Venerate the Immortal Emperor
For Kaela Mensha Khaine
Blood for the Blood God
BRING ON THE DAKKA
To the outsider, Warhammer 40,000 and its umbrella of games can often seem like a party where the guests already know each other and are sharing inside jokes and meta references. Even if the conversations in play seem interesting, there’s always a measure of social exclusion for the newcomer. Words in High Gothic may sound familiar to contemporary ears (exterminatus, for example) but there’s a semiotic meaning that can’t be intuited through a similarity between English and ersatz-Latin. Say nothing for the fact that someone peeling back the layers on WH40K’s lore will find a myriad of sources that are, at the very least, dense and potentially weird or off-putting.
So it’s a rare thing when a studio produces a WH40K game that goes out of its way to take the newcomers, relegated to speaking to potted plants at the big Warhammer party, and bring them into the fold. It’s rarer still when a game does this while simultaneously celebrating the existing fan base. To that end, Tindalos Interactive’s Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, will no doubt join the likes of Dawn of War and Space Marine in claiming a rare pedigree of gaming excellence.
This particular angle into the world of WH40K is all the more fascinating given how Battlefleet Gothic: Armada might be seen as something of a niche experience. In short, it’s a real-time tactical starship combat game that is strongly inspired by age-of-sail warfare. The story is driven by a mix of fixed plot points and a choose-your-own-adventure style campaign. Oh, and the entire concept is based on an out-of-print tabletop game also called Battlefleet Gothic. The dramatis personae features a space-Stalinist human regime (the Imperium), space elves (Eldar), cockney space orcs (Orks), and evil humans corrupted by space demons (Chaos). All things being equal, BGA isn’t something one might expect to win a lot of market share.
BGA becomes greater than the sum of its parts through a willingness to put the player, and the player character, Admiral Spire, at the forefront of an impossibly large mythology. This tonal direction marries with design elements that transform the wargame – something that is usually perfected through repetition and rote learning – into something that is felt and intuited. At the same time, these choices don’t forgo a place at the table for the detail oriented. There’s plenty of room for a player to get lost in damage-per-second calculations. But there’s no expectation that a player needs to bother with the math. Instead, the spirit of the game is found in a thing I’ll call voidsmanship.
Voidsmanship is like seamanship (stop giggling, children) only in space. Despite the depth of actions available to an Admiral, the fundamentals of voidsmanship are self-evident: jockey for position, line up a shot, and watch the artillery and lasers fly. Early missions teach effective tactics, thus inviting a player in for progressively greater challenges.
BGA also keeps things welcoming through its use of a mere mortal as a protagonist. Space Marines may be cool (and amazing power fantasies) but they lack a certain relatability. Admiral Spire, on the other hand, begins the game as a nearly-disposable cog in the Imperium’s war machine. Though the lore of WH40K equates failure with death, the game takes no such position. In fact, the player can fail on many key missions without sending the game into a death spiral. Furthermore, the paradox of Spire’s low political status combined with his position of absolute authority as master of an imperial ship affords both the character and the player a clear through line into the often opaque WH40K mythology.
It makes sense that Spire would ask “Is this necessary” when the Imperial Inquisition destroys a planet of ten billion people. Both Spire, and the player, need to be reminded that they can not save all of the Gothic Sector as they work their way through the campaign. With the game giving voice to the player’s questions, expository cut scenes and voice acting never seem tacked on or perfunctory. They pull a player deeper into the world. They make the world mean something as a comparison between the lesser-evils of the Imperium’s utilitarianism and theocracy in the face of the greater-evil of human extinction. Gone is grimdark for the sake of grimdark; in its place, BGA becomes science fiction as political allegory.
This meaning extends even to the level of visual metaphors. While it’s perfectly fair to say that the art of BGA is gorgeous, doing so misses how its ship design captures the essence of the world and politics contained within the story. Devotees of WH40K know the Warp (like subspace in Star Trek, only it is literally hell in 40K) twists the servants of Chaos. It’s another thing to zoom in on a Chaos ship and see chains strung between jarring, asymmetric angles, watching as its engines spew forth demonic energies. This art transcends simple visual properties. It becomes something that demands to be seen. The ability to slow time in combat, a mechanic that ostensibly keeps battles perfectly paced, can drop someone into an altered state where tactics, aesthetic, and narrative become one. The call to venerate the Immortal Emperor needs no explanation when the majesty of the Emperor’s artifices and the threats against humanity are plain as day.
So where do we land on Battlefleet Gothic: Armada? Is it going to scratch the itch of tabletop wargamers and WH40K fans longing for some starship combat? Absolutely. Tindalos Interactive and Focus Home Interactive have captured the essence of the physical game and brilliantly adapted it for the PC. But beyond adherence to source material, Tindalos has also developed a story and overall experience that welcomes players to the mythology of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It’s a fitting tone given that navies were, historically, more democratic and merit-based than armies. Now anyone can experience the grandeur of sailing a miles-long starship into battle without fearing a rabbit hole of lore and conceptual baggage.
Welcome to the party, neophytes.