Science fiction has a great reputation for setting the bar high when it comes to progress in social, technological, and military spheres (among many others). Unlike other fiction genres, Sci-fi isn’t held so strictly to conventional logic and reason. I have to think that Space Wolf is a direct expression of this interpretation of Sci-fi’s legacy. It doesn’t take too long before you realize that there is absolutely no logical reason for this game to play like a DOS strategy game of yesteryear, unless it’s simply to challenge a person’s reasonable expectations of “tactics” and “strategy.”
The tabletop parallel, Warhammer 40k, a franchise two-and-a-half decades old, is a vast web of intersecting rules sets. It is a formidable library of actions and counter actions that serve many different players in enjoying an incredibly tactical strategy engagement in the many different ways they may choose to do so. The lore, though rather simplistic in its finer characterization, is beloved and idolized as some of the most original of its kind. Space Wolf betrays this dedication by adhering admirably to the latter concepts of fluff and narrative, while neutering the gameplay down to something that only a die hard Space Marine could love.
Space Marines are nine-foot-tall meta humans genetically-engineered to fight the wars in the far future against alien and demonic enemies that normal humans can’t handle. They are filled to the brim with a divine, manifest-destiny flavored, superiority complex and pride themselves on their devotion to killing anything that doesn’t agree.
In Space Wolf, you step into the power armor of a Captain of the titular chapter of Space Marines. Your task is to take a few generic partners and investigate an ever unraveling mystery involving a traitor chapter of marines and humans who have been consorting with demons. When you hit any given map, you act on a turn by turn basis, each turn allowing you to spend two actions to move or attack across a grid. Maps themselves are shallow and claustrophobic, limiting your control over when and where the battles begin. When attacking, only enemies in your front vector are targetable. You have to spend and action to move and turn in order to target foes on your flanks or in the rear. This isn’t an incredibly terrible design decision on its own, but that’s that problem.
There is no cover to speak of; the only thing that matters is line of sight and range… kind of. You can target enemies past other enemies with no noticeable penalty, even though you can’t move through them. When objects only partially cover a target square, you can shoot it with no penalty. The only modifiers to hitting and doing damage that exist in the game are on per attack basis, written on their cards.
Doing its best Metal Gear Ac!d impression, this strategy game borrows many trading card game elements to govern the sorts of things a given character can do with their turn. At the beginning of their first turn, a character is dealt a hand of six cards. Each card is either a one time use melee/ranged weapon, a weapon that can be equipped and used multiple times before exhaustion, or some sort of utility card that allows you to draw more cards or move faster. Each of these cards has a value at which it exhausts the user, the lower the number the easier to use. When your turn is over, that number ticks down to zero, and your turn starts again. The risk/reward here is nice. Bigger attacks may do more damage, but ensure that other tickers will hit zero before yours, leaving you potentially vulnerable.
Each deck is 30 cards big, so there isn’t an unwieldy amount of randomness, and since almost every card can also let a character move instead of what’s printed, you always have options. The real issue is how limited these options are. Any ranged weapon that isn’t a las cannon or a rocket launcher does negligible degrees of the same thing, and this goes doubly for melee weapons. Enemy weapons are comparable to range and strength as well, so almost every battle with them boils down to standing within four squares of a target and shooting each other until one of you dies. Without things like cover bonuses, or any other ways to modify an enemy’s chance of hitting you, each mission becomes a race against inevitable death. Death that comes time and time again, with not real way to avoid any of it.
Unless, of course, you are willing to reach into you pockets and spend some cash on the sparse in-game currency, to level your hero and his friends up. The fact that every enemy that is in range will reliably damage you up to twice a turn, and that you will be fighting upwards of thirty enemies with a squad of three men creates is an impossible task. Even though any one of your squad is better than any one of the enemy, you will never have the hit points or collection of powerful cards to deal with what passes for run-of-the-mill threats while progressing naturally. There just aren’t enough ways to make money in the game that doesn’t involve repeating quests dozens of times.
If you do go the grinding route, at least the maps are pretty. The visuals are wildly impressive considering the hardware. Even though the locales themselves are rather boring (and reused very often) they are textured and and shaded beautifully. The sound is adequate as well. Ambient pseudo-orchestral sounds “motivate” you, and bolters and chainswords bang and hum with satisfying howls. This is a game that would almost be better as a movie, if the dialogue wasn’t so terrible and the plot so trite and bland. There’s no voice acting, which may also be more a blessing than a curse.
Space Wolf does nothing great. If barely does anything good, and even in the spots in which is shines, its glimmer is often overshadowed by poor mechanics, uninspired missions, or the general downer a F2P focused in-game economy can be on a game’s balance. If you don’t know who Lehman Russ is, you probably shouldn’t play this game. If you do, I have to advise against it, considering I know you’re already playing a much better turn-based strategy game.