For all their technical and story-telling advances, though, one remains as many people’s favourite 40K game of all. And it was also one of the first.
The very first 40K video game, Space Crusade, was released in 1992. As little more than a direct reproduction of the board game of the same name, however, it did little to set the world of video games on fire.
The first true 40K video game came a year later, with 1993’s Space Hulk. Though again an adaptation of a Warhammer board game, Space Hulk for the first time actually took advantage of the medium of video games, including things like voiced briefings, a storyline and one badass intro sequence.
Pushing the limits of first-person technology at the time, Space Hulk was a tactical first-person shooter in which players were given command of not one character, but an entire squad.
Controlling a squad of Space Marine Terminators, the game was a pioneering mix of strategic planning and frantic first-person shooting. While the helmet camera views of all your soldiers are visible on the screen, only one can be directly controlled at any one time. To get around this, the game allowed you to pause, issue orders for your entire squad, then upon resuming they would carry out those actions on autopilot while you directly manoeuvred the Terminator of your choosing.
Wisely, as the board game (and your opponents the Genestealers themselves) were heavily influenced by 1986 flick Aliens, so too did the game take its cues from James Cameron’s classic. This meant that the action was very reminiscent of a pivotal scene in Aliens, where the Marine squad is butchered while its Lieutenant watches on a bank of video screens.
Not only does Space Hulk look similar to this scene, right down to the static screens displayed when a Terminator bites the dust, but it even includes the “ping” of a proximity sensor to alert you to incoming threats, again a strong nod to the technology in Aliens.
It made for some tense, frantic gaming. If you look at Lt. Gorman’s face in the massacre scene in Aliens, drenched in sweat and gripped by panic, that’s what it felt like playing Space Hulk. Only instead of lasting a few minutes, you’d feel like that for hours.
About now you’re probably thinking the entire game is just an Aliens rip-off, but you’d be wrong. The real draw of Space Hulk was in how it so faithfully recreated the dark, oppressive mood of the 40K universe, from the gothic architecture to the fact there isn’t much to do in 40K except fight then die in the dark.
So many 40K games since, and even Relic’s Dawn of War series is a guilty party, feel a bit too “light”. Like comic book or action figure versions of a universe that was originally meant to be dark, decaying and so oppressively bleak that you can’t picture how or why anybody finds the will to live another day.
Space Hulk, though, from its grim briefings to its the way your squadmates are so intimate (via their relationship to your progress) and yet disposable (via the fact they always die), feels true to the source material. Like a direct descendant of the board games rather than something heavily inspired by their characters.
It also relishes in its fandom. Aside from the unfortunate fact some of the voices have American accents (this being a British science fiction universe), the game’s intro and briefing sections play out exactly as they would have been developed: by a bunch of Warhammer 40K fans so excited to be working on the franchise they throw in chapter names and other iconography just because they can. It’s also a cool touch that players take control of a Terminator unit, a fan favourite, veteran Space Marine that doesn’t seem to get as much love from other games as it does in Space Hulk.
In terms of technology, Space Hulk is looking a little shaky these days. First-person movement was not fluid, but rather grid-based, like an old-fashioned RPG. The game’s 1996 sequel, Space Hulk: Vengeance of the Blood Angels, rectified this, allowing not only free movement of the camera, but adding other neat features like more varied enemies, a progressive story (you have to work your way up to commanding squads) and, as a nice bonus, all the original missions from not only the board game but the first video game too, all updated for the new game’s engine.
If you want to play either version, sadly, you’re not in much luck. The original can be found unofficially on abandonware sites, as can the sequel, but if you want something a little more legitimate, you’re stuck with either second-hand sales or, in Vengeance of the Blood Angels’ case, a pared-down mobile phone port released a few years ago.
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.