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Before they became even more evil than Skeletor with a hangover, Electronic Arts were capable of turning out good, original, creative games. Then, in the mid 1990s, they decided that buying out every independent games developer and wrecking their franchises was more important than creating electronic art. Space Hulk is one of the handful of truly great games that EA made, and it's still a nerve-wracking experience to play today, nearly twenty years on.
Set in Games Workshop's gaudy yet imaginative war torn sci-fi world of Warhammer 40K, this is a tactical strategy game crossed with an early take on FPS games. The premise is simple - a massive, interstellar space ship (the Space Hulk that the game is named after) has gone missing, and the Imperial Fleet command want to know what has happened to it. Playing the role of one of the Space Marines, you are part of a detachment sent to investigate the distress call. However, it is soon apparent that you're going to have to go deep into some pretty nasty places - yes, even worse than Stoke on Trent. The quadrant that the said Space Hulk is lost in is deep in Gene Stealer territory, which are hostile, Giger-esque aliens, hell-bent on ripping off your power armour. And then your face.
The story unfolds in the form of mission briefings from your commanding officer at the beginning of each level, and reports at the end of them. Missions vary from simple 'kill em all' type sweeps, to achieving specific objectives or reaching certain places on the map. There are dozens of missions, and the main thread evolves through about half of these.
The game is a hybrid of top-down strategy and first-person shooting. Most missions see you managing a squad of Space Marines, and you will need to flick between not only the map view, where you place your marines and give orders, and first-person, where you can shoot the baddies. This may sound simple, but considering that the marines you manage are kitted out in huge amounts of armour, they move INCREDIBLY slowly. Coupled with the inconvience that the Gene Stealers move about four times faster than your soldiers, this is an intensely nerve-wracking affair.
The atmosphere is wonderfully created, most notably through the use of sound. Eery noises from machinery and pipes rattle and clunk, aliens hiss and screech in the distance, and your fellow marines cry out in warning over the squelchy radio when they spot the aliens.
Tactics win out over brute strength here, and every mission requires a different approach from the last. Most times you are armed with a simple, semi-automatic 'Bolt Gun' and a hydraulic gauntlet for close-quarters combat, neither of which are particularly effective weapons. Firing ranged weapons is done in first-person with the mouse, if you happen to be in control of the marine. All hand-to-hand combat is done automatically, so when a Gene-Stealer gets close enough, there's nothing to do but sit back and get eviscerated. Gene-Stealers use no ranged weapons, so a quick and accurate trigger finger is needed. This all comes to no good though if you get surrounded, or the dreaded 'GUN JAMMED' message flashes up in the middle of a firefight.
Some missions allow you to kit your squad out with better weaponry, which can be devastatingly good fun to use. The flamer can torch aliens with ease, or can be used to flood an entire area and ignite it like a huge air-fuel bomb. The minigun cuts through large amounts of enemies and ammo, and if you're feeling really brave/idiotic, don a pair of Wolverine-style Lightning Claws to go in toe-to-toe with the aliens.
Marines that survive a mission can become veterans, and grow in power, speed and efficiency, which is a good incentive to complete missions effectively. There is also a genius idea in the inclusion of 'Freeze Time'. This is not a 'pause' key, as it only gives you a limited amount of time to stop the gameplay and give out orders to your squad. It's a vital tool, and must be used sparingly. As you go up in rank, the greater your capacity to stop time becomes.
This is a game full of atmosphere, tension and great design. It draws heavily from such influences as 'Alien' and its namesake board game to create a faithful addition to the Warhammer 40K canon that is genuinely scary at times, even in spite of its dated graphics. Such a shame that its distributors lost sight of such things. It'd be great to see a 21st century sequel/reboot, but I doubt it'll happen...