The Warhammer license gets shopped around in video games far too much. It does make sense for tabletop gaming to have an active presence in video games, so of course it’s fine (and good) that there are games, and it is in a better position than Dungeons & Dragons (which was stuck with a woeful publisher for too long and has a long way to recover from here). But for every good Warhammer title, there is an awful lot of trash. Thankfully, Warhammer 40,000: Battlesector, developed by Aussie outfit, Black Lab Games, is one of the good ones. One of the best, even. This thing is just so playable.
Battlesector is a tactics-level strategy game that does a more-than-adequate job of capturing the relentlessly grim dark (or grimdark, if you will) science-fiction of the 40K universe. You deploy small squads of units to a sequence of battlefields, direct them around (squads stick together and behave as a single unit per square on the grid), and blast away at whatever gruesom nightmare is in front of them. There’s some minimal backend management of the forces in terms of their make up and the various capabilities of the leaders, but for the most part the strategy is firmly located on the battlefield, and there you’ve got access to all the tools that you need to turn back the relentless hordes.
Now, this is no criticism of the developer, as they’re working with the material that they’ve got, but I’m going to go on a brief digression here to talk about Warhammer 40K, the property, because there are things that it does that don’t sit particularly well with me. The most significant of which is the heavy-handed and blatant, overt fascism that the game has running through the “culture” of the dominant human races within the universe. This is not a creatively interpretive observation, and the game does apparently draw some very real fascists to it on how explicitly it is that, and while Games Workshop vehemently denies that it is actively promoting such ideologies, the reality is that from the game’s art to its narratives, it’s making the connection clear. The question then becomes why people are able to interpret it as sincere given that Games Workshop employees would be devastated at the thought.
So, in fairness, there are defences to what the company has done with its fiction, and again, I must make it clear that I don’t believe that Games Workshops is actively courting these… thinkers. I’m just not sure they’ve been as effective in making their actual message as clear as they might like. One common defence I see is that the game is satirical in tone, and certainly, there’s an argument that there’s a very dark satire running through Warhammer 40K. The exaggeration is there in the character designs and pulpy narrative tone to suggest that somewhere there are designers high-fiving one another over just how clever they are at highlighting how twisted the ideology is. The problem is that if this was a specific attempt at satire it is far too subtle for its own good, because a whole lot of people have latched onto it without realising that it’s being satirically critical of them (or they haven’t been sufficiently offended by the association so they’ve appropriated it to their own ends).
The second common defence is the one that Games Workshop itself rolled out in retaliation for its game being co-opted by these groups: these depictions were not meant to be heroic. “Warhammer 40,000 isn’t just grimdark. It’s the grimmest, darkest,” the company wrote on its website by way of a response to the last time all of this blew up. This post then goes on to lay out the argument that it is satire, while also making the statement: “The Imperium is not an aspirational state, outside of the in-universe perspectives of those who are slaves to its systems. It’s a monstrous civilisation, and its monstrousness is plain for all to see. There are no goodies in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.”
The problem here is that when there’s no frame of reference, people are then going to identify with whatever their natural inclinations are, and subsequently “read” some things as a positive depiction when that wasn’t intended. Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece of moral writing because while it depicts humanity as fragile, petty, vindictive, prone to moral weakness, vulnerable and at times evil, it is also a force of good in the world, relative to what them orcs, trolls and balrogs are. By making the Orks, Tyranids and other Warhammer 40K species as bad as the Imperium, what Games Workshop is effectively doing is removing that context, and people are going to naturally identify to the ones that are most like them. Most of us are more like the Space Marines (physically, I mean), than we are the Tyranids. It becomes quite clear which way the game is implying we should lean as a consequence.
Again, I don’t believe this is Games Workshop’s active intent, but pulp fiction has never been good literature and I’m not sure that any of the creatives working on Warhammer 40K have properly thought through the implications of what “everyone is bad” means, and how it can still lead to some people seeing one particular side as the one they want to win the war anyway. Despite the many years that this game has been around, it’s simply that, for all the company’s protestations, it’s never managed to overcome.
Again, that was all a digression, but I haven’t had the opportunity to air my issues with the way Games Workshop presents its Warhammer fiction, so I figured I’ll take this opportunity to do so here. To the developer of Battlesector’s credit, the team has done a great job in capturing the key aesthetic and thematic elements of the overall property. It does feel claustrophobically grim, the numbers are against the forces you’re fielding on the battle, and it’s all so over the top that it hits that not-funny-but-critical satire, if you want to make that argument.
It’s presented nicely, too, despite the developers working with what was no doubt a limited budget. Zooming the camera all the way down to the field of battle provides an impressively cinematic look at the action, and because squads, rather than individuals, fill the squares, the firefights have more energy than a single soldier blasting away at a single enemy a-la XCOM. I do wish that there were text size options, though, and once again, developers, I implore you that if you’re going to put something on console, just test whether anyone who uses standard-strength glasses needs to move closer to the TV or squint really hard just to read your words. Surely you realise that giving players migraines is not an example of good design, so just throw in a text size option for anyone not running a 1,000-inch TV set-up. Simple.
Otherwise, the only areas where Battlesector falters have to do with the relative simplicity of the strategy, and the primitive enemy AI. The range of units is fine, but their utility on the backfield is rather straightforward, and no single battlefield really throws complex strategic problems at players. I was surprised at this, because Black Lab Games’ previous work, Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock, was almost overwhelmingly deep with the tactics. With Battlesector, once you’ve worked out how the game ticks you’ll fall into a repeatable approach to each level, with little reason to deviate, experiment, or take risks as a more fully-realised strategy game might ask you to. Meanwhile, the big tactical downside to the Tyranids as the major opposing force is that they’re predisposed towards rush tactics and melee combat, and that makes them about as predictable as the solution to trench warfare (i.e. “they’re going up and over, boys, stand and fire!”)
While that might sound like a catastrophic weakness for a tactics game, it’s really not and hidden well. Look at how compelling Advance Wars or Final Fantasy Tactics is despite the simplicity of the enemy AI and the actual on-field tactics. Warhammer 40,000: Battlesector aims for a similar casual tactical feel as those kinds of games, and, thanks to the excellent and authentic depiction of the grimdark 40K universe, nails it. This is just plain good tactics play, and sometimes that’s enough.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb