Review: Battle Fleet 217 Jul 2014 0
Review: Battle Fleet 2
Released 17 Jul 2014
The current vogue for turn-based high-seas naval combat games (see Pacific Fleet, Atlantic Fleet, and Naval Tactics) is a curious phenomenon that I suspect is a symptom of our collective unease with drone warfare, but I'll save that for the day when War is Boring gives me a chance to write a column. It also might just be that battleships with 16" diameter guns are terrifyingly cool. I'll buy that, too.
As a rule, I prefer turn-based games with a vehement, old-timey prejudice. But I also accept that doing naval combat in neat, pre-ordered turns distorts the simulation a bit. A gruesome struggle of life and death becomes a badminton match played with high explosive shuttlecocks. The successful naval combat sim, then, is one that re-injects drama and excitement back into the proceedings.
It is impossible to talk about Battle Fleet 2 in any critical way without comparing it to Pacific Fleet. That's a bit unfair, because the original Battle Fleet pre-dates Pacific Fleet's arrival by some years, but both games share fundamentally similar gameplay. Enter a battle with your chosen ships. Pick a target and estimate its distance from your ship, then fire a salvo and correct your range estimation before you fire again. Lather, rinse, repeat until the enemy ships (or yours) are spewing bubbles on the sea floor.
Both games make a lot of effort to dress up this core mechanic with additional layers of things to do -- which is wise, because this is essentially the same gameplay loop as Angry Birds, a game that no one has ever accused of being a deep and engaging strategy title.
Pacific Fleet has a linear campaign of sorts where you flit about WWII's P.T.O. tackling ever greater challenges with your upgradeable fleet. Sink these two unarmed trawlers. Okay, next sink the Yamato. Great, now sink the Yamato and Space Battleship Yamato. You get the picture. Pacific Fleet's hole card is that this entire process feels like directing your own war film: the ships are lovingly modelled in 3D and a free camera lets you watch the action from any angle. Ships sink in a realistic manner, as Pacific Fleet models different compartments within each vessel and floods them according to the damage done by shells and torpedoes. It looks great, and the feeling of being in a war movie nicely offsets the fundamental same-ness of the gameplay.
When Battle Fleet 2 was announced, it looked as though it would be going toe-to-toe with Pacific Fleet in terms of sheer visual spectacle. Unlike the first Battle Fleet, the new game would be in 3D with lots of historically-accurate WWII ships to blast holes in. The Battle Fleet 2 that we've got is in 3D all right, but the developers have neutered its power to create drama by locking the camera into a straight-down overhead view. It's possible to get a side-on view of a boat in its stats screen, but that's as far as the camera can be manipulated. It's a shame, because there's obviously a lot of work that has gone into the 3D engine -- you just aren't allowed to appreciate it.
The combat simulation in Battle Fleet 2 is rather simple. There's no compartment-based flooding here, just a pool of hitpoints for each ship that you need to drain in order to sink them. Each turret is individually modelled, which means you can knock them (and other components like rudders and engines) out of commission, but given the fundamental inaccuracy of long-range gunnery you're reliant on luck more than skill here. There are game cards littered around the maps -- if you steer a ship onto one it will give you a one-time bonus like temporarily disabling a single enemy ship. This is optional and purists can turn the feature off.
The most interesting aspect of Battle Fleet 2 is the strategy layer: there's a Risk-style map of the Pacific where the theatre has been divided into twenty or so zones. Steam your ships into an enemy zone, win a tactical battle, and then the zone is yours. This is the most engaging part of the game and at the highest of the 3 difficulty levels, the strategic AI puts up a decent fight. When you build new ships, the game allows you to customise their gun emplacements, which is a nice touch.
Battle Fleet 2 sports a slick UI and quality production values, but it needs some important quality-of-life improvements before it can be recommended to anyone not already a fan of the genre. Persistent markers that show the impact of shots you fired last turn would take some unnecessary pain out of the range-estimation game, and a mercy button to auto-resolve battles whose conclusion is beyond doubt would be most welcome. The multiplayer is also strictly synchronous, which seems like an oversight in a turn-based game. The UI really is gorgeous, though -- if perhaps a bit too modern-feeling for the 1940s setting.
Battle Fleet 2 is a respectable offering, really, but one that is too hesitant to pick a direction. It's a sim, but not hardcore enough about realism to appease the true grognard. It's a game, but it's too parsimonious with the power-ups to break up the guess-the-distance game loop at its core. No classic, then, but those 16" guns are still pretty cool.