Friday, March 18, 2011
Victory Point Games has a slogan that's kind of a double-edged sword (as well as a cheesy riff of an old Shakespeare line). The slogan is, 'The gameplay's the thing.' On the one hand, that sounds like a company that specializes in games that are fun to play (as opposed to all those game companies who are chasing that elusive demographic of people who like games that are not fun to play). But the flipside of that slogan says, 'we focus on gameplay, because we can't afford to make pretty games.'
I've only played three games from Victory Point, so there may be better examples, but the best example of their mantra that I've seen so far is Forlorn: Hope. This game does Space Hulk better than Space Hulk, and yet it looks like it was dragged behind a car that was driving through cat puke.
The idea of a few select marines hunting aliens in a space station hasn't been original since the 1980s, but that has not stopped the waves of companies who make bug hunt games. But where many of those games turn into dungeon crawlers in space, Forlorn: Hope is a very deep and exciting game with lots of strategic and tactical decisions. It plays fast, but not so fast that you miss the good parts.
The game is the classic quality versus quantity thing. The aliens pop out of eggs and swarm all over the place, but instead of being just the one basic type of space bug, these aliens mature. They start as hatchlings, but if they can eat some dead marines, they can turn into super aliens, and they can shoot laser beams from their eyeballs and cut down trees with their hands and leap over buildings in a single bound (wait, no, it's a space station, there are no buildings to jump).
The marines, on the other hand, have machine guns and squad leaders and flamethrowers and hand grenades. And if the damned bugs would ever quit coming out of the AC vents, the marines could mop 'em up pretty quick. But like any good bug hunt game, the aliens can spawn every turn. The marines, on the other hand, will never get reinforced. They will just get cut down and turned into all-you-can-eat buffet lines.
At first glance, Forlorn: Hope does everything Space Hulk does. You spend points to move your marines, and you can double up on the same guy, while the aliens just get to move every monster once per turn. The marines have a couple specialists and leaders, while the bugs just have a couple stronger bugs. You traverse frighteningly narrow corridors, shooting aliens or bum-rushing marines, all while trying to reach your goal.
You even have overwatch. But where Space Hulk lets a single marine fire away forever at oncoming insects, Forlorn: Hope makes the marines hold their action points so they can interrupt the killer critters. And where marines in Space Hulk jam their guns every other turn, marines in Forlorn: Hope actually clean their weapons often enough that the bullets don't get stuck. Finally, where Space Hulk marines are really bad at shooting things, Forlorn: Hope marines can hit their targets nearly every time, until the corridors basically look like the inside of a fat guy's colon.
Once you start playing, the differences become really apparent. Your marines are actually competent, which is a nice change of pace, and the action point system means you probably have many more options on your turn (unless you roll crappy. Then you don't go far, because you'll need those points to interrupt the aliens). The aliens are also a lot better at what they do, and don't tend to suicide in anything like the same overwhelming numbers.
Both Space Hulk and Forlorn: Hope are highly tactical games where every move counts. But where Space Hulk has a lot of abstraction in the rules (blip tokens, for example), Forlorn: Hope just feels a lot more like a recreation of a desperate space station battle. Where the genestealers seem to be simple-minded fodder rushing to their demise and hoping for the lucky break that gets one of them close enough to gut the marines, the Xeno player in Forlorn: Hope can use his various alien types to set up entire strategies based on a lot more than laying down and dying.
To further diversify and vary the way the aliens play, they can use some of the random mutation cards to grow thicker shells, or spit acid, or just have a handful of goobers turn into super mutants. These cards are not game-changers, but if played well, they can provide a nice edge that will serve to frustrate the marines just a little bit more.
Forlorn: Hope improves on Space Hulk by providing more options for both players, more tactical depth, and the feeling that nobody on the board is entirely useless. Some marines may end up being distractions, forcing the aliens to pay attention to them or risk a deadly crossfire, thus buying time for the flamethrower guy to cook the bug nest and wipe out all the little monsters before they grow out of their Huggies. Or a couple aliens might hang out just beyond the corner, daring the marine to use all his action points, while a couple brutes flank and go after the prime targets further down the hall.
Possibly the coolest thing about Forlorn: Hope is a feature that Space Hulk misses completely - solo play. You can set up as the marines, and let the game run the monsters. It still plays incredibly smooth, but will still be a considerable challenge. Granted, the first solo scenario is kind of a waste, since you're just going to stand there and shoot the critters as they rush you, but the second one requires lots of forethought and no small amount of luck. I would really have liked to see more solo scenarios, and I'm hoping I can find some fan site that will put more out there for me to play.
With tactics and strategy that improve on Space Hulk dramatically, and options and depth that is simply missing from the older game, Forlorn: Hope is still not as fun as Space Hulk. Surprised? Then you don't read Drake's Flames very often. Call me a shallow whoreling if you want, but games are more fun when they look sexy. Poorly cut cardboard chits are no replacements for lovingly sculpted plastic miniatures. A paper map that curls at the corners can't hold a candle to embossed corridors and spectacular illustrations.
Which is not to say that Forlorn: Hope is flat-out ugly. I mean, yes, it is, but that's because the component quality is straight-out-of-the-dollar-store ugly. The art is actually very good, especially the drawings of the marines and the aliens. It's kind of a shame they're shrunk way down and slapped on cheap cardboard.
While I am not going to take the time to crank out a super-pimped version of Loot & Scoot, it might be worth it in the case of Forlorn: Hope. I really like it, enough that I played several games with just the stuff that came in the plastic bag. And I like it enough that I have been looking for cool space marine figures and interesting xenomorph bad guys. I'm considering sculpting the space station maps into some pink insulation foam and painting them up to look bitchin'. I might even improve on the equipment and wound counters. If I had a version of Forlorn: Hope that looked as good as it plays, I might even consider selling my copy of Space Hulk. After all, how many bug-hunt-in-space games do I need?
Quick play with lots of depth
Excellent execution of a gaming standard
Exciting and tense with options galore
Components-on-the-cheap suck some of the fun out of the game
Forlorn: Hope is a very, very fun game. Once I gussy it up, it will be better than Space Hulk. If you want a copy of this bad-ass game, you can get it from Victory Point Games:
Posted by Matt Drake at 2:36 PM