Just last month, I had a blast taking the Battlefleet Gothic: Armada beta for a spin. At that stage, developer Tindalos Interactive was aiming to release the game at the end of March. After community feedback from the beta, though, the game’s release was delayed until late last week, and after a handful of hours of hands-on time, I can tell you that I’m already getting my money’s worth out of the campaign (I’ve yet to touch competitive multiplayer).
That said, I have to note that at least one of my gripes with the beta wasn’t addressed prior to launch. It’s clear that at some point during development, Tindalos changed the default keys, which is, of course, completely fine… as long as they remember to reflect that in the tutorial. Despite being told that ‘W’, ‘S’, ‘A’ and ‘D’ can be used to control the camera, ‘W’ and ‘S’ simply don’t work. Similarly, I had to manually rebind the unit grouping keys because, paradoxically, they weren’t set by default to the numerals along the top of the keyboard (despite the fact the game embraces the usual RTS convention of binding via ‘Ctrl’ + numeral to set them).
Initial teething problems aside, it was refreshing to see that other bugs had been addressed, such as my ships not fighting head-on or side-on as instructed by the essential micro commands. It’s worth noting that Battlefleet Gothic is a game that’s almost exclusively about mastering micro. While you’ll outfit your ships as they gain veterancy and have some control over the battles you fight in the turn-based grand-strategy-lite, most of your time will be spent issuing orders to individual units in real-time battles.
Despite being set in space, Battlefleet Gothic shuns the three-dimensional logic of the Homeworld series in favour of a simpler two-dimensional fighting plane. Initially, I was disappointed with this decision, but it’s both practical and embraces the tabletop roots, as fighting spaces are cordoned off into desk-like zones (corners and all). After a few missions, I found the lack of a third-dimension to be a godsend, given how intense battles can become, and how reliant you become on quick thinking and the speedy recollection of hotkeys.
Your capital ships aren’t particularly good at pathfinding, either, but this may be a deliberate design decision to force you into a position where you’re not just issuing mindless movement orders, but also having to be mindful of how the lumbering ships manoeuvre. They move like ships on the sea, meaning you have to take into account turning speed and acceleration as it relates to not just enemy ships, but your own fleet.
Finer motor controls can be utilised to accelerate to safety, or perform emergency turn/stop manoeuvres, which are as satisfying as they are powerful when activated at the right moment. There’s also an acceleration button that’s as handy for getting out of a pinch, or avoiding a salvo of incoming torpedoes, as it is for ramming enemy ships. Get your micro timing right, or end a ram with an emergency turn away, and the hapless ship you just bludgeoned with your bow might just spin out of control to reveal its aft for a broadside salvo from your macrocannons at point-blank range.
I’m playing the campaign as the Imperial Navy, but you can also play as Chaos, Ork Pirates and Eldar Corsairs (at least in multiplayer and in skirmishes), with each faction having noticeable strengths and weaknesses. In my Imperial Navy campaign, I’ve fought against the other three remaining factions, and they all require different adjustments atop my usual aggressive tactics. For instance, it’s best to close the distance on Chaos ships that excel at range, while Orks tend to get in close and try to ram frequently, whereas Eldar engage hit-and-run tactics to frustrating effect.
If this all sounds a bit overwhelming, you can always tap spacebar to slow time and make the mass distribution of orders between ships in your fleet a whole lot more manageable. That said, as I progress through the campaign, I’m unlocking new ship slots and am allowed to deploy more capital ships thanks to a healthier pool of ‘Fleet Points’ (every ship allocation chews into this), which makes micro even trickier. After the training levels, the first couple of missions were particularly tricky, but this may have been because I was still getting used to the mechanics as the tutorial missions don’t do the best job of getting you up to speed.
You can save the game in the galactic view screen, but not during real-time battles, which meant I restarted one fight more than a few times to find victory. This is a tricky gamble, though, because the missions are procedurally generated in terms of enemy ships, their spawn locations, as well as the presence of hazards such as asteroid fields, floating mines, and gas clouds that can be used to mask the location of your fleet or the enemy’s.
For the next few missions, I was dominating, with matches lasting less than five minutes. Now I’ve hit a point where I’ll have to use as many of my Fleet Points as possible to create a decent enough armada to have a hope of winning against the hordes I’m starting to come up against. Up until this point, I’d been only using two cruisers per battle for victory to take advantage of bonus renown points to spend on upgrading my fleet; now, I need the numbers, but that means I’ll also have to find a greater mastery of micro skills if I hope to keep my veteran ships alive.
The ebb and flow of the game’s difficulty (I’m playing on normal) isn’t as preferable as an upwards-spiking curve, but it’s not enough to deter me from the challenge. It may have its flaws, but from what I’ve played, the pros of Battlefleet Gothic: Armada easily outweigh the cons, and I look forward to implementing all-new strategies as the difficulty spikes throughout the rest of the campaign.