A brief overview of the features found in Battlefleet Gothic: Armada

[Update]: I've done a full review on Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, so if you're interested in my thoughts on the campaign and the release version in general, head over here.

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is a Warhammer 40k themed strategy game that features large scale space battles between four distinct factions, each with their own ridiculously large ships and weaponry.

It is currently in a multiplayer beta, so while the core of the game is fully present there are some bugs and balance issues that will need to be ironed out prior to launch. Here are my thoughts after playing around with it for 10 hours:

 

Before I move on to the gameplay, allow me to just say that if the few campaign missions available in this beta are any judge, Battlefleet Gothic is going to be one of the most impressive and faithful Warhammer 40k adaptations in recent years. With each mission starting with a well done cutscene and delightfully over-the-top narration its hard not to get giddy if you're a Warhammer 40k fan, as the characters, races and themes are spot on.

I won't comment on the quality of the campaign itself as only the tutorial is currently available, but given the size of the playable Gothic Sector and all the areas you get to wage war in, I have a feeling its going to be a rather long one. My main concern is mission variety as I've only seen around 6 different types, but throughout my playthrough I constantly kept unlocking new features that never showed up, so this might be a beta only issue.

Whatever the case, I look forward to seeing more of the campaign as the tiny bits of it I managed to play were immensely enjoyable, and rather challenging even on normal difficult, though that could be attributed to me being bad as the campaign was the first thing I tried out.

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada - meeting the inquisition

The joy of being invited to stand before the inquisition

Once I was done with the tutorial I was ready to unleash my fleet upon all that dare stand before me... at which point I realized I don't actually own a single ship. As it turns out, the multiplayer portion of Battlefleet Gothic mirrors the progression system of the campaign where you need to gather renown in order to unlock, upgrade and personalize your fleet, ship by ship. Even though it might sound a bit annoying, its not a bad system by any stretch as it makes it so new players only have to contend with two ships, while more advanced players are given command of entire fleets.

The only problem here is that progression is faction based, so if you put in a lot of time towards mastering the Chaos fleet, and then decide to switch to the Imperium, you will be right back at zero. There are ways for more experienced players to earn renown quickly, the most efficient route being to intentionally handicapping yourself by going to battle without all of the ships slots filled. Unfortunately, doing so doesn't seem to boost your experience gain by a significant degree, which is the main issue since experience is what gates you from picking up some of the truly gigantic ships that have become iconic to the Warhammer 40k universe.

On the positive side, the ship customization system allows for plenty of opportunities to mold your fleet towards whatever strategy you enjoy. Depending on the size of the ship, and the experience of its crew, you will be able to attach various new abilities which have direct combat uses, technological upgrades which improve your ship's performance in a given area, and even additional crew-members such as the Commissar which helps improve moral by shooting people in the face.

While the majority of the customization options are currently available in the beta, the most important one is unfortunately still in development, and by that I mean the ability to color your own ships! Its such a small feature, I know, but as a Warhammer 40k fan just having the option to play as the famous Chapters and factions from the lore is a great feeling, and it elevates the gameplay to a whole new level.

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada allows heavy ship customization

The foundry allows you to bolt on even more cannons to your ships

As of right now, the beta has two factions available: the heavily armored, slow and powerful Imperium, and the forces of Chaos which excel at long range engagements and the use of support units such as bombers and fighter craft. Out of the two I opted to play as Chaos, partly because their tactics appeal to me, and partly because Chaos tends to have hilariously corny voice acting which never gets boring to listen to.

However, despite the voice acting being exactly what I signed up for, I did encounter a major disappointment. Even after having my entire fleet dedicated to Khorne, the god of slaughter, blood, and other equally nice things, not a single one of my troops ever exclaimed the most iconic and well recognized phrase in Warhammer 40k: "Blood for the blood god! Skulls for the skull throne!". I'm aware this is such an absurdly specific thing to complain about, but given how your entire ship transforms depending on which god you serve, would it really have been too much to ask for a couple of more lines.

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada Khorne ship

The aptly named 'Eternity of Bloodshed'

With my fanboy complaints out of the way, its time to finally delve deep in to the actual RTS mechanics behind Battlefleet Gothic. The first thing any player will notice once they enter the battle arena is that even though the gameplay is simple in concept, the UI is anything but. There is an overwhelming amount of poorly explained options for you to use, options that are of great significance in combat, yet completely obscured from new players.

The best example of this is the "Focus Target" ability that makes it so your ship constantly fires at the enemy, even while you're maneuvering it around, changing its angle for the perfect broadside cannon spread and so on. Its the sort of thing you would always want to have enabled, but Battlefleet Gothic not only disables it at the start of each round, but also hides it among a dozen other options with tiny icons at the bottom left of your screen. Once I figured out Focus Target existed my enjoyment of Battlefleet Gothic practically doubled as I was no longer fighting my ships for control, yet its next to impossible to locate unless you're actively fiddling with the menus.

It also doesn't help that the default keyboard controls have been designed with the squid people of Grobulon 5 in mind, and as such the majority of your important functions are delegated to far away buttons while the completely pointless camera controls are set on very accessible WASD keys. If you do decide to play Battlefleet Gothic, heed my advice and go in to the controls and remap your skills to buttons you're comfortable with as you're going to be using them often, and the default settings are simple not adequate.

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada has some confusing controls

Complex controls are great for tactical depth, but rather poor at welcoming new players

While the options might be somewhat poorly explained, the whole process of planning and executing your attacks is immensely satisfying given that each ship is capable of taking a solid amount of punishment, so you never feel like you've just won or lost purely because someone got lucky. Instead, its all about using every single tactical advantage available to you in order to turn the tides on your opponent, which sometimes means sacrificing your own ship by ramming it prow-first in to the enemy.

Much like the galleons of old, the cannons in Battlefleet Gothic are mostly situated at the broadside, with the front only having limited firing options. Since the ships in question are almost all ginormous, its not easy for them rotate around in order to get the optimal firing angle, which means there is plenty of ways for you to outmaneuver and deceive your opponents in such a way that you leave them constantly shifting and turning as they desperately try to find a good angle on you, while you unleash barrage after barrage straight in to their engines, crippling them further.

This is the future, however, so you are able to execute a high-energy turn in order to quickly rotate your ship, but this doesn't come without its downsides. First of all, almost all of your forward momentum will be lost and while you might turn around, you will be left adrift and slow in the void of space which is the universal signal for "attack now"; and secondly, using these sort of turns expels precious fuel which can also be used to greatly boost your speed. So if you see your opponent constantly executing high-speed turns you will know for certain that they can't run very far, or very fast, which means its time to bring out the big guns, space-bombs and hilariously slow moving torpedoes to bear upon them.

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada ship blowing up while warping out

Aww, he almost made it in to the Warp

If you haven't guessed already, speed in Battlefleet Gothic is of the utmost importance, especially if you enjoy playing with short-ranged ships, which is where one of my main annoyances comes in, and that is the ability to permanently destroy a ship's engines. When you're mostly fighting moon-sized ships it makes sense to give you the ability to focus fire on certain parts of it: the turrets, the engines, the deck, navigation and so forth. The problem is that while disabling the turrets or the deck is annoying, doing so for the engines is a 100% death sentence.

Without the ability to move quickly your short ranged ships will simply be either forced to warp-out of the engagement if they're still able, or remain floating around like space-turds as your opponents activate their turbo-boost and skedaddle out of range of your guns. Suddenly, just because someone got fortunate enough to get a few solid hits on your engine, your entire ship, which might be on near-full health, is now completely useless as it can't catch up to enemies, turn quickly or do practically anything. Worst of all, when a ship loses its engine early on its just not fun to play with, so I do hope this is something the developers fix for the launch version, because losing your engines should be a massive punishment, but not the RTS equivalent of torture.

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada allows you to go really fast

The Orks had it right, its all about shoving the "most bigga" engines on to your ships

Thankfully, that nightmare scenario doesn't come up often as the balance in Battlefleet Gothic feels like its almost there, with maybe the exception of the Imperial Nova Cannons which do obscene amounts of damage if you dare face them head on. Another factor worthy of praise is that battles are relatively short so even if you lose you won't feel like you've wasted too much time, and will gladly queue in to another match armed with the knowledge some other player just beat in to you.

As a part of my strategy I outfitted all of my ships with docking bays so that I can launch wave after wave of bombers and fighters to overwhelm the enemy with, while my long-ranged cruisers only ever come close in order to deposit a fresh batch of Chaos demons on enemy's doorstep before falling back once again. It seems like a very simple system, even when you're playing it, but there are so many minute things you can do in order to secure yourself an advantage that Battlefleet Gothic constantly kept pulling me back for one more round, all the way until 3 AM.

If I would to level one big complaint against Battlefleet Gothic it would be the completely static maps upon which you do battle. Sure some have a few nebulas, others a few asteroid fields, but overall the maps never change and there is nothing dynamic about them. I want to see maps where a Space Hulk slowly meanders across the battlefield providing an annoying obstruction, I want to see warp storms spring out and negatively affect all ships that are unfortunate enough to be caught inside them without their shields up, things like that. As it stands, every map might look slightly different, but they all play exactly the same, and that's just a shame given how cool the actual gameplay is.

Final Thoughts

I've spent around 10 hours playing Battlefleet Gothic: Armada this week and while it certainly has a few annoying issues and balance problems I can't say I didn't greatly enjoy my time with it. Even though I appreciate a good bit of multiplayer madness, its the campaign I'm looking forward to the most, especially after seeing how its so faithful to the Warhammer 40k lore while also being just a touch self-aware.

If you're a Warhammer 40k fan, and you think you would enjoy a micromanagement focused RTS, then by all means give Battlefleet Gothic: Armada a try, I had a good bit of fun with it.

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