Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is an incredibly faithful adaptation of the Warhammer 40k universe, a notion that doesn't sound very impressive until you notice the mountain of corpses from former games that have attempted, and failed miserably to capture even a sliver of the grim cheesiness that permeates the 40th millennium.
When it comes to pleasing fans Battlefleet Gothic has it all: over-the-top weaponry fitted on equally titanic ships, characters that are only capable of talking by yelling ominously at each other, a plot that threatens the destruction of everything humanity holds dear, casualties numbering in the billions, and most importantly, factions that perfectly represent both their lore and combat style, which in the case of Orks means yelling, shooting, and literally launching themselves inside torpedoes in order to get to the action as quickly as possible, sanity be damned.
But even when you ignore all of the Warhammer 40k elements, Battlefleet Gothic is still one of the most interesting strategy games I've played in recent years, simply because it manages to make each of its 10 minute long matches feel fresh and explosive, and I don't just say that because my ships tend to spontaneously ignite due to the crew being a bunch of bloodthirsty, but still lovable morons.
Video version of this review (8:20)
The main reason I find the battles so compelling is the customization system which allows you to specialize your ships in a variety of ways, all of which play similarly enough to not be confusing, but also distinctly enough to offer a unique way of handling any situation. For example, if you ever get bored of playing with the standard Imperial loadout that focuses on heavy frontal armor and powerful broadside attacks, you can invest some resources into swapping around weaponry to create a fleet of fast-moving carrier ships that prefer to attack indirectly through the use of bombers and boarding parties.
Best of all, you're actually incentivized to take good care of your ships because having them destroyed or heavily damaged comes with a massive downside, you either have to wait two in-game turns (which in the campaign can sometimes mean 3+ battles), or spend even more of your hard earned currency in order to get your expensive ships back in to the action as soon as possible. It might seem insignificant now, but after being forced to take good care of my ships I started forming a real bond with them, and would actually get vindictive if someone dared focus my longest-lasting battleship - The Emperor's Faithful. Is it petty and somewhat sad? Probably, but its also incredibly fun when you get yourself immersed in to the battle!
The pride and joy of my fleet - The Emperor's Faithful
With plenty of diverging playstyles available, there is a need for good controls, and for the most part Battlefleet Gothic does an exemplary job at it. Once you get used to how everything functions, and stop forgetting that the Space Bar slows down time for a brief period, you will be able to fully focus your attention on combat maneuvers, well-timed use of abilities, and most importantly, panning and zooming in order to catch the perfect shot of your ship ramming the enemy's in to the next dimension. To one thing I regret not seeing is the ability to divert shield power to various parts of the ship, not for any balance reasons mind you, but rather because Picard made it look so damn fun.
There is one issue with the controls, however, and it stems from the fact that the bottom left menu is almost always used once at the start of the round to set up your optimal engagement range, choose if your ships are going to focus on firing from the broadside macro cannons or frontal lances, and then almost never again. Once you chose a certain set of options they should become the default for that ship, rather than something you have to change every single match, because let's face it, when are you ever going to play without using your ship's optimal firing setup? Its a small issue, I'm aware, but its one of those that can lose you a round because you forgot to tick the option to make sure your ships follow the enemy while filling them with plasma, rather than simply stand around and enjoy the lovely glow of the raging fire that's currently devouring the command deck.
The battles are a chaotic bundle of fun and explosions
That niggling little annoyance aside, the battles have one immensely important factor working in their favor, they're fun! With solid controls, plenty of customization, and dozens of ships on each side its hard not to hear your inner 10-year-old giggle as he smashes two ships together while making shrieking noises best not uttered by mortal men. Do keep in mind that the combat isn't brainless, however, and if you simply charge at your enemies you will find yourself either speeding towards land mines or completely surrounded and decimated via torpedoes. Use of actual tactics and maneuvering will be required of you, especially if you play against some of the harder computer opponents, or simply against any player that knows what they're doing.
Unfortunately, this is where balancing issues come in to play in order to ruin everyone's fun. The prime example of this is how unfair the early match-up between Orks and Eldar really is. Orks have slow, heavily armored ships designed to ram the enemy, and then follow up the assault with their inaccurate guns and strong boarding parties. The Eldar on the other hand have fragile ships focused around avoiding the enemy, attacking from afar, and using bursts of speed to dodge out of the way whenever they're being fired upon.
What this means in multiplayer is that unless you have a very specific loadout of Ork ships you're going to be endlessly chasing after some Eldar that just won't bloody stand and fight, even if they are destined to lose eventually, thus wasting everyone's time for no reason. I will fully admit this might just be because I'm still relatively inexperienced, but there do seem to be a couple of these issues where battles end up slowing down to a crawl if one party realizes they can simply bore their opposition to death.
Orks - they don't care who they're fighting as long as someone's teeth are getting smashed
If you can't be bothered with multiplayer there's no need to worry as you can replicate the same experience by playing against the AI on harder difficulty settings, or you can just go for the singleplayer campaign which is surprisingly good given the story material it had to work with. The story is completely predictable, sometimes nonsensical, and often melodramatic, but its that special sort of Warhammer 40k cheesiness that fans will appreciate, especially since the voice acting and tone are spot on through its entirety, with special mention going to Inquisitor Horst who acts exactly like you would imagine.
While the ships and upgrades are mostly identical between modes, there is a far greater variety of missions when it comes to the campaign, with some that are set up in such an interesting way I'm puzzled to not see them available in multiplayer. Unfortunately, this doesn't apply for all of them as there are a couple of missions that are almost impossible if you're playing on a harder difficulty, with my most aggravating example belonging to the planetary bombardment mission. The idea of bolstering a ground invasion by supplying firing support from space is an awesome one, but giving you only one minute to traverse the entire map is just madness, and even with the fastest ships in the entire fleet it can sometimes be impossible to complete, especially when the hard AI knows your weakness and just focuses down your fastest, and weakest ships first.
The Imperial crew readies themselves to travel through the Warp
Losing these sort of missions might feel incredibly unfair, especially since there are real consequences both on the world map, and in your treasury, but nonetheless I urge you to avoid save-scumming. Every single important mission will give you a couple of opportunities to salvage the situation, and even if you fail miserably and give the enemy an advantage it won't mean the game is over, on the contrary, you will actually get unique cinematics that cower the consequences of your loss!
Besides, there is no better feeling than that moment when you finally turn the tides and start winning, the moment when your ships completely crush the opposition despite them having fierce Warp Storms on their side, and the moment the characters finally start believing victory is once again possible. I understand all of this is a bit cliche, but this is Warhammer 40k we're talking about, crushing defeats are to be expected, and are almost always a prelude to future heroics, so don't rob yourself the opportunity to create a unique and personal story, its where half the fun lies! Then again, that's just my opinion, and if you feel you can't have fun without perfecting every single match, the option to reload is always available to you, though you will have to repeat the entire turn.
Its not Exterminatus, but its certainly effective
Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is a great RTS, but more importantly, it is a great Warhammer 40k game. It has managed to not just capture the look and feel of the universe, but also use its key elements and lore to further enhance the gameplay, and make the whole thing an immensely enjoyable experience.
Its not without its flaws or egregious balance issues, but as far gameplay mechanics and variety go Battlefleet Gothic: Armada stands on solid ground... despite floating through space. If you're a fan of Warhammer 40k, or RTS games in general, its well worth checking out as it might just be the game you were waiting for.
Finally, if you're up for seeing some straight up gameplay footage I welcome you to check out the video I've made cowering two campaign side-missions: