Hello my name is Oliver Kiley and I am addicted to Warhammer 40,000.
It all began when I stumbled upon a copy of Rogue Trader (aka the 1st edition of the tabletop miniature game) towards the end of the 80’s, a period when my fledgling mind was easily seduced by the power of the warp and the Glory of the Emperor. Over the decades, I went right on playing Warhammer 40,000, along with spin offs like Necromunda or Epic. I still have boxes of the stuff in my basement, waiting for its time to rise again.
Unfortunately, I never got around to playing Battlefleet Gothic, Games Workshop’s – now defunct – tabletop game of space battles. So it was with a burst of enthusiasm that I threw myself into the fires of Tindalos Interactive’s real-time space battle game Battlefleet Gothic: Armada (aka Battlefleet).
Of course, one does not simply fly into the warp storms unreservedly. Fans of Games Workshop will be quick to point out that the company’s track record for digital games is spotty, at best. For every Dawn of War, there are dozens of other games that fail spectacularly, making a mockery of the entire IP in the process. You never really know what you are going to get. So what then does the Imperium of Man have to say about Battlefleet?
Battlefleet is a real-time tactical game of space combat, where you are tasked with orchestrating the maneuvers and attacks of a handful of massive warships around a big, square 2D battlefield. Missions range from simple attack and destroy operations to convoy escorts, assassinations, data recovery, and a few more. Through all of this you will need to think carefully about your ships’ pathing and maintaining your lines of fire.
I’m hesitant to call Battlefleet a real-time strategy (RTS) game because there is no base building or resource management within the confines of the actual battles, like you would see in a typical RTS such as StarCraft or Homeworld. Instead, as you progress further through the game’s campaign or skirmish mode you unlock new ships and abilities, which you assemble into a fleet using a point-based system at the start of each mission. I’ll discuss the different game modes more in a bit.
Irrespective of game mode, fleets are assembled before the actual mission begins. Players can select various ship sizes from a roster of those they have unlocked for their chosen race. There are four races in the base game including the Imperial Navy (humans), Ork Pirates, Eldar Corsairs (think space elves), and Chaos (corrupted humans). The Space Marine DLC adds a 5th race, and you can probably guess which one based on the name of the DLC. Each race has a variety of escort ships (small frigates and destroyers) and larger ships including light cruisers, cruisers, battlecruisers, and battleships. I found it a little puzzling that some races, like the Orks and Eldar, only have about 8 different ship designs in total, while others like the Imperial Navy and Chaos have about 15 different designs. The lack of diversity within a faction doesn’t appear to affect its overall competitiveness. Rather, the balancing of the races as a whole could be improved (more on this below).
Missions are capped at a certain size in point value, ranging from 200 points up to 800 points for the largest battles. Generally speaking, escort ships cost around 50 points each, light cruisers: 100, cruisers: 150, battlecruisers: 175, and battleships 250. The result is that even in the largest battles at the highest point level, you generally won’t be controlling much more than half a dozen units at a time (e.g. one battleship, two cruisers, and three escort ships add up to about 800 points). Overall, this point-based approach is consistent with how many of the Games Workshop tabletop games function.
One advantage of the limited number of ships you will control is that there are a LOT of options and abilities to pay attention to over the course of a battle. There is an entire panel of buttons for controlling engagement ranges, facing priorities (e.g. broadside versus frontal), and target tracking behavior. There is a second panel for special maneuvers, like “full speed ahead” or emergency turning or stopping. Then there is a third panel for all of your ship’s abilities – ranging from orders that boost accuracy or defenses to teleporting mines and bombs around the battlefield, deploying sensors, launching strike craft, and triggering emergency repairs. Most of these abilities operate through cooldown timers, so you need to constantly be switching between your ships to make sure you are using all of your abilities to the maximum effect.
It can be a bit much at times. If the fleet battles were larger it would risk being total chaos. Thankfully the game also features a quasi-pause function – the “Tactical Cogitator.” Hitting the spacebar slows down time by 90% or so, putting the whole game into slow motion. When battles start heating up, I often find myself playing substantial portions of the engagement in slow-mo so I have more time to trigger abilities, lineup torpedo shots, or orchestrate some multi-faceted fleet maneuver. As I’ve become more experienced, I’ve needed to rely on the Cogitator less and less – but it is still an important tool and element of the gameplay.
There are a number of different game modes – campaign, skirmish, custom, and multiplayer. The campaign mode puts the player in the shoes of an Imperial Navy admiral commanding a fleet in the Gothic Sector. This combines both fixed story-driven, narrative missions that form the central plot along with a dose of freeform mission selection. The Gothic Sector is comprised of six different systems, each a being a web of planets and bases. Over the course of the campaign, Chaos incursions or raids by Orks or Eldar will pop up and you’ll have to use your limited number of fleet deployments each turn to decide where to defend. Note that the DLC Space Marine faction is not incorporated into the campaign – they will only appear in Skirmish and Multiplayer modes.
On one hand, the story-driven parts of the campaign are quite well done. I am usually apathetic towards RTS campaigns and their storylines, but in Battlefleet I actually found it engaging. Every few missions you will unlock a spectacular new cut-scene that conveys the whole grimdark atmosphere exceptionally well. In one early cutscene (not really a spoiler – it’s early on) the admiral you control witnesses some Chaos ships and reports back to base. Before anyone takes him seriously, he is immediately interrogated, rather horribly, by the Inquisition to make sure he’s telling the truth and hasn’t been tainted by Chaos already. This sort of thing is perfect Warhammer 40,000 lore-building.
During the campaign, you are rewarded Renown Points based on your performance – be it in victory or defeat. Your total accumulated renown increases the level of your admiral, which in turn unlocks new classes of ships, additional ship slots, and new skills for each ship. To be fair, I’m not a big fan of gating the content like this. It will take a good 20 or 30 missions to unlock the battleships and the largest renown missions (800 points). You’ll spend a lot of time, especially early on, playing the same missions with the same cruiser and escort ships. It starts to get old.
You will also use your accumulated renown to purchase new skills, ship upgrades, and special favors – which, in a nice touch, can change the appearance of each ship. Ship captains also earn experience, which can be used to upgrade their crew abilities. In fairness, there is quite a bit of choice and variety in how you can configure different ships, and you can tailor certain loadouts to specific types of missions to give you an advantage. At the same time, destroying opposing ships as fast as possible (while minimizing your own damage) is almost always necessary. I found myself gravitating towards similar loadouts on all of my ships, regardless of what the mission called for. Maybe I wasn’t thinking out of the box enough, but a lot of the choices seemed clearly inferior to me.
The other parts of the campaign, the freeform missions where you select which planets to defend or which missions to perform, are woefully repetitive. After a dozen campaign turns spent essentially grinding away on the same handful of missions over and over again the game really started to get tedious. This might have been more tolerable if there was more going on at the strategic level that forced you to make some interesting choices – but the whole campaign structure felt like a frustrating system that masked what was, in fact, just a glorified mission selector.
Furthemore, some of the missions themselves are infuriatingly irritating – like the data recovery mission which requires you to use a boarding party to steal data off an enemy ship and then warp away to safety. Of course, the second you steal the data the enemy will steal it back, so you have to get a chain of ships lined up to sequentially keep stealing back the data and hope that they don’t have more ships than you. Assuming you have the data, you then need to warp out, leaving your ship a sitting duck – ripe pickings for having the data stolen back, once again. Grrr.
There are some tricks to pulling off certain missions successfully (special abilities to replenish shields and prevent counter-boarding, for example) but the margin for error is tiny. When I screw up, through some lapse of a fraction of a second, my first inclination is to save scum and replay the mission – which just further drags out the campaign as I end up doing the same thing over and over. All in all, I gave up on the campaign about halfway through – despite enjoying the narrative missions – because I couldn’t face wading through upwards of a 100+ engagements of the same type just to get to the end. It’s too bad.
In contrast to the campaign, the skirmish mode lets you pick any of the available races. You then play essentially the same thing as the campaign minus the map for mission selection and without any narrative aspect at all. You will start off with a generic first level admiral and fight random missions, gradually leveling up and unlocking new ships, abilities, and upgrades to grow your fleet. Skirmish mode is the only way to play as the different races, but unfortunately you are faced with the same monotony of missions to play with nothing to break it up. Also, when a ship is destroyed in one skirmish, it will be unavailable in the next two skirmish missions unless you spend renown to repair it. This makes sense in campaign mode but in the skirmish mode it is just irritating.
That said, a strong aspect of the game is in the handling of the different races. The look and feel of each is distinct, both aesthetically and in terms of how they play. The Imperial Navy are all about being tough and lining up devastating close-range broadside attacks. The Chaos are faster with long-range weaponry. The Orks are incredibly tough, short-range brawlers with a penchant for ramming their opponents. The Eldar must keep moving to maintain their void shields, as they are glass cannons and destroyed easily if caught out of position. The Space Marines are close-range specialists, as well, with powerful boarding abilities.
Skirmish is fun in that it lets you experience each of the races – but having to slog through the progression system for each one wasn’t a very tantalizing prospect for me. It would’ve been great to just be able to start tinkering with a full roster of ships. Moreover, the abilities and upgrade options are quite uniform between the races. A given option is be called one thing for Chaos and called something else for Eldar, but it serves the same function. While each race has a handful of little unique tricks or abilities, it isn’t enough to carry the game.
I was also not too impressed by the balancing between the races and wading through various game forums reinforced my suspicions. At the moment, the Orks seem much stronger than anyone else, and I have a significantly harder time taking down their ships. Most of my victories have come about by grabbing the objective and warping away before I get destroyed completely. The Eldar have a distinct play style, but recent balancing changes have left them perilously fragile, it seems, with an over-nerf to their special holo fields being to blame. Hopefully this will get worked out and improved over time. Forum comments from the multiplayer community suggests that while the Chaos and Imperial Navy factions are reasonably well balanced, the others need more work.
I have not played the game in multiplayer, but a recent patch introduced ranked matches that work by unlocking everything in the fleet roster, allowing players full access to their race’s capabilities. Previously multiplayer worked like skirmish mode, with unlocking your fleet by leveling up your admiral and even having your destroyed ships stuck in repair limbo for your next two matches. How awful was that? Thankfully it was changed to a fully unlocked system – I wish they had done the same thing with skirmish mode, too.
On a more positive note, the production values of this game are outstanding. The graphics are excellent – all the way from unique UIs and interface elements for each race right down to the ship models. The sound effects and voice acting are all superb as well – overall the game conveys the Warhammer 40,000 feeling quite nicely. I didn’t notice any bugs or glitches, but I did see a few typos and misapplied tooltips. Nothing game breaking though.
However, one thing that did cut further into my enjoyment was the general sluggishness of everything outside of the battles. Combat, itself, tends to be fairly quick, but everything outside of the fights seems to take longer than it should. For example, during the campaign, going to the ship customization screen required bringing up a loading splash screen. Switching from system to system and having to click and reclick on all the missions to find one with a nice renown value added needless overhead to the experience. I was also getting really tired of watching the same “ships flying into battle” sequence at the start of a fight. Let’s just get on with it!
In the heat of the moment, when torpedoes are flying and you’re watching the seconds tick down, in slow motion, for an ability to cooldown so you can land some deathblow – the game shines. There are moments when the grinding, and ship customizations, and admiral leveling makes it all feel worthwhile. But there aren’t enough of those moments to sustain my interest in the game. They are doled out too slowly and are surrounded by a sluggish and frustrating campaign (or skirmish) structure. The missions all start to feel the same and even the randomly generated battle maps with their sprinklings of terrain don’t do enough to keep things fresh.
It’s too bad because the basic bones of the combat system are rather nice and challenging, and the attention to lore detail and overall polish is excellent. The developers are continuing to build on the game, as well, and recently announced that the Tau Empire will make an appearance. But while the campaign is great in the storytelling parts, it is tedious in most other ways. As far as Warhammer 40,000 video games go, Battlefleet is pretty solid – but that isn’t saying much, unfortunately. I’m having a hard time “finding the fun” in Battlefleet – and at the end of the day that’s what really matters.
TL;DR: Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is a real time tactical game of spaceship combat set in the grimdark Warhammer 40,000 universe. The overall polish and production values, along with its attention to lore and detail, is wonderful. The fleet combat takes cues from the tabletop game it is based on. While combat can be tense and engaging at times, the structure of the campaign and skirmish modes make the overall experience feel like a tedious grind. When pulled out of the combat, I’m left wondering why exactly I’m playing Battlefleet.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You enjoy naval and/or space combat tactical games
- You are a big fan of the Warhammer 40,000 universe and want something bombastic that does the setting justice
- You enjoy grinding your way to the top
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You are averse to real time strategy games and the often associated “twitch” gameplay
- You are uninterested in the lure of Chaos or the mystic of the Eldar
- You want an interesting and diverse strategic experience out of a single player campaign
Oliver has played over 20+ hours of Battlefleet Gothic: Armada on a Clevo 670RG-G (Pro-Star Built) Laptop, 17.3″ FHD IPS Display w/ G-SYNC, 6th Gen Intel i7-6700HQ “Skylake” Processor, 16GB DDR4 2133mhz, GeForce GTX 980m w/ 8 GB GDDR vram DX12, 250 GB Samsung EVO M.2 SSD.