There’s a very real danger that Black Lab’s new Warhammer 40,000: Battlesector could get lost in the flood of Warhammer games being spewed forth from every corner like a liquid plague of mediocrity. As Games Workshop hands out the license like a supermarket handing out free biscuit samples we’ve had to deal with a hugely inconsistent deluge of quality, and so absolute gems like Battlesector can get easily drowned in the tide. But Battlesector deserves to fight to the surface because it’s a great turn-based tactical game with some fun ideas.
That isn’t to say that it rewrites the rulebook, though. If you’ve played a turn-based strategy/tactical game then nothing in Battlesector is going to be especially surprising. You’ll battle across a tiled map, issuing orders and deciding the best possible route through the levels which encompass large, open areas and narrow passages that force armies to be split up. It’s like playing table-top Warhammer except it’s cheaper, you don’t have to memories a rulebook that rivals the Lord of the Rings trilogy in page count and you won’t have to check under the table every few minutes for a bunch of lost dice because somebody got too excited.
You’ll be commanding the over-used Blood Angels faction of the mighty Space Marines, essentially hulking super-soldiers who wear imposing armour and act as the front line forces of humanity. The Blood Angels suffer from the Red Thirst, a Vampiric desire to drink blood that gradually gets worse over the decades, eventually driving them insane. It’s understandable why the Blood Angels are typically the focal point of games: they are a tragic Chapter of the Space Marines, and even as a non-Warhammer fan I’m aware that they have a wealth of lore for creators to draw from. Still, it would be nice to get away from the Blood Angels for a change.
The game takes place after the Blood Angels homeworld of Baal has been invaded by the hive mind Tyranids, a race of space monsters that decimate everything they touch. They’re savage, dangerous and exist purely to eat and expand across the universe.
Everything about the story screams of the writers munching on blocks of cheese as they penned the classic melodramatic Warhammer tone. The voice actors are seemingly gnawing on the scenery every time they speak, every line of dialogue is so hammy it could be made into a sandwich. With that said , the story is mostly just background for you to occasionally take note of in-between mowing down hundreds upon hundreds of hungry Tyranids across a 20-mission campaign in which you take Sergeant Carleon and an army of Blood Angels on a quest to retake Baal Secundus, one of the moons of the Blood Angels homeworld.
I won’t lie to you, dearly beloved reader: after 5 missions I didn’t have a clue what was going on. To the game’s credit, each mission has a little panel of lore on the left to help educate naive players like me, and there’s plenty of voiced dialogue. However, the melodramatic speech quickly began to wash over me, and each of the main characters lacked a personality that grabbed me. Only the Techmarine that shows up a bit later has a bit of character in the form of some sass that makes them stand out from the crowd. Perhaps a Warhammer enthusiast might glean more from the plot, but it wasn’t doing it for me.
Underneath the hood, a lot is going on that seeks to replicate the feel of the tabletop game. Each and every unit, whether it’s alone or part of a squad, is individually modelled and has its own health bar. So when you order an attack each model has a chance to fire a variable number of times with a variable level of accuracy and so on. Compare that to something like the classic Warhammer: Dawn of War where a squad shares a pool of health, and as that pool goes down units die off one by one. In Battlesector, because each model has its own health and that can drastically affect how fights play out because sometimes the damage gets spread out and a lot less of the enemy gets killed than you were expecting, leaving them at full strength.
Every Blood Angel you command comes with a mix of movement and action points that can be spent in whatever order makes the most sense: move and shoot, shoot and move, move and shoot and move. I prefer this over the XCOM style of only letting you move then perform an action, or perform an action and not move at all. It’s more dynamic and flexible, giving the choice to dive back behind cover, push forward to a new position, retreat and so on. On the topic, while there is no specific cover system, nor bonuses for flanking, you can use the environment to block shocks or at least heavily reduce the accuracy of incoming firepower.
mellee attacks and positioning are both very important. Firstly, a ranged unit that gets locked into a fistfight is far less accurate, making them easy pickings. Understanding when to tie up enemy gunk-spewing Tyranids is key to your tactical considerations. To combat this, there’s a retreat order that will make a unit walk backwards one square with a bonus to their evasion, while firing. Equally important is how melee models and models with certain weapons can get free attacks on enemies entering and exiting their zone of control, which is typically directly in front of them. Play smartly and you can use this to get in heaps of extra attacks.
It’s not unusual to be dealing with 30+ enemy units on the map, all scampering around and trying to rip heads off. It’s a sight to behold, but it does also mean that even when using fast forward enemy turns can take a while. When it’s the players, multiple units can move and even attack at the same time, cutting down on the time spent watching Blood Angels stomping across the battlefield. The Tyranid forces, though, don’t do that, so you have to watch them all shifting around one by one. Even using the skip button, which cuts out enemy movement and just leaves the attacks, there were some turns when I couldn’t help but let out a sigh. But that’s the nature of these games, so it’s hard to be too annoyed by it.
As for the enemy AI, it’s not going to be winning any chess matches against the masters. For the most part, it’s okay, and the lack of tactical nuance can be brushed off in the single-player campaign since the Tyranids are known for rushing the enemy anyway, They aren’t big on flanking and crap like that. However, there are going to be moments when Tyranid units start shuffling around like a Conga line that can’t quite figure it out. I’ve seen them waste four or five groups of Gaunts and Genestealers by making them round around pointessly like someone turned off their GPS.
Momentum is one of the key concepts in Battlesector, a system designed to encourage players to keep their units in the thick of the action. As a unit gains Momentum, typically by killing everything in sight, they’ll gain bonuses before finally entering Surge, allowing them to either unleash a powered-up version of an ability or earn an extra action point. But if units don’t get into a fight they’ll lose Momentum, pushing you to always go in for the attack. I like the core idea of what Momentum is and how it should work, but I also found it to be far less important to the action than I had hoped it would be. On the higher difficulty settings manipulating Momentum can be useful, but otherwise it’s more like a nice bonus every now and then rather than a vital resource to be constantly managed.
With that said, since the Tyranid forces are largely swarm-based and many of their units are melee-focused, I did find a lot of the early game was best handled by setting up Overwatch and letting my Marine’s gun down charging Tyranids. If you can lay down enough firepower, it’s even possible to stop Tyranids in their tracks completely. Why risk getting in close when superior firepower is on your side?
Once the campaign starts picking up speed, though, the Tyranid’s start to bring out more and more ranged variants, including bloody big buggers that act like walking artillery, bombarding unwitting Blood Angels from across the map. That forces the Marines to go on the offensive, pushing forward instead of relying on their superior ranged weapons. Map design pushes you to split up your forces to deal with multiple threats, too.
And what firepower! The Bolters that Space Marines wield are described as chunky, powerful contraptions capable of hurling huge chunks of metal at the enemy. The sound design in Warhammer 40: Battlesector does that description full justice, packing a nice, meaty thunk with every round fired. In fact, most of the weapons sound pretty nice, with only the plasma guns as the exception.
The rest of the audio design is more mixed. I said in my early preview that I felt like more noise from the Tyranids was needed and that complaint still holds. The Space Marines, though, have a decent level of chatter and one-liners. Although it’s kind of hilarious that the old Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War games still have the most varied and interesting unit chatter.
Another thing that keeps you aggressive rather than huddling behind a wall of tanks is that every lost unit can be replaced for free between missions. You don’t have to pay out any resources to reinforce your Blood Angels, which means in missions there’s no reason to play it safe – you can hurl squads into the enemy and provided you wipe out all the Tyranids you’ll come across the mission is a success.
I do like how this lets you play all-out in every encounter. On the other hand, it means there’s no strategic layer to consider across the campaign as a whole. The mission layout is linear, too, simply taking you from one to the next. More probably could have been done here, but perhaps it was smart of Black Lab Games to focus on the core gameplay instead of trying to balance out things like persistent damage across missions.
Between piling up Tyranid corpses player’s are free to modify their army, picking and choose between the various types of Space Marine they want to take along. Obviously, the campaign kicks off with the most basic types of Blood Angel’s, but new toys to play with are unlocked at a reasonably brisk pace, from the Assault Marines and their love of jump packs to stuff like Baal Predator tanks and Furioso Dreadnoughts. I’m no Warhammer fanatic but it seems like a decent selection of units, totalling 15 by the time all of them are unlocked. And they all have well-defined strengths and weaknesses. Hell, you even get some Battle Sisters thrown into the mix.
Mind you, not all of them can be taken into missions. Every battle has a point limit and every unit has a point cost, so inevitably someone has to get left at home while everyone else gets to go out and have fun. There’s plenty of scope for building up different styles of army, and they all seem viable in their own ways. I liked to swap it around, sometimes focusing more on Assault Marines and Speeders to create a fast-moving group, other times I’d take loads of heavy armour.
There’s also upgraded points to spend on the various HQ units that deploy on missions, and it’s here that Battlesector lets players form their core army strategies. Focus on Carleon and the flying Assault Marines can be buffed up and cool Momentum-based abilities like an orbital bombardment can be unlocked. He can also equip standard Space Marine squads with Frag grenades and Auto Bolters, making them excellent at clearing out the swarms of weaker Tyranids. Meanwhile, focusing on the Techmarine makes mechanized units tougher, adds flamers to the Predator tanks and more. A lot of abilities can buff up other units, too, leading to a natural formation of groups within your army.
I enjoyed the Hell out of the campaign. This is just good, solid, fun turn-based strategy action that feels great. I like how you can dish out multiple orders at a time, too, which makes the action a lot quicker. I love gunning down a horde of Tyranid using those meaty Bolters, or dropping a rain of Assault Marines onto a Tyrannofex like the wrath of God descending from the sky with a chainsword. It isn’t the most visually interesting game, nor the most innovative, but it does the whole turn-based thing pretty damn well, and does it with Space Marines. Kudos.
Skirmish mode holds the allure of potentially becoming a playground if the developers create more factions. Right now, you can place as either the Space Marines or the Tyranids across 8 maps. You can set up turn limits, a point cap for armies and so on. It’s fun, but I can’t help think of how good it could be in the future with races like the Imperial Guard. Still, it’s awesome to get a break from playing as the Blood Angels, and the Tyranids feel completely different to play as. Their swarm tactics and big, expensive units are a lot of fun to mess about with.
Painting your own Warhammer miniatures has always been one of the coolest things about the game, so the lack of customisation is a missed opportunity in skirmish mode. If Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War had an army painter years and years ago, why can’t we get one in 2021? Sure, I can understand having customization options for the main campaign, but in Skirmish mode would it really matter if I decked my Blood Angels out to look like Space Wolves?
You can take the skirmish action online, too. Since I played the game before the public release I didn’t get to test this properly but provided the connection quality is decent the 1v1 action should be a lot of fun. Slitherine also has a history of adding co-op campaigns to their titles, so perhaps Battlesector will get the same treatment. Being able to battle alongside a friend would be awesome.
There’s not a lot of innovation in Warhammer 40K: Battlesector, but it delivers some great turn-based action and is one of the better titles to bear the iconic license. I put around 30-hours into the game and loved nearly every minute of it. Although the writing failed to capture my interest, the gameplay succeeded in keeping me hooked. And with such a solid foundation the future is filled with the enticing prospect of new factions, new campaigns and more skirmish options. Battlesector is a great choice for both Warhammer 40K fans, and turn-based strategy fans. Keep up the good work, Black Lab Games. You’re doing the Emperor proud.