Reviews

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada Review – WAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Tindalos Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.

The Warhammer 40K universe is one of perpetual war, a never-ending dance of destruction as every race has become consumed with nothing more that the complete annihilation of everything else because reasons. There have been many videogames set within this bloodthirsty creation, some brilliant and some terrible. Lately it seems the 40K license has been handed out to developers with a near reckless abandon that has resulted in a grab-bag of quality. This, though, is one of the good ones. Although it certainly has its flaws, Battlefleet’s real-time tactical combat clicks with me on the same level as XCOM 2’s. Luck plays its part, but ultimately victory or defeat come down to how well you play.

Like I said in my preview of the game Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is more concerned with the micro over the macro. There’s no building numerous bases and controlling a few hundred or even thousand troops spread out across a massive map fighting multiple fronts here. Instead you’ll control a handful of colossal ships in space and guide them to victory by managing their skills and movement at every step. It’s tactical, rather than strategic. Understanding each of the four factions strengths and weaknesses is key to coming out on top, as is learning how to control the battle by positioning your ships. The Imperials are the most friendly of the bunch for new players with hefty frontal armor and macro cannon batteries that are good for close up broadside brawling. They aren’t fast and they aren’t accurate at range, but get them in close and the Imperial Navy can deliver a hell of a lot of damage with their broadsides.  The Elder sit on the very opposite end of the scale with incredibly nimble movement but little in the way of good defense if they do get hit. Their weapons are almost all situated near the front of the ship, thus using their speed to make strafing runs are your best bet. The Orks can’t turn worth a damn and could barely hit a planet even if they were parked in orbit around it, but they do love to ram stuff, followed up by boarding it with their superior numbers. The Chaos forces sit more in the middle with good range and relatively fast ships, though they lack torpedoes or great close-up weaponry. Of course, there are a lot more elements to each race that make playing them feel wonderfully different. Each of these forces has its own levelling system, and thus while you might have access to the biggest, baddest Imperial ships if you hop over to the Chaos forces you’ll need to start out all over again. It encourages you to pick a faction you enjoy and stick with them, but also makes a bit harder to find the motivation to swap races sometimes because you know you’ll have to begin at the very bottom again.

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Unlike some other tactical games set in space Battlefleet Gothic replicates its board-game origins by taking place purely on a flat plane, eschewing 3D combat which probably would never have worked given the emphasis on broadsides anyway. The basic controls are instantly familiar; you select your ship or ships with the left click, and use the right-click to attack enemies and order them around the map. On the left side of the screen you’ll find a behavior panel which lets you select how any given ship will act if you simply click to attack an enemy. You can choose the range it will try to maintain, whether to focus on prow or broadside attacks and even which side it should show to the opponent in case some weapons have been damaged. Above that there are a few other options, such as one you can toggle so that a move order won’t override an attack command. There’s also a button that will let the AI take complete control of the ship, an option that’s handy for your smaller escort vessels but largely pointless for everything else. On the right side of the screen you find maneuvering options such as a boost or the ability to make hard turns, plus a panel containing various orders and skills. Basic commands like brace for impact can be used to apply small boosts in combat, while other abilities can heavily affect a battle’s outcome when used right. Powerful torpedoes, for example, can ignore ships and blow holes in a hull, but they’ve got to be aimed manually using an arc at the front of the ship. In a way they’re a perfect metaphor for the entire game; they are extremely effective, but must be used just right to ensure victory. Any of these skills can be right clicked to set it to automated. Like the AI option, however, it’s always best if you do everything yourself. The final component to the basic system’s at play is how you can click on an enemy vessel and target one of four specific systems; the generators that power the shields, the engines, the weapons or the command deck, which will stop special orders being given if it gets destroyed.

When it comes to deploying ships into the battlefield the game’s origin as a tabletop experience rears its head once more as every mission has an allocated points cap. Every ship in your roster is worth a certain amount of points, therefore the bigger and more badass the spaceship you want to take along the more points it costs to field it.  Light Cruisers typically cost around 100-110 points, while a full Cruiser sits at somewhere around 140-50. A Battle Cruiser will hit you for about 180-190. Finally the Battleship, the biggest ship class currently available, will set you back around 200 points. Your force can be rounded out with the small Escort vessels that cost 35-50 apiece on average. However, the game does try to encourage you to skimp a little as any leftover points will be added to your Reknown at the end of the match. When you first get into Battlefleet Gothic you’ll only have access to Escorts and Cruisers in 300 point battles for dominance. As you progress the bigger ship classes will become available, and you’ll partake in larger fights. The largest battles top out at 700 points, though, so there is no point where you’ll be fielding a vast fleet.

It’s an unwritten truth that the majority of RTS campaigns suck, acting as little more than mild training grounds for the tougher multiplayer combat. Occasionally, however, a game manages to buck the norm and produce something interesting, such is the case with the likes of Starcraft 2, and now Battlefleet Gothic. The singleplayer campaign takes the form of a galactic map where you step into the shoes of Admiral Spire of the Imperial Navy who must battle Chaos forces across the sizable Gothic sector of space, occasionally fighting off Orks and Elder, too, as well as seditious Imperials. On each turn you’re given a number of engagement points that you can use to tackle different battles across the sector’s multiple screens. Priority missions advance the storyline and therefore must always be taken care of first, but aside from that you can use the remaining engagements to deal with the encroaching Ork, Elder and Chaos forces who are attempting to capture planets. Every planet captured makes your life a little bit harder by increasing the cost of ship repairs or reducing the amount of Reknown you earn for upgrading your fleet, so it’s in your best interests to defend the Gothic sector.  Furthermore for each planet the enemy takes it becomes more likely that they’ll attack again, thus defeat can become a giant snowball rolling full tilt down a very large hill that you happen to be standing at the bottom of.

The story that gets told is mostly nonsense about the 12th Black Crusade, a dramatic way of saying that the forces of Chaos are being led by a Big Bad who intends on wrecking everything. Characters are instantly forgettable with no hint of personality aside from the typical 40K stoic attitude and the dialogue is standard stuff. In short the game won’t be winning any awards for its narrative. In spite of this, however, the campaign is surprisingly engaging. While the story might not leave you bedazzled it’s at least as good as most RTS titles or slightly better, and attempting to constantly push back the encroaching tide of enemies is a  lot of fun. The campaign also throws some extra curveballs now and then, such as a storm which makes it much more likely to lose ships in the warp when trying to retreat. And why would you retreat? Because heavily damaged or destroyed ships are out of action for a couple of turns, although speeding up their repair is a little too cheap. This clever system means that in campaign, skirmish or multiplayer it’s sometimes worth admitting defeat and trying to warp your ships out of the fray. Meanwhile the campaign also accepts failure as an option in both the story missions and all other battles, so you never find yourself stuck on a single scenario, rather you lose and move on, dealing with the potential ramifications down the road. XCOM would approve.

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The campaign also serves as a way to guide you through not only the basic components of ship to ship combat but also the missions you’ll be facing along the way. The mission types are a veritable grab bag of fun and crap. Cruiser Clash is a straight forward slugfest between both sides with a player picking up a win for complete annihilation of the enemy or forcing them to warp out of the battle. It’s the game at its purest and most enjoyable, a chance to flex your tactical muscles without worrying about extraneous objectives.  Escort missions ask you to defend or attack convoy ships as they try to make it to the other side of the map, which is quite fun and even fairly tense at times.  Assaulting a fortress is also a nice mode as you attempt to split fire between the target and the enemy. However, other modes present problems; assassination demands you target the enemy flag-ship and destroy it, which is fine except some factions are so damn fast that it seems to tip this mode in their favor by quite a bit as they just hide in the corner. The same goes for a mode in which you must capture data via boarding actions before warping out with it. It’s a fine idea on paper since it’s a bit like spaceship tig, but both the Elder and the Chaos fleets seem more adept at this. Again, it also leads to people just hiding in a corner for as long as possible.

As your ships level up you’ll be able to spend Reknown at Port Maw to fit new upgrades and purchase extra abilities, focusing a vessel’s combat role. You may, for example, opt to develop its close-combat capabilities and increase it’s boarding prowess for a devastating brawler with enhanced armor to boot that can use a micro-jump to leap into somebody’s personal space and deliver a barrage of hell. Or you can make it more accurate at range so that it can pick apart the enemy without ever having to get close, fitting it with some extra bomb types and support.  The upgrade panel provides a raft of small yet important improvements to a ships basic functions. Here you can boost the speed, add extra defensive turrets, improve how fast a ship can turn, increase the accuracy of weapons, make boarding actions more powerful and even get faster torpedoes. On the skills panel you can augment a ship with a small selection of 8 new abilities such as the too powerful Stasis Bomb that can be used to control the battle. You can also choose a few other types of bomb, or perhaps a taunt mixed with a 10-second blast of invincible shielding. The next panel is named Favours, of which only one can be chosen out of the available four. These are powerful add-ons that align a ship with a specific branch of their faction. An Imperial Ship, for example, could align with the Space Marines which would color the hull yellowish and bolster boarding actions with Space Marine and Terminator squads. Chaos, on the other hand, can select from the marks of four of their Gods, bestowing abilities like damaging nearby vessels with their mere presence. The final panel is for crew, where you can add points to various legions of souls needed to take the colossal ships of the Warhammer 40k universe into battle. Increasing the Master Gunner bar will aid critical hits, for example, or you could invest in making the deployment time of your fighters, bombers and defensive spacecraft faster. It’s a good array of customisation options that let you tailor vessels to specific roles, especially as your fleet grows larger and you can begin deploying your different ships depending on the mission type and even enemy you’ll be facing. It’s just a shame that across all the factions and ship types the upgrades, abilities and crew options are all largely the same with only a couple of minor variations. This helps with balance, sure, but it also makes battle a touch less interesting as there’s no differing abilities to be played off of each other. Some upgrades and abilities also feel almost mandatory, such as the aforementioned Stasis Bombs or even boosts in speed for the likes of the Imperials. Hopefully as the game moves forward we’ll see more abilities and upgrades added to spice up combat, including some unique ones for each faction.

The ships themselves reflect this idea of customisation yet familiarity. Whenever you unlock new slot to add a hunk of floating metal to your fleet you’ll be given a few different sub-classes to opt from, each of which comes with varying loadouts. One cruiser, for example, might offer a hanger that can deploy small bombers, fighters and boarding craft, while another simply has a lot more firepower. One Imperial Ship might boast more lasers for taking out shields while the next one has better macro cannons for close-up broadsides It would, however, be nice to see more visual variation between ships. One Imperial Cruiser looks almost exactly like the next one bar some minor differences.

During combat all of these systems merge together wonderfully, with the very nature of the game ensuring that there’s always something to do. You might tweak a ships movement here, or place a plasma bomb over there to divert an unwitting enemy ship right into a compromising position where it can get annihilated by your incoming cruiser. A burst of speed may push a ship right into an asteroid field for extra damage or into the path of some incoming torpedoes in a beautiful display of teamwork. Somewhere else a combined use of taunt and the void shield overcharge will leave one big enemy vessel ineffectually hammering away at a light cruiser while the rest of your fleet can focus fire. As you become more adept at controlling your favored faction and at combating the enemy you’ll become better and better, learning to predict movement to set up crossfires or how to herd the opponent into exactly the right place. What’s important is that smart play and tactical thinking almost always feel like the deciding factor in a match rather than dumb luck, although it does have a role to play. It can take a while to learn to dissect a match in your head once its finished and thus some people might play a few games and come to conclusion that nothing they did really mattered, but once you understand how everything works and interacts you’ll be able to fully appreciate what was going on. Of course that’s not to say that sometimes tactics don’t go out of the window every now and then; once a battle is fully joined tactics can take a backseat to pure brawling while abilities recharge and such. Still, clever play is the dominant force, and that’s exactly what you want.

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The AI provides an impressive challenge throughout the campaign and skirmish, to the point where even on easy you will pick up a few losses along the way. Of course nothing quite manages to replicate the joy of fighting a real person who, just like you, has been up their personal fleet. Again, there may be a reasonable amount of upgrades to purchase and a few skills but it’s fair to say that one person’s fleet doesn’t feel massively different from another’s, yet despite this disappointment defeating a fellow human through superior tactics is so, so satisfying. There’s also an option to play 2v2, but this is hampered by a strange omission; there is no team chat, only global chat. It’s also a little disappointing to find that rather than giving each player 700 points to play with in order to create some huge battles, the points get split so that each player in a team only gets 350. Finally I find it baffling that if my partner quits out I have to forfeit the match. I had a couple of occasions where my partner ditched and yet I still had enough firepower to take out the remaining ships, but wasn’t given the chance. This creates a lot of trolling potential.

We start wrapping up this review with the presentation. During gameplay it’s clear to see that the ships were rendered in loving detail. The developers are clearly proud of these models as the intro to each map gives you a chance to oggle them in all their glory. The sound design is also rather good. The deafening roar of the engines as your ships enter the field of battle helps to sell their sheer size and power, while the booms, thuds and various other effects of the weapons and abilities all hit the ear in a pleasing manner. During the campaign the story is told via hand-drawn panels with a small amount of movement in them. It’s a simple and cheap way of conveying a story, but given how the game’s narrative isn’t going to win any awards it serves its purpose.

A couple of glitches and problems also exist. There have been times when the last enemy ship has been warping out and it has been blown up, yet the opponent scored the victory. I’ve also noticed ships failing to react to an order a few times, and torpedoes doing no damage when they hit. I also had a couple of crashes, too. Other people on the forums are reporting hiccups as well, so some patching is certainly in order.

The game has some very clear problems; the balance is quite off in places, there’s not enough skills nor enough unique upgrades to make levelling up fleets more investing, there needs to be a bigger point limit and there’s a handful of big glitches. It’s rough, then, and hopefully the developers will manage to grind it into something shiny and beautiful with a steady stream of updates, which isn’t even to mention the two new factions that will be coming down the line. That roughness, though, never once stopped me from having an absolute blast playing Battlefleet Gothic: Armada. To be honest I barely ventured into the online side of the game, finding myself consumed with the campaign. How strange is that? It’s a tactical joy to play, and the fact that I’ve now spent over 30-hours between the beta and the final product is a testament to my enjoyment.

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