High Fleet : Review
High Fleet is a title from the phoenix reborn, Microprose, released on July 27th. It is many things all at once, like the desert and air ships that make up the core of the game. Diesel punk? Immersion shooter? Roguelike? It has a tactical layer akin to Command Modern Operations and a combat layer rather like Endless Sky. The immersion is where the game really shines, and if you don’t want the immersion it can be a difficult title to enjoy. Rain drops will streak your view as you struggle to land a wounded ship on a sand swept repair dock.
But it’s something more, it has a ship editor, a skirmish mode, and a fairly unique tactical mode utilizing comms interception, electronic warfare, nuclear weapons, and the potential for mutiny.
Subject of the Game
High Fleet is a title from Konstantin Koshutin that places you, the player, as a commander in charge of a fleet of… airships? Diesel hovercraft carriers? All the while attempting to end a rebellion. It is both tactical and strategic while placing you in command of signal interception along with the potential to utilize radar, IRST, and other things more likely to be seen in DCS or CMO.
Initially the game feels daunting as you’re tossed into the midst of a civil war with the end goal to take the city of Ur. There are hints of rebellion. Your conversations directly impact both opinion and material assets. By the end I’ve seen hundreds of sailors perish in a fiery death all due to my poor ability to aim and lead the targets.
Scope, Scale, Level of Play
The scope of High Fleet places you in charge of a fleet of airships over a desert country. You may command strike groups, feints, AWACS or carriers. Control ranges from a country wide tactical map all the way to steering each individual frigate in combat. Beyond this is the ability to design and modify your ships t fit unique roles or fill a niche.
You give orders but may find your crews mutiniying if things go poorly. The game is pauseable in the strategic layer but the tactical ship to ship combat is 100% live and fairly intense. You will see bullet holes, flames, and suffer from the failures of your maneuvers. Flares must be fired to counter SAM’s while dodging incoming fire from up to three hostile air ships. Of note, you only control one ship at a time, even if you have more available.
Components / Graphic Design
The game is based on immersion that you, the commander of this ship, would see. Menus are not just a place for information but are visually represented as a store room with ammunition heaped about. Landing is a triple layer affair, you have a rain streaked window with clouds sailing by obscuring your view, but you do see a dim green representation. All of this comes together as you near the landing point and can touch down at just the right spot.
The ships themselves are unique and almost infinitely adjustable. There is a plethora of available pieces and parts that very much reminds me of Kerbal Space Program. Except that I know how to build a succesful rocket, while I have no idea how to build a successful frigate! Normally ship designers suck, but this one has some very unique potential if you are willing to invest the time in building them. Hopefully in the future one could share designs via the Steam Workshop.
The designer has focused on creating an immersive world where you are in command of deadly, and yet fragile ships. The immersion has taken a core spot and at times completely replaces what would be a sensible UI or easy to adjust dial. The designer wants you to have the experience of tuning that dial in while watching an analog gauge.
It works though in an odd way that something like Rule the Waves doesn’t because there was a total lack of UI immersion design besides function. The form here is the core. Function is immersion.
At certain points the game becomes the systems and less about the control of your units. Which from an immersion standpoint is OK, but it can become stale after time.
Overall System Description
The game is unique. It smashes together a fusion of games ranging from Kerbal Space Program, Rule the Waves, Command Modern Operations, Star Traders, and Endless Sky. Through it all is a rich background and unfolding story that you must navigate to ensure success, or even just survival. The fluttering of clouds, streaks of rain, and sounds of cannon fire all combine with a functional UI to make for a game that is playable and enjoyable, if intense.
Principal areas of reality represented in the game
High Fleet is focused on the command and control of a strike force consisting of flying frigates, cruisers, carriers, AWACs, and special utility ships. Combat is a live and deadly affair where you not only control the ship, but all of the combat actions.
Beyond this is the mini games if you will. There is a radar and infrared detection layer that helps in detection but also illuminates you prior to a strike. You can listen for hostile communications and attempt to discern intent and composition of enemy forces. Fuel, supplies, and loadouts are all critical things to be managed.
The game allows for ship modification and design where every feature is critical. Trade an extra mounting point and add more armor, or shave some fuel to game another weapon. But beyond just those choices is the actual layout, a lack of structure in a zone could make for a weak point that is sheared off and destroyed.
The immersion is the abstraction. Instead of issuing orders to competent sailors or commanders, you allow for separate task forces but in the end you retain all control. The abstraction arises during the violence when you make every command and fly every ship. Control is mechanically easy, if fictional in nature. Supply is important but the game is not a focus on logistics beyond what your task force is doing, there is no base building for example or static front that must be prepared.
Intricacy of the system and mechanical ease of play
At first it feels as if you are drinking from a fire hose. Clickable levers. Buttons. Blinking lights. And, to make it really interesting, they all do something. Then you realize you really are drinking from a fire hose all the while juggling and fist fighting a state trooper.
One fine example is the communications interception. In the early game you are given a brief tutorial that involves finding the frequency using a dial wheel followed by watching an analog gauge while adjusting the bearing. Finally you hope it is unscrambled otherwise a cipher may be needed.
The interface is rich like a decadent 9 layer chocolate cake with almonds, cherries, shaved Belgian chocolate, and a heap of whip cream. At first it is amazing and there’s so much to discover with each bite, but after awhile it’s just a big ass amazing cake. I found High Fleet to be how I like my cakes; small slices here and there. Too much at once can be overwhelming.
Evaluation of the systems success at achieving the designers goals and representing the real situation
As a fictional realm with fictional physics and elements this is a tough one. To my eye the goal of a pseudo realistic futuristic world with combat elements has been met. The real situation is a bit tougher to judge, how does one determine the feasibility of a thousand ton diesel powered flying airship? Personally I found the pace of combat to be a bit quick, the greatest impediment to my forces was not the armament or ammunition but my poor aim. This would remedy itself over time, but part of me really longed for an “RPG” mode where the skills of my crews would do the firing even if I did the steering.
Contributions to the wargaming state of the art
The game itself melds many different aspects all into one. A functional and interesting, if overwhelming, ship designer was really great to see. This alone, being able to create your own vessels will potentially lend to some unique gameplay styles. To make this happen the game needs not just a story line, but a sandbox for it all to occur in. That sandbox is probably one of the more unique elements, especially as the violence rises.
The fast pace of combat loses me and I find it more frantic than tactically interesting. A turn based or “slow” mode would be much more to my liking.
The Game in play
The initial scenario functions as a tutorial with an ever expanding map before you. This map offers dozens of paths to the end along with roaming enemy task forces that can launch strike fighters and potentially nuclear weapons. Once you enter the full map the pace, for me, really slowed as there was a lot to take in.
Your role is as fleet commander and tactical officer. On top of that you must decide upon procurement options and most importantly the loadouts and design of your ship. It is entirely possible to play the game and only minimally interact with the design system. Additionally your interactions with the other characters in the game will change their opinion of you and change the strategic assets available.
Types of decisions required
You will determine loadouts, ammunition, fleet compositions, and general fleet movement orders. It is possible to send off task forces to lure the enemy away or even hit an outpost. Beyond this you will decide how best to engage in combat, which units to use first, and even the way in which they fire. Decisions will occur at various points that will impact what is available to your units, sometimes with penalties. For example I arrived in a town and found it had suffered a catastrophic explosion, so I offered my units for two days to assist in rescue in trade for additional fuel supplies.
Effects of the game systems mechanical requirements on the players decision making
The mechanical systems are, in some cases, actually systems that the player has to physically interact with. You don’t just click a button to launch a nuclear strike but you flip the switches and press a dusty button. Most notably is the comms interception system where the dials and gauges give you clues as to the location of the hostile transmission. Beyond this is the radar and detection methods that allow for a sneakier play style or a wide open radar blaring method of play.
Evaluation of the players experience
The game is unique, there’s no other way to put it. I’m not sure I’ve seen something like this in years. It vaguely reminds me of the original Strike Commander where you’d move around your command post and interact with the environment to perform tasks. But this game takes it to 11.
The streaking rain obscuring your view followed by the satstifying hum of a working shipyard reinforces the fact that this is something new and unique without falling into any stereotypes. It is not diesel punk, or steam punk, or anything punk. The game stands alone, and is better for it.
At a certain point for me the systems became too much as I wanted to focus on what I found interesting. I’d have gladly passed off the comms interception duties to some technocrat flunky and leave me to focus on carrier ops. I felt less like an admiral and more like a micro-manager in chief.
Does the game work?
Mostly. It is as original in it’s niche as Disco Elysium is for RPG’s. Gone is any familiarity which engrosses you even more in the story. It is more than just a giant ship flying about game. There are times when the abstraction gets old, when you just don’t want to fight that battle, but the game is rewarding nonetheless. I just found myself taking breaks to keep it fresh.
The ship designer, while fascinating, suffers from an overwhelming variety of basic hull parts, struts, armor, fuel tanks, etc. In Rule the Waves for example you have a hull that you simply slap weaponry onto, the equivalent in High Fleet would be for each structural member and armor plate to be placed bit by bit. This is both amazing, but incredibly daunting. You can load existing designs to modify them, which simplifies things, but I think the system could use more polish to really make it work.
My biggest complains come down to delegation. The immersion of unique systems is a great thing for a short time, but what budding commander wouldn’t assign that task to someone else? The same with combat, I like building the ships and picking the loadouts but was absolutely terrible at piloting and firing. It just wasn’t my thing.
Is it a good game?
It is a good game like a double-triple chocolate cherry mint cake is a good cake.
Who would be most interested in the game?
Players who wish for a story as rich as the game mechanics, who tuning in a ship with minutiae is as interesting as the combat itself. Those who seek something totally fresh and new without any hint of past wars or even previous technologies. There is no nostalgia for Stalingrad, or Fallujah, but a refreshing blend of humanities tossed into the best, and worst, of situations.
If you seek absolute physical representation of all aspects in game or simulation then you’ll have to suspend your belief to enjoy this one. The same goes if you (like me) are fairly terrible at aiming and flying your ship. It can be maddening to lack the ability to hit damned near anything.
High Fleet is damned close to being my thing. As a standard war gamer type dude, the pace is fast enough that I can’t dig in to the meat of what I want and am instead forced to settle on the scraps I can get. Combat looks amazing, but my failings as a gamer ultimately hamstring my enjoyment. This, in a game where there is constant combat, really bums me out. I’d love an “auto-resolve” or “delegate” option so I could watch my awesome ships duke it out ala Rule the Waves.
But through all of the difficulties is an immensely rich core that just begs for some tweaks to make it into a true gem.
Find it on Steam : https://store.steampowered.com/app/1434950/HighFleet/