraints involved in playing them. Five difficulty levels are available to suit everyone from novice to hardened masochist, with achievements disabled on the Easy and Custom difficulties.

Ten Terminators against a horde of Genestealers. What could go wrong?Ten Terminators against a horde of Genestealers. What could go wrong?

Space Hulk: Ascension may be set in a rich fantasy universe, but it offers little in the way of story. This makes sense given its origins as a digital board game, but an engaging narrative would have gone a long way to making each campaign seem unique. The Space Marine Terminators are the stars of the show, but they are interchangeable clones rather than real characters. If one dies in battle the game simply provides a replacement of the same class at the end of the mission. While the game is thin on story it does a great job of creating a tense atmosphere and keeping players guessing. A perpetual fog of war restricts forward planning and literally leaves players lost in the dark as the enemies close in. The Genestealers, resembling the Xenomorphs of the Alien franchise, appear in tougher and nastier varieties as the game progresses so that players need to keep raising their game to survive. The derelict ship interiors are a sinister combination of industrial and gothic elements, full of exposed pipework and nooks resembling satanic shrines. The sound design complements the creepy atmosphere, with everything from the clanking Terminator footsteps to the squelching as they tread on enemy corpses reverberating through the corridors.

Yeah, we chose red armour because it doesn't show the bloodstainsYeah, we chose red armour because it doesn't show the bloodstains

Players have a choice of Terminator Chapters to use, each with different strengths, weaknesses and squad compositions. Terminators earn XP individually for kills and completing missions, and are awarded skill points to improve their stats upon levelling up. Between missions there is a rather clunky UI for assigning skill points, customising appearance and equipping skills, weapons and gadgets. This control over squad builds certainly adds strategic depth to the game, but a more streamlined UI is desirable in a game wanting so much of a player’s time. Squad management during missions involves coordinating squads to push towards objectives while defending against Genestealer onslaughts. Terminators have individual Action Points (AP) which are required to move, attack, reload, cool weapons or activate the defensive Overwatch ability. Overwatch is very powerful, allowing Terminators to shoot down Genestealers during the enemy turn until they run out of bullets or their weapons overheat. The overheat mechanic is a legacy of the original board game and causes weapons to jam or even explode, although weapons now heat up steadily rather than at random. It can be incredibly frustrating to deal with overheating weapons, but in all fairness, this mechanic balances the power of Overwatch and helps keep the game challenging. The mission UI is mostly adequate, but lacks polish and can be annoying. Using RB/LB to switch between Marines will bring up their stats and inset first-person view cam, but it won’t recentre the main top-down camera. This is fine when everyone is clustered together, but it’s downright awkward to manually move the camera across the map when the team is more spread out. There is no tactical map, so the only way to get a broader view of the situation is to zoom out with an annoying control combination. Selecting a Terminator shows their current range of movement and gives an automated option to handle all moves required to reach their destination. However, the UI sometimes understates a Terminator’s reach such that manual movement is required to fully utilise AP.

The light at the end of the tunnel is a flamethrowerThe light at the end of the tunnel is a flamethrower

The Space Hulk board game was asymmetric and sufficiently imbalanced in the Genestealers' favour that players were recommended to play the game twice, once on each side. Terminators were slow, limited in numbers, better at ranged combat than melee and challenging to use. Meanwhile Genestealers were fast, could spawn in large numbers, could only melee and were simple to use. While Space Hulk: Ascension has left behind strict compliance to the Third Edition rulebook, it has retained the essence of the relationship between Terminator and Genestealer. It was and is tough to play as a Terminator, and the game mechanics are particularly punishing for rookie squads. This can make it harder to play the early Normal missions with rookies than to play subsequent Impossible missions with veterans. This imbalance adds pressure and makes success sweeter, but it also makes for a harsh learning curve. There are several ways to ease into the game, but this is poorly communicated to players. The campaign branches sometimes allow players to take a longer, gentler path to the point where the difficulty increases. It’s also possible to alternate between multiple campaigns, playing every accessible Normal mission before moving on to Hard. Loot chests can be found in optional Flash missions, yielding treasures such as weapon upgrades and buffs for the next mission.

69% chance to hit with aimed fire? I might as well throw the gun at it69% chance to hit with aimed fire? I might as well throw the gun at it

Performance sometimes deteriorates when there is a lot going on or if a mission has lasted many rounds, and this can affect stability too. Issues encountered while reviewing the game include delays switching between player and enemy turns, walls failing to render properly, occasional crashes and a corrupted save file. With the exception of Impossible difficulty, players are able to protect their progress by making hard saves at any point in the game. Autosaves are fairly frequent, and it would be wise to play online for the automatic cloud backup save.

The achievement list is straightforward, mostly challenging players to get specific types of kill and level character classes or accumulate total kills. Cumulative kill tracking seems spotty, potentially making the higher kill counts (5,000 and 40,000) much harder to reach. Campaign completion achievements didn’t unlock while reviewing the game, and may currently be unobtainable as Xbox statistics indicate 0% of players have unlocked them so far.

Check out our Best Xbox Turn-Based Combat Games Available in 2018 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

Space Hulk: Ascension has evolved considerably from its board game roots, but without making a full transformation into a well-rounded video game. Warhammer 40,000 purists may be disappointed that it is no longer a strict adaptation of the Space Hulk board game, while a general video game audience may find it too much like a board game to be satisfying. There is a lot of content but no real story, and it will quickly become a dull grind for anyone who doesn’t enjoy the gameplay. A clunky UI along with performance and stability issues further detract from the playing experience, and some achievements may be unobtainable. The heavy influence of RNG on the game mechanics can make the game feel unfair at times, particularly with rookie squads, but it also delivers occasional miracles such as a rookie beating down a queue of Genestealers and surviving the turn. Faults aside, this is a thoughtful game which excels at creating tension from turn to turn and creating an unsettling atmosphere. Players won’t get far without smart tactical choices and attention to detail, yet every move is a gamble. It’s an addictive combination that keeps the game interesting despite similarities between campaigns or missions. The gameplay is strong enough to make Space Hulk: Ascension worthy of consideration, but technical issues stand in the way of being able to give it a general recommendation.
2.5 / 5
Positives
  • Huge amount of content
  • Addictive gameplay
  • Closely based on Space Hulk board game
Negatives
  • Clunky UI
  • Performance and stability issues
  • Some achievements may be unobtainable
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent about 50 hours playing various campaigns and Chapters, earning 11 of the 47 achievements. A digital code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Lucy Wood
Written by Lucy Wood
Lucy wasted her youth in the pursuit of music, art and stories. Eventually she discovered that video games combine all three with shooting and exploding stuff and a gamer was born.