Review: Space Hulk: Ascension

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There is no greater bombast than that of a God-Emperor, whose torpor is fed by untold sacrifice and whose psychic prowess holds fast the seams of the universe against the rending claws of the Warp. Or something. I don’t claim to know the fluff, nor can I truthfully say I find the Space Marine chapters of Games Workshop’s grimdark pomposity the most interesting. And until they make Battlefleet Gothic game, where my plucky Dauntless vessels can ram their prows through the chitinous superstructures of ‘nid hivefleets, I’ll just have to eradicate the horror from within. And so, Full Control’s rejiggered Space Hulk, in the form of Ascension.

I like it. I like it a lot.

Perhaps coming without the Rabs Florence source material devotion allows me productive naivety when approaching the hallowed franchise. If anything, the old real-time 3DO FPS Vengeance of the Blood Angels was a far more courageous iteration. With Ascension, the developers have shucked the stodgy baggage of their 2013 version, doing away with the boardgame elements that didn’t work particularly well in videogame form, as well as adding a layer of light RPG-like elements. Last year’s Space Hulk was perhaps too faithful, and while it received some exemplary post-release support, Ascension is the game I certainly wanted to play.

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This is still Space Hulk. You’re still shunting armoured refrigerators down dark corridors; placement and position of these gargantuan warriors as paramount as ever. But instead of those pesky dice rolls that killed missions prior – those untrustworthy digital dice rolls are the worst – Full Control have instead replaced everything with action points. While there’s a tangible sense of dread when rolling a die across a physical board, it never felt right in 2013’s effort. The action point element still retains the chance to miss or fail an action, but being based on percentiles tied to experience, it feels far more fair.

The leveling, skill trees and customisation is a welcome addition to the bare-boned forebear. Across six discrete areas of development, plodding through the three hulks offered in the base game does have its rewards. Ascension doesn’t quite have the modern gaming feedback loop of constant leveling or backpattery now so entrenched, but for what is ostensibly a tabletop corridor crawler put through the RPG-lite machine, it’s quite serviceable.

Ascension is gorgeous, too. I feel I’m wearing out the ‘compared to last year’s Space Hulk’ suffix, but by Nurgle’s oozing pus, you won’t find a prettier turn-based strategy where lighting is concerned. The character models look markedly more attractive, with dynamic lighting casting a morbid and depraved ambience to proceedings. Weapon fire lights up corridors in the most satisfying of ways, with the flamer a stupendous treat. Possibly the best I’ve encountered in recent memory; heat waves distort the surrounding environment, throwing the right level of intense illumination over the surrounding décor. If the speed and meat of the game doesn’t do it for tentative returners, then perhaps there’s enough to like about Ascension’s visuals to make a dissatisfied Xenos take another look.

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Omissions are somewhat felt in the lack of multiplayer, as well as a tactical map within the missions themselves. While I would have liked to have seen these new combat and mechanics concepts play out against a human, Ascension does offer a challenging AI and rarely does the lack of a tactical map inhibit the gameplay. There’s also small niggles like selection fidelity and unit firing commands that might appear too small on higher resolutions, but this is mere surface scoring on an otherwise fine piece of kit.

While still very much a brooding, glacial tactical game of street-sweeping and single-file overwatch, Space Hulk: Ascension feels fresh when governed by new rules. It’s the kind of game I was hoping would be delivered in Full Control’s earlier effort. Brutal as always, undeniably gorgeous and more grimdark than you can poke a lightning claw at, Space Hulk: Ascension is worthy of the Emperor’s praise.

Or at least mine. You’ll have to settle for mine.