A sure-footed but inaccessible sequel which may struggle to bring in new players
Three years after the original, the Emperor is back and the Emperor protects. Well, not really in the literal sense, on accounts of the countless dead and the floating husks of their ships. Maybe those Chaos are on to something after all.
Battlefleet Gothic: Armada II, the second in the erroneously-placed-colon series, follows the 2016 effort from Tindalos Interactive. And whatever might be said about the game–it very clearly has some issues–it is obvious that Tindalos continues to have fun with the boundless spectacle offered by the Warhammer universe.
The natural starting point is the tutorial campaign. In it, you guide fleets through a couple of encounters, but the opportunities for agency are limited to specific actions that the game tells you to carry out. It’s an understandable precaution and doesn’t carry on for so long that the more experienced player will grow frustrated.Occasionally, control will often be taken away from the player entirely during this tutorial, and it serves well to most ably tell the story and introduce us to the state of play: in a nutshell, everything is royally screwed. We start from the point of view of Wolf Lord Sven Bloodhowl, he of the overcompensatory name choices, on his suicidal mission to destroy the blackstone fortress. It is something of a Chaos flagship in that it is really, really, really big.
Bloodhowl fails, but the Imperium forces are nonetheless able to destroy the blackstone fortress by driving into it with an even bigger ship. Yes, you do get to control that bit and, yes, it is very satisfying to do so. If you’re anything like me, you may even slam into the fortress before you are told to by high command, leaving you with a victory screen as your commander urgently tells you that time is running out.
The tutorial then wraps up with a more intimate experience, following a small fleet close up as they battle the forces of Chaos around the planet Cadia. The camera is partially controlled, but will swing around to witness key events in the battle, including reactions on voice comms from the commander of the ship. The threat appears neutralised, albeit at great cost, until the Chaos shove the debris of the blackstone fortress into Cadia, destroying it.What the tutorial gets right and wrong is emblematic of the strengths and flaws of the game thereafter. Its major problem is how impenetrable it can be to someone not familiar with the board game, and the tutorial does not do enough to introduce such a player to the mechanics.
Battlefleet eschews tool tips that appear when you hover over a particular button, instead opting for dialogue boxes that pop up once and can be dismissed. As you’ll see from the screenshot below, these come thick and fast, often filling a monitor. It is information overload, and it does very little to teach the player.But where Tindalos have once more excelled is in their storytelling and representation of the Warhammer universe, which is as bold as the source material demands. The tutorial provides a good foundation to the story and it puts you squarely in the centre of this sprawling, complex battle. The culmination, a mixture of free camera sections and cutscenes, is a particular highlight. Once that tutorial is completed, you can choose from three story campaigns: the imperium, the necrons and the tyranids. Though, full disclosure, this review only covers around six or so hours of playtime into the imperium campaign, which itself contained a restart and a lot of confusion.
It is in the story campaign that we are introduced to the RTS portion of the game, wherein a system of galaxies need to be reclaimed. You reclaim a galaxy by moving a fleet there and defeating any enemies that occupy it. By controlling galaxies you also get perks such as repair rates for your ships or extra resource generation allowing you to purchase more ships for your fleets. The losing condition comes in the form of an urgency counter that is always ticking up, representing the spread of chaos throughout the system; once it is maxed out, the campaign ends. The game is also over if the main character, Admiral Spire, dies on the field of battle. There are a lot of pitfalls for the unwary player, some of which may spell doom for your entire campaign. If you are unable to effectively manage resources, for example, you will get nowhere.
Reclaiming galaxies will have you meeting the enemy in the field of battle. Here, like in the first game, you get a real sense of the weight of the ships and the extent of the damage caused by even the most basic weapons. Every ship is beautifully rendered, and even when you are being utterly destroyed in battle there is at least a thrill in zooming in on your ships and seeing exactly how they are being obliterated; an exploded cannon here, a completely exposed deck there.Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to mask quite how unsatisfying the battles are. It’s a fine line between slow pacing and tedium, and Battlefleet too often ends up on the wrong side. There are a number of abilities that each ship can use during battle, but they never tend to have quite the impact you’d like and often can’t be used for reasons that you’re never quite sure of. It all ends in a merry-go-round of chip damage that you’ll often lose.
It’s a shame about the battles, because there really is a lot to love about Battlefleet’s presentation, its bombastic plot and marvellous performances.In space, no one can hear you scream; they can however hear you chew scenery, and may the Emperor strike me down if this isn’t an absolute smorgasbord of over-acting. That’s not a criticism. The voice acting is a delight, pummeling each line of dialogue into submission and barking out a compacted cube of words, harumphs and occasional shrieks.
But in the end it’s not enough to make Battlefleet an attractive enough proposition for the player who is not already familiar with the original board game—and the most disappointing thing is that, with better mechanical explanations and a more in-depth tutorial, this could have been great for casual and pro alike.