Battlefleet Gothic: Armada PC Review
In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. But in the grim darkness of the present, there is only Warhammer game after Warhammer game.
The mighty Codex Wikipedia lists no fewer than 26 video games set in the violent sci-fi universe of Warhammer 40,000, Games Workshop’s venerable tabletop strategy game – and that’s before you get to mobile oddities and offcuts like Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade. You’d be forgiven for thinking the last thing the world needs is another Warhammer game.
Thankfully, Tindalos Interactive’s spacefaring RTS Battlefleet Gothic: Armada does something different. It’s not actually based on Warhammer 40K – instead offering us the first digital adaptation of one of the universe’s lesser-known titles: the long out-of-print Battlefleet Gothic.
Compared to the grinding squad-based tactics of 40K proper, Gothic is an altogether slower and more stately affair. Players command fleets of vast starships, and despite the sci-fi trappings, the battles essentially play out like naval battles of old: clashes take place on a 2D plane, and the core tactics involve skilful movement to line up your shots before unleashing devastating broadsides.
At its best, the tabletop game is a nail-biting ballet as ships pivot and dance around each other, executing manoeuvres planned turns in advance while also reacting to the machinations of their opponents. It’s a fantastic game – but one seemingly inseparable from its turn-based mechanics. So how on earth do you take something like that and turn it into a real-time game?
The answer: with a great deal of care, attention to detail and obvious reverence for the source material – all of which Tindalos Interactive demonstrate in spades. Armada is a triumph: unmistakably Battlefleet Gothic, but a thrilling RTS in its own right.
As in the tabletop game, there are a number of mission types, from the straight-up deathmatch of Cruiser Clash through to assassination, escort or data recovery missions – and while the broad strokes of the gameplay are the same, all of Gothic’s core systems have been reimagined for real-time gameplay.
Take special orders. In the tabletop game, you can assign these to each ship at the start of your turn. These might increase their speed at the expense of firepower – or crank up the guns while leaving themselves more vulnerable. Because you can never be sure what your opponent’s next turn will bring, committing to a special order is often a gamble – one of many small decisions to balance as you plan your moves. In Armada’s absence of turns,special orders use a cooldown timer – but choosing the right one at the right time is just as critical.
Similarly reimagined is the process of positioning your ships at the start of each battle. Here, there’s another layer of strategy that’s absent from the tabletop game, as you’re never quite sure of the precise makeup of your opponent’s fleet – until their ships reach the range of your sensors, enemy ships are represented by mysterious blips.
This adds an extra layer of strategy – bluff, guesswork and risk taking are all involved, particularly in escort missions where positioning can make all the difference. And by god, you’ll need all the advantages you can get: Armada is hard.
If the incredible success of Dark Souls III has shown anything, it’s that there’s a serious appetite out there for seriously challenging games. But even at ‘normal’ difficulty, Armada’s campaign is punishing.
Part of the problem is the myriad of orders and commands you can give to each individual ship in your fleet. The simple fact is, to do well in the game can require significant micromanagement, usually while you’re busy being pounded to smithereens by suicidal Orks. A “tactical cogitator” lets you slow time down to an almost-pause to issue orders – but even then it’s often overwhelming.
As such, my first stab at the game’s lengthy campaign was an unmitigated disaster. Failure after failure left me disheartened and discouraged – especially given the withering insults and scornful dressings-down from your commanding officers that accompany every defeat.
That said, the game’s individual battles, especially in the early stages, are mercifully short, rarely lasting more than ten minutes. This stops your defeats from feeling too discouraging: you’re only ever moments away from the next potential victory.
Indeed, by the storyline’s second chapter, I’d begun to pick things up. As you progress, you’ll spend more time on the galaxy-level tactical view, weighing your decisions about where best to defend the crumbling edges of the Empire’s territory.
Completing missions earns you ‘Renown’ points, which are spent on expanding your fleet and upgrading your existing ships. You even earn a handful of points if you’re defeated – so the occasional loss isn’t the major disaster. Indeed, the game even rewards you more for warping away when you’re losing rather than sticking it out until your flagship’s a heap of smouldering space junk.
It’s a satisfying system that offers some much-needed respite from the tense real-time battles, and the whole thing hangs together with some brilliantly immersive 40K flavour. Storyline missions are delivered by suitably pompous Imperial lackeys, and there are some genuinely impressive hand-drawn cutscenes.
In fact, the presentation is stellar throughout: the game’s backdrops eschew the inky blackness of space in favour of iridescent nebulas, colourful galaxies and celestial bodies that writhe with electromagnetism. It’s gorgeous.
As you can probably tell, I loved Armada. It’s a fantastic adaptation, and there’s a real sense that the game has been developed with utmost respect for – and more importantly, understanding of – the source material.
But it’s not just a great adaptation: it’s a great strategy game in its own right. But that said, it’s unlikely to please every strategy fan.
Genre stalwarts like base-building and overwhelming waves of expendable forces are entirely absent. Like its tabletop ancestor, this is a much slower and more ponderous affair – and that won’t be for everyone.
Perhaps more offputting for many will be the sheer amount of micromanagement involved. There’s no way around it: controlling all of your many ships’ many systems is fiddly – and not explained particularly well in the tutorials. Much can be automated, but again, this is never really explained at length.
Then there’s the multiplayer. Maybe it’s an issue with the review copy I was sent, but I found it impossible to find a battle using the in-game matchmaker. For me, this wasn’t a big deal – the meat of the game is clearly in the campaign mode – but for some players it’d cause serious concern. Other reviewers seem to have no such problems, so perhaps I’ve just been unlucky.
For these reasons, your mileage with Armada may very much vary. But for those prepared to deal with the learning curve, micromanagement and single-player focus – and especially for anyone who loves the tabletop game – Armada is well worth your time. There’s an incredible amount of tension, intricate mechanics to master and tons of interesting decisions to make at every turn. The game’s dramatic victories and crushing defeats genuinely feel like your own – and it’s all wrapped up in an excellent portrayal of one of the most enduring and well-developed settings in science fiction. The lore is pompous, the weapons are deadly and the ships look like floating cathedrals from a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare. It’s Battlefleet Gothic!