A gleeful foray into space-based strategy
The world of Warhammer 40k is as endlessly fascinating and enjoyable as it is utterly absurd, and that very same spirit permeates through every facet of Battlefleet Gothic: Armada. An RTS based on the board game of the same name, Battlefleet puts you in the position of a commander waging wars in outer space. Customising ships, deploying your fleet, and having the nerve and tactical know-how to outmaneuver your opponent are the name of the game here. It’s challenging but never inaccessible, complex but never overwhelming and, most importantly, just sheer, brazen fun.
Battlefleet, in a stunning move that few could see coming, has you in control of a battlefleet. There are four races from which you choose: the Imperial Navy, the focus of the game’s campaign mode; Chaos, the heretical deserters from the Imperium who all talk like they’re in desperate need of a throat lozenge; the Ork Pirates, whose spacefaring ability seems unlikely until you actually see their ramshackle ships, and then it all makes sense; and finally the Eldar Corsair, a race that are annoying to battle against and even more annoying to battle as.
The gameplay is simple enough at first glance to be inviting, allowing you to cautiously open the door and take the first few steps before being bludgeoned to death by the mace of nuanced intricacy, or something along those lines. Prior to each battle, you are able to equip each of your ships, ranging from the hulking battle cruiser to the nippy frigates and destroyers, with new upgrades, skills and crew rankings using a currency of renown points granted from previous victories or salvaged from previous losses. You then have the option to deploy these ships at any position on your starting grid, but for those playing at normal difficulty or below the auto deploy function works adequately and allows you to quickly get right into the action.
Space battles are waged on a slice of outer space, a two-dimensional grid with clearly defined edges beyond which your ship is not able to move. Elements that can both hinder and aid your efforts are scattered seemingly randomly across the map. Nebulae allow you to hide your ship from sight for a distance, allowing for the possibilities of an ambush or a fortuitous escape, asteroid fields are often larger and will gradually damage a ship that passes through, and minefields are the work of Lucifer and should be avoided at all costs. Thankfully, they’re easy to see and shouldn’t be a problem for the astute commander.
A key part of effective management is the ‘Tactical Cogitator’ which slows the game down to a crawl, allowing you to more effectively put the plans in place to pre-empt your opponent. A lot of early game struggles will come down to not using this enough, while protracted games later on will be down to using it far too much.
Control of your ships works in much the same way as many other Naval RTS games, with a right-click used to set a waypoint for a ship and shift being utilized to queue move orders, allowing traversal of obstacles by plotting an indirect route. One great strength of Battlefleet is this movement system in which huge imposing Battle Cruisers move in exactly the manner they should, lumbering their way through space, laboriously turning in a manner of one deeply offended when asked to change direction, while the smaller ships have more maneuverability and can be used alongside your spaceborne tank to flank the enemy. Within the Imperial Navy and Chaos fleets, there are also options to use your movement gauge to perform bursts of acceleration or to sharply turn to face another direction – both of which can be life-savers in a pinch. The Orks and the Eldar have slightly different variations on this gauge usage, both relying on shorter but more powerful bursts of acceleration.
So that’s the fleet, but what about the battle? The fights between ships in Battlefleet are handled fantastically, both in terms of the visuals and the gameplay. Each portion of a vessel’s weaponry is represented individually, not only in the minutiae of ship customisation but also aesthetically. For instance, the defence turrets on a ship will fire regularly and cause small explosions against the hull of the enemy if their shields are down, while larger missiles will have a much greater impact, displayed both visually and with the spot-on sound design. These kinds of things are little details, but they go a long way to giving these encounters the kind of heft and authenticity they deserve.
There’s far more to combat than lining up ships and letting the turrets do all the work. Beyond the micromanaging required to actually surround the enemy, there are options to change the distance you’ll maintain and which direction with which you’ll face the enemy, particularly useful if a ship favours front-facing weaponry as opposed to broadside. Add in abilities to use support moves to bolster allies defences, varying stances that can aid attack or defence, and a plethora of bombs and on-board squadrons than can all mess with opponents in myriad ways, and it’s clear that the minutiae of combat is too intricate to exhaust in this review.
The single player campaign mode is a natural starting point for the Battlefleet novice, containing a neatly incorporated tutorial mission that teaches you the basics and perfectly leads up to the central tenet of the story. Abaddon the Despoiler, who I assume got a name change by deed poll as opposed to being born Abaddon to Mr. and Mrs. The Despoiler, is plotting some nefarious doings, and seditious Chaos forces have sprung up all over the Gothic sector in His name. You are Admiral Spire, a fairly self-important and pompous chap who is tasked with leading Imperial fleets against the Chaos, Ork and Eldar threats around the galaxy. This is a good starting point for players because not only does the campaign introduce you to the basics of gameplay and to the overarching narrative, but it also takes an interesting approach to defeat.
The campaign mode doesn’t end with failure; rather, each defeat or victory feeds into the plot in a meaningful way, with relevant consequences to each battle. You can carry out the Emperor’s will in an assured manner, overcoming every hurdle with a startling grace and finesse. Alternatively, with a few defeats, you can make things harder for yourself, perhaps by letting Orks loot some vital supplies en route to a planet whose beleaguered populace now hates you. This system of consequence as opposed to a simple game over allows the player a unique experience based on the calibre of their play.
On the other hand, as was the case in my playthrough, you can play as the Bungling Imperial Disaster Zone Admiral Spire. Ineptly shambling from one woeful defeat to the next, as all around you secretly wonder how you’ve still got this job. That’s not only valid, but you’ll also receive specific cutscenes as the galaxy begins its plunge into chaos and turmoil.
Quite apart from the campaign, there are solo skirmish and multiplayer modes to test your mettle. In these modes, you can create an admiral who will level up the more you use them. Matchmaking was, in my experience, quick and simple and battling a human adversary is a great way to highlight certain flaws in your game so that you can forget all about those flaws and go back to the kinder AI.
When you are defeated, there is undoubtedly frustration, but it’s ephemeral and followed by an acceptance of where you went wrong and an eagerness to try again with a new and improved plan of attack. Admittedly, there are certain instances where losses feel unfair, such as in data recovery and assassination missions where a target vessel warps away from the battle, leaving what feels like not enough time to complete the mission and resulting in a particularly bitter failure. Along the same lines, bombardment missions involve moving a ship to a designated point within a certain time frame. Due to the seemingly random positioning of these points, however, you can be left unable to reach them in time, either because they’re too far away or, as has been the case for some players, actively being blocked by a stationary obstacle.
Staying on the negatives, it’s a shame that there are only four races to choose from, as the video game lacks races such as the Tau and Tyranids that its board game equivalent boasts. Still, this is a bit like complaining about the residual candle wax that has dripped on a slice of birthday cake. And this birthday cake is particularly delicious.
The true triumph of Battlefleet is that it provides the opportunity, after a number of cases of trial and error, to succeed. Each battle brings with it a thrilling trepidation and, as you progress, the infuriating futility of past endeavours begin to blossom into a glorious aptitude, hinting that you might just be getting the hang of it after all.
With Total War: Warhammer and Dawn of War III both on the horizon, it’s an exciting time for Warhammer fans. Without a doubt, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is a game worthy of going toe-to-toe with those titles.