From the Front - Battlefleet Gothic: Armada Multiplayer Beta Impressions

By Alex Connolly 17 Mar 2016 6

The dark fleet of Abaddon the Despoiler looms; a necrotic and perverse tide of warp-fractured apostasy threatening the Gothic sector and, left unchecked, the entire Segmentum. There remains little but to load as much pomp and bombast as can be mustered. Believers and heretics alike, the Battlefleet Gothic: Armada multiplayer beta is here.

A lot of promises were made when we exchanged words with Tindalos' Romain Clavier. Transferring a tabletop game to the digital sphere isn't a new art, but doing justice to Battlefleet Gothic's gargantuan scale and nuanced engagement is no mean feat. Kilometres-long and festooned with lancet and buttress, selling these combat cathedrals is more than simply rendering respective likeness to the miniatures. After a day in the void, however, I'm happy to report that, in the 41st Millennium, there is only a superb naval experience.

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My biggest concern was that despite looking the part, the colossal starships would move and turn without a good sense of weight or inertia. As Clavier did say, the Battlefleet Gothic game cribs more from the age of dreadnoughts than it does Homeworld. Thankfully, Armada makes every ship -- even the comparative Escort sardines to the capital gropers -- feel like a billion tonnes of suspended steel, driving through the void on elephantine booster stacks.

And it's not just the purposefully delayed response of adjusting heading that convinces of inertia, but the thunderous rapport and speed of ordnance. Macro battery shells heave between vessels in a pageant of languid carnage, detonating against shield and hull with the hope of tearing away subsystems. Torpedoes crawl and fan in lethal but out-manoeuvreable firing solutions. It's a majestic depiction, going beyond the tabletop game in ways miniatures simply can't convey; the roll of starships setting new courses or the savage impact slew of a ramming action. All is well.

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The mechanics themselves shine. Played out like a relatively typical RTS, once players deploy their ships on the map under the yoke of a point limit, it becomes a tense game of position and range. Unit speed can be throttled between cruising and idle, with all-ahead full and high-energy burns to port and starboard drawing from an auxiliary power generator. The all-ahead full command is good for high-speed zoning and, should situation call for it, a devastating ram. High-energy manoeuvring becomes hugely important for dodging ordnance or bringing vessels about sharply for firing solutions.

Ships offer an initially small swathe of special abilities like silent running, targeting and firing buffs, as well as as class-specific systems. Cool-downs govern how often players can unleash these abilities, but inter-mission leveling and unit persistence can expand and upgrade their usage. 

The leveling persistence is a very cool thing, making each engagement a thrilling venture. If a vessel survives an match, it gains experience. Once it levels, players can augment its loadout, upgrade skills and buff a particular section of its crew. Gunnery crews can be upgraded to increase range and critical hit chances, navigators improve speed and turning response, increased manpower for repeated boarding actions and so on. If the vessel fails the Emperor and explodes, it's not lost entirely, but no experience is gained and the ship remains at its current level.

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Even in the face of defeat, if players execute a warp jump and bug out, they still receive experience for their ships. Damaged ships remain so until accrued renown is used to fast-track repairs and crew replenishment, or the ships are left in the harbour for conventional patching up. Rotating vessels allows part of the damaged fleet to repair without hitting the renown coffers; renown better spent on upgrades and enhancements. 

Armada's multiplayer beta includes a prologue tutorial, offering a sneak-peek at the campaign and its brand of grand strategic goodness. I had the pleasure of fighting both an imperial traitor and the celestial junkyard menace of an Ork raider fleet. Playing the part of marauding skirmishers, the cobbled greenskin clunkers are a fearsome, ram-prone foe. While you don't get the chance to play them in any manner during the beta, they should be an interesting faction to command. A word to the wise; keep your transports close. The Ork concept of looting appears to be picking freight from the front barge fender.

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There's a solo skirmish mode for those wanting to blood their ships before going online, but the true fun is found going head-to-head or two-on-two in multiplayer-proper with imperial or Chaos fleets. 

The opening phase of a multiplayer skirmish is rather tense. Putting the feelers out across the map, spotting the crackle of drive signatures on the 2D plane and playing a game of cat and wrought iron mouse; everything feels balanced on a knife-edge as you churn between belt and gas cloud or hide behind the sub-minute respite of temporary stealth. Given that a player's fleet will rarely go above five or so ships, each piece is a crucial part of the puzzle. The opening salvo feels like a referee's whistle, and from there, it's a glorious and stressful clash of broadsides and blockades. Deploying delayed-fuse plasma bombs in areas of anticipated enemy movement, stripping shields down to the armour and making every angle count.

Anticipation is, like its true-life naval forebears in both sail and steel, the name of the game. Watching a brace of torps detonate against the hull of a capital ship at speed, having made the rough estimation of enemy speed and heading on the fly, will never be anything other than immensely satisfying. Seeing the embellished prow of your cruiser ram through the superstructure of an opponent's escort -- the unfortunate craft sundering against the interloping nose of its aggressor -- will never grow old. And hell, even the split-second when your valiant last vessel splits from bow to stern offers a moment of romantic tragedy. 

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The multiplayer beta will lead right up until launch later this month, with preorders offering instant access. 

Given that the raw moment-to-moment gameplay is so rich, I don't doubt Tindalos' ability in crafting a solid single player experience. The brief snatch available in the beta speaks to a long and robust package that should satisfy those looking for legs and preferring their fleet action offline. As far as the glory and prestige of besting rival admiralty online, there's a lot to love. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada's intensity and skill ceiling won't be to everyone's liking, but for some, it should float more than a few ornate space boats.

Fear God Emperor and Dreadnought.

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