The Warhammer 40K universe is brilliant. Set in a world rippling with esoteric detail, it’s so quintessentially British. It brings together living-dead Emperors, weird Roman Christian iconography, and a bunch of eccentric green-skinned Orks. Moreover, there are no good guys and everyone’s a fascist. It’s just a shame that the tabletop game itself is finicky and too fixated on rules. Thank goodness, then, for the video games: a chance to experience all the fun of the universe without having to spend a lifetime’s savings on miniatures.
Warhammer games come in two flavours. The more action-oriented affairs try and explore the lore using a typical gung-ho videogame mindset – think THQ’s Space Marine on Xbox 360 and PS3 – while the tactical offshoots try and either approximate the tabletop experience or enhance it. Space Wolf is in the tactical category, complete with a fresh twist. Here, you command soldiers using cards.
The cards you’re dealt are used to perform various actions. You might, for instance, have cards that allow you to fire your bolter, equip a powerful weapon, or heal. The wrinkle comes with the fact that each of the cards can also be used to move into position, which is vitally important. It’s a good idea to keep your distance from the enemy so they need to waste cards on moving towards you rather than shooting you, but as you typically only get to play two cards a turn, you don’t have time to move, shoot and retreat.
Movement is grid-based, ending with a choice of which of the four ordinal directions you want to face. Get this wrong and you can seriously mess up your turn. You can move next to a Chaos Space Marine, sure, but if one of his friends comes running up to your side, you’re faced with having to spend a card just to turn around. Hope you enjoy a chainsword in the face.
There are lots of possibilities for tactics. Cards can interact with each other, setting off combos, and the decision on when to use cards for their abilities or actions and when to use them for movement is an interesting challenge. Getting hit by an enemy can even knock cards out of your hand, narrowing your options and complicating the ‘puzzle’ even further. Sometimes the ‘puzzle’ is extremely difficult. We ended up seeing the game over screen a fair amount. It’s lucky, then, that you can upgrade your amour and weapons in-between fights.
New cards can be forged along the way. Alternatively, rewards from playing games can be used to buy in-game booster packs. See, this was originally a free-to-play iOS game where you could pay for better cards. On Switch, the microtransactions have been taken out, which is pleasing. However, we never felt like the game was compromised by all this in any way. We can’t help but feel it was always designed to be played without microtransactions and playing games to acquire more cards is a satisfying gameplay loop. People who like building a perfect deck will get a lot of enjoyment from Space Wolf.
The entire experience comes together to form a lovely package. The graphics manage to recreate the world of 40K in acute detail, with faithful models that show excellent visual clarity, owing to the primary coloured genius of the source material. There’s a lot of reasons that the hobby has been around so long, and one of those is that the designs for characters have always been full of life and character, with easily recognisable silhouettes.
There’s certainly a good amount of space-bang for your space-bucks, including four different campaigns set against different enemies, a challenge mode, and loads of cards to discover. Couch co-op is a new feature here too. The developers have definitely gone the extra mile for the Switch.
However, the sound design can get a little grating, it hung on us a few times, and things are a bit buggy at present. We had a recurring problem where we selected an action and then the characters plainly refused to carry it out. Hopefully a patch is coming to smooth over these issues because having to restart missions due to glitches is extremely annoying.
Space Wolf is enjoyable whether you are familiar with the source material or not. If you’re just looking for some turn-based tactical shooting, then Space Wolf will fill that X-COM shaped void. If you love Warhammer 40K on top of all that, then you’re going to have a great time, occasional glitches aside. Put a bolter in our hand and sign us up for a tour of the galaxy.