Space Hulk Ascension (PC)

By Walter Hare

Published on Tuesday, February 3, 2015

I have never had the chance to play the original Space Hulk board game, though I have often heard people sing its praises. I do own the card game version, “Space Hulk: Death Angel,” which really should be called “You Lose: Home Edition,” but while it’s a good game I always felt like I was missing out on a great grid-based strategy experience. As far as I can tell, aesthetically and functionally, Space Hulk: Ascension captures the board game experience near perfectly with a satisfying rule set and brutal decor.

In the Warhammer 40k lore, which is as masterbatorally over the top as it is massive, space hulks are hunks of space ships, stations and materials that have agglutinated and been teleported into an alternate dimension of chaos. When they re-emerge, they often present an extreme danger to nearby planets, either because of their size or now hostile alien inhabitants, as well as a chance to recover lost technology.

Space Hulk 8

Space Hulk Ascension gives you control of one of three space marine chapters to explore three different space hulks, each one comprising somewhere between fifteen and twenty missions, with some path variability and optional missions. While each space hulk has a tentative story relating specifically to one of the space marine chapters, the narrative is fairly thin, told only in text missions descriptions in the campaign menu that are thematically consistent if a little underwhelming and riddled with spelling errors.

The levels themselves are composed mainly of corridors along which your bulky space marines, outfitted in massive terminator armor, can only saunter through single file, and rectangular rooms of varying size littered about. Missions generally involve moving your marines to a certain place, recovering a specific item, closing certain doors or killing certain enemies. Opposing your marines are the Genestealers, perhaps best known these days as the primary inspiration of Starcraft’s Zerg race, a hive mind species of ravenous aliens who can also use guns sometimes, but who for the most part are melee only in Ascension.

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The board game ethic of Ascension is immediately apparent the moment you start the game. Its rules are fairly simple in their own right but come together to form a number of interesting strategic problems. Marines can’t move past each other, must spend action points both to move and to turn 90 degrees, have accuracy ratings based on the relevant weapon, statistic and their personal stats, and can go in to overwatch. Enemy spawning is determined semi-randomly based on the existing number of enemies on the field, and will emerge from seams in the ship which can be disabled by standing a marine in a certain vicinity. Much of your traversal strategy thus depends on pre-positioning your units so that they can advantageously move and fire the next turn while blocking off enough spawn locations that you don’t get overwhelmed.

On the surface this is all the basic setup for a stable, if uninspired TBS, which had me worried at first. The problem with most games of this style is that aggressive positioning is often punished, either by enemy units appearing out of nowhere and one shotting your units or by awkward enemy AI and spawning mechanisms (looking at you, new X-COM). Ascension, however, gives you some elegant tools to reward aggressive, smart positioning. First, each marine has a radar detection radius, the size of which is based on their individual stats and whatever special equipment you’ve deigned to give them. This means that you should never be surprised when a genestealer rips through a door and eats your face, since smart positioning of your units will always prevent random, instant ganks. Your mistakes will cause the death of your units, not bullshit ‘out of nowhere’ pot shots.

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Second, most units can free fire at any enemies they are facing each time they move forward or step backwards, albeit at an accuracy penalty. This makes it much easier to shuffle several units into a room without it being monumentally risky, as each tile moved is a free shot on any enemies in the room. This includes moving in diagonals, which alleviates the problems associated with shuffling the bulky space marines around a room without running in to each other.

Finally, the overwatch system is badass. Instead of taking one wimpy shot at the first enemy they see, a marine will unload their cartridge at every passing hostile until they are dead or his gun has malfunctioned in some way, either by overheating or running out of ammo, which must be dealt with manually during your turn and at a point cost. Not only does this looks amazingly and awesomely brutal, this again gives you more agency in your unit positioning, reinforcing the notion that it is your mistakes and not random circumstance that will lose you an engagement.

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Enemies spawn in huge droves, sometimes dozens at a time to kill your squad, which can consist of anywhere from three to ten marines. While most are one shot kill melee units, a handful have ranged abilities or more hitpoints, which can throw a wrench in overly static and defensive lineups. Whether you stand your ground or move around the level to find an advantage largely depends on your squad makeup.

And there are a fair number of customization options available, some more interesting than others. Each unit levels up based on the number of kills and objectives achieved, which allows them varying statistical and equipment upgrades based on class. I found myself overall disappointed with the RPG aspects of the game however, as they are simply functional and not nearly as fun as they could be. While some units gain extraordinary bonuses, particularly the librarians (basically your mages) and heavies (flamethrowers and such), most of the perks and equipment are “plus x% of this or that.” They’re strategically relevant and useful, just not very interesting. Further, while there are a number of stats related to melee/damage resistance, psychic damage resistance and the like, they seemed far less useful than extra action points and accuracy. Mainly this is due to the fact that all of your marines and the vast majority of enemies are one hit kill, and adding a 10% chance for a marine to resist that one hit kill seems far less advantageous than just giving them more mobility to avoid the situation altogether.

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It’s not just the stats that come through a bit thin. While each level has a fair design, there are very few set pieces to go around, and by the twentieth or thirtieth mission you’ll be begging to see a slightly different dim hallway and square room. As I mentioned above, the narrative is fairly thin, and levels have no flair for story of any kind, functional but uninteresting. Finally, while there are a handful of enemy types, they all look very similar to one another, adding to a certain blandness that lingers all around Ascension. This blandness becomes all the more exacerbated by the mid game, once your marines achieve enough of a power level that you no longer feel particularly threatened and start rampaging through the campaigns at break neck pace.

Still, Ascension is overall a fine strategy game that rewards aggression and is challenging without being bullshit necessarily. There is definitely more room for interesting narrative and level set pieces, and a proper hit point system might have made dealing with specific enemies or using certain types of equipment more fun, but in its current form it’s a good addition to the Warhammer 40k game stable.

– Wh

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