In a dark futuristic setting where even the suns are starting to flicker and die, great noble Houses battle for control of the once proud Empire, waging war with assassins, legions of troops and in space. The Fading Suns RPG setting has been around since the 1990s, and takes its influences from several sources including Dune and Warhammer 40K.
Noble Armada: Lost Worlds is based in this setting, specifically around ship-to-ship combat in a real-time strategy game. Players will control up to four ships in passable real-time action as you manoeuvre your ships, fire missiles and broadsides, and then grapple hold of enemy ships to close in for boarding actions.
In the lore of the game-world, starships are rare and very expensive so capturing an enemy ship is always preferable to blowing it up. Starships steer slowly, with fairly realistic physics required to balance thrust and direction. Forget the sleek dogfights of the Star Wars universe or the ship-to-ship duels of Star Trek; the Age of Sail is the primary influence for the battles in this game.
Each ship in your command is referenced to a different button, making choosing which ship to issue orders to easier than having to roll a mouse pointer over a screen – often a rather difficult and counter-intuitive task on a console game. You can then roll through the different selectors for ship status, movement and weapons using the shoulder buttons, setting your direction, thrust and targeting weapons.
You then hit the unpause button and the ships will act, but it’s very important to note that the player-controlled ships will do literally nothing, except explode, if you don’t give them orders. Unlike many other RTS titles where units can be issued a “stance” so they will react to an enemy closing in, your ships do nothing without you specifically telling them what to do.
Battles play out in an overhead 2D mode, with the option to zoom out as the conflict splits up. You cannot group your ships so you must order each one individually and then unpause to see the orders playing out. There’s no way to rewind so you may at times need to just play a few seconds at a time as you check on the status of your ships. I often found myself keeping my ships together, as it was just easier to tell what was happening that way.
The graphics of Noble Armada: Lost Worlds are nothing to write home about. Now I play a lot of indie games and strategy games so I don’t need every title to have flashy triple-A level graphics, and I believe that a game should be rendered in 3D only if it is necessary and adds something to the experience. Space warfare games often operate on a “flat plane” to keep things simple so I have no issues with the 2D graphics. But the ship models are nothing special; simple colourful shapes with the name of the ship floating alongside them. Ships are colour coded so you can tell who’s ships are who’s but the game makes getting at the hard data behind what is happening rather difficult, and multiple clicks will be required before you get the feedback you are looking for.
The sound effects are similarly utilitarian and the menus are functional, if a bit garish. I often got a vague feeling of playing a PlayStation 2 game with the gaudy menus and splash screens of Lost Worlds, but there is a quaint charm to them. The game offers six surprisingly deep campaigns – one for each major house and one for the Imperial Church – and each campaign is significantly different, with the noble Hawkwood campaign playing out very differently to the war-like Hazat or the sneaky Decados.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of faults and, without wishing to be harsh, they render what is a valiant effort and a very interesting IP – one I have some personal fondness for – a real chore to play. The controls are awkward and feel counter-intuitive, moving your ship around is difficult and targeting doesn’t feel fluid or reactive. Then when you do start a boarding action, the game switches to a turn-based hex view of the enemy ship as parties of marines and sailors board the enemy ship and, one hex at a time, move on the bridge. This is a rather jarring element and, on my controller, it was very difficult to control with the cursor, often moving two or three hexes at a time. It would have made sense to have a system more in line with the rest of the game here. Moving a boarding party quickly became agonizingly slow, like trying to order a swarm of ants through treacle.
The campaigns are nicely written and have a decent amount of depth but do very little to truly explain the deeper and more interesting elements of the setting. The game mentions “Firebirds” without telling you that they are the name of the currency in the setting, for example. The tutorial is very short and barely explains anything, and whilst there are three static one-page “guides” to the game, they are difficult to read and make sense of. The ship diagram, for example, is just awash with arrows pointing without it ever being truly clear what they are pointing at.
A game needn’t have the best graphics in the world if it plays well – look at Minecraft for a fine example of something which shines despite utilitarian graphics. But Noble Armada lacks good, usable graphics and has a truly horrible UI that is both a chore to look at and a struggle to interact with. The truly sad part is that it is clear a lot of thought and love went into trying to make this game, but either it has not ported very well or the concept was truly flawed.
Among other strange design decisions are only being able to control four ships – something that is a product of the game being made for mobile roots and the fact that ships without orders do literally nothing. Noble Armada is just too hard to get to grips with to be worth overcoming its myriad faults.
For anyone interested in the setting, there is a rather good, if flawed, turn-based strategy game out there on the PC which is available to purchase. Otherwise, I’d suggest getting out your D20s and giving the tabletop RPG a go and, sadly, giving Noble Armada: Lost Worlds on Xbox a wide berth.