by Sorin Annuar
reviewed on PC
When miniatures giant Games Workshop brought its grim vision of a dark war-torn future to the world in 1987, one wonders just how far-reaching they foresaw their franchise would grow. Like the long reach of the Imperium of Man in the 41st millennium in their science fiction wargame, the tendrils of Warhammer 40,000 have spread to countless books, graphic novels, specialist board games and of course video games.
Following the fall of publisher THQ, who previously dealt with practically all Warhammer 40,000 games between 2003 and 2011, the property licence has seen as much handing over between various publishers as Sonic the Hedgehog did once SEGA stopped manufacturing consoles, with about the same degree of success.
Enter Battlefleet: Gothic Armada, which despite lacking the 40,000 prefix is the latest interpretation of the beloved franchise. This however is a video game adaptation of a space combat board game which itself is an offshoot of the core miniatures wargame. Not all familiar with Warhammer 40,000 would necessarily have been aware of the original Battlefleet Gothic, as it has now been discontinued.
The essence of the board game saw hulking space cruisers from various factions take part in turn-based combat amongst asteroid fields and the carcasses of orbital stations. Battlefleet: Gothic Armada retains the factions, look and fleet-based combat, but changes out the turn-based mechanics for a more game-traditional RTS scheme. It worked to an extent for Relic’s adaptation of the core game in the Dawn of War series, and it would appear French developer Tindalos has used Relic’s overall approach in mechanics and presentation as a template, filtered through a healthy dashing of Relic’s other sci-fi strategy milestone, Homeworld.
In the story campaign you play an admiral in the Imperium’s space fleet, the de facto ‘good guys’ of the Warhammer 40,000 universe; although ‘good’ is relative in keeping with the dark tone of the source material, as fairly early on in the tutorials you are taught how to execute a ship’s captain for disobeying orders and attempting to flee. Throughout the course of the game you will clash with three other factions: the Orks, Eldar (basically space elves) and of course the renegade forces of Chaos Undivided on an unholy crusade led by Abaddon the Despoiler.
Ship to ship combat is at times a woefully ponderous affair, even with the auto-engage option turned on causing ships to target and attack the nearest enemy unit. Ships would gravitate around each other exchanging fire for an excruciatingly long time. Whilst it is understandable that the developers wanted to provide as many tactical options as possible, the cluttered UI with its myriad buttons which either force you to memorise their symbols or rely on the hover text appearing can be off-putting to the uninitiated. The tutorial does attempt to teach you the game’s systems, but the amount of information it feels it has to throw at you before you can even begin to play the game properly is more than a little overwhelming. Add to this the inability to save mid mission (another artificial difficulty artefact brought over from Dawn of War) and you will regularly find yourself having to retry missions because you didn’t use every resource you could to defeat the enemy.
Herein lies the double-edged sword of the game’s design ethic: if it had streamlined the available options the game would have felt undernourished and possibly annoyed purists. Conversely what we are left with is an overwhelming amount of knowledge of the games mechanics being required; even the simple act of changing direction in the game has the caveat that units will continue on their path, leading to ships sometimes drifting past each other unless you actively tell them to change direction every few seconds. The combat can be slowed down with a press of the space bar, but stopping to fine tune movement at every turn means this game is aimed at those of a Servitor-like level of patience and persistence. This is not helped by the interface text being painfully small to read - the game was reviewed on a widescreen HDTV - and the uniformity of the buttons requiring you to have paid close attention the one time the game tells you what a button does.
Ships are well detailed if unlikely to turn heads, whilst the backdrop of space seems, ironically, quite flat and empty, bar for some background images far in the distance. The soundtrack is suitably bombastic and heavily-laden with doom-tinged male choir vocals, though this is overused out of context to the extent that it sometimes feels like an overwhelming pastiche of that style of soundtrack.
Battlefleet: Gothic Armada is a competent if slightly laborious first foray into the realms of Warhammer 40,000’s space battles, but there is potential here. As Dawn of War II changed almost all the elements of its precursor for the better, it will be interesting to see what Tindalos would do next were it to return to this franchise.
Complex, difficult and unforgiving
Complex, difficult and unforgiving