Thousands of meters above a sparse desert, filled with ruins and angry warlords, a small fleet of combat airships cruise to their next objective. The commander of this grand fleet sits in his command room, staring at a map. Various lights blink and alarms buzz intermittently. Encoded messages are intercepted by the comms team as the fleet sends out a strike force to hit the upcoming town before they can call for reinforcements, just as tactical nuclear missiles are fired at the main fleet by an enemy strike force some hundreds of kilometers away.
The player is, of course, the commander of this (high)fleet, a group of massive war-airships (air-warships?) stuck without help in NotAfghanistan, as the heir to the NotRussian Empire. The tutorial helps explain the premise of the game tidily, and introduces the main story beats, which I won’t spoil too much because although it is basic, it is a good concept. Along your journey, as your (high)fleet cruises between towns in a desolate desert you learn more about the world and the characters you can call upon for help in your time of need. And boy, will you need help.
Your (high)fleet will spend the game cruising around enemy territory, going from town to town to assault enemy defenses, grab repairs and supplies for your ships, as well as hire mercenaries to supplement your relatively tiny force. In my time playing, I’ve only had a fleet up to about 10-12 ships at max, and enemy formations can vary from just a few ships to having about an equivalent number. Worse still, the enemy seems to have easier access to big fuck-off cruisers that will pummel your ships into oblivion given the chance.
So, that’s enough lead-up I think. Let’s talk about the meat of the game: the cool-as-hell combat.
LIKE A FLASH GAME (BUT IN A GOOD WAY)
So, when faced with an enemy formation, you are given the ability to organize your fleet’s combat order, the first ship will go out to fight first, then when that one’s retreated or blown up, the following ship will come in, and so on. I thought this was confusing at first, given that the enemy will have multiple ships deployed at the same time, but Highfleet is, at its heart, a 2D aerial shooter. Your ships can fly along the x and y axes, facing off against enemy ships who want your blood. The action is difficult to sell through text, but as your destroyer thrusts above the enemy to fire several rounds of 120 mm high explosive into the roof of an enemy vessel, causing it to catch fire and careen wildly out of control, deploying escape pods before it hits the ground… well that in the industry is what we call “the good shit.”
Ships can vary between being floating fortresses, massive structures with massive cannon, missiles, and parasite planes attached, to what is essentially a thruster with some guns tied to them. Damage in combat is determined based on what type of shell/missile hits what part of the structure of your ship, and things will blow up/ fall off satisfyingly. Ships can easily spin out of control if one of their thrusters is damaged, and your landing gears can also be broken off, making landing for repairs (a mini-game you can do in towns to speed up the repair speed for a ship) a non-starter. Of course, that assumes your ship survives combat, which it easily couldn’t. Combat is generally pretty fast, with errant shots able to detonate ammo stores, but larger ships can duke it out for minutes, which feels like running a marathon. Fortunately, as your ship sustains damage against several enemy combatants, you can bring it to the side of the screen to retreat, and the next ship in rotation will appear, hopefully fresh and able to beat up on the enemy forces.
I really have to commend the developer, Konstantin Koshutin, for how good combat feels. It feels exactly as violent as it is, with ships weighing thousands of tons shooting heavy artillery at each other hundreds of meters in the air. The weight of movement and weapons feels right, and the action is visceral. A feature that is sorely lacking in Highfleet is a skirmish mode, as it would be fantastic to throw these massive beats at each other outside the context of the campaign. Speaking of which…
A MERRY TREK TO DOOM
As I mentioned above, the gist of the campaign is to move your fleet from one end of the campaign map to the other, your objective being the enemy’s capital. You are, except your current fleet, alone, and need to scavenge for supplies, ships, recruits, and allies on the way. This is an interesting and deep part of the game that I feel unfortunately doesn’t stack quite up to the excitement of the combat. Maybe I’m just not great at being the head strategist of the team, but to me, it can frequently feel like a lot of shuffling around between enemy cities to try to pick off lone transports or rushing an enemy oil depot to get a cheap refill of your tanks. It’s also very hard to come back from a losing situation, as you are being hunted by what feels like increasingly strong enemies, with your own fleet succumbing to constant attrition through skirmishes.
The campaign layer does have several interesting systems, such as various methods of radar detection, the ability to intercept messages from the enemy, which warn you of positions of their transports and terrifying strike fleets, and the ability to form up smaller task forces to strike around the region. These are interesting diversions on the campaign layer, but I feel like they can become just a bit of extra noise.
Added to the stack of things you have to keep track of, in addition to all the enemy fleets, your fleet’s status, the opinion of the people you’re “liberating”, you can also do some tinkering on your ships to customize them. This is a very cool feature that scares the hell out of me. All changes seem to take place immediately, and it’s not super apparent to me which part of the ship does what… through experience you can figure it out, or you might have a better idea than I do already. Unfortunately for everyone, including myself, I decided to pursue a Bachelor of Arts instead of an engineering degree, so this doesn’t come naturally to me, but I have seen other players cannibalize ships in their fleets to build ugly but incredibly efficient monstrosities that pulverize enemy forces. I hope there’s an update to the ship building system that makes it kinder in the future, as there isn’t much of a tutorial for it, and the fear of messing up one of your few valuable ships can be felt the whole time you’re refitting.
HighFleet is a unique beast. I have complaints about it, as I’ve said, but a lot of that comes down to my personal experience with the game so far, your mileage could vary with it. Maybe you really like building ships, or maybe the strategic layer is meant for you, there are a lot of you who would probably like that.
I can say though, one inarguable fact about HighFleet though, is that the game is absolutely dripping with style. The aesthetics of the game are great, with the screen shaking on hits in battle, bullet holes puncturing the UI, you can hear crew talking and sending radio messages in combat/ landings, as well as the ambient sounds of the ships in the campaign. And the sounds and looks of the guns in combat! It’s really something great to behold, and if you’re unsure about the game, I recommend taking a look at a video of this on Youtube, to at the very least appreciate the vibes.
I can’t really compare HighFleet to any other wargames out now, as unique as it is. If you like experimental projects oozing with cool, check it out!