A (mostly) worthy successor to a great game
I must admit I had some trepidation playing Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2. After discovering its predecessor and enjoying it immensely, I was quite hesitant playing its sequel. Even though I pre-ordered it (Tindalos Interactive did the pre-order bonus right – having it be a 25% discount to owners of the original game), it sat for months in my library, completely ignored.
It can’t be helped considering how modern gaming had worked to ruin the concept of sequels. In the past it meant a better, bigger game with added features and mechanics. Today, most franchises have turned sequels into nothing more than copy-paste jobs, sometimes even removing features from games only to re-introduce them later as paid content or following fan backlash.
In addition, I have to mention that Tindalos Interactive did make some promises regarding the original game that weren’t fulfilled (the addition of Necron and Tyranid factions). Then some time before its launch, the game was delayed several months to January 2019, that only strengthened my unease. Add to it the fate of Dawn of War 3, and you can understand my reluctance to play the game and be disappointed.
Thankfully this is not the case. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 is (mostly) everything I liked about the original and far more. The game lives to the ideal of sequels past – being a bigger, better version of its predecessor while introducing new mechanics and improving on old one.
What Is Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2?
To put it bluntly, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 is a turn based strategy game with tactical combat reminiscent of the age of sail but with spaceships shaped like cathedrals and space monsters that would like to nom on them. It is every bit as glorious as it sounds.
Having played the campaign only (since its the only bit that interests me), the player gets to command its faction’s fleets on a galactic map divided to sectors and star systems. During the grand campaign, they’ll conquer systems, consolidate control of sectors, research and upgrade vessels and build multiple fleets to secure victory via completing story line missions.
Combat itself takes place in space (duh) where the player gets to command a squadron of ships with various abilities and complete objectives to win the battle (often by destroying the opposition). Battles play in real time, with the player controlling ships and ordering them around from a top down perspective. That said the game can be paused to queue orders, slowed down for better reaction or sped up to get to the action.
In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war. These are the words that open every Warhammer 40,000 novel and game, with Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 being no exception. The game does a good enough job explaining things for newcomers without boring more well informed fans. Suffice to say that the game takes place in the “present” of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Cadia, the fortress world that held the forces of Chaos at bay for near 10,000 years, has finally fallen to the 13th Dark Crusade of Abaddon the Despoiler, warmaster of Chaos Undivided. The Imperium forces are in disarray as Chaos surges forward. At the same time, ancient threats are awakening, wishing to reclaim their lost glory as ravenous extra galactic invaders descend on the galaxy. Add to it the machinations of the Aeldari trying to stave off their extinction and green skins wanting their share in the fun and you get a chaotic galaxy filled with combat and bloodshed. Welcome to the 42nd millennia.
The story of the game is far more open ended than that of its predecessor, with four campaigns released so far. You can play as the following four factions: The forces of Chaos looking to destroy the Imperium once and for all. A Necron dynasty reawakening only to find primitives infesting its worlds and go on cleansing. The Tyranids trying to digest everyone and the Imperium of Man.
In the Imperium campaign you are thrust into the shoes of lord admiral Spire, the protagonist of the previous game. Having been lost in the warp for 800 years, he manages to escape to real space only to find the Imperium engulfed in turmoil. Adding insult to injury, the target of his pursuit – Abaddon the despoiler, is the one responsible. It is up to Admiral Spire to rally the beleaguered defenders of the Imperium, reclaim the Cadian sector and secure the Imperium from its many enemies, confronting the fleets of Chaos, Tyranids, Necrons and Orks. Not helpful are the machinations of other factions such as the Inquisition, Space Marine chapters and of course, the Aeldari.
The strength of the the original game was its writing, and the sequel builds on it. Missions are well crafted, varied and have great interactions between characters. You’ll be encountering many famous characters from the lore in the game, such as Trazyn the Infinite, Yvraine – Emissary of Ynnead and her boyfriend, Bobby G i.e. Roboute Guilliman.
I want to praise the prologue in particular. Not only are the cutscenes reminiscent of its predecessor, but they work well to inform fans and newcomers of what has transpired prior to the campaign. They also provide a great tutorial for new and veteran players. The presentation is so well done that I actually don’t mind replaying the prologue, which is a huge point in its favor. Not every day you get to command the legendary Phalanx, the mobile fortress monastery of the Imperial Fists.
While the story’s progress is player driven, the game adds a ticking clock mechanic with threat level gauge that increases each turn. Not only will it cause hostile factions to become more aggressive as it increases in levels, but if allowed to complete will signal a game over. This works well to give you enough breathing space to muster your forces but not to tarry too long.
That said, the game’s pacing is not great. Having to compare it again to its predecessor (which is only fair considering the amount of connective tissue storywise), it is far less tight and starts to drag on near the end. Part of it is the amount of combat you have to grind through in order to reach the final mission, and part of it is the fact that the original benefited from being canonical, thus having a tighter story. While Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 starts canonically, it soon veers off into uncharted territory, which is fine by me but it does feel that the lack of material caused the developers to whiffle near the end.
To secure the Imperium, one must have the ships and captains necessary to fight the enemies of mankind. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 supplies both with its mechanical overhaul. The series now more resembles Total War: Warhammer as its strategic side had been thoroughly developed. The galactic map now has sectors, each made up of various star systems each containing planets. Sectors and systems are connected to each other via warp routes, and have differing resources. Some sectors may have an abundance of mineral rich systems to exploit, while others may house advanced shipyards or forge worlds. This gives certain systems and sectors greater importance in both securing and defending.
Capturing systems and defending them is an important part of the game. Some systems are vital as they contain worlds with certain upgrades, others have worlds that add special abilities or increase combat effectiveness of player fleets. Not to mention that there are only a handful of planets with large shipyards that can produce capital ships. You can fortify systems and station fleets in various sectors, but you soon find yourself overstretched (which is consistent with the setting). This is important since planets can be upgraded. Planets start at rank one and can be upgraded with resources to rank three. These upgrades require them to accumulate evolution points which they naturally generate so long as you control the system. Once they reach a certain threshold, you can spend resources to upgrade them, which in turns unlocks more benefits from said worlds. However losing control of the system will reset their rank, starting from one again.
The game has also reworked the renown system. In the past, renown, earned in battles, was used for pretty much everything. You used it to buy ships, favors, upgrades and special abilities. Now, renown acts as level progression, with each level unlocking new ships, upgrade points, fleets and early on, secondary objectives for battles. Instead, to build ships you need shipyards. Shipyards generate build points and have caps, so you can’t create a fleet from whole cloth (so don’t lose one!) on the go. Also you need a fleet in the system to receive the ship. The bigger the tonnage, the more build points needed. This means that only a select few systems can build the largest of vessels, making them points of great import.
Upgrade points used to be for individual vessels as they ranked up, but now apply to all (or certain) vessels and are earned with each renown level. They are divided into four trees, with the last upgrades requiring control of certain systems to complete. It is possible to complete all upgrade trees in a single playthrough but early on they prove quite valuable and hard to decide where to assign.
Resources are basically credits, and can be earned from planets. They are needed for upgrading worlds and paying upkeep for fleets. Early on they serve as a bottleneck though by late game you’ll be swimming in the damned things. Besides them there are battle plans. Battle plans are used to reduce the threat gauge and unlock special systems and can only be acquired by completing secondary objectives or stolen from enemy flagships via boarding actions.
Into the Fires of Battle
Not only did the strategic side of Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 receive an upgrade, but the tactical side as well. In the campaign, the player can bring up to three full fleets into combat, and the Imperium has access to not one, but three different fleet types with the Adeptus Mechanicus, Imperial Navy and Space Marines having various strengths and weaknesses.
As the player’s renown grows, so will the number of fleets they can field and their size as well as the size of battles. This slightly increases the size of battles from the previous game as well as allowing each side to field reinforcements upon incurring losses, and losses will happen. The game is as visceral and brutal as its predecessor. The addition of Tyranid and Necron factions into the mix forcing the player to adapt their tactics or risk being a bioform’s lunch.
While on the whole the combat system itself is relatively similar to the first game, there have been a few welcomed changes. First and foremost, ships don’t gain ranks, only admirals. Instead their crews gain experience from surviving battles, leading to improved performance in combat with up to four ranks of veterancy. This also removes special abilities from ships, with only flagships able to equip them upon their captains gaining ranks. Flagships can equip two active abilities and two passives and a fifth, strategic perk. This removes the problem of ability spam the game would often devolve into in mid to late game. That said, you can still field three flagships in a single battle so you can still do combination plays (my favorite is stasis bomb, disruptor bomb and then copious amounts of plasma bombs and nova cannon barrages).
That said, a major overhaul was made to the boarding mechanic. In the past, boarding actions were similar to fires, they did some damage to the hull of the ship and may incapacitate or destroy sub systems. While not completely useless, it wasn’t really that great. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 changes that. Ships now have crew compliments and crewing levels. Boarding actions now deal damage to the crew. If staffing falls below 0, the ship losses a crewing level and becomes less effective. A ship can lose all of its crew and turn into a derelict, at which point friendly ships may transfer crew to it to bring it back into action or choose scuttle it, turning it into a mine.
Of course, troop strength varies from faction to faction. Some factions have hard hitting boarding actions (such as Tyranids and Necrons) and others may be extremely weak against it (Tau, Mechanicus). That said its a huge boost for the playstyle and gives Space Marine players in particular, a much needed buff considering how lackluster the faction had been before.
Unto the Anvil of War
A huge change was made to the battle objectives themselves. Currently there are only two modes in the campaign, capture in which each side has accumulate command points to win, either by holding certain areas of the map or by destroying opposing ships. The other mode is kill all, where one side must destroy all the ships belonging to the other.
However the other modes are not entirely gone. Instead they have been turned into secondary objectives. This is great for two reasons: First, having to do assassination missions against the Aeldari in slow Imperial Navy ships is the definition of insanity. Secondly, it gives the player choice in battle. Pursuing secondary objectives is useful as they provide various faction and fleet boosts afterwards. That said, they can also be made into useful distractions, such as convoy protection that turns the transport ships into bait to split the attention of the enemy.
Another upgrade to battle is hazardous environments. The game already has various hazards littering the battlefield, such as gas pockets, derelict stations and asteroid fields. The hazardous environments are conditions that can pop up randomly in battles and affect the entire battlefield. They range from space garbage that fills the radar with false signals, making locating the opposition difficult, to solar flares that torch the hull of unshielded ships. There are ion storms that turn gas pockets, often a favorite hiding place, to death traps and radiation waves that blind all sensors. Their inclusion can be quite a game changer and helps make battles less repetitive.
I mentioned before the addition of new factions to the game, and I do mean it. Besides two whole new factions: The Necrons who field unshielded ships that can regenerate their hull and have 360 degree firing arcs for their weapons that can damage hulls through shields. They also possess powerful troops, can all use short range teleportation and best yet, their capital ships can use star pulses which destroy all munitions fired at them (i.e. fighters and torpedoes) making them quite powerful foes.
The other faction being the Tyranids. The Tyranids terrify me. Their tactics involve using escort vessels as suicide ships that spread acidic clouds that eat through the hull of vessels and slow them down, allowing the larger ships to catch up to them. Their ships have a cloud of bioforms that will attack the hull of any ship foolish enough to get close and their troops are quite powerful. Engaging Tyranids at close range is suicidal and just from the tone of my words you can guess how much they traumatized me in the campaign.
Besides them, every existing faction received new fleet variations. While I mostly played the Imperium, I did encounter some of the new variations. In particular the Aeldari can now choose between the Corsairs, which were the default fleet in the previous game, and the Craftworld and Drukhari. The Drukhari in particular have a very distinct look, though all three employ the same style of combat. The Imperium gets the Imperial Navy and the Space Marines, but receives a third variation in the form of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Adeptus Mechanicus ships have less crew, better range but weak troops. That said, their strength is in their range, as most upper tier Mechanicus ships carry Nova cannons. They also have an alternate firing mode for the Nova cannon that causes enemy ships to slow down, helping them to keep range control.
Of Sound, Graphics and Miscellaneous Details
The game continues the tradition of having a very powerful soundtrack. I usually don’t notice these things but on this rare occasion I want to note just how good it is. The music is so good that I like to listen to it out of game, often when working on other projects or doing house chores. That is how good it is. Most important of all, it fits the setting to a tee.
Sound design is just as perfect as the first game. The sound of lancer turrets, the heavy thud of macro cannon batteries firing are perfect and help immerse the player. There is nothing more satisfying than hearing the impact of your ship’s ram as it plows into the side of a heretic vessel as engines burn at maximum. Its great.
Another feather in the game’s cap is the voice acting. Just like the previous game, its top notch. Its what you’d expect from a Warhammer 40,000 game. There is plenty of grit, determination and pathos. Trazyn in particular is well cast and now I can’t imagine the character without its mocking tone as it looks down on all these primitives who lack of appreciation to his preservation efforts. Them and their overly attached attitude to members of their species and relics… Truly baffling to a Necron of culture.
Graphically, the game looks great. The ships are so lovingly rendered, each a piece of art you can stare at for hours, with the game giving you the tools to do so in the fleet screen. The battle scenery is also beautiful, so much so that at times I found myself pausing the fight just to have a better look at the background. The game does the Warhammer 40,000 universe proud in the way it brings its models into life.
One miscellaneous detail I decided to sneak into this segment is the lore richness of the game. Anyone who has read Warhammer 40,000 novels and codexes will recognize many of the worlds, systems and sectors portrayed in the main campaign. There is a certain amount of pride to be had in exploring a sector and saying “Hey, I recognize this world”. I know its quite petty which is why I put it here near the end of the review but still, its very fun and shows the developers do care for the universe they are depicting.
Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 is a worthy successor to the original, improving on every single aspect of the original while adding much needed depth and variety. It continues the tradition of great visuals, great sound and voice acting to bring the Warhammer 40,000 universe alive. That said, the story does falter a bit near the end, feeling slow and grind-y but still enjoyable overall. I heartily recommend to fans of the original, people who enjoy age of sail combat, and of course anyone who loves Warhammer 40,000.