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I recently had the opportunity to write a brief piece about Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 for the great folks at Strategy Gamer, and that kind of got me itching to write more about it. And, of course, as often happens when I sit down to write something, that got me headed down kind of a deep rabbit hole.
A couple of years ago, I came across a game called Etherium. It was kind of a riff on the Company of Heroes formula, where squads of units and vehicles made tactical use of terrain, captured points on the map (in the case of Etherium, capture points functioned as mini-bases). There was a sort of retreat mechanic too, where you could scramble a dropship to come evacuate one or more squads from combat, and recall the squad to a base at a later point in time. The game featured terrain types with unique weather events that could damage armies, render mechanical units inoperative, et cetera; some maps also had sub-factions you could ally yourself with or destroy to occupy their territory. In short, the game had a lot of pretty neat ideas.
Unfortunately, Etherium also had a lot of execution issues: trained units couldn’t be issued a rally point, so you had to constantly search the map for new squads and order them to the front lines; the factions were almost identical with the exception of 1 unique unit each, and a handful of unique upgrades and support powers (this could have been a stylistic choice due to the presence of support powers and sub-factions, but I tend to strongly prefer asymmetrically designed factions with gameplay that substantially differs based on which faction you choose). The gameplay itself was clunky and could be more than a little tedious at times. As I said above: good ideas, with execution that could leave you cold and put off.
I was later to learn that the company that created Etherium was making a game based on the tabletop Warhammer game, Battlefleet Gothic. And, since you might be wondering why I’ve been running my mouth about Etherium when I’m meant to be talking about Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2, I’m gonna just wrap this up quickly. To me, Tindalos’ games, the ones I’ve played anyway, have seemed to suffer from this same general issue. They’ve got some good ideas, but their execution hasn’t really carried the game all the way.
Enter The Warp
From my perspective, however, Tindalos has clearly been quickly learning with each game they’ve made in terms of polish, depth, and the overall quality of their design and implementation. While I personally missed the first Battlefleet Gothic: Armada game, I jumped into the second with both feet. Like a scrub, I decided to preorder the game in order to play its beta.
I’ve come away mostly happy that I shelled out the preorder bucks, but I keep wondering if part of that is the game just scratching a really niche itch that’s specific to my personal brand of insanity, rather than it just being a legitimately good tactics game.
Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 is what I call a real-time tactics game: you’re launching into combat with a pre-defined fleet of ships, and you’re asked to kill various enemy ships, capture and hold control points, and perform a host of other advanced tactical options like quick-turn maneuvers to keep enemies in line with your big guns, sending waves of fighters to destroy weapons and crew on enemy ships, using Boarding Actions to deplete crew, applying status effects like Fire Aboard, dealing morale damage…
Honestly, even with the relatively small number of ships you’re typically fielding (about 5-7, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less) all of the abilities and stances and health bars you’re managing makes it feel like a lot to keep track over. You’ve got morale, which can lead to mutiny if it gets too low. There’s shields and armor, of course. There’s also individual weapons systems that can be disabled, along with the Bridge. And there’s crew: lose all of that and your ship becomes derelict, drifting and open for anyone to take over. And weapons that specialize against all of these things.
The Tyranids faction especially have seemed to enjoy to focus on killing crew, winning by depopulating enemy ships at extreme range.
So, with the stage set, let’s talk about exactly why I’m feeling so conflicted.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
So first off, I have to say that BfG: Armada 2 really impresses me visually. People on the game’s Steam community forums and what-have-you have made much ado about the scale of the ships (inaccurate!) and visual design (lack of detail!) but, as someone who’s used to playing games like Warcraft 3 and Tooth and Tail, it looks more than pretty enough for me.
Something that did take a little getting used to was space battles on a 2d plane. This is one of those things that I think is either just going to work for people or bother them. Seeing as its based on a tabletop game, I accept the restriction, and even stopped thinking about it after a while. It’s a bit weird when compared to the full 3d majesty of Homeworld, but to me it’s sensible based on the source material.
What I think my issue with the game comes down to is that on the surface it doesn’t do stellar job communicating to the player all of the things that it needs to communicate. Perhaps it’s just jumping into the game with limited single player experience and clarity will come with time spent playing vs other players and the campaign, but whether fighting the AI or another player, I’m often left scratching my head as to why I’ve won or lost. Or rather, how to have played differently in a way that would have changed the outcome of the battle.
Many of the systems are managed and monitored by icons and healthbars, and it’s much harder to keep track of crew or morale in-the-moment than it is to look after the physical status of your ships. This makes crew and morale attacks kind of insidious – ditto the loss of weapons, which is mostly apparent via status icons. It’s something I feel like I’m starting to grok, but it’s taken me kind of a long time to become intuitively cognizant of each unit’s and ability’s threat profile and how to approach dealing with it. And I haven’t seen but a small % of all of the game’s factions, let alone a variety of ship combinations.
And I think that’s kind of at the core of where I’m frustrated with the game. There’s a lot going on under the hood that really matters in terms of how battles play out, but in a way it also doesn’t, because in most cases you’re tool is a hammer and that turns all of your targets into nails. There’s so much going on, but you only really have one way to approach the combat situation (especially if your ships are slow and you can’t win by capturing the map around your opponent).
What could be a symphony of violence in space seems to kind of devolve into each player aggressively executing their strategy at one another. Combine this with (I think?) random map generation that puts a handful of obstacles and capture points on the vast empty plain of the map, and large health pools boosted by the fact that it’s goshdarn work to line up your ship’s most damaging weapons and abilities most of the time, and combat can become a long grind towards winning (or losing) if it doesn’t devolve into an outright stomp of one of the players.
Lastly, It doesn’t matter too much to me, but I feel I should mention one of the most outstanding changes between BFGA1 and 2 – the move away from highly customizable ships. While I feel like I missed out a bit in terms of designing a fleet that works specifically how I want, and that customization tends to work best on a small tactical scale like this game provides, I also feel like I dodged a bullet regarding multiplayer balance and the ease of learning the game. There’s already enough information density to worry about that sort of thing, I feel.
I think I’ve written this above, but Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 scratches a really specific niche itch for me. It’s a similar reason why I adore Blitzkrieg 3’s gameplay despite its really wacky progression system, I think. It’s a visceral, playable, intelligent tactical brawl using only the physical resources you bring with you (in this case, your spaceships and their crew; In the case of Blitzkrieg, it’s your men, tanks, and their ammunition).
In spite of massive, one-sided loss after massive, one-sided loss, I’ve been obsessively matchmaking in the beta(s), determined to learn what I’m doing wrong and how to improve. I’ve not been so determined to learn the nuances of a game since I was obsessively watching Spanishiwa in the early days of StarCraft 2, or over-analyzing competitive COH2 matches cast by Imperial Dane around the launch of Ardennes Assault.
I often mystify myself a bit when I find myself drawn to games that I can clearly identify mechanical issues with, such as my longstanding fondness for Universe at War and Dawn of War 3 despite being able to acknowledge a variety of ways in which each could be made better.
In Conclusion, More Questions
It’s admittedly a tricky problem that I don’t have the werewithal to propose a solution for at this time. The key to winning a match of Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 should come down to who chooses the best angles of approach, is the best with ship orientation and positioning, the best at timing and lining up ambushes and ability use (e.g. ‘skillshots’ and timing and target prioritization).
And that’s what it is when it’s at its best. There’s a lot there to parse and learn and grow into, which is good news for Tindalos. What’s bad news, at least in my book, is the density of game systems and rules, in conjunction with the constrained fleet size that makes preparing a wide variety of effective approaches to space combat difficult if not impossible in cases. There’s also a long learning curve, with 12 factions to learn both to play as and against.
Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 sets itself a major challenge, and it comes close to delivering fully on its premise. But, like the Uncanny Valley, in some cases ‘almost’ can incongruously be a painful irritant, as a piece of media causes its audience to become highly cognizant of the gaps and imperfections.
Anyway, there’s a lot I enjoy about the game, and a lot that I find frustrating, and as I play I find more in the former category than the latter. Hopefully I’ll be able to come back after I’ve played another 50 hours or so for a follow-up.
Thanks for reading.