Ships in the Night : Battlefleet Gothic Armada

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Battlefleet Gothic : Armada
2016 RTS/RTT, Developed by Tindalos Interactive

 

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is an asymmetrical space combat wargame in which one builds a persistent fleet over the course of many battles, shaping the abilities and stats of those ships towards one’s personal recipe. It is based on a tabletop wargame of a similar stripe, set in the Warhammer 40k universe. I have played precisely one game of the tabletop version of Battlefleet Gothic. Me and a friend played a game in university, with about six cruisers between us (unpainted and recently purchased off ebay). I learned from this experience that while ships have two broadsides, placing them so that can both fire at enemies, generally means that both of those enemies can fire at you too. I was roundly and soundly beaten, finding my regal Imperial ships caught in a thorny chaos sandwich. We live and learn. The tabletop game is one of strategic planning playing out over a series of turns, each of which can take anywhere between ten minutes and an hour of real time. Tabletop gaming has always partly been an endurance sport. Battlefleet Gothic : Armada on the other hand is most certainly a sprint, as battles only take five to twenty minutes. Sound tactical nous is still mandatory, but it must operate at high speed in order to keep up with the ever evolving game in front of one’s eyes. All of this is by way of saying, I am going to do a little review of Battlefleet Gothic : Armada (henceforth BFG:A).


In order to understand the appeal of BFG:A, one must first understand 40k’s setting. 40k is a mishmash of a large number of different fantasy and sci-fi tropes, all rolled up into a ball, glued together with a through-going grim and foreboding gothic aesthetic (i.e there are skulls glued to everything). The basic situation is this; it is the 41st millennium and the Imperium of man is a thousands of years old empire which stretches across thousands of worlds. Its culture is based on zealotry, racism and religious cultism. The Emperor himself; the man who created the Empire in a series of great space crusades. However, in 40k’s universe, there are dark gods—the four gods of chaos, who basically live to dick around anyone with a soul. Eventually some of the Emperor’s most loyal followers were corrupted by these dark gods, the chaos gods, and there was a massive civil war. Long story short, the Emperor is mortally wounded by his erstwhile best friend, who he slew in return, and after that the whole expansion thing kind of grinds to a halt. The Emperor is still technically alive, but on a massive psychic life support machine called the “golden throne”, and as such cannot really influence events (if indeed he is actually alive in any sense at all). As such he has become an object of religious devotion, a devotion which protects mankind from the predations of the chaos gods, who would otherwise run riot over human civilisation. Many of the traitors escaped into the “warp”, a dimension ruled by the Chaos gods (which human ships have to dip into in order to travel faster than light), and are still really pissed about the whole civil war thing. Occasionally the chaos gods send forth some of their human minions to try and conquer the universe, which they generally achieve with as much success with as Starscream’s attempts at usurping Megatron. BFG:A is the story of one of those times, the campaign takes place in the “Gothic Sector” (which is an area of space, not a shop which sells nurocks and spiked collars), where the player is given the character of Admiral Spire, a —somewhat bland— up and coming Imperial captain who must defend his sector of space from a Chaos invasion. As such the spotlight is focused mainly on the Imperials and the Chaos minions.

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There are however, other races hanging around. The Eldar are doomed space elves. They had a big civilisation once, but they partied too hard and the Chaos god of obsession and pleasure—Slaanesh—ate the souls of most of their whole race. They are therefore not too fond of Chaos. The ones who are left (who we meet in BFG:A at least), are basically a bunch of fanatics who distained the corruption and debauchery of the old Eldar empire. They did not get eaten, because they were too busy being prudes. They are also racist, and thus hate every other race too. The final race, the Orks, on the other hand are a bunch of happy-go-lucky big green space bastards. They are basically a massive mob of Begbe-like brawlers, and thus join the battle for the Gothic sector because “fuck it, why not?”. They are not so much racist as mindlessly homicidal. They are also hilarious. The Orks are a good reminder that one does well not to take this all too seriously.
The explanation I have provided here is not really in depth enough to explain what the hell is going on in BFG:A. One could write thousands of words about the setting alone, without getting to the Gothic Sector at all. However, the game does not really bother itself too much trying to explain 40k to newcomers. I imagine the developers believed that this was a game really for people who were already caught up in the fiction of the setting. Representing, as BFG:A does, a somewhat niche project. BFG:A is an extremely lean game, its focus is space battles in the 41st, and it does not waste too much time on other niceties. However, it might have been nice of them to include some kind of encyclopedia for those out of the loop.

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As for the battles themselves, BFG:A technically has three modes of play, the campaign, skirmishes and multiplayer battles, but they all use pretty much the same system. Whatever game mode one is playing, play is split into a two aspects, the port; where one unlocks and chooses one’s ships and their upgrades, and the tactical battle map; where one earns the currency to do the former by battling opposing fleets controlled by either the computer or other human beings. BFG:A eschews the notion that space battles should be fought in three dimensions, emulating the tabletop game in as much as one’s ships move around on a fixed two dimensional plane. This is a good move, as the ships of the 41st millennium are apparently built much like the water-borne warships of our own age. They bear batteries of fearsome looking cannons affixed to either side (or straight ahead in the case of the shapely Eldar) in preference to turreted weaponry. Further, Imperial and Ork ships in particular have large armored prows like inverted ship hulls. I should mention that all of the ship models are completely gorgeous. They are modeled after the original BFG miniatures, and the art style as a whole really manages to bring those sculpts to life. BFG:A’s space is bursting with color and detail, casting dramatic and dynamic light onto the stately and cathedral-like structure of the opposing warships.

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BFG:A’s battles are not quite like anything I have ever played before. In their most basic structure and control scheme they resemble Total War’s naval battles, two sides line up on either side of a mostly featureless battlefield (made more exciting by the presence of vision obscuring gas clouds and damaging asteroid fields). These sides then close to the point where they can shoot at one another until one side retreats or is destroyed. I do not mean to be dismissive here, BFG:A does all this very well: Every ship is tough and can generally last a good long time within range of the enemy. That is not to say that battles take a very long time, but rather that ships feel solid, they do not just spontaneously melt. This is important because it allows the player to feel a certain attachment to the big ships. Their durability puts the weight of responsibility for the survival or otherwise of a ship fully upon the controlling player. Generally speaking, if a ship explodes under your command, it was your fault. This is doubly so as one can always choose to have the ship retreat, which stops them dead in their tracks for about ten seconds as their warp drives spool up. Thus there is never an excuse for letting a ship burn. This is doubly so, as BFG:A employs a mechanic I have never seen before in a multiplayer game, the “tactical cogitator”. If one presses the space bar at any time during battle, the game slows to bullet time and all players are free to issue any micro-intensive orders they wish. I am undecided as to whether this is fantastic, or just terrifically annoying, however it does further place an emphasis on the idea that it is strategy, not reaction speed, that wins a BFG:A battle. Also BFG:A uses a “point buy” system of balancing out the combat in all modes (which Total War only bothered with in multiplayer battles). Beyond this generally competent design, there are a number of other interesting wrinkles that elevate the experience.
The first is that, satisfyingly, the four races currently in the game all play very differently, having different styles of movement and a range of different weapons to play with. The Imperials; can do a little bit of everything but not well, Chaos; sneaky but wibbly once spotted, the Eldar; fast like freaks but have lots of finicky manual aim weapons and the Orks; ram the ever loving shit out of everything but cannot shoot for tuppence. This depth is added to by BFG:A’s use of line of sight and misdirection; enemy ships that are not within one’s own ship’s sensor range appear only as featureless red blips on the map—and can disappear completely if the enemy switches to “silent running”. Thus, and this is often missed from wargames, there is generally an initial stage of skirmishing that goes before the set piece engagement. Light ships from either side jockey to get eyes-on the enemy capital ships, while maintaining a screen around their own. This is important as knowing how to fight one’s enemy depends on knowing their fleet composition. Every faction can field a variety of different ships that operate best at different range bands (from long range carrier fleets, to 1800s style cannons-and-boarding style fleets), and having the information needed to take the correct approach is vital.

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Second, BFG:A seems to have taken a measure of inspiration for its ship to ship combat from MOBAs (unsurprising, as Tindalos Interactive also developed space-ship-to-space-ship MOBA Stellar Impact). The influence of the MOBA genre is somewhat nebulous, it is not as if one is pushing towers and last hitting creeps, but I certainly get the vibe. The influence is visible instead in the way in which units interact. Ships are of course slightly different from the standard MOBA fantasy hero line up. Ships take a while to turn, they have different weapons on different facings and they can take “critical hits” which disable parts of their armament. However, similarities start to appear in that each ship has a set of “skills” which can be equipped to it. These skills are essentially spells. They include area of effect bombs (the spamming of which can be most frustrating—even if it is usually not a good idea), stasis bombs, which slow all the ships in a given area, and a warp drive that allows ships to teleport a short distance. In addition to these skills all ships have a status-effect granting set of “special orders” which buff their attack, defence or stealth for a short time and many ships have manual use weapons like torpedoes or Eldar pulsars. These must be manually aimed by brining the ship using them around to the correct heading and lining up a well timed shot. These skills and manual weapons are all incredibly powerful, but only if used at the right time and in the right way—if used incorrectly or unskilfully they are as good as useless, and generally have a largish cool-down period. Each ship has a good chunk of hp, they can survive for quite a while under the enemy’s guns—at least in the right conditions. However, with a clever use of skills one can catch the enemy out, separate one cruiser out from the rest of the fleet and tear it to pieces. The whole carry-on resembles the way in which big fights in MOBAs occur, usually beginning with a use, or a mis-use of a powerful skill that draws both sides into a full melee—victory depending on the correct application of all of a hero’s skills.
Third, and quite importantly for long term play, is that the AI is actually not bad. That is, it is an AI that seems to be good at the game that it is playing. Of course, it is the AI, so it does some odd things (like not ramming ships when it by all rights could and should have), however, by and large it has been a challenging and interesting opponent. The experience of playing against another human being is certainly better than playing against the AI, especially in the initial skirmish phase of a battle where misdirection can really play on the opponent’s psychology. However, playing the campaign and the skirmish is actually not a bad primer for playing the multiplayer game, the same general principles apply. One can only wish that the next Total War game steps up its game to the same level.

20160426231900_1Outside of battle, back at port, the immediately obvious influence on BFG:A is World of Tanks. Every battle, victory or defeat, be it in the campaign or in the multiplayer earns the fleet that you are using (one has different fleets for the campaign, skirmish and multiplayer) “renown”. This is a currency used to open new ship slots and upgrade the ships one has. Further, one earns the right to open more ship slots by one’s admiral increasing in level, which also opens up new game modes. The first thing which stood out to me about the port, is the fact that almost every element of it is deliciously baroque. That is, the port is adorned with ways of making almost every mechanic in the game, the central mechanic that your fleet revolves around. There are upgrades which would allow one to make a serviceable ramming fleet, a boarding fleet, perhaps a torpedo fleet. Upgrades, upgrades galore. World of Tanks has been a great popularizer of this particular form of gameplay experience which I term “popcorn gaming”. The general form is this—first we give the player the most basic tools which the game allows (in BFG:A, three light cruisers). These tools start off bare and without upgrades, so they are pants. However, the player gains experience by fighting battles, and at first they gain this experience quickly. Second, we adjust the gameplay so each battle is over in a matter of minutes. Thus the player can, within half an hour, get a few upgrades and probably a new ship or two. This has started the player off on a grind. However, the great thing about popcorn gaming, is that the grind happens in many tiny spaced out chunks, rather than a single stretch of uninterrupted gameplay. That is, the grind is introduced into the central gameplay loop, with every close of that loop providing a solid sense of reward.

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Because the player is always being returned to the screen where their ships lie at anchor, ready for upgrading, their long term objectives always remain in view, preventing fatigue from setting in too quickly. World of Tanks, World of Warships and Warthunder all use this model because it is a great way of getting money out of players. Frustration with the grind, allied to a sense that one is just so close to getting the next shiny, which is always in view, opens many wallets. It has a benign use however, which we see in action in BFG:A, which is simply as a way to keep the player engaged while opening up more and more complicated layers of gameplay to them. It is frustrating that one cannot go playing with battleships until one is level 8, but at the same time it does not take too long to get there (somewhere in the region of 10-20 hours). Once there one realizes that, to a certain extent, it would not be a fun experience for someone who did not really know the game. Micromanaging ships and abilities is very difficult, and it gets more difficult the more ships and abilities there are.
The campaign adds to this general formula somewhat via the addition of a strategic map, wherein one is given the task of keeping control of a large area of Imperial space. One can only play a couple of battles each turn to liberate different planets, and if one fails to keep atop one’s enemies by winning battles, one starts to get debuffs to the currency one earns for one’s fleet. It is a distraction, and quite enjoyable—interspersed as it is with hammy, but beautifully drawn, cutscenes. I had hoped that it would be the main draw of the game, with talk of different ship captains having different personalities, and sometimes going off and doing their own thing against your orders. Yeah, that’s not a thing, one should never believe the PR machine—although ships will attempt to jump out of battle of they are heavily damaged and things are not going their way (but that happens in all game modes).

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Further, whether one plays a single player campaign, a single player skirmish or a multiplayer game, one’s ships have other persistent elements. Once a ship is destroyed it cannot be used for a battle or two, as it is repaired. If one is playing the “ironman” mode of the campaign, one’s ship losses are forever, one retains the slot, but all the upgrades and experience falls off. Thus there is a very interesting incentive not simply to throw one’s ships at the enemy, but to take a considered approach. On the other hand, without “ironman” mode, destroyed ships do come back. One can either pay to have the destroyed vessels returned immediately, or wait for them, accepting that they will not be part of the fleet for at least a couple of their games. This is a fascinating idea, however I feel like it is falling short of its potential in practice. As an incentive not to charge ships head first at people, persistence only works if you have the courage to make it stick. It does not stick in multiplayer, and because it does not stick and might simply cost a few points to patch up, all the old incentives to treat one’s ships like missiles still remains.
Thankfully the campaign is mostly irrelevant. The features that pop out at the player, and make Armada special are the visceral, weighty feel of play and its tactical depth. I can see BFG:A being a multiplayer staple of many people’s gaming diets for a long time—it certainly will be for me. In the few days since it has been released I have enjoyed a good few games with a close friend, and they were excellent gaming experiences—even at low level. There are of course niggles, but I shall not bore with details of balance and minor interface problems, I have confidence that these will be ironed out over time. So, in conclusion I recommend BFG:A as a genuinely well made game. It’s not really pushing any boundaries in terms of storytelling, or even in terms of mechanical brilliance. However, what it is, is an example of a very solidly made and enjoyable game—accessible but deep.

Also please, seriously buy it, because I need to play more, well made, Warhammer 40k games.

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Ships in the Night : Battlefleet Gothic Armada

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