Review: Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2

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Review copy provided by publisher

There’s a pretty incredible spread of Warhammer games on PC these days, and as you might imagine the quality is quite a spread as well. I never played the original Armada so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one, but no matter how high my expectations could have been, I think they would have been met. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 presents a remarkable amount of depth in its battles and campaigns that doesn’t take long to jump into and start conquering. It’s got the look and feel of 40k you’re expecting, spread out to encompass enough fleets and factions and mechanics to keep you busy for dozens of hours in the grim darkness of space.

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If you’ve somehow found your way here without ever hearing of Warhammer 40,000, here’s the deal: The future sucks. Humanity has spread across the galaxy under the orders of the fascist Imperium, a fading empire clinging to its military might. But the galaxy is not an inviting place, full of ravenous aliens, brutal robots, wily rivals, and literal demons. These disparate factions have been locked in what seems like eternal war, and here you are but a well-placed cog in their many machinations. The Eye of Chaos, portal to the hellish realms of demons, is vomiting forth legions of ruinous conquerors and it’s up to you to guide one of the galaxy’s factions to some semblance of triumph over them.

Battlefleet Gothic will make a small attempt to bring you up to speed on all of this in its campaigns, but honestly it was designed with devotees of 40k lore in mind. I have a passing familiarity with the setting but the prologue bombards you with so many plot developments you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve jumped into the middle of a trilogy. The short version is that a very important planet in the Imperium has fallen, and the three campaigns more or less revolve around the fallout from this event. Voiced cutscenes do a fine job of drawing you into the grim, brutal world of Warhammer with rich descriptions of the lore, even if they’re not great about keeping the plot stitched together.

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This isn’t a huge knock against the game, though, thanks to how the campaigns are structured. Once the prologue is done you can choose to serve the callous humans of the Imperium, the murderous cyber-skeletons of the Necron, or the insatiable hordes of the Tyranid. After an intro mission that gives you a taste of how the faction plays, you are introduced to a grand strategy map of systems and sectors to conquer. Systems you control produce resources and bonuses for you, and you can use those resources to build new ships and fleets, repair existing ones, or expand your infrastructure. You move your fleets around the map to engage enemy vessels and claim new systems, and at any given time you’ll have a plot objective to chase like conquering X systems or completing a special mission in a certain spot.

The result is similar to a very light Total War campaign, where resource management simply determines how many ships you can field and where you can field them. I appreciate that it allows you to approach missions with variable levels of power, commanding lean fleets if you’re in a hurry and larger armadas if you choose to build your power base. You can’t expect to be left alone while you build, though. Enemy factions have a threat level that makes them more apt to attack you the higher it goes. There’s also an urgency counter that ticks towards campaign-ending disaster if you take too long to conquer systems (this can be turned off for those who despise timers), and an experience system for your fleet commander that puts a limit on number and sizes of fleets, in addition to offering a skill tree to further expand your strategic options. I don’t think the game needs this many limiting systems, but I will admit it’s kept me at parity with my foes and made for some very tense and interesting fights.

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So yeah, how is the combat, anyway? This is the real meat of the game, and luckily for us it’s a choice cut. Commanding your vessels on the 2D plains of space is as easy as clicking and dragging, but there’s complexity here with every unit that you don’t get in other RTSes. The facing of your ship is important for firing arcs and skillshots like torpedoes, and distance is even more important for area attacks and boarding actions. You ships have crew and morale to manage, because depending on your foe you could lose your ship to boarders or psychic assaults without even scratching the paint. There are also fighter squadrons to deploy, stances that boost parts of your ship’s performance, and special attacks that range from radar pings to fleshy tentacles that grasp enemy craft. You’ll have a wealth of tactical options crammed into each unit, and using them all will be absolutely key to victory.

I really want to linger on this point because battles in Armada 2 can be shockingly dynamic, thanks to how many options you have at any given time. Victory will always come from a mix of tactics, because no single strategy is going to work every time even across similar battles. Sometimes cannons aren’t going to whittle them down fast enough and you’ll need to ram them. Sometimes your bombers will get shot down by advanced point-defense systems and you’ll have to duke it out. Sometimes you’ll have bonuses to boarding that’ll let you burn down ships from the inside. You’ll have to read every situation and keep your tactics varied to survive the campaigns, and that’s to say nothing of the random events in battle like meteor storms and space amoeba infestations. Oh, and you can also win battles by controlling key points if you lack the raw firepower to annihilate your foes. It’s up to you!

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I’ve had battles where my ships had their cannons blown off and I had to ram entire fleets to death. I’ve had ones where I slaughtered crews down to the last man and left the hulks drifting in space. And I’ve had ones where new foes threw me for such a loop it took multiple tries to deal with them. The fleets in this game are amazingly varied, from the Imperium’s familiar broadsides and ramming speed to the Necron’s teleporting and armor regeneration to the Tyranid’s corrosive spores and literal devouring of ships. There’s also Chaos, Orks, Aeldari, and T’au fleets to contend with in the campaign and command in the skirmish mode, each with their own vastly different playstyles and specials. With dozens of ships for each faction and innumerable ways to mix fleet compositions, there’s an incredible amount of depth to explore just in the battle system itself. It means there are plenty of surprises and tables to turn in each fight, but also that you can’t ever really autopilot battles even if you have a huge advantage.

Holding all this together is an expert presentation steeped heavily in the over-the-top grim darkness Warhammer is known for. The writing is delightfully overwrought and full of priceless moments like a Space Marine refusing to pull his ship back from an exploding base so his crew could bask in the glorious fires of victory. The 2D art is adequate and the character-focused motion comic cutscenes leave something to be desired, but all the 3D modeling of the ships and celestial features is top-notch. Ships are insanely detailed, with all the gothic flourishes and gooey bio-organic bits you’d expect from the setting. The music swells with dire portends and heroic climaxes, and the sound design makes every lost ship rattle in your ears with shattering metal and thunderous explosions.

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Even as someone poorly-versed in 40k and entirely lacking experience with the first game, I am incredibly impressed with Armada 2. Despite some narrative confusion I was able to jump right in to commanding immense vessels of war, devastate my foes, and start reclaiming the galaxy. The interfaces are clean, detailed, and organize tons of information in blessedly helpful ways. The campaigns are long, involved, and varied, and I’ve hardly even cracked into the skirmishes or multiplayer so I still have that waiting for me. There are even plans to make the campaigns co-op in the near future, so this one definitely has some legs on it. At the core it’s a solid fleet command game with an excellent mix of depth and style, enough to keep me hooked in a genre I don’t even normally play.

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