There’s a specific, irresistible pull to the Warhammer 40,000 universe. From the mechanical thud of a Space Marine’s bolter gun to the chaotic crash of an Ork horde, it all drags me right back to misspent years of my childhood: I was that chubby kid who wasted hours browsing the shelves of the local Games Workshop, reading and re-reading the rules codex, and building the perfect army (in my head). I’d sit, hunched over a chipped, paint-marked desk, squinting to make sure I colored the grenade just right, or painstakingly adding subtle metallic scarring to make the power armor look more battle-worn. I still have that desk. In fact, I still have it all, unglamorously shoved in a bag at the back of my closet. I sometimes consider selling it all on Bay, to be done with my Space Marines and Eldar once and for all, but deep down I know I’ll probably never part with the spoils of my little personal war(hammer).
I had whole friendships built entirely around that single shared passion, whether they involved waging war or just swapping paint colors. I remember the glee with which I woke up at 5am to make a coach trip up to Birmingham for the annual Games Day event; the satisfaction with which me and two friends finally staged a mammoth 3-army brawl one rainy afternoon. Looking back now, more than anything, I remember the deep, lasting damage the hobby did to my bank account, draining all my eagerly saved pocket money—leaving little left for the video games I seemed to have less and less time for. It was the money, too, that drove me away in the end—I’m not sure I ever really grew out of the game itself—and I remain acutely aware that I’m probably only a lottery win away from being drawn right back in and blowing the annual GDP of a small African country on a few dozen plastic soldiers, paint not included.
I count myself desperately lucky that Games Workshop has been so liberal with the 40K license when it comes to video games, letting me get my fix of the Adeptus Astartes without having to bankrupt myself in the process. Dawn of War and its sequel scratched the itch for a good long while, and 2011’s Space Marine offered even more visceral thrills, despite the gameplay being pretty generic beneath its shiny war-sheen. This is all a really long way of saying I was probably always going to play Battlefleet Gothic: Armada. Not because I thought it looked good, nor because I was craving an RTS, nor even because I thought the game might push the genre in exciting new directions. But just ‘cause it’s Warhammer. I can’t help myself.
On that simple level, there’s some pretty early promise. An intro cinematic (well, I use the term loosely… it’s more like half-animated storyboards, but it works) teases all the usual nonsense about Chaos Space Marines, arrogant Imperials, and a whole load of big, heavy, armored suits clanking about the place. This appeals to one of the lowest, basest levels of my psyche, but right now I don’t really give a shit.
The campaign puts me in charge of an Imperial Guard battlefleet (which sucks, because everyone knows they’re the boringest, but fine), charged with defending the Gothic sector against some evil invasion or other. The net effect is that on any given turn I have a star map from which I select my missions, each of which pits my stocky Imperial fleet against another: Chaos, Eldar, or Ork. Sometimes I have to destroy all their ships, sometimes just one specific ship. Sometimes I must protect transport vessels from attack, other times I’m tasked with destroying enemy transports. There’s a nice variety in objectives and requirements, which is necessary because there’s no such variety in environments. We’re fighting in space, which means every map is functionally identical. It’s black. There are stars in the background, maybe the odd planet. There might be some asteroid to avoid, or gas clouds to hide in. That’s about it. There’s not much to gawk at here.
If the setting is a bit broad, at least Battlefleet Gothic is able to benefit from a couple of decades’ worth of brilliant Games Workshop design when it comes to the ships themselves. Ships in the game don’t look like ships—they more closely resemble giant bloody weapons floating through the void. Imperial vessels bristle with cannon, their sleek prows belying the firepower behind them, while Ork ships are built like battering rams—and often used like them too. That unmistakeable 40K sense of heft is ever-present, and you never forget that this is a universe where war—and weapons—exist on an almost comical scale.
Unfortunately, and despite these positives, Battlefleet Gothic‘s aesthetic slowly begins to wear thin. As I unlocked larger classes of ship to use in battle, I began to realize their identical nature: the same base model was just being scaled up a bit so as to fit another row or two of guns along the side. There’s a similar lack of variety among my foes, and I quickly began to yearn for more races, more ships, more anything—some sense that there was more to uncover as the game went on, some room left for the unexpected. One of the great strengths of 40K has always been that, for the most part, its armies are anything but uniform, with bold visual cues to differentiate troop types, alongside dreadnoughts and tanks towering over numbered infantry. In Battlefleet Gothic there’s just ships and bigger ships, with nothing but their size to differentiate them. Before long this grows boring, and that’s one thing Warhammer should never be.
900 words in and I’ve barely mentioned the gameplay, which might reveal where my priorities lie here. Battlefleet Gothic lurks on the micromanage-y end of the RTS spectrum, offering players intricate control of their fleet. There are Special Orders, Abilities, and Upgrades, all working on different timers. You control whether each ship will attack foes head-on or turn to battle them broadside, and what distance they’ll keep to. You can set priority levels for enemies, and target specific systems at specific times. You’re expected to track which ships have more armor or weapons on their flanks versus their rear, and continually position and re-position your fleet to make the most of it.
It’s both exhaustive and exhausting, and for the first few battles I felt overwhelmed, able to do little more than set my fleet to attack one enemy ship at a time and fire off a torpedo every now and then. I lost a lot, I swore a lot, and over time I grew very, very angry. But, as any good LGBT activist will tell you, It Gets Better. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, I learnt to master my ships’ varied strengths and weaknesses, to set attack patterns and prioritize targets. Hitting the spacebar slows things to a crawl, offering a bit of time to set plans in motion, and I begin to build the habit of speeding and slowing time, planning and watching things unfold, acting and reacting as situations developed.
Now I still lose a lot, but those losses feel earned. I understand them, so I don’t mind them. I no longer feel at the mercy of a capricious system beyond my comprehension. And losing is OK! Much like XCOM, loss is built into the campaign, which plows ahead regardless of my failures—it just means I receive less of the arbitrary in-game currency and suffer a couple negative effects at the campaign level. This does mean my string of defeats are compounded, making the game continually tougher as I progress, but it only occasionally feels unmanageably so.
I have wavered repeatedly on Battlefleet Gothic. Every naff cutscene about Abaddon the somethingorother, every shouted line about heresy, every Ork ‘waaaaagh!’ brings me right back to those pre-teen days of super glue and paint, arcane rules and intricate strategies. Then some bullshit, unwinnable mission will snap me out of it and leave me wondering just what it is that keeps me coming back.
It was while working on this review that the first trailer for Relic’s Dawn of War III was released. It’s a glossy, gameplay-free cinematic, all stomping boots, booming cannons, and CG-bloodshed. But it’s Warhammer, and that’s all it needs to be. Battlefleet Gothic isn’t quite such a pure high, but it’ll probably keep me from breaking into my local Games Workshop. For another couple months at least.