Developer: Tindalos Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Genre: Tactical, Strategy, RTS
Platform: PC (Steam)
Rating: 16, violence and mature themes
Release Date: March 2016 (Undetermined)
I’ve always been a fan of Games Workshop when they do unusual miniature games, such as Necromunda or Blood Bowl. There’s a certain chaotic but detailed element to them that says, “we enjoy the more untried and unique parts of the Warhammer universe, so we made a rather fun game to emulate those parts.” Of course, ship to ship combat really started with their Man O’ War series, in the Warhammer fantasy world, which achieved a small amount of success. It was only logical that later they would release Battlefleet Gothic for the 40k world. I purchased and played both Man O’ War and Battlefleet Gothic, and I liked both games for the things that made them different from the larger Games Workshop miniature games. Unfortunately, both games were given a very short and sporadic release, and eventually GW stopped making models for both games. Not that the fandom behind either game died – Specialist Games split off and continued to refine and print rules for games that GW stopped supporting.
Now the game comes to the digital space, brought to life by Tindalos Interactive. If their name sounds familiar, you probably recognize them as the developers that made Etherium (which I reviewed earlier) and Stellar Impact. They have an uncanny eye for detail in units and they definitely have some idea of how to build a real-time strategy (RTS) game. They caused quite an excited ruckus on Steam when they announced they were going to tackle Battlefield Gothic: Armada – an RTS designed with the miniature game in mind. Recently, they opened the beta, and now they are preparing to release the full game in the near future. The full game includes multiplayer and solo combat using custom fleets, and a single-player campaign for those of us who enjoy that kind of thing. It’s an ambitious project, to say the least. I was given the press version to play around with (which will expire a few days before the game is released).
For those of you unfamiliar with the Warhammer 40k universe, the short version is that Mankind expanded across a million worlds for millennia until they ran afoul xenos factions, such as the Orkz, Tyranids and Eldar. The chaotic powers of the Warp that humans used to transverse space also contained chaotic deamons and other terrors. All of this was kept at bay by forming humans under the Empire of Man, led by the enigmatic Emperor – a powerful psychic persona that birthed thousands of soldiers known as Space Marines. Of course, the corruption of Chaos eventually caused one of the Emperor’s brother soldiers known as Horus to rebel, starting a terrible civil war that eventually led to Horus’ death and the Emperor being mortally wounded. Only by encasing the Emperor in a metal life support system that also acts as the Empire’s astro-navigation beacon do the Lords of Terra manage to hold together the fraying edges of Mankind. A lot of great technology is lost, and what remains is hobbled together under tech-priests and influential nobles that rule a thousand worlds.
The entire universe has several powerful religious undertones, as well as large amounts of violence between factions. Warhammer 40k has spawned dozens of games, including several miniature army games and a few role-playing games. It is very bleak, as the entire Empire is in decay, slowly being eaten away at the edges by not only the xenos or Chaos, but by seditious elements who want freedom from the Empire’s iron grip. It’s not for everyone – there are no magical space wizards (aka Jedi) or possible hope that eventually Mankind will somehow overcome and survive. It’s a slow spiral into extinction, usually because humans can’t seem to work together well, or stay away from the influence of Chaos. Not to mention the enemies of Mankind are extremely lethal and they never stop hammering away. Then you add the Inquisition and other Imperial groups that clamp down with grim determination to assert complete control. This is the universe in which Battlefleet Gothic: Armada takes place.
The campaign is taken straight from the miniature game – the Chaos Warmaster Abaddon has assembled a massive traitor fleet and is searching for artifacts to secure his dominance over the Empire. He’s mostly running by a prophecy fed to him by a Witch, so while his trusted people are fermenting rebellion and sedition across the vast Gothic sector, the Warmaster is working on his own agenda. Unfortunately, that puts Admiral Ravensberg and the player in the middle of all sorts of bad things happening with only an inkling of what it is that Abaddon wants (other than to rule everyone). If you played the miniature game, you have an idea where the entire thing is going (and why he’s obsessed with controlling the Black Fortresses). If you haven’t, well, you’re in for a long, bloody story that involves Ork and Eldar pirates, rebellious world nobles and a gigantic Chaos fleet.
The developer really did a good job with the campaign – not only do you have specific objectives when you take on missions that come straight out of the miniature world campaign, but there is an element of roleplaying involved. You constantly upgrade your fleet and its ships using any Renown, experience and materials you obtain from every success and failure. While you are pushed in certain directions due to the story, there is some ability to pave your own path by allowing you to move around a map with so many actions before you’re forced to end your turn. Most of these actions involve attacking enemies or defending assets. The more success you achieve, the more actions and resources you have available. Experience levels will unlock bigger and better ships. It is incredibly satisfying to able to mold a fleet, focusing commanders and equipment on certain vessels. Your degree of success (or failure) will help (or hinder) your progress. The better you do, the stronger your fleet will get.
The main component of the game is the actual RTS combat. At the beginning of any engagement, each side will pick ships and upgrades until they hit a point cap. This cap is determined by the scenario (or in the case of multiplayer battles, by agreement), and it will limit players on how many ships and unique abilities are available to them during the battle. Campaign-wise, ships and crews level up, so their point values may not change much. A map is chosen, and both sides place their ships into their deployment zones however they see fit. Once both sides are ready, the combat begins.
All ships have the same basic abilities. They can attack other ships, focusing fire on systems or the hull. They can pour on speed for a short period of time, make emergency course corrections, brace for impact (taking less damage), or emergency warp away. What makes the ships different is the weapons and defenses they have. Some ships have powerful prow guns, some have large batteries for broadside attack. Some fire torpedo volleys while some have carrier bays to launch fighters and bombers. Some can flawlessly board other ships ,while others can do quick emergency repairs. Race-specific fleets do some things better than others. For example, the Orkz may have clunky, junky ships, but they embrace speed; the ability to do more damage by ramming their enemies; and ferocious boarding parties. Eldar, on the other hand, can turn on a dime while embracing more subtle abilities than other fleets. Chaos fleets depend on sheer firepower and corrupting influence to shatter their foes. The Empire is a balanced combination of guns and determination, with more flexible ship options. This means players should stick to tactics that make best use of their fleet’s abilities and ships.
The graphics are great. Hats off to Tindalos Interactive – everything is spectacular visually. You’ll want to push the graphic envelope on your machine. Every ship is well detailed, looking almost exactly like the miniatures I used to field in the tabletop version. Ships glide through beautiful maps with amazing effect, while different abilities pop out when used. Weapon fire and damage is very nicely done. The interface is fairly clean, giving the player just enough information while having a few embellished details to match the fleets. After a few battles, you’ll be familiar with the many buttons – if you are still having trouble, hovering over everything will usually produce a short description to remind you. I was very well pleased with how it looks.
Voice acting and sound is somewhat … inconsistent. As with every Warhammer 40k video game I’ve ever played, the voices can be equally impressive and annoying. The music is orchestral and sweeping, if not repetitious after hours of play. All the combat sounds are fine – although there are times when they stopped working for a few moments. This doesn’t really detract from the actual game, since you are so focused on what’s going on that you don’t have time to pay attention. When it comes to cut scenes and movies, however, it can break you from immersion. I play Warhammer 40k video games for the experience, so there were times where I was a little flustered with the voice acting and music. Again, they gave me a pre-release press version, so all this might be fixed by the time it is completed. I hope so.
More importantly, the game play is good. It’s like every other successful RTS – things move smoothly when you have a solid plan and you know what all the doodads do. The variety of tactics is solid, and everything you do can matter in the endgame. I’m not going to go into the gritty game play details, since there are SO MANY. That’s not to say that it’s perfect, though. I’m not sure if there is a decent RNG that’s determining every shot as if I were rolling dice for the tabletop version, since everything is simultaneous. It’s not like every lined up shot hits, or every broadside misses when the enemy moves out of the arc of fire. It can be a brutal affair, especially if you make mistakes or forget to use special abilities correctly. Again, that makes it feel somewhat Warhammer 40k in essence. I’m not sure if everyone will like that kind of game play, though. What is damaged or catches on fire is definitely random if you’re not focusing fire, but that is also very miniature tabletop (the amount of tables in most space tabletop games is staggering). Everything is balanced, though, and that’s what matters.
It does deliver in spades when it comes to incorporating the old tabletop miniature game. Everything is well done, the game is smooth and there are a few rough edges to get around. Fans of RTS space combat or the old Battlefleet Gothic will most likely enjoy the game for the price. I’m probably going to buy it for full price and play it a lot. If you’re not into micro-managing fleets and watching combat from afar, then you should probably not buy the game. It’s essentially an animated version of a tabletop miniature game (how many times can I say that?) The beta did make me say “FOR THE EMPEROR!” a few times, that’s for sure.