It’s October! Tradition dictates in October that we go looking for games which go well with a Halloween theme, because what about the first half of this sentence was unclear? We got an early start with last week’s column, and we’re rolling right along. Today we’re looking at a game with a similar first-person shooter style, but with an added twist which ramps up the challenge factor. Based on the insanely popular Games Workshop Warhammer 40,000 property, it’s my proud duty to request all non-Chaos Space Marine chapters out there to pause for a moment of silence to honor fallen brethren (and to cordially invite all Chaos Space Marines to eat a bag of dicks). Today’s entry is none other than 1996’s Space Hulk: Vengeance of the Blood Angels for the PC, Saturn, PlayStation and Panasonic 3DO, developed by Key Games and published by Electronic Arts. And because we’ve yet to delve into this particular time capsule, today we’re revenging on the 3DO version. Suit up, marines. Your Emperor needs you!
Space Hulk started life in 1989 as a board game for two to four players. Its immediate goal was to entertain, but long term, the folks at Games Workshop hoped it would give players enough of a taste of the Warhammer 40,000 world that they would move on to that more complex (and more expensive) model-based war game hobby. Long story short: it worked, which is why there have been new versions of Space Hulk released over the years, culminating with this year’s introduction of the highly-anticipated fourth edition. It’s relatively simple to learn, but finding several other players is often easier said than done, so of course somebody had the bright idea it should be a video game. That person deserves all the money.
Space Hulk is Aliens with soldiers who know they’re getting in over their heads right from the start. In this case, the marines are drawn from the Blood Angel chapter (there are many, many chapters of Space Marines in Warhammer 40,000 but again, knowledge of the tabletop game isn’t essential to the enjoyment of the video game). Suffice it to say the Blood Angels are one of the oldest and well-established chapters in the galaxy. And while all Space Marines are known for their courage under fire, Blood Angels are notorious for their adoration of violence and combat–not surprising for an outfit which paints their armor in a blood-red motif and emblazons skulls on everything they can find. They also shop at Hot Topic, but only ironically.
In this game, the Blood Angels are tasked with investigating the space hulk known as the Sin of Damnation. Space hulks are hunks of derelict spacecraft, probes, satellites and other detritus that have fused together over the eons they’ve spent floating between the stars. These hunks of space junk are often large enough to provide their own gravity and even atmosphere. They carry invaluable technology, records of history long-thought lost, even artifacts from space marine chapters themselves. They are also known to carry nasties from other worlds. On the Sin of Damnation, you’ll find the four-armed, sharp-clawed abominations known as Genestealers–bad news. But there’s something else on the ship which makes the Genestealers look like space puppies…
Vengeance of the Blood Angels is perhaps best described as a first-person real-time strategy game, and if that sounds complicated, it’s because it is. While you start out as a simple grunt, following the orders of your commander, it doesn’t take long to rise through the ranks and find yourself in charge of multiple Blood Angels. You have to use your map to coordinate searches, defend against enemies, sweep rooms, and engage in both long- and short-range combat. Your teammates aren’t stupid, and they’re encased in Terminator armor which means they can take a beating, but you still have to keep tabs on them. Blood Angel Terminators might be walking tanks, but Genestealers are mobile anti-tank missiles, waiting to rend open that armor and feast on the genetic goodies found inside.
Each mission you undertake (and there are a crap-ton of them–the Sin of Damnation is large enough to hold its own gravity well) is different. Some are simple recon jobs of the ‘get in and get out’ variety. Other times you’ll be tasked with killing a certain number of enemies, blowing up a specific part of the hulk, securing a specific location, or simply surviving for a set period of time. Additionally you may find challenges stacked on top of these requirements, such as keeping X members of your squad alive, finding ammo for your weapons, or enemies which do not show up on your scanner. But the deadliest missions are the ones you are forced to undertake alone…
Vengeance of the Blood Angels does a bang-up job of presenting a story-rich world (the game’s CD is packed to the outside edge with FMV cutscenes) dripping with atmosphere. The Sin of Damnation is lovingly rendered with quality textures, appropriate to each area. Killing enemies results in a groundswell of body parts and blood decorating the walls and floor. It’s dark, claustrophobic, oppressive, and relentless. The motion tracker will worry you. Your own Marine’s heartbeat follows you through the quiet areas, ramping up as the enemies close in. And if you’re not crapping your pants when your bolter jams and you’re forced into hand-to-hand combat, then you’re easily twice the man any of us here at RGM can claim to be. Approaching it as a Doom clone is doing it a disservice, because that’s not the way it’s meant to be experienced. Play this game like you would Starcraft or any other RTS title where you’re the commander, not just the grunt on the front lines, and you’ll find plenty of menace, scares, and frustration. But in the grim darkness of the far future, where there is only war, would you expect anything less?
For all the negative press the 3DO received (and rest assured, it was doomed to fail from the start), it still had some great titles that could have been killer apps if the system itself hadn’t required a second mortgage on your home. If you’re a dedicated enough retro-phile to own one, Vengeance of the Blood Angels is worth picking up to show off the system’s merits.