While XCOM is about as serious as I get with turn-based tactics, I have been curious to try more, so I decided to give Warhammer 40,000: Battlesector a go after seeing it’s leaving Game Pass soon. Brothers, it’s decent. Familiarity with the rock-paper-chainsword setup of Warhammer 40K arsenals is easing me into the unfamiliar world of retreating attacks and armour calculations. If you’re in a similar position and also on Game Pass, maybe have a look before it leaves Microsoft’s subscription service at the end of the month.
Warhammer 40,000: Battlesector first launched in July 2021. It’s made by Black Lab Games, the studio behind Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock (the Battlestar game Alec dreamed of having in 2005). It’s set in the aftermath of a big dramatic moment in Warhammer history, the ‘Devestation of Baal’. Ravenous Tyranid hordes almost ate the homeworld of the Blood Ravens, a chapter of the Space Marines, until some Chaos lads opened a hole in the universe plus the Ultramarines’ long-comatose dad returned with reinforcements in the shape of chunky new Primaris marines. We’re here on cleanup duty, squishing any leftover bugs and making sure they don’t return.
So off we go, into turn-based battles on a square grid which kinda functions like a hex grid. It is genuinely helpful for me to try more-tactical tactics in the familiar setting of Warhammer 40K. Thanks to games including Dawn Of War and Spice Maureen (not to mention the hypnotic training undergone while being implanted with new organs upon joining RPS), I’m coming in broadly understanding the strengths and weakness of different units and how I should use them. So now I just need to learn how to play turn-based tactics.
Building an army is fun, and similar to what I know of the tabletop wargame. You go into each battle with your army pre-chosen from available ‘units’, a term which might mean one single vehicle or might be multiple infantry ‘models’ who stand on the same square and follow the same orders. Models have their own health bars and make their own attacks, so a unit can lose models and become weaker but still fight on. Each unit costs points to field, with stronger units generally costing more, and each mission has a cap on both points and units. For example, 50 points gets you a squad of five Battle Sisters (vulnerable but versatile) while 205 points will get you one single Baal Predator tank (y’know, a tank). As long as you keep within the caps, you’re free to try whichever outlandish arny you want. It might not be sensible to send out a 100% jetpack army, but you could do it. Plus your army also always includes a handful of named hero units, who cost 0 points and have powerful abilities.
So I have my tank charging up to burn through a swarm, my Inceptors jetpacking in behind snipers, my chunky Aggressors following up for more swarm control, my Battle Sisters behind equipped with Blessed Ammunition to tear through chunkier melee units or deal with a surprise flying flank, and a squad of Hellbasters with plasma cannons to punch through armour. And then I end my turn and an alien bovine the length of a train carriage, a Tyranid Exocrine, ambles out of the fog and bursts an entire squad with a single blast from their bioplasma cannon. Right, yes, I should have scouted better. I get it. That’s why I have scout units in the first place.
Battlesector is teaching me to move cautiously but boldly. It punishes unpreparedness but supports and rewards aggression. Killing enemies earns a unit ‘Momentum’ energy, which boosts stats like critical hit chance and charges a Momentum bar that can be consumed to either buff an ability or gain an extra ability point. But Momentum drains if you don’t, well, keep up momentum. Inching forwards with overlapping layers of overwatch fire feels neither satisfying nor especially successful, so leap in with fangs bared. This is helped by ability cooldowns being short enough that I don’t eternally save them “in case I need them later”. I’ll happily pop a buff or two to support a risky advance.
Across the campaign, you recruit more hero units and unlock more generic units to field. Completing missions and bonus objectives also awards medals to spend on the heroes’ mskill trees. Their trees are interesting, with a mix of buffs for heroes themselves and buffs for your generic troops. You’ll find new weapons to equip, new active abilities, and passive stat boosts. These can really change how a unit plays, and I’ve enjoyed planning unlocks to boost my favourite units (my beloved Battle Sisters start weak then grow quite tricksy). Units also gain small stat boosts for surviving a mission, so it’s worth trying to rescue units but not crippling if they die (they’re free to replace with newbies). Missions’ army point caps go up across the campaign too, escalating to bigger armies and bigger fights. I just wish the plot and characters were more interesting.
The campaign is very much the follow-up to a novel where the exciting stuff actually happened. Now the galaxy-changing events are over and the heroes are safely back on their battle barges, polishing their helmets, while my coworkers and I clean up the leftovers and feel out the new political landscape. With the unspeaking Tyranids simply doing swarm things, the friction of the story is amongst the Imperium of Man.
Our sergeant is wary of the new vat-grown Primaris marines, lads who are undeniably chunky but untested and raised outside Blood Angel traditions. Our Dreadnought pal might be losing his mind inside his cybernetic coffin, experiencing visions or possibly hallucinations—and we’re reminded that our Techmarine is poised to shut him down lest he go on a rampage. Our priest is a boring baby whining about some stuff or whatever. And Sister Verity, the delightfully parish council-y leader of our Adepta Sororitas detachment, is clearly taking notes to grass us up to the vicar. I’d love for her to hit me with a withering putdown about the jam in the Victoria sponge I baked for the church roof fundraiser.
I see the appeal of personal intrigue amongst mundane murder in an epic sci-fi setting but I don’t think Battlesector pulls it off well enough. Mostly I’m listening to grumbling across briefings and cutscenes while we put on our big boots to go stomp bugs in another boring red desert with our boring coworkers. This feeling was especially drawn into focus by recently playing the Darktide open beta, an FPS set in a far more vibrant corner of 40K. But sure, Battlesector’s plot is servicable enough, and I came here for violence, not story.
Warhammer 40,000: Battlesector does have multiplayer, including online, hot seat, and even PBEM++ (an asynchronous system inspired by ye olde Play By E-mail). I have not played it, and will not. It also has a fledgling skirmish campaign mode (officially still in testing) which I might give a go after I wrap up the story campaign. The game’s scheduled to leave Game Pass on the 30th of November and that’s plenty of time.
After this, I think I am feeling emboldened to try more of the more-complex (by my standards) types of turn-based tactics games. Who knows, maybe I’ll even look beyond the comfy climes of Warhammer 40K. Do they make turn-based tacticfights about swimming, fungus, or cyberpunk B movies?