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HighFleet review: a brilliant strategy game buried under frustrations

Oh what an atmosphere!

Nate is excited about HighFleet. Graham was excited about HighFleet before he became head vampire, or whatever. I was excited about HighFleet. HighFleet is exciting. It is also very frustrating.

We're at the point where we need a good shorthand for games built around a diagetic interface. HighFleet's puts you in the sky-shoes of an admiral poring over an electronic map display ringed by analogue radar-tuning dials, chunky buttons, a dangling telephone receiver like your gran's, and a big level to pull when it's time to land. But there's a weird divide going on.

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A degree of frustration is, if not innate, definitely a common design feature of the interface-'em-up. HighFleet's equipment doesn't fail or undermine you the way, say, Deadnaut's does. When I play it I'm frequently fighting not the diagetic interface, but the one between it and me. When I'm unsure of what strategy I should be pursuing it's not because of the challenges the game presents, but because I have too little context for most of those challenges to make a meaningful decision.

It's a game I respect more than I like. The design is original and for the most part quite excellent. You lead a fleet of aircraft through hostile territory in a bid to capture a piece of technology that you hope to use as a bargaining chip in a war your side is about to lose. You pursue this however you see fit. Your ships must land at settlements to refuel, repair, shop, and refit, and to investigate leads. Some of those settlements offer cheap fuel, some better parts to reconfigure ships or even build from scratch in its detailed modular system. Some are enemy intel installations which, when captured, will briefly leak nearby ship movements.

Those ship movements are vital because some are scary hunter fleets to be feared, and others are valuable supply groups to be plundered. They'll transmit messages to each other too, which you'll frequently intercept and then decode using a knobbly dial thingy, and then cross-reference with your map to mark their courses and plan your next moves. Bases that see you coming will alert the hunter fleets, so you may want to send your fastest assault ships ahead of the main group to take them out.

My interceptors launch from a captured port, trailing vapour, to ambush an incoming transport. Lush.

As Nate noted in his preview, it has a lot of moving parts, and they're pretty much all done well. But it's the joints between the design and the player where things go wrong.

Some of it is down to the controls, which are maddeningly inconsistent. Let me copy an example directly from my notes: "when I click on a module in my cargo in an attempt to attach it to a ship, it instantly sells. If I click and drag, nothing happens. How am I supposed to use the stuff in my cargo? To move my fleet I right click, but when I create a splinter group and right click with that, it deselects them instead". I have more notes like this than I'm willing to put a number on.

Hunters are coming, so I'll repair this ship's engines, refuel, and flee.

The ship refit screen in particular is so fiddly and fussy that I found myself looking for excuses not to use it. You can, in theory, rebuild any of your ships into whatever you want, connecting structure and armour parts and bolting equipment onto them to your wallet's content. In practice... well. All the parts you can buy are labelled not with names, but indecipherable model numbers. Parts I bought or captured with one ship wouldn't be in my cargo when that same ship moved to the next port. Accidentally removing a part can't be undone except by undoing every change you've made, or putting it back and waiting while it's reinstalled. Although HighFleet's various screens are very pretty, they're uncomfortable and irritating to operate.

These are mostly small things, liable to be patched. In isolation they'd be a grumble-able aside, but I found myself listing them because they were compounding bigger problems.

Repetition and a lack of delegation is a big one. On the main map screen, you must use little rulers and pencils to make notes, which starts out cute but soon becomes a chore, especially when you realise your crew can apparently programme the map to show enemy flight plans when you capture an intel station, but not when you decipher a transmission. No, you have to do those manually. You'll accidentally zoom the map into random spots while trying to turn a radio dial. Messages you're decrypting will force themselves into the darkest corner of the screen, where they're difficult to read (as is the infra-red ship detection readout, which is so heavily obscured that I can't even tell when it's doing anything), and the map itself will flicker and warp. Why can't I delegate any of this? I'm the admiral/prince, can I really not hire a map guy?

"Why can't I delegate any of this? I'm the admiral, can I really not hire a map guy?"

And then there are the battles. Whenever you meet hostile forces you fight a 2D aerial battle, manually piloting each ship in high-stakes dogfights over the largely unexplained deserts that make up this Saharan sci fi world. The fighting is terrific. But the camera is awkwardly shackled to your mouse, and the two gigantic HUD readouts blocking the corners have cost me several ships. And while I understand why you fight every enemy group with one ship at a time, the transition between them is terrible. You can have a ship retreat, but only by flying to a specific area. That area is also random and changes with every ship, and your next ship will vwip onto the screen god knows where. And by "god", I mean "every enemy on the field, instantly". Oh, and without special training, your gunships go into battle without their guns loaded.

And then there are the landing sequences! You have to manually land every ship you want to refit or repair. These sequences are very cool but again, quickly become an annoying chore, whose only reward is getting back to the rest of the game, but whose punishment should you screw up ranges from wasted time and money to totally destroying multiple ships. You don't get to choose where your ships begin their descent either: if you land several at once they'll pile on top of each other, forcing you to frantically scrabble them out of the way of already parked ships. God help you if you ever try to land a large ship. I've yet to see a landing pad that can actually support my flagship, not that I can even land it without it exploding under its own inertia half the time anyway. I was actively avoiding landings as much as possible within a couple of hours. And the refit screen. And message intercepts. All very cool systems that just feel annoying.

Convincing a guy to join up. Is fear good? iono.

HighFleet expects you to work a lot of things out on your own. Sometimes this is fantastic, like when I learned to fight one ship at point blank range so it couldn't launch missiles without damaging itself, or manipulate an enemy gun platform into shooting down one of its own escorts. The given method for decrypting messages is to track down four code fragments from downed ships, but I cracked one cipher manually by making logical deductions from other information I already had. That's bloody brilliant, and I love that it's possible - as is sending a decoy ship off on a dummy run to throw off a pursuer.

But at other times, it just leaves me feeling set up to fail. Is 16 hours too long for repairs? How many spare parts can I store? Do I lose them if a ship goes down? How far northwest does "northwest" mean, or was that NPC lying to me, or do I need a special component to detect this thing? Why did my crew's morale go down after capturing a ship? What do the red flags on the map mean? Is there a way to view what cargo I have? What difference does my crew's ethos make? How do I get more crew? How much ammo should I have? Why can't I examine my own ships without landing and checking every component manually? Why can't my crew reporting a "visual contact" tell me how many ships there are? Why don't I have a notebook to remind me who this guy I've just met is and whether I should care? Can I afford to offend him? What would offend him? It's just endless. Some of these I found answers to, most of them through trial and error, and HighFleet only allows one save slot.

It probably won't be long before you, too, give up and just crashland your flagship onto your other ships.

You probably already know how you feel about games with only one save slot, so let's not get into that argument now, but its application in HighFleet added nothing but frustration and a limit to my willingness to experiment. It saves whenever the hell it feels like, often forcing you to replay tedious uneventful sequences, fiddly complicated repair and resupply decisions, and sometimes entire battles again if you quit. Or find out too late that the "you can restart battles!" that you had listed under "GOOD:" in your notes was inaccurate, and every restart actually lowers your crew's morale until they refuse to fight at all. I also hit a critical, perplexing bug that replaced my single save with one from halfway through the tutorial, but to be honest by then I was already done for the day.

But here's the thing: later, I started again. And not just for this review. HighFleet's battles are terrific. The movement may be more sluggish than I'd like, but the fighting is superb. Guns feel hefty, even the minigun style sprays, and impacts are delightful and horrible depending on which end you're on. Considering every battlefield is basically a square of sky, they look wonderful, with rain and wind and darkness and lightning being as gorgeous as they are hazardous. Great clouds of black smoke billow from struggling enemies, every explosion feels threatening, and watching a hostile ship's pieces spiral or slowly sink on a single doomed engine never gets old. Timing a missile so that it'll fit between your opponent's reloads, deciding to attempt a kamikaze, or getting the drop on a defence force so you can bomb them before they take off... there are delights here.

Night fights are even harder to show off in stills but they look superb!!!one

The campaign side has its draws too. Downed enemy ships leave you with a crash site you manually salvage, sending your crew out to recover specific elements like fuel, guns, hull parts, intel, or even rescuing bailed out enemies. How much you can recover varies, and some sites are hazardous, asking you to risk your crew's lives or spend precious time suiting them up. And these sections happen in real time, so you can leave your people to it while you direct other ships on the map, or zoom in and watch as the bland blue map readout changes to a live satellite feed, with visible clouds, fire, night/day cycles, and every ship you launch leaving a chemtrail that has its own shadow (doubling the frustration that 95% of map time is spent on the ugly flickery zoomed out angry admiral's foot fodder mode). Best of all, if you down a cargo ship's escorts it'll surrender, and you can fly it back to the nearest settlement and sell it off. A large part of the game, in fact, is based around tracking down these cargo ships and essentially pirating them to fund your war. It's got salvage! It's got piracy! These are the exact things I want!

I think this is precisely why I'm so frustrated with HighFleet. There's a brilliant game in here somewhere, but in its present state it's buried under endless frustrations and restrictions that do little but irritate me and cut me off from engaging with it the way I want to. I hate that I don't love it except in infrequent moments of greatness, and that the frustrations keep piling on at the same rate as I find more impressive details about it. It's kitted out for the stars, but just needs another tune-up or two to escape the atmosphere.

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