Previewed On: PC
Developer: Tindalos Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Preview code supplied free of charge for this article.
With the game due for release within the next month, not counting potential further delays, I’m going to keep this preview short and to the point, mostly just tackling the skirmish mode so that when I go to review the full game I’ll still have plenty to talk about. Currently if you buy the game you’ll get access to the ongoing beta that should hopefully result in the game being reasonably balanced in time for launch. Purchasing now or within two months of launch also means you grab an early adopters bonus of sorts in the form of two new factions for free, whenever they’re ready. The point is the game is essentially on sale now, and that means people deserve to know if it’s any good.
At its core Battlefleet Gothic is about massive spaceships from the Warhammer 40k universe blowing the living crap out of each other with an impressive array of powerful weaponry. These are fortresses of death that cruise through the black void looking for a scrap. Frankly if that isn’t enough to convince you that this is the game for you then stop reading now and kindly vanish from my sight; anybody that doesn’t love the idea of colossal ships waging war in the vastness of space is not worth my time, nor indeed that of humanity in general.
Although described as an RTS the game is really more of a real-time tactics title, far more concerned with the micro than the macro. There’s no base building to keep track of here, rather you select your ships before heading into combat based on what you’ve unlocked through levelling up. How many ships can be fielded depends on the points cap for the mission, with each ship in your roster being worth X amount of points. The bigger and more powerful the ship the higher the point cost, thus you must choose between taking a few big hitters or perhaps opting for a higher number of cruisers and support ships. You can then deploy them on your side of the map however you see fit, either grouping them together or spacing them out. Maps are fairly bare bar asteroid fields that can damage ships and stellar gas clouds that can hide units. As for the mission types there is a few aside from the straightforward task of blowing the opponent’s ships up. You might have to escort or attack a convoy, defend a floating platform or fight over data.
Mostly, though, it comes to blowing stuff up. Out in space the game can have something of a learning curve as you must always be managing your fleet, jumping from ship to ship to make sure they are positioned well based on their strengths and the upgrades you’ve applied. The Imperials, for example, tend to favor close-range broadsides that can emphasis the power of their macro cannons, but they do also have some ships with powerful forward-facing lance weapons that can be used from further away. Their prow armor is capable of absorbing a pounding, too. In contrast the Chaos forces tend to be faster and have better range and mobility, so learning to dance around the opponent is vital. As for the Orks they love to overwhelm and ram, but also have a habit of launching mutinies and can’t turn worth a damn. Each race has enough differences to make them feel unique and interesting.
A behavior panel in the left hand side of the screen lets you tweak how a ship will act if you simply tell it to attack an enemy, letting you choose what sort of engagement range it should try to maintain and even which side is should be showing to the enemy This feeds into the fact that it’s possible to target critical sub-systems on vessels, focusing on things like weapons, shield generators, engines and the command deck. By setting up a ship’s behavior you can ensure that a disabled battery of cannons doesn’t end up facing the enemy or that the most heavily armored section takes the brunt of an attack. You can also allow each ship to be controlled entirely by the AI if you want, a handy option if you struggle to keep up with action, although tapping spacebar will slow down time so you can better analyse the situation, a feature that obviously gets disabled when playing multiplayer. Be warned, though, that while hitting the button that lets the AI take over has its uses, especially with the smaller support ships, you’ll ultimately lose if you rely upon it too much.
That isn’t to say the AI is dumb, however. Even on normal the enemy AI can put up a substantial fight, smartly deploying abilities and positioning ships to make you work for a victory. Of course the AI can never compare to battling real players online who can react to your tactics in unexpected ways, although currently there does seem to be some problems online with people finding exploits and glitches.
While your admiral levels up and thereby unlocks new slots and new ship classes, each individual vessel also levels up, too. When you go to pick out a new ship for a slot it automatically comes with some benefits, so you need to carefully consider which one suits you. New skills can be bought using the in-game currency known as Reknown, adding special orders to your ships such as the ability to launch Stasis Bombs or even perform a micro-jump from one location to another. On top of that the core systems of the ship can be improved to do things like increase weapon range, bump up the speed of turns, reinforce the hull and much more. The crew section lets put points into improving the legions manning your ship, which in turn might make critical hits more likely, make emergency repairs more effective or have a better chance off fighting off boarding actions. Finally there are Favors that can be applied to the ship, providing cool bonuses and adding unique paint jobs. An Imperial Ship can be given the Favor of the Adeptus Mechanicus, for example, while the Chaos Forces can take on the marks of their Chaos Gods. Through these upgrades and skills ships can be focused toward specific roles, turning them into long range snipers equipped with the powerful nova cannon or up-close brawlers that jump in and unleash a hellacious broadside followed by a devastating boarding action. There’s enough slots to let you build a reasonably varied fleet that can tackle most situations. I focused, for example, on building speed and close range damage while equipping most of my fleet with Stasis Bombs, thus I could get in fairly quickly, target one or two ships en masse and use the stasis bombs to delay the rest of the enemy ships. I also favored the Imperial’s and their hefty broadsides.
Should one of your hulking behemoths be destroyed in battle then there are ramifications past simple defeat. Destroyed ships will be out of action for two battles, while heavily damaged vessels must skip the next fight. Repairs can be expedited by paying Reknown, though, and the cost isn’t very high so it’ll be interesting to see if this is tweaked or potentially even removed entirely from the game. Because you can lose access to ships for a few battles this does a few things; first it makes the idea of warping out of a battle enticing. If can survive long enough in a fight that’s clearly not going your way you can attempt to warp out, a move which can potentially be cancelled by a boarding action. By having ships out of action for a few fights it can also force you out of your comfort zone, and encourages you to balance out your fleet rather that just focusing on one or two ships.
Obviously with such huge weapons of destruction engaging in combat the speed of movement isn’t fast, although special orders let you make sharp turns and hit the boosters. However, matches have a well judged pace to them, slow enough for you to take in what’s going and yet just fast enough to stop you from becoming bored of the action. And boy does that action look rather nice. Zoom in and ships have a pleasing amount of detail, and watching a battleship unleash hell is a great sight.
It all combines to make a very satisfying real time tactics title that rewards smart play and good fleet composition. I quickly found myself enamored with the flow of battles, although at the moment I’ve not ventured online more than a few times as despite loving the RTS/RTT genre I don’t profess do be very good at it. I can’t comment on the netcode at the moment, then, but the gameplay itself is very, very promising. Perhaps my only truly huge concern is that battles could come down to whoever can issue the most orders as quickly as possible rather than pure tactics. Time will tel.
There is also the question of longevity, though. In the beta there’s 10 levels per admiral, with the biggest ship, the battleship, being accessible pretty quickly. New upgrades and skills can always be applied, but it doesn’t look like it’ll take that long before you’ve got access to everything and have powered up most of your fleet. The only thing that might keep some players coming back is that as you level up an admiral you only unlock ships for the that specific faction, thus if you want to swap to playing Chaos or Orks you’ll have to earn the Reknown needed to rank up and gain access to the more powerful vessels.
There are still a lot of problems involving balancing, which is rather hit or miss at the moment, plus some bugs and glitches that need to be removed for the game’s full launch. There’s also some missing features that you might expect, like no ability to zoom out to get a better overview of the battle or ability to move ships around using the mini-map. You won’t find a combat log, either, nor anything that let’s you set a formation for your ships. The original tabletop game also brings some limitations with it, like how most ships look far too similar to their larger counterparts or the small selection of weapons and upgrades.
With a month to go until launch I’m feeling very optimistic about Battlefleet Gothic. It scratches a very specific tactical itch and that will likely make it a niche title, but for those that it appeals to it might just find a place in their heart. The tactical nature of the game and the perfect pacing of the matches makes this an incredibly engaging and satisfying. Pencil the launch date of April 21st into your diary and keep an eye out on the reviews, including mine. It might just be worth a buy.