This latest digital adaption of the Warhammer 40k universe is being handled by Black Lab Games, the same folk behind the rather good Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock. With this established pedigree, I went into Battlesector with excitement and came out the other side feeling reasonably hopeful. The future is…well, I mean, the future is mostly brown with a lot of blood and violence, but by Warhammer standards, that’s pretty good. Due to launch next month, I got a chance to get hands-on with this new turn-based tactics title set in a universe of dirt, grit, sweat, blood and massive armour. How’s it shaping up?
Warhammer 40: Battlesector is set just after the Devastation of Baal where the largest Tyranid Hive fleet ever decimated the planet The story follows the Space Marines, specifically the familiar Blood Ravens, lead by Sergeant Carleon, as they seek to purge Baal Secundus of the occupying Tyranids and reclaim their homeworld from the clutches of their enemy.
Since the two levels I got to check out were slices taken from a campaign that spans 20-missions it’s impossible to comment on the quality of the narrative with any degree of certainty. The brief snippets I did get to witness were largely what I’d expect from Warhammer: big dudes in big armour talking about big violence, with plenty of baffling nouns thrown in that my brain couldn’t comprehend owing to its lack of Warhammer knowledge. From what I can tell the story will be handled through hand-drawn cutscenes and plenty of dialogue between static portraits. Importantly, the voice acting seems strong, delivering that low-down, gravelly tones you want from this kind of grim-dark sci-fi. Hopefully, Black Lab can pen an entertaining story that can appeal to both die-hard fans and noobs like me.
Because I was jumping into two random missions that sadly means I wasn’t able to try out the proper progression. Normally, squads and units carry over from mission to mission and you can upgrade them as you go. A points system dictates how you build up your forces which can include the likes of Librarian Dreadnaughts, Speeders and Assault marines. But for my preview I was given pre-built armies to command, consisting of things like the chunky Aggressors -and their handy frag storm ability – and Intercessors, who to my heretical mind seem to resemble a basic Space Marine squad, the kind I’d see in Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War. I can imagine some furious typing in the comments right now.
I wasn’t given any idea of when the two missions take place during the campaign, but in the first, my goal was simply to capture a weapons depot and hold back the Tyranid swarm that seemed less than pleased with my presence. The second mission was more interesting, tasking me and my squads with protecting a hulking Librarian Dreadnaught, while also reaching certain objectives in time, meaning my forces had to be split up or risk the Dreadnaught and his accompanying Tech Marine being swarmed. That’s a tricky task because the bug-like Tyranid are all about swarming, their sheer numbers quickly becoming a problem if you don’t immediately start mowing them down as they appear. My Dreadnaught and his tech-marine pal began the mission trapped by some piping and flames, and separated from the rest of my forces by a considerable distance. Termagants and Hormagaunts occupied the space between me and my metal chum. It was a pretty fun setup for a mission, although hardly the most creative.
As a turn-based strategy game, Battlesector follows the basic template quite closely. Each unit comes with a batch of movement points and action points to spend on navigating the battlefield, attacking and using special abilities. Unlike some other examples of the genre you don’t have to do anything in a set order, so you can move, shoot and then move again, if you like. I much prefer this level of flexibility over some of the more rigid turn-based titles such as XCOM.
The action is a little smoother, mostly due to how you can order troops around while other squads are busy executing your ill-conceived plans making turns go by a bit faster. It still doesn’t have the same uber-slick pace and feel of the excellent Gears: Tactics, but it’s certainly more fluid than the vast majority of turn-based strategy games where you have to patiently watch a squad move before you can dish out new orders. I’d like it if combat could play out concurrently as well, though, just to make the pace quicker and feel more brutal.
The way taking and dealing damage is handled is firmly based on how the actual tabletop game works, with each shot being individually modelled. In other words, damage isn’t simply taken off of a squad’s total health, rather each model in the group has its own health. That means you might order a squad of Hellblasters to unleash a barrage of plasma into a mob of Tyranids, but the shots might be so spread out that you don’t actually kill anything. That also means you’re hero units aren’t effective at taking on groups. Sergeant Carleon might be able to execute two attacks per turn, but he can only assault a single model at a time, so if he swings a chainsword at a group of Tyranids he can only kill a maximum of two even if he outputs a shit-load of damage. Better to use him for bigger, tougher foes where all that pent up rage can most effective.
The concept of Momentum is where Battlesector tries to do something a little different, a system that reminds me of Gears: Tactics where certain types of kill rewarded you with more action points for everyone. Here, killing enemies results in Momentum points, and if a unit has enough of them it can activate special surge powers or even provide mid-game upgrades. But if you opt to do things like use Overwatch your Momentum drops because you’re being a wuss.
It’s an awesome concept that neatly encapsulates the aggressive, in-your-face attitude of Warhammer 40k. In theory, it should push you to be constantly on the attack. However, the reality was a little different. I found Momentum, rather ironically, to be difficult to keep going, and the boosts earned for using it weren’t enough to persuade me from just holding my ground and gunning down the Tyranids. The Tyranids are already an aggressive species that rush forward, favouring face-to-face combat over ranged gunplay, so from my perspective as a heavily armoured faction wielding enough firepower to make America flinch it doesn’t make sense to meet them head-on until I absolutely need to.
I do have some doubts about the long-term appeal of battling the Tyranids whose primary tactic is running directly toward the large people with guns. During both missions, every fight against the Tyranids boiled down to me forming a wall of firepower and introducing the enemy to the physics behind large chunks of metal being propelled directly at their heads with considerable force. That isn’t to say the enemy is entirely brain dead; they will focus on weaker units that are already wounded, for example, although often at the cost of stopping me from completing my objectives. A couple of different Tyranids do show up during the two missions, and one especially large one, but they don’t change things much or demand anything in the way of tactical thinking. I’m hoping that Black Lab manage to find fun ways of mixing things up across the campaign that force you to think a little bit more and consider the environment.
Unsurprisingly there’s a lot of spit and polish to be done yet. For example, the Tyranids are oddly quiet as you rip them apart with chainswords – there needs to be more ambient noise. And the animations are clunky. Watching your Marines shuffling backwards out of melee, for example, doesn’t exactly sell the idea of them being genetically engineered badasses. They look more like geriatric pensioners trying to reverse out of a tricky parking space. Assault Marine animations are especially awkward because instead of slamming into the ground from high above they just sort of gently float down. I hope that with a little more time left until release, Black Lab can work on making the animations smoother and more dynamic and more impactful.
Right now Warhammer 40k: Battlesector is shaping up to be absolutely fine. Nothing about it in its current form particularly catches my attention or makes it stand out from the crowd. It’s a fairly standard turn-based strategy game, but for fans of the genre and for Warhammer fans that might just be enough. The quality of Warhammer games is more varied than a centipedes shoe collection, so just getting a solid game is a win these days. And I’m always up for a bit of turn-based fun, especially when it involves chainswords and armour so utterly massive that it could be used to house several families.