eXcursions

Monday eXcursion: Battlestar Galactica – Deadlock

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Slitherine Ltd. is a publisher best known for its turn-based boardgame-like strategy titles. Occasionally they branch out, however, teaming up with developers who have a different take on strategy. Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock (BSG:D) is one such game, produced by an Australian indie developer called Black Lab Games. If you missed Black Lab Games 2015 title Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy, it’s a WEGO style turn-based tactical space game based on an original IP – a sort of thinking man’s Homeworld. Without any inside knowledge, it seems clear that their success with Starhammer had Black Lab Games searching for a way to take their WEGO tactical space combat engine to new heights by combining it with an existing IP to draw in more players. Since the Battlestar Galactica IP lacked such a title, it seems like there was a natural fit.

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Star Hammer” (above) and BSG:D allow you to express your inner Ender Wiggin.

There is a lot of money to be made by converting IPs from books, television, movies, games, and comic books into other mediums. Yet, when these conversions happen there is always controversy. On one side are hardcore fans who demand perfect authenticity and near-slavish adherence to story canon, character traits, and vehicles/powers/technology from the established universe. On the other side are the “filthy casuals” who tend to enjoy the IP no matter how things change between mediums. You may find yourself on one side or the other depending on the IP. Where do you fall on the spectrum of fandom when it comes to Battlestar Galactica?

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Speaking of Ender’s Game, why do I still have a goddamn mouse in 2017?

So we’ve set the stage: we’re looking at a veteran strategy publisher working outside what it is primarily known for, and we’ve got an indie developer with one prior release to its name. They’re teaming up to work on one of the most beloved IPs in modern science fiction. How does it stack up? Was your pre-order a mistake? Best game ever?

Let me start by saying that much of the appeal of the 2004 Battlestar Galactica TV reboot had to do with the story and characters. The show was all about despair, hope, moral and religious conflict, personal hatreds, love, suffering, and pleasure. The show asked fans to think about what it meant to be human versus an artificially intelligent robot designed to look, feel, and act exactly like a human. The majority of the show featured character-driven plots set in claustrophobic spaceship interiors.

None of that is found in this game. We never see the face of the enemy other than a UI button or story dialogue portrait, for example. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s just a disclaimer. BSG:D has its own appeal, featuring a tactical space warfare simulator that lets you live out the BSG battles that always seemed too short in the show. (Down with TV show budgets!) All that said, let’s dive in.

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Is this you? Shame!?

BSG:D has your standard tactical/real-time strategy game features: a story-based campaign, AI skirmishes, and 1v1 multiplayer. The campaign is sort of a guided sandbox. The story begins during the first Cylon war with the colonies being attacked by rebellious machines. The Galactica has recently been completed and is missing. The main colonial shipyards have been destroyed and the “Daidalos” mobile(!) shipyard becomes the new fleet HQ with the player in command. There are increasingly difficult story missions which you can complete at your leisure, but don’t take too long because there is an infinite flow of incoming hostile Cylon fleets. The player gets resources from the colonies in the form of tylium, and if colonies can be “fortified” with a fleet commanded by an officer they will receive an additional bonus like officer promotion cost reduction, ship cost reduction, and the like. The non-combat turn-based portion of the campaign involves constructing and positioning fleets around the 12 colonies. You must maximize resources, minimize losses, and position officers well in order to be successful.

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Build ships, recruit officers, and manage fleets in order to defend the 12 colonies.

Speaking of officers, these guys and gals are deceptively important despite the fact that the early tutorial missions don’t call much attention to them. Officers earn XP when fighting battles and XP can be used to promote them. Promotion allows you to choose skills from an RPG-style tree – not the least of which is the ability to increase the size of the fleet that particular officer is able to command. Since the vast majority of the campaign is played in increasingly difficult tactical battles, having larger fleets is incredibly important to progression.

There are two resources in the game: Tylium and Resource Points (RP). RP are only gained in story missions, and are used to unlock new capital ship, fighter, and munitions plans. RP can also be used in place of battle XP so that you can level up your officers. Tylium is earned from completing missions and defended colonies send you some each turn. It can then be spent to construct ships and also to speed up the recharge of jump drives between campaign turns. Ships fully repair after each combat, so don’t expect them to require maintenance between turns. The game doesn’t try to go that deep in terms of strategic simulation and instead there is a heavy focus on the tactical combat system.

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Admiral Cain is in charge, and you’re not her. But you’re still in charge ‘cause you’re the player.

You also won’t find Starbuck here or her equivalent. Ship officers are modeled, but fighters are generic squadrons that fight as a group. There are no named squadron leaders. You can’t jump Raptors ahead of the fleet as scout ships as they are not controllable from the strategic map level and they do not have jump capability. Some fans will no doubt be disappointed that some of these classic tactics from the show are missing from the campaign. If you choose to take a Raptor squadron, they are equipped with DRADIS (sensors, for the non-BSG fans) so you can detect and lock missiles onto enemy ships at longer range than your capital ships can without Raptor support. Other than that, you’ll just get a squad of 4 Raptors that can either fly around attacking enemy fighters, shoot a single salvo of rockets at a capital ship, or dock with a friendly capital ship to boost its electronic warfare capabilities.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot to mention that the Cylons will hack you to death. Each ship has subsystems: Navigation, Fire Control, Engineering, etc. These subsystems can be damaged by normal enemy fire, but the Cylons can also bypass your armor and hull to damage subsystems directly. Your ships have a “firewall” stat that provides a buffer to protect subsystems from electronic warfare attack, but enemy Nemesis-class frigates and Wardriver squadrons can unleash a red beam that attacks that firewall. Once down, the beam starts to damage subsystems directly.  If these attacks go unchecked for a few turns, you’ll end up with a partially disabled ship that will take time for crews to repair. If they continue long enough, your ship will be nothing but a useless hunk of metal floating in space.

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You’d be “concerned” too if your home planet had a hostile Basestar in orbit.

Which ships you decide to build are important, because resources are scarce. Some ships have been pulled from the Battlestar Galactica universe, but some have been created especially for the game. No two ships are alike, and each new type you unlock requires you to learn a new playstyle. Even if you could make every ship have the same number of armor and hull points, they would still play differently since each has a different set of turrets and firing arcs. For example, Manticore class corvettes have a single turret in front and behind, and Adamant class frigates only fire broadsides. Battlestars have unique “Battlestar Artillery” turrets, and also the “Flak” ability, which is an area-of-effect ability that shoots down enemy missiles and fighters. All of these turret arcs and abilities are directional, so ship positioning for maximum damage is of extreme importance.

Players also need to rotate their ships to take damage on undamaged sides of the ship – a fun dance that is made easy with the positioning UI. All this intricacy means it’s a good thing battles are “WEGO” style because battles would be quite difficult if they were not turn based. In addition to inherent ship abilities, there are further choices. Ships that have missile tubes can swap between guided missiles, torpedoes, anti-missile munitions, and even nukes before each battle starts. Ships which carry fighters can swap between Viper and Raptor squadrons, and each has its advantages depending on the situation.

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Hmm… Some flak would be good to shoot down those Cylon missiles.

Skirmish battles are fairly quick and they really shine. While I didn’t have time to fully dive into multiplayer for this review due to lack of players in the pre-release, I’m sure slugging it out with humans will reveal some serious depth in the tactical side of the game. There are a lot of options for designing skirmish fleets, and I’m excited to try multiplayer when I get some time now that the game is released. The game’s graphics are simply beautiful and a lot of attention has been paid to the ship models. Every battle can be replayed, and watching battles via the auto-camera lets players feel like they’re watching an episode of the show, especially with the game’s fantastic music. The music will be familiar to Battlestar Galactica fans: thumping drum-heavy tunes, haunting strings, a cappella voices, bells, and even bagpipes round out the battle experience.

Despite being light on many traditional 4X elements, the campaign does almost feel like a 4X game. 4X-lite perhaps? You’re expanding your fleet rather than expanding to new systems and building planetary infrastructure, and there isn’t much exploration, but the other elements are there along with the tactical engine, and boy does that sucker have some potential. If a space 4X with a fabulous ship designer had a robust tactical engine like Black Lab Games’ beauty here, we 4X fans would all be extremely satisfied, I reckon.

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Battle replays can be viewed from the viewpoint of a single viper. Wheeeee!

Among all the good, however, I had a few frustrations with the campaign.

Save Scumming

Save scumming is a bear in this game. Since resources are rare and officers take a long time to level up, losing just about anything feels huge. The devs have balanced this a bit better since the pre-release version I played, but it will still be an issue. Each time you lose a ship you’re one step closer to being overrun. At the same time, keeping colonies fortified gives you bonus cost reductions on things like ship construction and officer recruitment. This sort of system lends itself to snowballing one way or the other. I’d rather have that ”knife’s edge” difficulty feeling within a tactical battle. When you have it in the campaign it just gives that “well I’ve already lost” or “already won” feeling. That is, if you lose ships and therefore colony bonuses, every Cylon fleet becomes harder to deal with.  I fear getting behind the game’s difficulty curve and into a death spiral. The opposite situation is that you get ahead of the curve and fight every battle without losing a ship. It just doesn’t feel like there’s a middle ground.

Additionally, you can save literally at any point in the game and there’s no “seed” for rolls like some games. This means you can simply save and re-do auto resolve battles over and over. If you have a 25% chance of victory with an outmatched fleet, you can just reload and reload until you win even though you’d never be able to win if you play the battle out tactically. Some players won’t be able to resist, and it smells a bit like poor design.

The rebalancing for release has made the game MUCH less difficult, but it has also made it so that after the first few turns you only see enemy fleets of about 4000 points. When you start the game and also when you recruit new officers they’re only able to handle 2000 points of ships.  This means your newer officers are unable to find a fair matchup. Since there’s no way to rank them up without spending 500 RP to get them to level 2. I feel like this is a bit confusing and I’m not sure why you can’t requisition higher ranked officers in the first place. Another solution would be to just make the enemy fleets more varied, but that might also be confusing.

FTL reinforcements

Another gripe I have is that jumping ships in mid-battle is simply not available. A system for bringing in reinforcements would be a fun and interesting tactical decision while also following the narrative of the show. You’re only allowed seven ships in a fleet at the same time. This feels a bit limiting and FTL reinforcements would go a long way to relieving that problem while adding a layer of tactical decisionmaking that would be fun and enjoyable if done well.

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The blueprints screen – order up some new weapons and smash some frakkin’ Toasters.

There are also some key bits to the game that aren’t made clear to the player. It’s unclear at first how much officers cost to recruit. You can click the menu to recruit officers, but it displays a “2000” next to the officer name. I thought I couldn’t afford one, but after a while I realized this was the fleet size a level one officer could support. At that point I had already purchased a battlestar blueprint for nearly 2000 RP, leaving me with only 35. After the pool of officers populated, I had to attempt to recruit one to find out that it costs 50 RP. The only way to get more RP is to complete missions, but you can’t complete missions unless the engaging fleet has an officer.

At one point while playing, I had just lost a 1050 point “ranger” ship (the first of its kind for me) along with my best officer to a mission that was extremely difficult. At this particular juncture, I had no idea officers were actually “on” any of the ships in the fleet, so I lost my only officer and my only way to field a fleet with more than 2000 points worth of ships. To make matters worse, it had already taken me 2-3 turns before I even realized the officer was gone. Unless I missed it, the game offered no message telling me I had lost him. For a moment I thought I had encountered some game-breaking bug where I wouldn’t be able to progress without going back to an old save. Instead I finally read the loading screen tooltip that says you can engage in missions as long as the Daidalos mobile shipyard is in the fleet. “Awesome!”, I thought, since the Daidalos has turrets and 2 extra squadrons of Vipers. So, I took the shipyard into battle with 2000 points of ships only to have the big ol’ sweet lookin’ shipyard destroyed by a single enemy ship that I couldn’t kill fast enough. Instant campaign loss.

Many of these problems are avoidable, but I couldn’t help but feel like these “mistakes” were only occurring because I didn’t have the information I needed. If I sound like I’m a big whiner, it’s because I despise “trial and error” style gameplay unless a game specifically brands itself as a Rogue-like and has the mechanics to support that type of play. Instead of having an enjoyable progression through the game to a satisfying difficulty level, I always feel the need to save every other turn from the very beginning. The missions increase in difficulty as the game proceeds through the storyline, but on top of the previously mentioned issues, the player is not given any sort of guide to how difficult a mission will be before a fleet jumps in – leading to further save scumming strategies.

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The UI hides fleet size information when you zoom in – even though it’s available elsewhere.

The good news for salivating fans is that the core tactical gameplay is absolutely fantastic and the game runs buttery smooth on my rig. I have some gripes with the campaign and the UI , but these could easily be patched. Despite the lackluster UI and player information delivery in general, I feel like this game is on the cusp of being one of those “one more turn” experiences for me. I often find myself playing much longer than intended, which is a good sign for any game.

In addition to the campaign issues above, in the tactical battles I’d like to see some more graphically-delivered information for the player rather than numeric lists of hull points. There are some minor UI deficiencies, like the “fire missiles” hotkey being different on different ships and that clicking on a Cylon fleet zooms in but gives no useful information. As I mentioned earlier, however, these all seem like easily fixable issues. On the topic of fixing issues, the developers have already patched the game multiple times, and in my opinion the changes have been exactly what the doctor ordered. So for me, the direction of post-launch support seems good.

Overall, there’s a lot to like in BSG:D. The music, campaign setting, characters, and battles tell a brand new BSG story that a lot of fans will enjoy. There is no other BSG game of this type, so fans are probably already playing. Black Lab Games have a really nice tactical combat system that does a lot with simple controls and mechanics. 4X gamers need to start begging them to license their engine so we can start seeing their brand of tactical combat in a robust 4X game. I’d strongly consider sacrificing a literal arm and a literal leg to some sort of gaming god for a 4X with shipbuilding like the original StarDrive and BSG:D-like tactical combat. The cool thing is that I’d only need one arm since this game can be played without using the keyboard. It’s nice to have that option. Game devs: take note!

TL;DR: Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock is a game with fantastic potential, but has some issues with the campaign. If you’re not the world’s biggest BSG fan then I would consider waiting for a sale. If you are a fan you’ve probably already made your purchase, but if you’re on the fence and you think you can deal with some UI and campaign system flaws – or if you’re looking for some top notch tactical space battle action, I’d say pull the trigger on this one.

You might like this game if:

  • You loved Homeworld or other games like it
  • You can’t get enough of Battlestar Galactica space combat
  • Cylons hacking your ships with red laser beams sounds like a problem you need to have
  • You like or need games that let you play with one hand (no keyboard needed here!)

You might NOT like this game if:

  • The main thing you like about Battlestar Galactica is the “who’s a Cylon?” intrigue
  • You’re really looking forward to an extremely polished campaign system
  • You’re looking for a detailed simulator with named Viper pilots and the like
  • Feeling the need to save all the time annoys you

Disclosure: Matt has played about 25 hours of BSG:D. He received a free Steam key for the purposes of this review. Matt plays on a custom-built PC which has an Intel i7-6700K, 16GB DDR3 RAM, and an MSI GeForce GTX 1060 6GB.

2 replies »

  1. Awesome write-up Matt!

    I agree that a combat system like this would be really cool to see in a 4X game.

    The Arcen game Last Federation was a quasi-4X / Grand Strategy game that combined a WEGO-type system with bullet hell for the combat system in the game. Was pretty interesting.

    But anyway, I’d love to see a system like this used more broadly.

    Like

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