The Warhammer license is pretty weird. There was a period where Games Workshop where incredibly stringent with it, only handing it out to trusted developers. But these days they hand out licenses like free candy, and what we customers get in return is a crazy pick ‘n’ mix of quality. To paraphrase the immortal Forest Gump, Warhammer games are like a box of chocolates – you never known what you’re going to get. Although almost all of them will involve chainsaw swords at some point. Today we’re checking out Warhammer 40: Space Wolf, a turn-based strategy game with a dollop of card play and deck-building, too. You’ll battle through a campaign, gather cards, build your deck
Let’s get this whole review into some proper context: Space Wolf is far from a new game, having first released as a mobile title back in 2014. Over the years its slowly made its way to PC and Playstation before finally, in 2021, arriving on Xbox. Its origins as a free-to-play mobile are clearly evident in the weak visuals and limited design, but the good news is all the microtransactions and other nonsense have been stripped out, and all the DLC is included in the package. That means you get a couple of extra Challenge maps included in the package, even giving you the chance to battle the Necrons.
As Valgard Twice Slain of the ferocious Space Wolves, you have somehow crashed upon a planet, killing many of your chapter and leaving you stranded among the forces of Chaos who are hunting you down. How did you crash? What was your mission? What’s your new mission? who is that? What the hell is going on? The answer to all of these questions is a nonchalant shrug and deep hope that you’ll stop asking questions. The game wastes no time on explanations or indeed actual story. It’s entirely happy to just stick you on a planet and provide vague objectives, like meeting the Rune Priest or defeating the bad guy who receive nebulous intelligence. Valgard Twice Slain and the few others you recruit along the way are nothing more than hollow shells with no time given over to fleshing them out.
You expect a layer of cheese so thick that it clog arteries just by looking at it in Warhammer games. Hell, part of the appeal of Warhammer is the insane, over-the-top machismo of it all. But the dialogue here is so cheesy and stilted and awkward that you might just suffocate in it. It’s fan-fiction levels of bad, although that’s perhaps unfair because there is plenty of amazing fan-fiction out there.
The gameplay takes place on a grid where you’ll command your squad and hopefully decimate the forces of Chaos. Each turn you can spend two action points on playing cards. Movement cards are the most basic and obvious, but you can opt to spend any offensive card on movement instead, but those cost more Effort and naturally mean having to ditch something that could cause some pain down the line.
A lot of emphasis is placed on the direction you’re facing, and you can’t actually change direction without spending a card to move. In other words, if an enemy is a few spaces to your left, a card needs to be used to let you shuffle around 90-degrees so you can shoot or smack ’em.
With just two possible actions per turn, movement cards typically only providing 4-6 squares of movement and having to rotate, the game has a slow and methodical pace. Getting a good position on the field is vital because it can force the AI to burn a card before they can launch an attack. However, it works both ways and so a mission can become laughably dumb as you and the A.I. shift around. Honestly, a lot of the time it feels better to stand still.
The other thing that encourages you to go slowly is how the game spawns enemies into its very basic missions. Fresh waves will trigger whenever you wander past certain points, so if you’re aggressive and charge in axes chopping the result is a bunch of jerks appearing. It’s better to stay put and let the enemy come to you.
Your offensive cards are used exactly how’d you imagine. Guns offer varying ranges, attack values and accuracy ratings along with differing areas of attack. A big-ass cannon only lets you shoot straight while something like a Bolter provides more leeway to either side. Some guns need to be equipped first, which costs an action point. However, many of these weapons provide a major benefit in the form of Overwatch attacks, handy for ambushing passing heretics.
Melee weapons are undoubtedly the highest damage cards in the entirety of Warhammer 40k: Space Wolf. Big damage outputs and the fun of getting up close and personal are mighty tempting things, but in a game where movement is so constrained the act of getting within range often makes their use questionable.
Your hand of cards might also include chain abilities. Basically, these will list a requirement such as attacking from 4 squares away, and if you meet that requirement the cards effect automatically kicks in, providing an extra benefit of some sort. There’s nothing that lets you control or manipulate your deck, so there isn’t much strategy behind using chain cards – you draw them, you use ’em. But they’re still a decent addition to the core gameplay.
Key to understanding how the game works is getting to grips with the Effort system. It’s actually quite simple: every card you play has an associated Effort cost, and the higher your Effort total the lower down you’ll be on the turn order. There’s a decent level of strategy in learning how to manage this, enabling you to sometimes take two turns in succession by either playing special cards that decrease Effort, or just ending your turn early.
This Effort system is a smart little piece of design.It adds spice to each turn, giving you something else to consider over just moving and attacking. Frankly, without Effort the gameplay in Warhammer 40k: Space Wolf would be passable but hardly exciting or even very tactical. But when you have to keep an eye on the order of turns or wind up with your Space Wolves being Space Ducks the action becomes a lot more engaging. Still not great, but better.
Let’s shove the whole tactical malarkey to the side for a moment and get into deck-building. Yup, Warhammer 40K: Space Wolf is a card collectathon in disguise. For every mission you choose which armour to don: Scout, Power Armour or Terminator. Each one has a deck of thirty cards that you can play around with, adding and removing or upgrading existing ones by combine multiple copies of the same card.
To get cards you need in-game currency, earned by completing missions or battling through the Challenge mode, which is just waves of enemies. You can then spend that space cash to buy booster packs or construct single cards. It’s all random, though, so you can never be sure what you’re going to get. There’s definitely a grind that stems from the game’s mobile origins. I don’t know if it’s as bad as it was back on mobile, but it’s certainly annoying now. And as you move through the campaign you do need to get some decent gear because your enemies are getting more hitpoints and armour. That chase for more powerful weapons and more useful cards can therefore end up both rewarding and frustrating.
The actual deck-buillding is hampered by poor UI design. On the right-hand side of the screen you have a list of the cards currently in your deck, but you can only see their names and not their abilities or stats. It makes it needlessly tricky to analyse your deck design or get a quick overview of everything. But there’s no denying that cobbling together a good mixture of cards and then using then to trash a mission that beat you last time feels good.
I downloaded the mobile game on my tablet just to compare the visuals and see what work the developers have done since 2014 to make Space Wolf look better on consoles. The answer is they haven’t done much. At its best, it looks like an early Xbox 360 game, complete with stiff animations. Environments are bland and dull, character models are lifeless and sparse.
Audio design is a bit more mixed. Some of the guns sound reasonably meaty, conveying the power of a heavy bolter and thus providing that nice shudder of satisfaction down your spine. The sounds of melee weapons, though, are roughly equivalent to a peach being dropped into concrete from about 2m. Where’s the ripping and tearing of flesh as a chainsword is dragged across a foes chest? Or the crushing thud of a hammer obliterating a skull? It’s in my head, but it definitely isn’t in the game. As for the music, it exists.
One thing that honestly bugged me to the point of nearly turning the game off is the controls. Imagine any menu in a typical game: you’d normally move the stick or whack the d-pad a few times to pick an option. Simple. Can’t do it wrong, right? Wrong. For someone reason, Space Wolf can’t handle multiple quick inputs. Instead, if you want to shift, let’s say, three squares or boxes on a menu or on the movement screen you have to wait a second between every input before it will register the next one. So, in other games you might go 123, in Space Wolf you go 1……2…….3. That’s every time you use a menu and every time you move a character. It can double, triple and even quadruple the time it takes to do simple tasks. It’s bloody infuriating.
Another issue I encountered is all the fire and flame effects resembling an oil-spill rainbow. To be sure I grabbed a match and lit it, and sure enough all I could see was yellow, red and orange. Just to be absolutely confident in my assessment I set fire to my neighbours shed and, yup, yellow, red and orange. That’s what flames should look like. Turns out, this is an issue with HDR on the Xbox. If you turn off HDR then flames look fine, but if you don’t then you get strange colours all over the place. Since you can’t turn HDR off in the game, you have to instead turn it off within the Xbox itself.
The biggest problem I ran into? A couple of missions in I hit a challenge I couldn’t seem to overcome. My single Space Wolf kept falling to the tide of Chaos heretics in the very opening minutes of the mission. I replayed it several times, and rebuilt my deck, and then did a few Challenge rounds so I can buy some boosters. And still no success. But then I came back to the game the next day and discovered the issue: there’s actually a second Space Wolf in the mission, and on the previous day he simply didn’t spawn into the mission.
That wasn’t the end of odd glitches and bugs, though. During an otherwise quite cool challenge where I controlled a massive Chaos warrior who could lay waste to multiple enemies, the game got stuck and wouldn’t shift from the enemies turn to mine. Luckily, I left the game suspended for a while and came back after twenty-minutes and it managed to sort itself out, saving me from losing 30+ minutes of fighting and currency.
Menus and selecting squares on the grid seem to randomly become unresponsive as well. Numerous times I’d spend a movement card and would have to wait 5-10 seconds before being able to do anything. And even then, selecting tiles is weirdly clunky and slow, like the game is fighting you every step of the way.
As for the final bug/glitch I want to mention, it occurred in the first few minutes of playing Warhammer 40K: Space Wolf, which might actually be some sort of record. As I battled through the very basic tutorial, which the game launches you straight into, I quickly noticed a massive piece of the map being obscured by a black cloud of pixels. Weird.
In the massive pantheon of Warhammer videogames that span the gamut of quality from utterly crap to outstanding, Warhammer 40: Space Wolf is absolutely, completely, 100% mediocre. Unsurprisingly the game’s origins on Android and iOS are what hold it back. Perhaps the basic tactical gameplay works nicely when you’re casually playing on a phone or tablet for a short time, but as a console experience it’s lacking anything to make it standout. Only the deck-building gives the game anything worthwhile. It might have scraped a higher score if I hadn’t also ran into quite a few big issues. So in the end, Warhammer 40K: Space Wolf is only for die-hard Warhammer fans or someone who is practically begging for a new turn-based strategy title.