Since it’s nice to be confident that a game is going to be good ahead of time and then to have your assumptions justified once you finally play it, but that never manages to capture the same sense of elation as a game coming out of nowhere and blowing you away can. That’s how I feel about Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock from Black Lab Games. I heard about it many moons ago, thought little of it and then was mildly surprised to get review code come through a few days before launch. I was even more surprised when I played it.
The dark, gritty and eventually hugely confusing reboot of the delightfully campy Battlestar Galactica remains one of my favorite TV shows of all time despite its somewhat lackluster ending, and even back when it was being shown weekly I can remember thinking that an RTS set in the same universe would be pretty cool. It may have taken ten fracking years but Slitherine must have agreed, although they’ve taken the real-time bit away in favor of turn-based strategy in space set during the first war with the Cylons.
The first thing to note is that this game largely manages to nail the presentation and feel of the show thanks to its replay mode which takes all of your turn-based moves and stitches them together in a seamless fight. The camera effortlessly recreates the show’s feeling of having a cameraman with a penchant for fast zooms floating in space trying to keep track of the intense battle. Ride-along views of the Vipers as they destroy enemy fighters or a quick zoom into a massive battlestar unleashing a hailstorm of rockets so closely emulate the direction of the TV show that you could almost believe they were one and the same. It helps that composer Ash Gibson has managed to do justice to the fantastic score that gave all the drama and space scenes the punch that they deserved. He’s nailed the feeling of tribal chanting and drums combined with more ethereal noises to create something special.
Okay, okay, but let’s assume you aren’t a fan of the show or just haven’t ever seen it. What the hell is going? Well, you’re going to be taking on the role of the unnamed and genderless commander of the Colonial fleet, your sole being to battle the invading Cylon forces while protecting the twelve colonies. This all happens view an overhead view of the galaxy where you can keep an eye on Cylon fleets, embark on side-missions, build new ships and manage your existing fleets. All of the colonies will pay Tylium every turn directly into your coffers, but this amount isn’t set as it can decrease due to a lack of faith in your abilities or because a Cylon fleet is currently sitting above the planet causing problems.
It certainly has a light XCOM feeling, albeit not quite as deep as you don’t have to expand a base or research new technologies outside of new ship blueprints that get unlocked as you progress through the story. However, like XCOM it does generate the constant feeling of being on the back foot, continuously having to construct new ships while deciding where to focus your attentions. No matter what you do it’s never quite enough, like you’re fighting the tide and losing slowly. There are always unhappy colonies or roving Cylon ships or side-missions that reward you with the resources needed to expand your fleet, and eventually hopefully allow you to field multiple forces. If planets become too unstable they’ll leave the alliance entirely, so while you’re ostensibly trying to work through the story missions the reality is that you’re more or less performing a juggling act.
It can, however, be a tad confusing. Even when winning every battle, completing side-quests and having multiple fleets patrolling colonies would become concerned or unstable, dropping their turn-by-turn contributions for no discernible reason. A little more information about a planet’s mood would be welcome. Over time, though, you’ll come to understand some of what’s going on, like how parking a fleet in orbit will not only fortify a planet and thus make it produce more resources as well as provide extra bonuses.
But this problem isn’t enough to stop the whole thing from being enjoyable. Decisions always feel important, because a detour to complete a side-mission might result in riches or a couple of destroyed ships that you have to replace, which takes time. You can slowly build ships over the course of a few turns, or rush their construction at a high cost. And lose ships you will because the A.I. is surprisingly challenging, generally able to make the most of your mistakes, especially in the early game when you’re just trying to muster some ships. On top of that you can wait for your FTL drive to charge up or pay Tylium to move around the map immediately, so there’s almost always a choice to be made between saving resources or rushing over to defend a planet.
From the galactic view, you can also recruit new officers to command your fleets. These guys gain experience and via promotion can improve the performance of a fleet, as well as increase the points limit that you use for building those same fleets. No matter how many points you can spend, though, you can never have more than seven ships in a fleet which is a bit disappointing but it does force you to make some hard decisions about composition. It’s tempting just to take the biggest, baddest ships such as a battlestar, yet opting for some lighter, faster vessels can help during certain missions where you perhaps have to destroy targets. The only thing that feels missing is individual ship progression. I would love to have seen ships and their crew gain experience and become stronger over time, making the loss of a veteran Battlestar feel much more devastating because right now ships feel quite disposable.
Speaking of destroying targets lets get into the important stuff; combat. It’s a turn-based affair where both you and the Cylons plan out your moves at the same time. Once you’re done you hit the end turn button and watch the action play out for about 15-seconds before you once again take control. Glowing green holograms shows where your ships will move and by clicking on these you’ll be able to adjust the ship’s heading. Once you’ve made your choice clicking again allows you to choose the yaw, as well as its height. A few other space-based strategy games have attempted to use 3D movement in their games and the results have been fairly mixed, but for the most part it’s done well here. Ships have armor ratings for the top and bottom of their hulls, and if they’re on the same plane they’ll crash straight into each other. It’s pretty embarrassing to lose your flagship because you flew it straight into your Adamant class cruiser like an idiot. With that said making sure there’s space between ships can be a bit awkward as you’ve got to rotate the camera to get the best view.
That’s not the only issue as the game’s user interface is decidedely huge, taking up a lot more screen real estate than it really needs and not being the easiest to navigate. There’s no way of selecting multiple ships at the same time, for example, which makes commanding your numerous squadrons of smaller Vipers a pain in the backside when all you want them to do is attack a single target together. I also find it odd that the turret range overlays aren’t on by default, and that the game never mentions that they can be displayed by tapping the backslash key.
So it’s not perfect, but frankly these problems do little to detract from the satisfying combat. Micromanagement is the name of the game as positioning ships is key to victory. All of the vessels in your fleet have firing arcs for their turrets, such as the Adamants who fire to the left and right, and on top of that they’ve got separate armor values for the sides, front, rear, top and bottom so if one area starts to weaken you can turn them so they take the brunt of the incoming fire on their stronger armor. The ability to launch swarms of fighters from your carriers or unleash missile barrages mix things up, plus you can adjust power flow to either increase your defense or offense to best suit the situation. Meanwhile, the focus fire command will let ships concentrate firepower on a single target at the expense of ignoring other enemies. And if that wasn’t enough you’ve got to repair subsystems by taking them off-line and keep in mind that sharp turns can reduce accuracy.
If you fancy playing as the Cylon forces you can jump into a skirmish on one of just four maps, a paltry offering even if it is true that space maps all kind of look the same anyway. Getting to control the Cylon forces brings about a few interesting twists, like using their hacking abilities or taking advantage of how they can overclock systems to improve performance. You can also opt to battle real people in the multiplayer if you feel like discovering just how truly inept you are at strategic planning. Or is that just me?
Unsurprisingly given the niche nature of the game Deadlock doesn’t have the same level of graphical excellence as a triple-A made with a budget that could run a whole damn country, yet Slitherine have done a good job. Ship models look pleasingly detailed when you zoom in close, explosions are great and unlucky Cylon vessels break apart in a believable way. It performs well, too, with nary a framerate drop in sight. However, what I didn’t appreciate was the woefully limited options menu which simply doesn’t cut it for a game in 2017.
There’s plenty of room for Black Lab Games to expand with DLC or updates, and that’s actually kind of exciting. Perhaps a hardcore mode for campaign where battle damage carries over instead of getting magically repaired and a ship/crew experience system. Maybe we’ll get to see them introduce newer models of ship?
That’s all talk of the future, though. Right here and now Slitherine have done a damn good job, creating a rock-solid space-strategy game, and a bloody brilliant adaption of a beloved sci-fi license. It’s a niche game and they knew that, carefully spending what must have been a limited budget to adapt their Star Hammer system for the Battlestar Galactica license. And boy does it show that the creators clearly watched the reboot and understood it, capturing the visual style, music and audio beautifully. Watching those replays makes me think, just for a few seconds, that I’m witnessing a new episode of the TV show. As good as the gameplay is, I believe it’s the faithful adaption of the source material that is Deadlock’s biggest strength.
So, it probably won’t shock you to read that I wholeheartedly recommend this one, both to fans of the show and to fans of the strategy genre. And if, like me, you happen to fit into both of those categories then Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock is a brilliant game, despite a couple of misteps along the way. The light XCOM-style layer of strategy of trying to balance twelve planets with building ships and undertaking missions is a wonderful cherry on top of the tasty cake that is the turn-based mayhem of combat. To you, Black Lab Games, I raise my glass, because you surprised me. You made a great game that snuck up on me and impressed me far more than most of the triple-A games this year have. A genuinely gripping game.