One of the most endearing aspects of strategy and tactics is the innovative uses of whatever one has at their disposal to achieve specific goals. Caesar’s use of contravallation around his circumvallation in the Battle of Alesia, Napoleon’s innovative employment of artillery as a flanking tool to quickly roll enemy lines, and Hannibal’s march over the Alps with elephants are legendary not only because they were masterfully executed and planned, but because they exploited a unique situation for maximum advantage.
But games are complicated affairs: often unable to recreate the millions of factors at play in a real life scenario. They usually can’t accurately replicate the complex interplay of forces that happen in the world around us. A couple of weeks ago, I got beta access to Slitherine’s upcoming sci-fi strategy title, Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock. Though I never caught more than glimpses of the series, I’m a passionate fan of sci-fi and space combat, so I eagerly jumped into the Colonial conflict against the Cylons.
How happy was I to discover Deadlock is more than a mere game: it’s a simulation.
In most other strategy titles, design boils down to pre-determined programming of cause and effect. Instead of imperfect metal swords cutting through an individual’s flesh and bone, damage numbers get matched against HP; instead of cavalry ploughing into dozens of troops and downing them with concussive force, variables calculate how many enemies will die based on the horses’ speed and formation; and instead of a myriad of flying boulders hitting a constructed wall of brick and stone, you get a rough approximation of the percentual damage an onager should do against fortifications. It’s part of the medium.
For the most part, this is enough to create an authentic and fun experience, but it can sometimes be awkward. Archers or infantry won’t shoot a guy that is standing right there, triarii that clearly outnumber barbarians will die because math says so, and broadsides that should clearly miss a ship instead pulverise its topdeck into splinters. When that happens, suspension of disbelief is broken — common sense flies out the window and things that should work don’t, unless the developers specifically programmed it to happen. As a lover of military history, it’s a little heartbreaking, which is what makes Deadlock‘s approach to it’s tactical simulation so refreshing.
Unlike other games, simulations are carefully built around the interaction of system-based gameplay in order to generate an effect. Instead of a missile having a set percentage chance of hitting a spaceship, a simulation actually calculates the missiles attributes and what effect they would have against a ship’s characteristics, realistically recreating its flight path and course adjustment. In simulations, you don’t dodge a missile because it had a lower percentage to hit you — you dodge it because you went into a dive and kicked the engines into overdrive, perfectly timing your ship’s movement and getting out of the way with inches to spare. Things are prone to go wrong a lot more than in normal games, but you also get to pull stunts that no sensible programmer could ever predict. It is much more realistic, and dare I say it, infinitely more satisfying.
While ships are not actually calculated down to individual decks and crew in Deadlock, their attributes such as specific armour ratings, speed, and manoeuvrability are all accounted for. What really sets it apart from normal games, however, is the actual combat simulation — everything, from units to projectiles, have a virtual presence and a specific behaviour, and those things interact in unique ways.
During my first hour with the game, one of my light frigates came under heavy fire from two enemy ships. The Cylons fired two simultaneous salvos at the lonely craft — 12 missiles — all making a beeline straight to the battered right flank of my defenseless ship. Suddenly, everything stopped — the simulation phase had ended, and a new turn began. With no point-defense system to take the missiles down, my only option was take the hit or try to dodge it, so I ordered the frigate to do an emergency dive. I positioned the green outline that represents the ship’s intended movement at the bottom of the battle plane, ticked the engines to overdrive, and finished my turn. The action resumed, engines roaring to life and missiles flying full speed toward their targets, and I watched my little ship’s nose suddenly tilt downwards at an unhealthy angle as the vessel performed a steep dive. The Cylon missiles streaked toward the frigate, mercilessly closing the distance and adjusting their course trying to intercept the Colonial ship, but they were going too fast. One of the rockets managed to turn enough to find its target, hitting the top armour instead of the damaged port side. The other 11 missed their mark. My frigate counterattacked with salvos of its own, and one minute later, the battle was won.
Strategy gamers know that these sort of split second decisions are not a norm in our genre of choice. More often than not, the decision of what unit you win or lose is down to the caprices of chance and mathematics, a cruel and uncaring click of the binary computation of our CPU’s. Those are not really centurions killing barbarians in Rome II: Total War — the actual fighting is happening behind the scenes, and that little visual spectacle is merely a slideshow meant to represent what the numbers dictate should happen. Hitting someone with a cannon in Age of Empires II involves as much skill as ordering a pizza — you merely order something and hope the percentage isn’t so catastrophically low that the delivery boy slips and fall into the Thames. But in simulations, you are not wholly subject to the whims of numbers. In simulations, you sometimes get a choice.
Deadlock offers a near-complete tactical simulation instead of a pre-programmed series of interactions. Units and projectiles don’t clip into each other, tactics and manoeuvres work based not on percentage but on timing, and things don’t always go to plan. During one of my most engaging sorties, I repelled a fleet of 8 Cylon ships from taking a space station near a Colony world. After 15 minutes of intense fighting, all but one of the toasters’ vessels was alive — a carrier, gunning for all it was worth to the edges of the map. I sent my small fleet after it, and ordered every single ship to fire its guided missiles. However, I completely overlooked that one of my cruisers was manoeuvring sideways to fall into pursuit, and that unlucky craft took the full brunt of a friendly destroyer’s salvo on its starboard armour. The ship held, but a few hundred families were about to receive some very bad news.
That sort of unexpected interaction happens through most battles of Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock. Thanks to its all interlocking systems gameplay, the title manages to deliver a deeper and more satisfying experience than games where everything is only numbers that get translated visually. You can ram enemy ships with your own to cause massive — and often mutually lethal — damage, you can manoeuvre a resilient craft into the path of incoming fire to shield a more vulnerable target, and you can make use of blind spots and positional advantage to turn the tide on your enemies. And those are not only boring simulation effects, they are gorgeous to behold — I dare you to not grin like a child the first time a Galactica-class ship blankets an entire area with flak and neutralises incoming ordinance.
Some of the best games in history, like Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid V, and even Prey, use system-based gameplay — they give the player the tools and the freedom to do as they wish, and let the interaction between the systems create an experience instead of pre-programming all of it. That sort of approach is rare in any genre — especially strategy games — and it is extremely refreshing to see a title embrace it so successfully, even if the actual simulation part is modest in scope. Maybe someday, we will finally make use of modern technology and create a game where a ship’s individual decks, crews, and characteristics all work together with comprehensive systems to create one truly complex and authentic simulation. Until then, Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock is one of your best shots.
Battlestar Galactic Deadlock will release on PC & Steam on August 31st, 2017. This article covers a game developed and/or published by members of the Slitherine Group. For more information, please consult the About Us page.