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Preview: Battlefleet Gothic Armada

Battlefleet Gothic ArmadaIn my last review I went into depth about how war never changes. Well this isn’t far off the mark because in the grim dark future of the 41st millenium, there is only war. This is the early review of the upcoming Warhammer 40,000 game that focuses on the epic space battles from Games Workshop. This year is shaping up to be a 40k fan’s dream with many 40k video games being released. But will this one be the best or forgotten?

Battlefleet Gothic Armada takes place in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Some are familiar with Games Workshop’s fantasy adaption into an apocalyptic far-future of the 41st millennium, but if you’re not just know it is a future filled with endless warring and strife. There’s plenty of places to get more background into 40k, so that’s as far as I will touch upon the universe itself. The lore, even though it may be a bit spotty at times, is fantastic. The universe really sucks you in and has great customization too it if you want.

ImperiumStart

Battlefleet Gothic centers around the spaceship combat of the universe, which features massive ships, several kilometers long brandishing huge broadsides, fighter craft and torpedoes in an effort to control the Gothic sector. The game stems from the original tabletop game called Battlefleet Gothic (the expansion of which is where the game itself takes it’s name) which I dabbled in a bit years ago. The game, just like tabletop, removed the 3D aspect of space in combat because it provided no added depth or gameplay. BFG tabletop was fun and a lot cheaper than tabletop 40k, not to mention it was, to me, more strategically interesting. You could give ships special orders, you’d fire off volleys of broadsides and pummel the opponent’s ships to floating wreckage, or sometimes almost nothing at all. So as a tabletop player I know how the game is supposed to play, and having read a good portion of the 40k books, especially involving the naval ones, I have a lot of background knowledge of the lore.

The ships, as I said and want to reiterate, are huge in 40k which is why I love them. Crewed by tens of thousands of men, these ships slowly draw their way through the void to decimate their enemies. They draw heavily upon the age of sail in the way they fight and feel, with slower maneuverability, large broadsides and large crews, not to mention boarding. Granted each race has their own unique style and advantages.

As you can imagine, I was real excited to take on this beta; I had followed it for quite some time before springing onto it. The final release is due in a few weeks and hopefully this will give you an idea of how it will play and if it will shape up to be a great game. I had seen a few youtube videos of previews and such, so was really looking forward to the visuals and really feeling like I was controlling a fleet of unfathomably large ships. The beta access features most of the multiplayer aspects, a skirmish mode which is simple PvE engagements where you build up a fleet using renown, and two campaign missions (only for the Imperium) so there’s plenty to test.

Now before I go any further I will say that I’m not a big fan of multiplayer games, nor especially games that are focused on short multiplayer kill and be done matches so this is out of my comfort zone.

Gameplay – 16/25

As a newly-made admiral it’s your job to create a fleet, gain renown and upgrade and expand your fleet. You do this by unlocking more ship slots so you can field more ships, unlocking bigger ships and upgrading your existing ones in a multitude of ways. As your ships (and their captains) gain experience in battle, you unlock upgrades, favors, crew improvements, and skills, all which will improve the ship’s capabilities and usually allow you to specialize a vessel and increase its effectiveness.

ImperiumShipUpgrades

The upgrades range from very useful, to rarely used which is a bit unfortunate. I’d like to see all the upgrades be viable in certain situations, rather than, for example, certain offensive upgrades like the plasma bomb be a sort of default choice for most ship’s first skill when you’re using the Imperial Navy. There’s a good range of them though and I’d like to see even more added as the game progresses. The more choices the better the diversity and the more fun upgrading ships will be (and caring for them!)

Your fleet has a set number of capital ship slots based on your renown level. Capital ships are the big ships (the other being small escorts) that make up the core of your fleet. Capitals come in many different flavors and sizes depending on the race as well. The Imperium and Chaos forces features only the smallest light cruisers but eventually you’ll unlock 1 and then 2 cruiser slots, then battlecruisers and battleships. It is free to actually acquire the ship once you have a slot, which I found a bit odd. Each class generally has at least a few, and sometimes as many as 6 or 7 variants, each with different weaponry, armor, shields, sensors, etc.

You start a game (be it a singleplayer skirmish campaign, the main campaign, or multiplayer) by being shown the mission (simple kill mission, data retrieval, convoy duty, etc) your role (attacker / defender) and the points for the battle. Each ship is assigned a points value based on what it is its upgrades. So a 300 point convoy protection mission means you can take 300 points of ships from your fleet to participate. If your ship was destroyed in a previous match, you won’t be able to use it for the following 1-2 matches at least, but more on that later. So after ship selection, at which point you’ll know your enemy’s race, you are brought in-game to deploy. You are given an area to deploy and after deployment, the game begins.

The game is surprisingly fast-paced and faster than I expected. I’m a bit of a noob at these types of games so my click count is probably incredibly low, but even so I’d probably prefer the gameplay to be a bit slower. Not a dealbreaker though, as you don’t want to be bogged down with one game for half an hour or so. On average my matches have lastest around 5-10 minutes max. So they’re not long drawn-out affairs.

Balance is key in a game like this and while most appear to be close and every race has their own distinct advantages, style and feel, it’s not perfect (nor do I expect it to be just yet in beta). It will require you to think about strategy from the very beginning when you’re selecting your fleet based on the mission, to the final moments of the battle. Each of the current 3 races has different ships which require different strategies and playstyle. A fourth race, the Eldar, is to be added next week at the time of writing. The Imperium (humans) feature slow, tanky ships with many torpedoes and the unqiue nova cannon. Chaos hit hard with lance turrets and are accurate at longer ranges and are slightly faster. Ork ships feature immense customization and love ramming with their crudely-built ships and the Eldar are advanced and sneaky, using very fast, maneuverable ships that make use of stealth and other tricky tactics.

Torpedo Spread of Imperial Ship

There is a lot of micromanaging that better players will clearly excel at. Ships can all have special orders that have a long cooldown time, like bracing for impact which reduces incoming damage taken, to Lock on which increases critical damage chance. They all have a maneuver meter that you can use to go all ahead full, increasing speed, or burn thrusters to narrowly dodge an incoming salvo. In addition to these features that every ship has, some ships have the ability to board enemy ships with boarding tubes or lightning (teleportation) strikes and inflict damage, launch fighters, bombers and other craft, launch torpedo salvos, fire bombs and other special weaponry, the list goes on.

And with all that going on, it can become very difficult to manage ships. You can assign priority to enemy ships as well as what ship system you want them to fire upon. You can tell your ship to prioritize firing broadsides, or head on, depending on the ship’s weaponry, the preferred range, and more. If that isn’t enough, then there’s the controversial Tactical Cogitator function. At any point during a game, a player can hit space bar to activate the Tactical Cogitator which slows the game down significantly. It’s basically a slowmo so you can get your clicks in, to make sure you can activate an ability in time, maneuver a ship before it gets hit, or ensure your salvo is aimed perfectly. In multiplayer matches, each player has a bar which drains when the cogitatoris activated. Once out, you can no longer use it. But obviously the game slows down for both players when one activates it. Some hate it, some think it’s very helpful, myself included.

Chaos Light cruiser

Last, on the current game modes, campaign seems to have everything there and ready to go for launch even though you can only play 2 battles into it. It reminds me of the dawn of war campaign, where you’d have many different locations (systems in this case) to defend and gives you the sense of an entire campaign in the Gothic Sector. The systems give differing fleet bonuses and such. For now, the campaign appears to be only from the Imperial perspective so I’m really hoping you’ll be able to play the same campaign from a different viewpoint. AKA instead of defending the territory of the Imperium, you’re waging a “waagh” for the Orks and decimating the territory and gaining ground. Not sure if that will be in at the time of release. Multiplayer is just that. There is currently no matchmaking yet, but I’m expecting there to be during release, which will also signify a server reset. So multiplayer matches can be pretty brutal at the moment. It does feature 2v2 matches as well. Skirmish is a pretty cool game mode that is pretty much a single player version of multiplayer. You can build your fleet and bash your opponents. You also have the opportunity to play private PvP games against your friends.

Graphics & Sound – 15/20

Graphically the game is great. I was blown away by the visuals from pre-alpha footage and while it isn’t exactly as good, it still is pretty great. Playing the settings on “epic” maxed out yields beautiful ships that for most part, feel as massive as they should be, all on a breathtaking starscape background. The effects, especially warping to escape, is pure awesome and exactly the sort of the a 40k fan would love, not to mention the firing effects, engines and more.

Chaos shooting

I do have a bone to pick about the maps / backgrounds. To create something more visually stimulating than just a star backdrop, the devs appear to add strange structures, asteroids, planets and suns that provide a sort of foreground to the background. They have no bearing to the game but actually confuse me, especially when at certain camera angles it looks like the background asteroids are asteroids your ships are about to run into. Some of the structures don’t even make sense in 40k lore, as far as I know, and other celestial objects just appear odd. Most of these “foreground backgrounds” I’ll call them should just be removed. A just starry background is not a bad thing.

Also on the bone to pick category, I do experience some odd screen tearing during the short intro sequences for each battle (which I am not allowed to skip for whatever reason). It occurs only for a few moments when the screen is panning with the ships, but it is very bad and very obvious. That’s the only graphical glitch I seem to have encountered. The camera pan and zoom works smoothly but feels a bit limited- I want to be able to zoom out more than I am currently able to.

Just as with visuals, creating sound for the 40k universe is extremely difficult. It is near-impossible to capture the true apocalyptic dark gothic atmosphere of the far future. That said, for the most part the sounds are good and on par with DOW, from vocals to ship weapon and engine sounds (there ARE sounds in space!) So this is where I expect it to be at.

Imperialsmash

Controls & UI – 11/15

The controls are what you’d expect from a top-down type real time strategy. Intuitive to start and the UI is laid out in a relatively clean manner. There’s a lot to it, though and I’m not sure I’d be the one to have to tackle the task of making the UI. There are a lot of orders buttons, maneuver buttons and more that almost clutter the UI and make for a tall learning curve. Veterans will learn the keyboard shortcuts and thus drastically speed up play time for them, as a huge advantage.

I could think of maybe one or two improvements I’d personally make to the UI, one of them being possibly a radial wheel menu for orders when you hold-click a ship. It might really help bridge the gap between newer players who have trouble learning keyboard shortcuts and learning the UI to getting better.

At this time, some of the tool tips and some rare text runs off in places where you can’t read it, and some tool tips just don’t explain enough or sometimes too much.

Replayability – 13/15

I think there’s a lot of room for replayability here in multiplayer. A lot of this score will depend on the campaign, as there’s really nothing to go on that just yet, but for now based on multiplayer there seems to be plenty to replay. Will also depend on how matchmaking works so we’ll see. I think the progression through earning renown and building your fleet is a bit too fast but I’ll touch upon that in challenge level.

Immersion – 9/10

I’ll just stay they stuck to the lore and tabletop game as much as they could and did a great job of it. As I said before it’s not something simple to do, and even in a balanced tabletop game, it doesn’t make for a simple conversion into a video game. A year or two ago, a company attempted to make a conversion of the tabletop Battletech game called Mechwarrior Tactics. The game was never finished (currently “on hold”) and even though the rules and balance were there to begin with, it still required tweaking instead of being a simple turn-based conversion.

Challenge Level – 8/10

The difficulty of the game is pretty spot on and I’m very impressed that this is the case at this stage of the development. AI is pretty good and when you get past normal and hard difficulties it feels like it should. Multiplayer is a great challenge and the different mission types present different strategies and require different fleet compositions. I’d like to see even more variety but currently it’s a great start, with simple kill missions, to convoy protection and destruction, breakthrough missions and more. These are well done and force you as the admiral to make tactical decisions from the getgo. A slow hard-hitting long range ship might not be the best choice for a flagship for data recovery missions, where you need fast ships to catch and then board the enemy flagship.

I think the game modes and their randomness really add a lot more than one might expect to the game, and I can only hope they’ll add even more, like troop insertion missions, space hulk missions and more.

Penalties for ship losses are good but could be better. I’d like to see a bit more than just not being able to use the ship for more than 1-2 battles. Degraded rank (and therefor loss of some bonuses, skills, etc) and complete destruction should be something that could happen should you not choose to withdraw your wounded ships from battle. I like that it already incorporates that sort of retreat gameplay and feels like a drawn-out campaign so it would be even better to make the consequences more realistic. The “Retreat” function, warping out when the battle goes south, is great incentive.

However there is an issue that when some or most of your fleet is unavailable, or hindered / damaged for the next match, and then when you ready up and hope it’s a small quick match but it’s not, you don’t really get the time to recover that you need. I love that it incentivizes warping out and fleet preservation but there also needs to be a match queue for small matches so you don’t have to commit your injured fleet for the next match if you don’t want to.

I also mentioned before there’s still not matchmaking yet so getting your ass handed to you will happen often enough. Hopefully this will be addressed.

orks shooting

Mods & Modability – 1/5

I changed the weight of this category a bit because, like most 40k video games, licensed by Games Workshop, they are usually inherently not meant to be modded easily and usually don’t receive a lot of attention in the modding community. DOW was an exception, but think Space Marine, Space Hulk, Fire Warrior, etc. There’s always a relationship between game popularity / ease of modding and how many mods a game will have. Here there’s some potential I suppose but not a lot, and I don’t expect much, if any at all, aside from different balance mods and such.

OVERALL SCORE – 73

To conclude this preview, there’s a lot to like about this game. It offers fast-paced gameplay complimented with a lot of tactical options. You’re not bogged down with anything and there’s plenty to do. I’d say leveling is a bit too fast, it’s too easy, even after a string of losses, to earn renown but that might be because it’s Beta. I’d hope there’s a bit more there and matchmaking is properly implemented. The campaign looks fantastic and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it. As a huge 40k and BFG fan, I was incredibly happy to finally see a BFG combat game rise from the tabletop game that I remember playing. To see it flourish as it has is fantastic and I look forward to the upcoming free DLCs that I receive for preordering (Space marine fleet and an unannounced fleet).

 

Any questions, comments? Feel free to leave them here or in this thread: http://bandofothersgaming.com/forum/showthread.php/2783-Battlefleet-Gothic-Armada

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