I said in April that there were too many Warhammer games, and I stand by that, but this month we at least got a good one to add to the list, something we haven’t been able to do for a while.
A big part of my problem with Games Workshops flooding the market with licensed games is that it turns something that should be very cool—Space Marines!!—into white noise, a tasteless grey mass, as one shitty mobile game bleeds into another forgettable turn-based tactics outing on PC, each one with a name that sounds just like the last.
So if I told you there was a new 40K game out on PC, and it was called Battlesector, and it was a turn-based tactics game, and it was published by a company responsible for so many of the franchise’s other bland entries, you’d be forgiven for feeling nothing.
You would also be missing out, though, because Battlesector is pretty good!.
Yes, really! I know you’ve got your doubts, so allow me to explain, and I’ll begin with who made it. Battlesector was developed by Australian studio Black Lab Games, the team behind another surprisingly excellent piece of licensed strategy from a few years back, Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock.
These guys are clearly becoming masters of a certain type of licensed release, where the game itself is cool, but the respect for and application of the license, despite clear budgetary and resource constraints, is remarkable. That’s the quickest way I would describe Deadlock to you, and it’s exactly the same experience here.
Battlesector is a thick, chunky and challenging tactics game in its own right. It’s also a wonderful representation of the 40K tabletop experience, as you build up an army over a campaign, adding new units every few missions, and every stage are given a points cap with which you can just put whichever type of unit on the map you want for the situation at hand.
Units are bursting with personality thanks to great little animation touches and some terrific details, with hero units being the main stars, each of them packing extra actions, cool support abilities, even cooler outfits and the ability to unlock better gear for both themselves and your regular units as well.
Being a game that lives and dies as much on its combat as it does its license, I was pleasantly surprised by how robust battles felt. Tactics games like this live and die on their flexibility, as picking the right unit to be in the right place at the right time against the right type of enemy is the backbone of everything from XCOM to Fire Emblem.
And Battlesector is pretty damn flexible. Your ever-growing roster of Marines and heroes range from nimble Assault Marines right through to lumbering Rhino tanks, and later in the game individual units can have their primary weapons swapped out, like exchanging a bolt cannon for a flamethrower, or a chain gun for plasma weaponry. This gives you a great sense of ownership over every battle, as you’re free to tinker with and deploy exactly the right kind of army you think you’re going to need.
Combat feels heavy, and fun, and most importantly fair, with expected hit points, expected hit accuracy and the status of the enemy you’re firing at all presented in the same pop-up as you hover a crosshairs over them. Sometimes the AI proved to be a cunning opponent, using narrow city streets and ravines to outflank me and cut off my vulnerable units, while at other times it reverted to dumb bug rushes, though it’s tough telling whether that’s an AI failing or just a consequence of the game’s bad guys being the insect-like Tyranids.
Basically the whole thing feels like a very pretty, very enjoyable game of tabletop 40K. The relatively small scale of your armies here might not match the art and lore, or the precedent set by games like Dawn of War, but it’s perfect for recreating that tabletop scale, and more than any other 40K game I’ve ever played, this felt the closest to this universe’s version of “Star Wars chess vs real chess”.
Sadly the campaign is a little short, and despite efforts to introduce new characters and keep the story moving, it does start to feel a little stale after a while when there are only two factions duking it out for the entire game, especially since one of those are the Tyranids, who aren’t exactly big on personality. I’d be shocked if there weren’t plans for more varied terrain and new armies to play with later on, but here only having two forces represented from such a huge universe got a bit tiring.
The game also feels a little...cheap? As lavish and loving as all the attention on the combat has been, everything else about the game feels strangely sparse, from campaign briefings to menus to cutscenes. For a universe that normally plays out at such a grand scale, and with the in-game action so fantastic, it’s a shame to see the story propelling the campaign presented with just a few static pieces of art with some narration over the top.
But what narration. My favourite thing about this entire game is its voice acting, which takes a solid strategy game and turns it into a memorable 40K experience. One of the biggest attractions of 40K for me is just how ridiculously over the top everything is. Everything’s big, and epic, and universe-defining, it’s all just a lot. The vast majority of Warhammer games released over the years don’t just fall short because they’re bad games, but also because they pay only the slightest hint of lip service to the license they’re based on.
Battlesector revels in it. Every mission briefing is a joy, every debrief a chance to let these ridiculous men and women’s voices wash over you. Best of all is the constant chatter livening up the missions, all delivered in exactly the way you’d hope a 40K character would sound. WE ARE THE WALLS, WE ARE THE GUNS your heavy troops might bellow as they face up to certain death, while your main hero doesn’t say “affirmative” when you move him, he’ll shout stuff like I AM THE SWORD OF SANGUINIUS.
Later on, you will meet the Battle Sisters, and their hero character’s voice acting is good enough to make the whole game worth playing just to enjoy it.
I know it sounds wild to focus so much on voice acting here, but I’m someone who has always flirted around the periphery of 40K fandom, intrigued by the overall premise but constantly let down by fiction’s attempts to breathe life into such incredible designs and artwork. The voice acting (and writing!) here manages this effortlessly, whisking me away to a place that shows—like Black Lab did with Deadlock—that a real love of the source material went into this game, and not just a fast paycheck from Games Workshop.
So yeah, there are still too many Warhammer games, but this is exactly why that’s a problem, because if you start to ignore them and let them wash over you, you risk missing out on the good ones. Like Battlesector.