They say it’s best to know your enemy, but what’s there to know? If an action game antagonist isn’t bearing down on you with a shotgun, you can be pretty sure they’re peppering you from behind a pillar at regular intervals instead.
But then Alien: Isolation happened. And Shadow of Mordor. 2014’s two sleeper hits came from developers willing to make their monsters think. And now Streum On Studio have similar ambitions for Space Hulk: Deathwing. There’s a mind behind the swarm, and it’s powered by Unreal Engine 4.
Deathwing’s developers have past form when it comes to playing with behaviour states. Streum On made E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy - an ambitious low-budget FPS that endowed enemies with individual courage stats and a choice of twelve tactical approaches.
The game drew Deus Ex comparisons back in 2011, as well as the interest of Focus Interactive and Cyanide.
“They contacted us because they had the IP to make a game in Warhammer 40K,” explained Streum On’s Christophe Longuépée. “We said yes, we would be interested - we are really into that universe.”
The plan was to build an FPS atop the dormant Space Hulk license - the team weren’t aware of last year’s turn-based adaptation when the project started - but Streum On soon determined that it would “not be interesting” to simply reimagine the original board game as a shooter.
Instead, after considering “many designs, many stories”, the team eventually tracked Space Hulk’s signal back to the 1993 DOS game from Electronic Arts.
EA’s Space Hulk was a claustrophobic and cruel tactical shooter. It encumbered players with a restrictive Terminator suit, and gave them jamming weapons with which to dispatch ever-encroaching genestealers. The monsters were Giger-esque, with too many limbs and a movement speed to match.
“It was really great and oppressive,” said Longuépée. “We wanted to play with that claustrophobic aspect. Small corridors and big rooms to make some contrast.”
Streum On decided to incorporate some of EA’s tactical mechanics into the new game, too, and studied SWAT 4’s approach to squads. But they were determined to “keep the sense of what an FPS is” - Doom remains their single greatest influence.
Early on, the studio flitted between engines - prototyped their first-person Space Hulk in CryEngine and then UDK. But they were persuaded by Epic to transfer their efforts to the new and untested Unreal Engine 4.
“We were a bit afraid,” said Longuépée. “But UE4 was already more interesting than Unreal Engine 3 then. I would say there was a graphical aspect; the lights and the materials, everything seemed cool and really intuitive.”
The work was tough to begin with, particularly for the graphics artists forced to “break their habits” and adapt to a new way of working.
But when Deathwing’s first trailer was released last Summer, it revealed a dev team having fun with the new level of detail UE4 offered - carving Imperial prayers into bullets and zooming the camera uncomfortably close to slime-slick genestealers.
“We wanted to push it to the maximum,” said Longuépée. “We have the feeling that [detail] is something that, if you have it, makes the player feel the game a different way. Even if they don’t really notice the subtleties.”
Players are more likely to pick up on nuances in enemy behaviour - especially on higher difficulty modes.