Thoughts: Battlefleet Gothic – Armada

bfg_data

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is an 18th century tall ships naval combat simulator that just so happens to be set in outer space.

To be precise, it’s set in the increasingly-overdone Warhammer 40k universe and it’s based off of an actual board game in said universe that Games Workshop made back in the mid-90s. Unfortunately the financial mileage in selling people a mere dozen ship models was deemed unsatisfactory in favour of doubling down on the potential profits to be found in selling people two hundred tiny plastic men at £20 for five, and so the Battlefleet Gothic boardgame was discontinued after a couple of years. However, two decades later we’re living in a magical era where all Games Workshop properties that do not directly compete with the tiny plastic men business are being dusted off and licensed out as video games as the parent company desperately scrabbles for more money. They already did Blood Bowl – twice — and while Space Hulk was a bit of a bust I’m still very much looking forward to Deathwing. BattlefleetGothic is very much in the vein of the first two, however; rather than licensing the universe for a traditional video game (like Dawn of War or Vermintide), Battlefleet Gothic is an attempt to directly adapt a set of board game rules to a video game environment.

It’s a something of a credit to how well BF:G does this that I didn’t realise just how direct that adaptation was until I downloaded and read the original BFG rulebook. The core skirmish environment of Battlefleet Gothic the videogame matches up pretty well with those rules, albeit somewhat altered so that it can work as a real-time game. Said rules painstakingly replicate precisely the sort of ship-to-ship engagements that you might have witnessed during the golden age of sail, complete with broadsides, boarding actions and ramming. There’s also a tiny element of WW2-era fleet actions sprinkled in — you can get disposable escort ships whose torpedoes are the only weapons they have worth a damn, and some of the larger capital ships are configured as carriers — but probably 80% of BFG’s ruleset could be cut and pasted into a game about the Napoleonic Wars with no modification whatsoever. Fortunately the Warhammer 40k universe is intentionally quite barmily anachronistic so that it can steal gameplay ideas from all over the shop and jam them all into the same setting, and BF:G is no exception; it’s actually a little surprising at how well the concept slides into place if you’re at all familiar with the material.

bfg_ram

The single-player campaign of Battlefleet Gothic is set during one of the numerous Black Crusades that 40k’s big bad Chaos faction makes into the Imperium of Man. The Imperium’s thing is that they’re basically a gigantic religious cult based around the figurehead of their immortal God-Emperor, and so their ships look like gigantic floating cathedrals – plenty of gothic arches and spires hanging off the sides, and each ship is fronted off by a gigantic aquila prow for ramming into things. Imperial ships have a very limited quantity of turret armament; the bulk of their firepower is to be found in their macrocannon1 broadsides, and so they’re the faction that plays most like a set of 18th century ships of the line. Macrocannon broadsides have significant penalties to accuracy at long range, so Imperial tactics are mostly to get in good and close and try to cross the T so that both sides of the ship can bring their macrocannon batteries to bear on the enemy.

Sometimes this is precisely the wrong thing to do, though. The campaign has you playing exclusively as the Imperials, but aside from renegade Imperial ships your opposition is composed of three enemy factions who each have ships that play in distinctly different ships. Chaos ships have a lot of long-range weapons, and while their boarding capability is okay thanks to their access to daemons their ships aren’t all that robust, so they love to stand off beyond macrocannon range and plink away at your ships – and the chaos AI is pretty good at kiting you indefinitely unless you get creative. Orks are the polar opposite of Chaos; their ships have tons of HP (although not much armour), huge gun batteries that are ineffectual beyond point-blank range but deadly within it, and a high troop value that makes them resistant to boarding actions; they also get a whole bunch of special weapons like boarding torpedoes and tractor cannons that are designed to cripple or immobilise opponents so that they’ll stay still long enough to be rammed. The usual Imperial approach of closing with the enemy means certain death when facing an Ork fleet; instead it’s you that has to stand off and keep the Orks from closing you down.

bfg_eldar

The last enemy faction are the faux-elven Eldar, who are the most finicky of the Battlefleet Gothic races; their ships are incredibly fast and, unlike everyone else, have all of their weapons mounted on the prow of the ship pointing forward. Also unlike everyone else, these weapons are lances that fire huge incandescent gouts of laser energy, which in game terms translates to “Has a decent range and always hits”. The Eldar are specialised towards hit-and-run strikes, setting themselves up for attack runs and dealing obscene quantities of damage with a single alpha strike before zooming past the enemy so fast they can’t retaliate. Arguably they’re over-specialised in this area, however, as the tradeoff is that Eldar ships are made out of the outer space equivalent of canvas and balsa wood. They don’t have void shields like everyone else; instead they’ve got holofields which deflect a quantity of incoming fire proportional to the ship’s current speed. If they’re going fast they’re basically untouchable. If they ever stop, then the holofields go down and they get ripped to pieces in one or two salvos.

Thankfully BFG does hand you a few tools to slow the Eldar down. Aside from their primary weapons ships can be upgraded and configured with a whole host of abilities such as deployable fighter and bomber squadrons; a nova cannon that functions as long-range artillery; jamming fields that reduce a ship’s sensor range to almost nothing, effectively blinding it; probes that’ll detect an enemy beyond a ship’s sensor range which go some way towards countering the jamming; and a whole array of bombs that you teleport into space and which explode after a set interval. These show up as big red circles on the map that denote the blast radius of the bomb, with a smaller expanding green circle inside that indicates how much time you have to vacate the area. Once the green circle matches the red one the bomb detonates and ruins the day of anyone still caught inside; what exactly the bomb will do depends on the type of bomb, but usually it’ll either do damage, bring down shields, or deploy a stasis bubble that massively slows down anything inside it. It’s this last one that is the prime anti-Eldar tool, and many missions against them involve trying to trap them inside a web of stasis fields so that you can shoot them – or at least herd them in the direction of your guns, since the AI is annoyingly good at avoiding bomb blasts.

bfg_stasis

To be fair, it’s no better than you are. The first thing I do on seeing an enemy bomb marker show up is to engage the Tactical Cogitator, which is 40k-speak for “one quarter game speed”. This is toggled by hitting the spacebar and you can have it on for as long as you want, which is great for micromanaging stuff in the heat of the moment but which did unfortunately mean I spent entire missions with it turned on. After switching on the Cogitator, I then order any ships caught in the projected blast radius to execute a Special Maneuver to get them outside it. Special Maneuvers burn fuel and can be thought of as afterburners — and function exactly like that if you order Full Speed Ahead — but they can also be used to turn your ship far more quickly than normal,  which is great for performing a hasty U-turn and then jetting away before the bomb explodes. Each ship has a limited amount of fuel to engage in maneuvers and it recharges pretty slowly so you can’t just use them willy-nilly, but I’d say the majority of orders you give during a battle are telling your ships to use maneuvers to get them out of the way of a charging Ork cruiser, or to position your Battleship optimally so that it can bring both broadsides to bear on an enemy.  Micromanaging ship targeting is something that almost never happens; usually what you do is set a desired engagement range and preferred targets for your entire fleet, and leave the business of physically firing the broadsides down to your ship captains.

There are five classes of ship in BFG, and before deploying on each mission you get a certain number of points to spend on drafting ships into your fleet; bigger ships are more powerful, but they also come with a hefty points pricetag, so overinvesting in big ships means you won’t have enough ships to cover the map and respond to unexpected events. The smallest and cheapest ships are the destroyer and frigate-class Escorts; these are fragile and don’t have much firepower to speak of, but they are fast, nimble and good at worrying down bigger ships in groups. Most importantly Escort ships are completely free; they don’t gain experience in the same way that your other ships do, but you can take as many Escorts as you have the points to buy and it doesn’t matter if you lose them since they’re supposed to be entirely disposable, making them excellent for baiting/distracting enemies. The next class up are the Light Cruisers, which are the fastest class of capital ship and which are best used as scouts and/or teleport boarding specialists. Then there are the Cruisers, which are the workhorses of the fleet; the Battlecruisers which function as your main points of power on the map; and the Battleships, which are devastatingly powerful but also so expensive to deploy that you’re usually better off taking a Battlecruiser and Cruiser for the same points cost.

bfg_splodes

Finding a good mix of ships to take on each mission is a challenge in and of itself, especially considering the different mission objectives each mission type has. There’s about 7-8 different types, ranging from running blockades to data recovery to straight up slugfests, and you’re going to want a different fleet composition depending on which one you’re doing and which race is providing the opposition. For Cruiser Clash it’s a good idea to ignore escorts in favour of taking your biggest and heaviest ships, while for Data Recovery you want at least one Light Cruiser to chase down the enemy ship carrying the data and board it. Since each ship class has different variants that are specialised towards specific combat goals there’s also interesting decisions to be made there; when fighting the Eldar I leaned away from my damage-dealing macrocannon carriers in favour of ships with lances and fighter squadrons that stood a higher chance of crippling their engines, but against Chaos the reverse was true since I wanted to get up close to them and pour in broadside after broadside.

These are the basic building blocks of Battlefleet Gothic, then, and nearly all of them have been lifted in part or in full from the boardgame rules, which were designed to provide repeatable objective-based skirmish games between two opponents. BFG goes further than this, however; its single-player campaign is a surprisingly comprehensive stab to weld these otherwise disposable skirmish games together into something resembling a coherent, persistent experience. You’re given custodianship of several different subsectors in a turn-based campaign interface. Each system is filled with 10-15 odd star systems and each turn anywhere between 3 and 6 worlds across all your sectors will be attacked by various enemy races, forcing you to play one of the above skirmish mission as either the attacker or the defender; crucially you can only respond to three of these attacks per turn, so you have to choose where to focus your effort and let some planets fall to the enemy. Each star system has a role to play in the war effort – forge world, shipyard, something called a portal planet — and losing one either because you ignored it or because you lost the battle you fought to defend it means that you suffer a small penalty, such as ships costing 5% more to buy and upgrade. It sounds like a small amount, but if you start to lose systems en masse it starts to add up and things can easily start to spiral out of control; all you can really do is focus on protecting the systems you deem the most valuable.

bfg_shipyard

Your fleet in the campaign is persistent, of course, and is purchased and upgraded with a currency called Renown that you get for winning battles and destroying enemy ships. Ships gain experience and level up with every engagement; levelling up opens up new upgrade slots for them which you then fill with new ship systems that grant active abilities and passive bonuses using Renown. Interestingly the up-front cost of buying a brand-new ship is zero; you pay to unlock a slot for them in your fleet, but once that slot is open you can fill it with whatever ship you want and it will cost you nothing. The real cost sink is in the upgrades, skills and favours you bolt on to them later – which means that while replacing a destroyed ship is free, losing one still costs you because of the amount of resources invested into it; it’s not like you can just re-upgrade the new ship either, since the upgrades are linked to the ship’s level and the only way you can increase that is by taking it on engagements. Each ship has a name, which adds to their sense of character; my Dominator-class battlecruiser, the Saviour of Schindlegeist, has been the central bulwark of my fleet for more battles than I can count, prevailing against impossible odds more than once after the rest of the fleet was forced to withdraw due to damage. The comparisons to XCOM I’ve seen are a little unusual, but they are very much appropriate; losing a ship that’s been part of your fleet for twenty or more engagements hurts.

There’s a scripted plotline running alongside the randomly-generated skirmishes, with the plot automatically moving on once you’ve played X number of turns in the campaign. Another interesting thing Battlefleet Gothic does is that it allows you to fail the plot missions it sends you on, at the cost of suffering harsher consequences later. For example, an early mission has you fighting with Chaos over an ancient warp artifact. Succeed in the mission and the artifact is placed under lock and key by the Inquisition, lessening the impact of a warp storm that blows in later. Fail, and that warp storm ensures that any ship that retreats from battle will be lost in the warp for 4-5 turns and is thus unavailable for deployment.  This is the great strength of the BFG campaign, I think; it recognises that the point is to allow the player to tell their own story, and that a story where you win all the time is fundamentally boring, so it caters to the fail state. Later on you get to make some choices that genuinely branch which way the campaign goes. It’s impressively reactive and really helps weld those otherwise unconnected skirmish missions together into more than the sum of their parts.

bfg_sector

This stops BFG’s randomly-generated encounters from getting boring for, oooh, about sixty missions or so. Unfortunately Battlefleet Gothic still has a serious problem here, because sixty missions will only get you just over halfway through the game. The campaign asks you to take on far too many engagements; from what I’ve read going through the full campaign would require you to fight over a hundred, and I don’t think there’s any tactical battle system in the world that would survive that amount of repetition – even XCOM only asks you to deploy on about thirty missions total during the course of a campaign, for crying out loud. The AI is also a significant weakness for the campaign; Eldar excepted, it’s surprisingly good at utilising the strengths of whatever race it’s playing, but it commits the cardinal sin of being predictable and fighting each battle in the same way each time. Eventually you learn that the Orks can be baited to chase Escorts across the map while you focus them down one at a time, and that once you’ve chased them into the corner of the map Chaos ships are sitting ducks. The Eldar AI is flat-out broken, attempting to stand and fight during defence missions when that’s precisely what the Eldar shouldn’t be doing. Because the AI is predictable the battles still feel extra-repetitive, and I feel like that’s kind of a huge issue when it’s asking me to fight a hundred of them. Unfortunately the point where I got bored coincided with the campaign unlocks drying up – I’d filled up my fleet and felt it didn’t have anything new to show me, so I fell out of the campaign around turn 20.

I feel like mechanically BFG is fine – which is to be expected, considering how faithful the conversion from the boardgame rules is. It excels at providing tactical encounters between two small fleets of ships, and I think this is why the real strength of BFG is probably to be found in multiplayer against a wily human opponent; it’s definitely got the complexity and tactical breadth to make that really interesting encounter. Tindalos have made a really respectable attempt to build those tactical encounters together into a coherent single-player campaign, and they got nearly everything right – their AI works for the most part, and they made some really good decisions about how the campaign should unfold. The key issue here is a structural one, though; the campaign pacing is all wrong and stretches things out for way too long, and all the good decisions in the world can’t prevent it from turning into a slog. It’s basically the same problem I had with Xenonauts, except here I couldn’t muster up the willpower to batter my way through to the end. Unusually I don’t feel resentful towards Battlefleet Gothic because of this; it is a fine game and I enjoyed the 15 hours I played of it, and I don’t feel particularly cheated that I hit the eject button before I got to the end, but it’s definitely something to be aware of if you’re buying it with an eye to getting invested in the single-player.

  1. 40k-speak for “big gun”. The Orks are much more practical about this and just call them “kannonz”.
Tagged , , , ,

Leave a Reply