The incessant beeping warns me that there’s a missile locked on, and headed straight towards me. If my craft had flares, I could simply fire them off and let the missile follow them instead. Alternately, if my craft was fast enough, I could wait until the last minute, and fire my thrusters and attempt to dodge out of the way. However, my craft has none of these. What it does have is a bank of gatling cannons. Swinging them around, I unleash a hail of lead at the oncoming missile, causing it to detonate in a spectacular explosion. Unfortunately, a second missile is also incoming, and I can’t reposition my guns quickly enough. With a massive blast, it slams into the side of my craft, causing it to lurch violently and scrambling my display. Fortunately, the damage isn’t too severe – I’ve lost an engine, but can still fly (I hope). Firing my thrusters, my craft slews across the sky, right above one of my foes. Aiming straight down, I empty every round I have into my foe’s unarmoured top deck, smashing the bridge to pieces. I watch as escape pods eject and the doomed craft slowly tumbles from the sky. One down, three to go.
Oh my goodness! This game is intense. Do not, do not let the retro styling and the 2D graphics fool you into thinking this game is simple. In fact, it’s right up there with games like Dark Souls.
So what we have here is, well, to be honest, I don’t know what it is. It’s definitely a strategy game, but it mixes in rogue-like elements, fuel management, piracy, being hunted, and wraps it all up with a mix of submarine-like fleet management (complete with a digital control room where you can plot charts, intercept radio calls and measure distance) and nail-bitingly intense ship-to-ship combat. The result of this fusion is something quite unique and is sure to stand out.
In Highfleet, players take control of a futuristic, almost diesel-punk, fleet of ships, and attempt to capture a city many thousands of kilometers north of your position (there’s more to it than that, but I won’t spoil it for you). Getting there, however, is not going to be easy. Along the way you will have to stop over at various settlements to refuel, re-arm, repair, and even buy new ships, and all the time trying to avoid the dreaded Strike Groups, who if they catch you, will blow your entire fleet out of the sky.
Strike Groups fly from settlement to settlement on their own patrol routes, and can be avoided by intercepting enemy transmissions or capturing settlements with a coms-station. However, linger too long in an area, or send a slow-travelling attack which allows the settlement to sound the alarm, and any nearby Strike Group will change course to converge on your location. There’s nothing more terrifying than picking up an enemy radar signal. When this happens, you’d better turn off your own radar (so they can’t trace it), and fly as far and fast in the opposite direction as your fuel and money will allow. If you’re very lucky you may escape; if not so lucky, you might get away with being hit by a few missile or airplane strikes. If you’re super unlucky, it’s game over. (Although, this is where the rogue-like element comes in, the better you did, the more starting money you get at your next attempt, whether it’s starting right from the beginning, or at one of the special ‘save point’ settlements you can capture – though not without a stiff fight, I should add.)
Along with dodging the ever-present threat of the Strike Groups, you’ll find yourself worrying about your fuel reserves, money reserves (for buying fuel, munitions and repairs), and morale. Do you fork out a premium for fuel here, so you can double-back if you come across a foe? Or do you get just enough to let you get to the next fuel depot where you can buy cheaply, though it will leave you exposed should a Strike Group come along? How much of a pounding have your ships taken? Can they survive another encounter? Have you been pushing the crew too hard, too quickly, and letting morale get too low? These are just some of the questions you’ll find yourself considering again and again.
Within your fleet (and however many small groups you choose to split it into), you can choose a wide range of ships to fill different roles. These range from small and nimble interceptors and hulking front-line ships, to fuel-tankers, electronic-warfare, aircraft carriers and even missile launchers. And no, this doesn’t even cover half of the ships in the game – and if you really want, you can even build ships of your own. What’s more, each and every one of these ships has different characteristics, from size, armaments (including optional ammo types like incendiary and armour-piercing), fuel capacity, top speed, location of engines, armour and so on. And each one of these characteristics plays an important role both in campaign and during combat.
For example, you could pair a Skylark (a light and speedy fuel-tanker) with a few Gladiators to create an independently functioning long-range assault force. You could use this to scout ahead, launch surprise attacks, or even use it to draw the dreaded Strike Groups away from your main fleet. Perhaps surprising the enemy isn’t so important. In that case, maybe use a strategic missile launcher or aircraft carrier to launch a long-range bombardment to soften up the targets before the main fleet gets there.
Outside of the intense cat-and-mouse gameplay of the campaign map, there’s the tactical combat. In this, players directly control their craft, and it’s here, more than anywhere else, that the individual characteristics of each craft come into play. The fast and nimble Lightning, for example, excels at outmaneuvering and taking down small to medium foes in the hands of a skilled pilot. However, it lacks armour, fire-suppression systems, and flares, meaning that a few hits is all it takes to knock it out of the sky. The Gladiator, on the other hand, packs cannons, missiles, flares, fire-suppression, active-missile defense (close range shrapnel cannons which try to blow missiles up before they hit), and a good amount of armour. It’s nowhere near as maneuverable or as fast at the Lightning, but it can take and dish out a solid beating – provided you make sure you avoid exposing those parts of your craft which lack armour modules. Then there’s your flagship, which moves at a glacial pace, packs a terrifying amount of firepower, but will have to soak up whatever damage comes its way.
While there may be multiple foes on the screen at any one point in time, players only get one craft at a time, which they directly control. Should this craft be destroyed, or should the player choose to ‘tactically withdraw’ (run away), the next ship in the player’s lineup will enter the fray, until the battle is won or all ships have been forced to retreat or have been destroyed. This forces players to also think about the order of deployment, which they can choose before entering combat (just don’t take an unarmed tanker to a gunfight).
While combat initially starts out fairly straightforward, you’ll very quickly find yourself managing reloads, engine temperature, remaining fuel, remaining countermeasures (flares and fire-suppression aren’t unlimited and have to be restocked) and positioning in order to attack vulnerable enemy systems whilst avoiding exposing your own. Lose an engine, and you can probably still fly, lose two or more, and your ship will start to handle like a drunk helicopter – good luck in avoiding incoming fire then, let alone getting to the safety of the retreat zone.
What’s more, it looks absolutely spectacular. This game has some of the best pyrotechnics I’ve ever seen. Each broadside is heralded with flashes of fire and copious smoke. Each hit results in a violent explosion of hurling debris and billowing smoke. Exchanges between capital ships turn into a battle between two angry storm clouds, completely shrouded in smoke that’s continually lit from within by fresh impacts and salvos. If you’ve seen the finale of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where two flying carriers blast each other to smithereens, then you’ve got a very good idea of what to expect here.
To be honest, I feel that this review has barely scratched the surface of this game. It’s deep, complex but quite easy to grasp (just make sure you read the manual first) and insanely fun. This game is an absolute masterpiece, and will doubtless become a classic. If you love strategy, spectacular combat, and intense game-play, this should absolutely be in your collection. ■