I started collecting an army of Blood Angels in 1993, so if you take one look at Battlesector and tell me there are too many Warhammer 40,000 videogames about space marines already, I will not care. Because these aren’t any old space marines: these are the warrior-philosophers cursed with a red thirst that drives them to frenzies and death, and they are my special little guys.
In the last few years modern Games Workshop’s profligacy with its license has given us games where you get to be orks, tech-priests, and Necromunda gangs, so we’re due for another turn-based tactics game about shoulderpad fetishists. And it seems to be a competent one. Though I only have access to two missions and some tutorials in this beta, I’m happy to report the models look real nice when you zoom in, the voice actors confidently declaim their nonsense in gloriously macho fashion, and although some of the animations and sound effects seem unfinished, it’s competently assembled and just works. With Warhammer games, that isn’t always a guarantee.
What if war, but too much?
Battlesector is a tactics game with a scale somewhere below Dawn of War’s mass conflicts and above Dawn of War 2’s skirmishes. You’ve got 10-25 units in any given mission, probably including a couple of vehicles, multiple five-man squads of marines in various flavors, and some heroic individuals to lead them and call in the air strikes.
Movement’s on a grid, and you can move units while the previous ones are still jogging into place like in Space Hulk. Which is nice if you’re impatient. Everyone’s got one or two action points to spend on attacks, buffs, going on overwatch, or moving an extra square. So far, so standard.
What’s unusual are the momentum points, which you earn by scoring kills with bonuses for getting up close. Whether it’s with a flamer or chainsword, what matters is that you look the aliens in the eye when they die. The more momentum a unit has, the more crits it scores, and when a unit hits 100 momentum you can spend the lot for an extra action or a skill upgrade. Thing is, momentum dribbles away when you’re not killing, and it costs 10 points of momentum to go into overwatch. (As a reminder of its importance, “Momentum +1” notifications scroll away above the heads of units as they earn it. I could do without that to be honest, but though there are options to have more visible notifications on enemy turns, there’s no way to see less of them.)
Momentum encourages aggression, appropriately for the Blood Angels, and similar rules affect your enemy, the aliens who make all their tech out of living biomass called tyranids. It’s apt for them too, as a species who are basically The Very Hungry Caterpillar if it ate entire civilizations instead of fruit.
Though momentum makes you want to get close, shooting is still a good idea. Overwatch fire can cause suppression, stripping away action points. And ranged weapons are particularly effective at specific ranges, highlighted when you mouse over weapon skills. It’s worth taking a step back before shooting with long-range plasma guns or medium-range bolt rifles. Depending on the makeup of my opponent’s force and the mission’s objectives, I find myself switching between playstyles, rather than following the XCOM rule of “always be overwatching”.
Though skirmish and multiplayer modes (hot seat, online, and play-by-email) will apparently be limited to kill-em-all victory conditions, the singleplayer missions have multiple objectives. In one I have to switch off valves in a factory that seems to mainly manufacture explosions, and I’ve only got four turns to get to the first one.
I send my fastest unit, a land speeder. It’s got a pintle-mounted heavy bolter on the front, and I like to imagine a tasteful bumper sticker on the back like “Honk if you love the Emperor’s glory”. It arrives at Prometheum Flow Segment Primus on the last possible turn, and that’s when I learn vehicles can’t interact with objects and fail the mission.
Replaying it, I send my jetpack assault marines instead. After turning off all the valves while protecting a librarian dreadnought (a half-dead psychic piloting a mechsuit), the objectives switch to “mop up the remaining tyranids”. The previous mission, where I had to take a bunker then hold it for three turns, ended the same way. Though I don’t have to scour the fog of war much to find the drizzle of remaining tyranids, playing through foregone conclusions makes for underwhelming finishes to both levels.
These are only two missions out of a 20-mission campaign, which will have persistent upgrades, loadout options, and a story binding it all together. That sounds promising, but it’s not part of the beta so I’m just squinting into the fog of war and guessing at the shape of it.
I have concerns about unit variety too. It’s just Blood Angels versus tyranids, and fighting the same enemy over an entire game can get old. It helps that my own force seems to have personality, split between cranky veterans of the firstborn marines and the newer primaris variety, who are strengthened by heavier genetic modification. (Space marines follow Invader Zim’s philosophy that the more organs you cram into your body the better.)
I’m hoping for extra troop types in the campaign, like the elite fliers of the Sanguinary Guard and the Death Company, who are so consumed by the red thirst they descend into battle madness and paint their armor black in mourning because, on the off-chance they survive the suicidal charges they’re known for, they’re executed for being a liability.
Stuff like that would go a long way toward communicating what makes the Blood Angels interesting compared to other space marines—they’re the ultimate goths of a setting where everyone is already quite gothy.
Battlesector reminds me of Sanctus Reach, another 40K game published by Slitherine, but where that felt generic, Battlesector has character. I hope the full game leans into that even more, because it would be a shame if people saw this game about vampire-angel warrior monks fighting bug-dinosaur aliens who have organic guns and just went, “Urg, not again.”
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