For those who are unfamiliar with Warhammer 40K, Tindalos Interactive's new real-time strategy game is the newest title set in the sci-fi universe. It can be a bit overwhelming and confusing at first glance. The spaceships resemble cathedrals, and there are four different factions competing in various missions set in a giant slice of space; it's a lot to take in. The title is based on the Battlefleet Gothic tabletop, which has players take control of a fleet from one of four different factions; the Imperial Navy, Chaos, Ork Pirates and Eldar Pirates. The Imperial Navy are the primary focus of the video game and you'll be controlling them throughout the campaign, with the remaining three factions acting as your opponents throughout, each having their own tactics that you'll need to find effective methods to counter.
With a game focused on space fleets, it's important that the ships within the game are apt, and they very much are. There are plenty to choose from, and they can come in the form of Cruisers, Battle Cruisers, Light Cruisers and Escorts, with each faction having between two to five variants of each. Battle Cruisers are the largest available, while Cruisers and Light Cruisers are smaller and used to protect their larger equivalents. Escorts are primarily used to carry cargo during convoy missions. Navigating ships across space is simple and easy, requiring a mere right click anywhere on the map, sending them where you want. Although the process of moving the fleet from A to B can feel slightly sluggish at times.
Something that some players may find striking at first, is the space in which the battles take place. It is incredibly vast in comparison to your fleet, with enough room to fit hundreds of ships inside the empty arena; there's not a lot occupying this empty space. At first this could be cause for concern, but after a few rounds it's easy to realise why this is the case. Even with three or four ships at your command it can be tough to make sure they're all being used efficiently; each ship has its own advantages, disadvantages, and some come with unique abilities; so it requires a lot of juggling to put ships in the best position. With an overly large fleet this would be impossible and you'd end up with many ships doing nothing aside from drawing enemy fire.
Armada eases you in with a couple of tutorial missions to get you used to most of the basic controls, and then proceeds to teach you additional skills throughout the rest of the campaign through various pop-ups and prompts, which should be closely studied as the info provided becomes very handy further down the line. It's helpful that assistance is provided throughout, because overall the game is incredibly unforgiving. The campaign is structured around a turn-based system; you're given a map of the galaxy, and during your turn you select an area of that galaxy which triggers a Mission, where you attempt to complete the objective and take that sector for the Imperial Navy. However, it's not easy to take the sectors by any means.
The first encounter with the Pirate Ork faction was a convoy mission which has you escorting a pair of delivery ships to the other side of the map, along the way are minefields, gas clouds, and naturally there's Orks flying in towards you. The Orks are notorious within the Warhammer 40K universe for having few tactics beyond "smash them in the face", which here results in various scrap-heap frigates ramming into your armada and destroying them with ease. This wouldn't be much of an issue were it not for the fact that losing a battle in Armada will not halt the story, instead you'll lose more territory which only makes your job harder later on. The only way to restart a mission is to reload an old save, which no doubt will happen more than once if you plan on beating the campaign via a perfect run.
Keep in mind that the encounter with the Orks was only three missions into the campaign, and even when we attempted this on a lower difficulty it proved a challenge. As the game goes on and more types of mission are revealed, it becomes increasingly arduous. The different modes are reasonably traditional; as mentioned previously there's a convoy mode that requires you to escort cargo ships, then there's a data collection mode which has you retrieve data faster than rival factions and then warp out of the map. An Assassination mode places a VIP on a designated vessel that must be destroyed, and there's more, most of which usually involve a lot of exploding ships, a fair amount of frustration, and plenty of restarts. The type of mission will be dependent on which sector you travel to (and the circumstances of that sector), making each step of the story an interesting new challenge. The campaign's story is definitely worth playing through; the characters are unique and each has energy and charisma, which makes it more interesting to power through and makes you feel as if you're truly an admiral taking charge of a gothic-inspired fleet.
The campaign is not the only part of the game, however, and there's a Solo Skirmish mode where you can hone your skills across the various game modes while playing against AI-controlled enemies. You can then take these skills and use them against other players in multiplayer. The large empty battlegrounds mentioned earlier don't entirely go to waste in some rounds, with gas clouds polluting the area that enemies can park ships in to create ambush hotspots, and without being close enough, some enemies may not appear on your radar until it's far too late to plan an effective attack.
Unfortunately many of our attempts to connect to an online game were met with long waiting times. When we were finally connected, we found multiplayer to be very much enjoyable. The matchmaking is efficient in that it pairs you with an equally matched opponent which obviously makes for more balanced battles. Depending on the game mode selected, time taken to complete a match will vary, but will never go on for too long, no longer than half an hour on average.
As with all RTS games, Gothic Armada requires a lot of tactical play, but here your need to improvise on the fly is taken to new levels. You can't adopt a personalised strategy to be reused again and again, given how everyone you encounter will play differently from the next, and on top of individual play-styles there's also the particular strengths and weaknesses of the different factions. Each faction has their own large selection of ships so unless you learn every ship's attributes by memory, you're going to have a hard time fending off your enemies.
The factions each have their own advantages and disadvantages, so for instance the Imperial Navy has many ships with torpedo capabilities, but their ships are slow in comparison to others. Eldar Corsairs have incredibly fast and manoeuvrable, however their ships are very fragile and more vulnerable to assault actions. The mix of faction benefits and disadvantages, plus a massive amount of ship combinations and planning, leaves you in a situation whereby you'll need to develop effective strategies based on the actions of the other player, rather than just their ships, which makes for each round played feeling mostly unique. A lot of the time your ships will be locked in conflict, at which point you'll be moving and firing at your opponent while attempting to repair your ships and advance towards the objective; in some cases it may be more efficient to dedicate some of your ships to occupying the enemy while the rest scatter to victory, while at other times it could be simpler to just obliterate a fleet and be done with it. Either way, it's tough to plan in advance, the best you can do is experiment with factions and ships to find which tactics suit you the best, and see how quickly your armada can adapt to a variety of situations.
Visually the game is beautiful, the game takes place within empty sectors of space populated with scattered asteroid fields and gas cloud clusters that float constantly around the field of play. An array of planets, stars, and wormholes decorate the backdrop. The Gothic visual style is certainly unique and allows for some very cool looking ships, and the four different factions available each come with distinct art styles. The soundtrack is also very good; it's orchestral and makes explosive combat in space that much more dramatic, which is impressive given how explosive combat in space is already fairly dramatic. Both in terms of visuals and audio, Tindalos manages to simulate Battlefleet Gothic atmosphere incredibly well, and it certainly captures the spirit of Warhammer 40K.
Ultimately Battlefleet: Gothic Armada is a title that requires a fair amount of playtime before you can get the most out of it, however, once you've got to grips with it, this real-time strategy title becomes largely enjoyable. The atmosphere is immersive and certainly fitting for the Warhammer 40K universe, and the campaign is compelling. However, even at the best of times, it can be very unforgiving, which can make for a stressful play-through where too often you might be greeted by the word "Defeat". And even though we had a few issues connecting to multiplayer, the latest RTS set in the Warhammer universe offers a great rendition of the original Battlefleet Gothic tabletop, that's also an intensely challenging strategy game that should appeal to fans of both.
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