Dawn of War might be a classic, but it never managed to capture the nature of the tabletop game and Dawn of War 2 was closer to Necromunda than it ever was any incarnation of Games Workshop's core series. Space Hulk was the same - at least until Ascension came along - and Talisman, Deathwatch, Regicide, Storm of Vengeance and others have all had faults of their own, no matter their quality. With Battlefleet Gothic: Armada however, we finally have a game which strikes a near pitch perfect balance between loyalty to its source material and ingenuity on the developer's part.
The story here follows a somewhat altered version of the Twelfth Black Crusade, and the desperate conflict to keep the Gothic Sector under Imperial control. With Abaddon the Despoiler himself at the head of a massive Chaotic armada, loyalist forces are hard pressed as they find themselves massively outnumbered and outgunned by their foes. However, none truly comprehend the sheer scale of the Warmaster's ambitions, or the true prize he seeks within the Gothic sector...
Despite the addition of a previously non-existent protagonist in the form of Admiral Spire, much of the story follows the events of the Gothic War moment for moment. You face down a massed Chaotic fleet with relatively few ships, try to hold back the rising corruption among your own worlds, and face no end of threats from within. A safe harbour can quickly become a hive of scum and villainy if a rebellion is not put down fast enough, and if you fail to halt certain attacks, you can lose access to vital resources. It's admittedly a largely secondary element largely exclusive to the campaign but it has that XCOM style sense of risk and loss attached to it. You aren't simply fighting because the story demands you win to move onto the next plot point, you're fighting because that world over there will fall unless you get your squadron of transports through enemy lines to their intended destination.
While the campaign is admittedly fun, much of its early stages serve as a massive tutorial more than anything else, allowing new players to get to grips with the core mechanics. The real meat of the experience lies in its multiplayer mode, where you're tasked with building up a fleet from scratch and fighting against similar opposing forces. This begins with a smattering of light cruisers and frigates before you start working your way up to the famous battleships behind each faction. While certainly simple, it embraces the defining appeal behind the tabletop game, where campaigns where loosely structured campaigns allowed players to combat anyone they wished while slowly building up their fleet one vessel at a time.
As you fight your way towards vaster battlefields, more upgrades become available to spend on gaining those tasty new vessels with bigger guns, or improving your existing armada. Each ship has a number of slots which can be used for faster turning, more powerful engines, broader troop compartments, or even unique commands to use in battle. Plus, atop of this, the crews themselves can gain further benefits via leveling up, with everything from higher tiered gunnery crews improving ranged accuracy to experienced navigators allowing for a faster retreat. Believe it or not, elements akin to this were actually in the tabletop game as well; plus much like there you even have the option to go full iron man on this game, having destroyed warships remain dead rather than being brought back into service within a few battles.
So what about the actual core system itself? Focused primarily upon micro-managing a small fleet over the massive co-ordination usually required in these sorts of games, you play one of several fleets, each with their own strengths and failings. Eldar are hard hitting, have excellent torpedoes, ranged weapons, fighters and speed, but are weak to solid hits, boarding actions, and sustained combat. Orks are tough vessels, excellent close range brawlers and retain fantastic ramming capabilities, but save for short charges they're slow, cumbersome and lack decent accuracy at long range. The Imperium and Chaos fall somewhere in the middle, and while this might sound fairly generic, certain unique choices helps each faction stand out. Take the movement mechanics for example, as the Imperium has thrusters which allow for tight turns at the cost of fuel and long range burns. By comparison, the Orks just have a single giant red button to hurl themselves forwards in near unstoppable charges.
Another factor which helps vary certain elements are the orders and positioning of craft. You see, you don't simply click on the enemy ships and hurl your own fleet at them. Instead, you have specific commands and abilities to help turn the tide, from a few basic (very brief) bonuses which improve shields, guns or engines to far more dynamic orders. For example, two very useful and fairly high grade Eldar orders allow their ships to pull full 180 degree turns and gives them an energy shield to protect them against enemy fire/ram enemy vehicles without splintering to bits. Others, more general ones across the board, include tactical Warp/Webway jumps across the map, taunting enemy ships to prevent them from disengaging and even stasis weapons to freeze ships caught within a detonation. There's enough of a variety on hand to always ensure you can smash any foe's meticulous plans with a sledgehammer if you time your attacks well and do enough to truly predict their moves.
The core combat itself sticks true to Battlefleet Gothic's original themes, embracing a space age mixture of Galleon style combat and early World War Two tactics. The bulk of the ships here have their best weapons mounted on broadsides, and even those with forwards facing firing arcs will typically have to circle strafe around enemy ships to maintain sustained broadsides. It's another factor preventing you rushing into battle, but even here there's a few factors which can be altered or switched in your favour. You can change the basic orders for certain vessels at a moment's notice, with a surprisingly simple interface allowing you to command which direction each ship should attack from, the distance they should engage at, which enemy sub-systems to target (engines or whatnot) and which vessels should take priority. It certainly helps reduce the strain of managing such a number of ships at once, and it helps that the AI is surprisingly capable of presenting a real challenge for once.
The big break away from its source material here is that it's not turn based. In a surprising move, there's no effort to reflect the slow, extremely methodical pacing and gradual engagements, and instead the RTS combat is surprisingly fast paced. Save for brief moments where you're allowed to slow the battlefield to make calculated decisions, everything is in real time, meaning you have to plan movements, angle torpedo spreads and activate orders while managing your entire fleet. The surprising thing though? This actually works. Trying to turn Battlefleet Gothic into a turn based strategy game might have worked, but it would have been facing heavy competition and would have lacked a lot of the punch players wanted when seeing vast kilometer long warships beating the hell out of one another. Instead, by speeding things up but retaining that same tactical complexity, Armada is allowed to remain loyal to the game which inspired it while still taking advantage of the best qualities a video game can offer. As such, it's allowed to stand out on its own.
As you might guess though, there are a few very distinct flaws here unfortunately. While many of the initial problems surrounding the game's beta have been thankfully sorted out - notably some infamously sadistic matchmaking choices - certain missions are almost impossible for some factions. Scenarios which require a player to take out an enemy battleship or steal data from a capital vessel are nearly impossible for any Ork player to win when facing down Eldar or Chaos forces. Equally, those same factions have a massive advantage when it comes down to escort missions, as their superior speed and range allows them to pick off transports with ease.
Some options among the fleets are also fairly limited at times, especially when it comes to the xenos factions. The Orks are left with only a single cruiser and light cruiser class to work with in contrast to the multitude on offer for the Imperium, and the Eldar only have a single battleship. True, this was the same for the tabletop game as well, but the disparity between the two and the lack of tactical flexibility quickly becomes evident at high tier games. What's more, certain frigates seem to be all but useless in most engagements. Ork Brute Ram Ships are sadly something of a joke here, as their suicidal role as equally well served by most other escorts, but with the bonus of a hell of a lot more ranged firepower. This is equally true of the other factions, and there simply are a surprising number of escorts you'll never want to use.
Then we have the thematic nature of the setting, both in the gameplay and the story itself. Now, it's clear that Tindalos Interactive are massive fans of the setting in every respect, to the point where it's been rumoured that Stellar Impact was built almost purely to test out an engine for a Gothic game. It would certainly explain why that one was abandoned, but the point is that they do care. However, the speed and close range of the battles lacked any of the scale, weight and sheer immensity that the tabletop game thrived upon. Without the emphasis placed upon massive distances and engagements at hundreds upon thousands of kilometers apart, certain thematic qualities never hit home. Call it a minor thing if you want, but it's one of these core details which makes 40K stand out so well, and why it retains such a strong atmosphere even three decades after it hit shelves.
The story meanwhile is, sadly, mixed at best. Now, on the one hand it does stick as close to the history of the Twelfth Black Crusade as it can, and many key figures and events re-emerge here. Horst, Ravensberg and even a few minor characters from the lore all show up here and there. What's more, some remarkably lavish cutscenes retain the right mix of pathos and cheesiness to hammer home that this truly is a Warhammer game. Even if they stray a bit too close to Alfabusa's videos, these are very welcome indeed. That said, the story fails to convey the sheer desperation of this war and there's none of the gradual build-up which so massively benefited the original tabletop game. A Chaos fleet shows up, Horst spouts some dialogue and away you go; even once the Planet Killer shows up there's something just sadly underwhelming about the execution thanks to it merely arriving. More time could have been spent foreshadowing this impending threat and seriously beefing up the storyline's dread, turning it into something on par with Dawn of War 2's reveal of an oncoming Tyranid Hive Fleet.
Matters in the campaign department are also hindered thanks to a rather arduous and lengthy tutorial throughout the prologue. Time and time again you'll be stuck, clicking your way through some basic commands, and while they're welcome the first time around, every other time just turns it into one massive chore to get through.
At the end of the day, the worst problems here really are minor imperfections rather than full blown failings. Even while fully aware of all of them, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada drained hours upon hours from my life over a mere weekend, and it shows no sign of stopping any time soon. To make another XCOM comparison, even with a laundry list of problems and minor errors, Tindalos's strengths far outweighed its weaknesses, until I personally just stopped caring about those problems. This really is one of those few key games which nails everything well enough for me to heartily recommend it to just about anyone with a PC capable of supporting this game. Honestly, even if you're an adamant RTS opponent, who has hated the genre since its creation, this one might well change your mind with its wildly different setting and dynamic. Plus, if all else fails, just remember you're in a galactic Age of Sail style game with Napoleonic Commienazis, Satanists, alien psychic ninja pirates and humanoid green fungi fighting for supremacy of the stars. If that's not going to cause you to crack a smile, damn near nothing in the 41st millennium will.
Verdict: 9 out of 10