Black Lab Games, the studio behind Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock, has another hit on its hands with Warhammer 40,000: Battlesector. While it’s in danger of being overlooked amid a recent flood of games using the Warhammer 40K setting, Battlesector brings the new era of the 40K tabletop game to the PC like a thunder hammer to the head of a hive tyrant. The momentum-based tactical system and broad customizability of the forces you lead, combined with randomization in the mission setups, gives you a fun campaign with a tasty side dish of multiplayer skirmish.
The brooding melodrama of the Warhammer 40K universe is on full display in Battlesector, much to its credit. The beautiful, yet burdened Blood Angels Space Marines are devastated following the invasion of their home worlds by the ravening swarm of the Tyranids, a hive mind of space monsters that exist only to eat and grow. However, the Blood Angels have now been reinforced by the newly made Primaris Marines (which are like normal Space Marines but bigger) and are ready for a counter-attack.
Battlesector explains all the Lord Primarch and Baalfora and Hive Fleet convolutions as well as it can. Just drink it up, because it’s all background to your team of Tyranid hunters on a barren, salt-desert moon. As you might expect – nay, demand – from a Space Marine adventure, there are lots of scenery-chewing voice performances and plenty of melodramatic inter-character conflict to enjoy. It all delights in dialogue and flavor text that really catches the tone of 40k. My only real complaint is that while the Primaris serve as a catalyst for new things happening in the 40K universe, they barely have an on-screen presence or a handful of lines between them all.
Over a 20-mission single-player campaign, you lead Sergeant Carleon and his Blood Angels, along with some Sister of Battle allies, against the Tyranids. To their credit, no two missions are exactly alike, each presenting some new objective or terrain to set it apart from the others. Early fights see you tearing through Tyranids on desolate salt flats, while later battles move to narrow mountain passes and massive gothic industrial facilities. Each of these hand-crafted mission battle maps is a pleasure to fight over because they all present interesting tactical choices.
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Those choices become gloriously rich over the course of the campaign. As you unlock new units to use you’re able to put points into your commander’s skill trees – but you’ve got no hope of unlocking them all in a single playthrough. Instead, you get to specialize your army, choosing which units you’ll buff up with new skills and upgraded stats. In my roughly 30 hours with Battlesector, I’ve built two armies: One designed as an infantry gun-line that buffs up its members and mows down enemies as they approach, then has heroes sweep in to melee the survivors to mulch.
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The other is led by an armored sledgehammer, using flamethrower-equipped Furioso Dreadnought to burn out the chaff and Predator tanks to smash the big bugs before they can even react. Both builds have a different feel and are effective ways to play through the campaign, which speaks well to its potential for replays.
Skirmish is a bit more barebones. Fights are on mirrored maps with no real objectives other than a deathmatch, but it’s fun enough to think up weird lists of units to surprise others with. Playing as the Tyranids after the shooting-and-maneuvering campaign as the Blood Angels is a treat because they force you to focus on swarm tactics and high-value centerpiece monsters to win. The only real limitation is the unit variety – about 13 units per side – which left me wanting more.
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Also, you can’t customize your armies’ appearance. Forgivable in the campaign, with its canonical color schemes, but a sad exclusion in multiplayer. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: All Warhammer games should have an army painter.
The basic turn-to-turn tactics of Battlesector are pretty richly simulated, with each unit having a number of attacks each round, each with its own chance to hit and damage roll. It’s pretty satisfying to see a unit of Primaris Aggressors roll out 120 separate attacks in a turn, scything through model after model of Tyranids.
Otherwise, most units move up to a set distance and can take a single action each round, aside from heroic HQ units that can take two actions. As you maneuver, you set your units’ facings and set any units which haven’t acted or are holding fire to an overwatch position so they can fire during the enemy turn. Facing also determines how enemies interact with them: you can rush past the undefended flanks or rear of an enemy, for example, without them getting a free melee attack on you.
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The melee rules are the most complex thing to figure out, highly dependent on what weapons each side is using and whether or not they’re doing a Charge action into the fight. It might take you some trial and error before you understand when your units will or won’t get free attacks with pistol weapons against an onrushing horde, or avoid those same kinds of attacks from the enemy, because the tutorials aren’t as clear as they could be when it comes to explaining the system. Either way, most combat is about positioning your units at their optimal range, which is conveniently highlighted for you when you mouse over a weapon.
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However, not all weapons’ statistics are as clearly and intuitively displayed. Heaven help you if it’s an enemy’s weapon you’re seeking information on. But fear not! It’s a strategy game UI, people – stick with it and you’ll figure out the stupid quirks eventually.
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As your units mow down the enemy they rack up points in their Momentum bar, which brings a high-skill, high-reward factor to Battlesector’s combat. You could ignore it, or just use it when you luck into it, but it’s really fun once you figure it out. Blood Angels generate Momentum by being in the thick of the fight, while Tyranids get it for killing, but both sides use it the same ways: a full Momentum bar lets a unit either take an extra action that round or use a buffed-up version of one of their abilities, like a super-strength heal or a meteoric aerial charge. It’s a little icing on the cake during combat, a bit of a minigame to gun for as you maximize your favorite units and ensure they get the choicest kills so they can get extra attacks.
Perhaps the best part of Battlesector is that it doesn’t shy away from big, huge, swirling battlefields filled with units. At the biggest army sizes you end up with 20 units on the field, all armed to the teeth. These colossal battles can take over an hour to resolve but they’re thrilling to play out on the bigger maps, encouraging you to fight on several fronts. I love splitting my army into two or three detachments designed to operate independently, which is something from tabletop Warhammer I’ve rarely seen represented in video games.