This is the world one enters for any foray into the Warhammer 40,000 gaming experience, a number of titles, now, all catering to one of Warhammer's most endearing aspects: the "grimdark".
However, while Warhammer is a visual and storytelling spectacle even in the tabletop games, it is sometimes overlooked by those developing the property for digital mediums that the game mechanics are often just as intricate as the detailed miniatures that helped bring it fame. It is in that scope, then, that I approached Battlefleet Gothic: Armada.
I am glad to say that I believe the complexity does retain itself from the tabletop game this title is based off of, although, given that there have been a fair number of Warhammer games in the past to get it right, I won't say it's a surprise. However, saying that, I do have to admit that while the complexity is there, it isn't quite apparent. Much of the complexity of the tabletop experience is abstracted onto the computer's side. The player has no need to measure distances, meticulously track firing angles (though they are indeed there), or what hits strike what part of which ship. In fact all the real measurement and other intricacy one is forced to engage in on the tabletop is done by the computer, such that what remains is the customization. This there is in spades, mechanically. With the exception of escorts – the smallest ships in the game – all ships can be individually customized to have unique abilities, modifiers, and crew capabilities, and even the escorts do get options, though they affect the class as a whole, not just individual ships.
Speaking of individual ships, while mechanical customization is robust, visual stylization is surprisingly absent.
Certainly there are different ship styles and looks, but these are limited to the overall type of ship, such that different classes of destroyers, say, will all look different, but two of the same class will look exactly the same. Ultimately, there is no room for the kind of small visual customization that makes the Warhammer experience so unique. Even Dawn of War went so far as to have unit upgrades displayed visually, not so with Battlefleet Gothic: Armada. And, really, this goes back to my previous point: the customization is there, the detail is there, but it’s handled by the computer and doesn’t quite reach the player level.
In other words, it might just be me, but I think that while the abstraction may make the experience quick and exciting, it kind of buries the spirit of what it means to play a Warhammer game.
That said, it’s impossible to ignore that taking out the nitty-gritty inherent to the tabletop does leave a faster, more action oriented experience. I would say perhaps too fast, from time to time, but thankfully the title includes a slow-time function that brings it back into the realm of strategic play versus the usual white-knuckle tactical speed-micro of most traditional RTS offerings. However, the time slow is optional, and all the customization – especially in the way of abilities – make it safe to say that Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is definitely something fans of faster, micro laden RTS will enjoy as well.
On that note, I feel like I should mention that those upgrades and abilities don't just come unlocked out the gate. Instead, all of these are tied to the player's (or “admiral's”) level, and the level of experience for individual ships. The more advanced the player, the stronger ships they can unlock, and the further their ships can be upgraded, while the further along the ships, the more competent the player can make their crews, which have varying effects depending on how they're upgraded themselves.
Mechanically, then, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is a straightforward RTS with plenty of room for micro without forcing the user into a frantic pace.
Aesthetically, the title brings all the grim darkness of the forty-first millennium one could hope for.
Everything is a little gritty, a little worn and used in a way that gave me a lived-in impression for many of the ships, despite never seeing any crew beyond portraiture. Further, the effects have some punch to them without being overblown. All of this is accentuated by crisp modern graphics that I found very appealing, sporting detailed models and hi-res textures that leveraged the Unreal 4 engine nicely, and really seemed to make the intricate architecture of the ships – which is one of the things I love about tabletop – stand out.
A great modern visual experience all around.
Being for all intents and purposes a layman when it comes to audio design in games, I’ll be content to say that the sound and music are as one might expect, and, while not particularly noteworthy on their own, were not negatively impacting to the experience. The voice acting is professional if maybe a bit melodramatic here and there, but then melodrama is kind of Warhammer's thing, so it fits. In this instance, no news is good news.
The story as far as I was able to get covers the Twelfth Crusade, as the Imperium strives to contain Abaddon's Chaos fleet as it sails from the Eye of Terror. The player takes the roll of Admiral Spire, newly promoted to help enact the will of the Emperor within the Gothic Sector, and uncovers bits of the story turn by turn and mission by mission. I found it compelling enough to keep my interest, though something about the Warhammer 40,000 setting has always been compelling to me, so your mileage may vary.
Still, I believe that most players will enjoy their time with Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, and will even go so far as to say it's worth picking up. A title with some depth, and some ability for good customization, Armada may not be as complex as some might have hoped, but it's still a very strong RTS contender. This is bolstered by rock solid visuals, decent audio, and the usual 40k grimdark flair. Definitely worth a look.