Space Crusade MS-DOS, ZX Spectrum (reviewed), Amstrad CPC, Amiga, Commodore 64 Developed by Gremlin Interactive Released in 1992
It’s only recently that I got into the Warhammer 40K scene, but I have been on the fence about the series for a looooooooong time. While the world and ideas behind the Warhammer universe intrigued me, it was the knowledge that I was going to have to assemble and paint my entire army that held me from getting into it sooner. But when actual board games are just a tad too hard, at least we can always turn to video games, where dice rolls are automated and your soldiers are pre-designed sprites! Today I sought out the very first video game set in the 40K setting, which ended up being Space Crusade.
Like a shipwreck, but worse
In Warhammer 40K space travel is enabled via warp travel, which takes ships through a perilous realm known as “The Warp”. All sorts of nasty stuff resides in The Warp and occasionally ships enter, only to return centuries later in completely different locations. These ships are known as Space Hulks, modified by The Warp beyond recognition and containing everything from aliens to demons.
You are part of The Empire, the galaxy-spanning domain of humanity, whose strength lies in the Space Marine chapters. Consisting of towering men clad in colorful power armor and wielding massive weapons, these marines are tasked with defending human territory, which includes entering and raiding these ominous space hulks. You get to pick between The Ultramarines, The Blood Angels, or The Imperial Fist and can then choose from a selection of missions.
Considering how old this game is, the storytelling is obviously kept very simple. Most of the interesting lore is tucked away in the manual and in-game you only get a few, brief mission descriptions that don’t really convey the atmosphere of the game’s universe well. Still, it is an exciting premise to raid these ancient, derelict vessels and find what sort of alien scum has nestled in it.
Story score: 8/10
Outnumbered and outclassed
Despite controlling a set of five massive dudes in enough armor to build an M3 Stuart you are actually pretty weak and vulnerable. Each mission has a different space hulk to infiltrate and each chapter has a different starting location and set of equipment, but what remains consistent across each mission is that there are a ton of enemies which can quickly overwhelm you. Corridors are too narrow to effectively move five men through at once and in a firefight you can definitely end up hurting each other, so you either split up or end up with soldiers sitting out a turn because trying to fire at a Soulsucker would mean putting some holes in your comrade first.
Your marines can be outfitted with a number of weapons, which impacts how many squares they may move each turn, and your commander can also select extra equipment and orders, which provide further options like improving accuracy for a turn or dealing massive melee damage. A corridor of aliens can be quickly wiped out with a good machine gun and some plasma rounds, but the issue is that everything you do in Space Hulk, beyond the simple act of moving your guys, is all up to random chance, and dices are particularly biased towards ending up on all zeroes.
You aren’t so much maneuvering to outwit your foes as you are trying to tactically reduce how much the random-number generator can kill you. I have been in situations where I had three men surrounding a Chaos Space Marine, only to miss everything for three turns straight. The worst I have seen, though, happened right at the start of a mission. At the beginning of each enemy turn there is a chance something may happen and right there and then it decided I had walked into a booby trap, which instantly killed three of my five guys, including everybody with a heavy weapon.
When things work out pretty well it’s a fun game, as you move your guys around and take down groups of alien scum, but things often take a sour turn and it can feel like you aren’t given much of a fair shot at all. In the game’s defense, for a title this old it’s not particularly hard to learn how to play it. The controls are pretty simple once you figure out what each button on the interface does: just click your guy, click move, click where to go, and then shoot or hit people within your range and line-of-sight. After stumbling through the first mission and looking up how grenades are supposed to work I was raiding space hulks like a beast about 30 minutes after starting.
Gameplay score: 5/10
The presentation of Space Crusade is pretty simple, but conveys what it needs to with sufficient clarity. You view the game from an overhead perspective with the interior of the ship being set on a grid on which your men can stand. Everything is brightly colored so that walls stand out from the floor and each type of foe or character can be quickly identified. The DOS version of this game looks overall more impressive, but I can appreciate the ZX Spectrum’s simplicity, though the lack of animation is kind of a downer. At the very least, if there is not going to be any animations, I would have appreciated it if the game would just put characters on the square they want to occupy instead of moving step-by-step because the enemy phase takes so long after a while.
Still, if you want the eye candy, then definitely go with the DOS version of this game.
Presentation score: 6/10
I could definitely see this turning into the kind of game I pop in on a regular basis, but I am not quite ready yet to say that for sure. Space Crusade is basically the same game as Space Hulk, which has been released plenty of times by different companies. In fact, a new one came out not too long ago. There are many alternatives I could turn to, but as a first introduction to the adaptation of this classic board game, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised.
My only gripes that hurt replay value is how long the average game can run and how quickly random chance can ruin a long-running game for you, as well as the limited options for load-out. I don’t get the feeling that each session is sufficiently different; sure, I got a different layout, but it’s always the same guys wielding basically the same stuff.
Extras score: 6/10
Space Crusade is pretty alright, but I won’t say it has held up terribly well. While it’s easy to figure out the controls and the presentation isn’t too dated, its weakness lies in just how long a game takes and how eager it is to defeat you. The game’s random number generator spits out results that can just suddenly destroy you, regardless of how well you are actually playing. The setting is fantastic however and I often found myself getting excited when I did outsmart an enemy or somehow made it through a challenging part without losing a single guy. Keep an eye out for my next few reviews because I will get back to the issue of whether or not this is the best adaptation of the board game.