I only became aware of HighFleet’s existence very recently, thanks to the reappearance of MicroProse. However, I’ve actually played the developer’s previous game, Hammerfight, which was released back in 2009, and was probably one of the first indie games to hit Steam. They are very different games, but they do have some similarities, particularly the developer’s love for weighty aerial combat.
So, what exactly is HighFleet? HighFleet is a pretty unique game that combines a great deal of strategic planning with aerial combat. Still, I think that you could actually compare a lot of aspects of the game with something like the Silent Hunter series.
HighFleet takes place during a crucial and desperate conflict between the Romani Empire and a group of rebelling noble Houses that have declared independence. It all happens in what seems to be an alternate timeline, where Humanity tried to reach for the stars, but that only brought doom to everyone. Now, everybody has to live in a desolate deserted world. As for the player, you play as the commander of a fleet of the Romani Empire, and you represent the last hope for the Empire’s survival.
Although trailers for the game seem to focus on the aerial combat, HighFleet is much more than that. When you’re not flying a ship and fighting against a couple of enemies, you’re leading your entire fleet across the desert in a last-ditch effort to save your beloved Empire. It’s no easy task.
There’s a very specific set of games whose UI is an intrinsic part of how the game looks and plays. HighFleet is one of such cases, with the diegetic interface being seamlessly implemented. From the command center of your fleet aboard your vessel, you plan and draw your flight path across the map. Here, not only you can find nearby towns where you can resupply and acquire new ships, but you’re also able to intercept enemy strike groups that are actively hunting you down.
As the commander, you have to keep an eye out on your radar and various other electronic instruments that allow you to detect nearby ships. Most often than not, you’ll be able to intercept enemy messages by tuning your instruments to the right frequency. This not only allows you to predict enemy movements, but it also allows you to hijack transports and sell them for money. However, the enemy will eventually start to use coded messages and you’ll have to find a way to decipher them.
I like to think of the strategic layer of HighFleet as a game of cat and mouse. This is because you’re constantly being hunted and you have to learn how to avoid the enemy whenever you can. Sure, you’re mounting an offensive against the enemy capital, but that doesn’t mean that you always have to pick a fight, you must be strategic about it. If you have your radar always on, the enemy will easily detect you and alert the rest of their fleet. If that happens, you can expect to see enemy strike groups closing in on your position, and they’ll most likely keep sending cruise missiles your way in an attempt to quickly wipe you out.
This is where HighFleet can really shine, as it presents the player with the tools to take on threats in a multitude of ways. Let’s say that you’re able to pinpoint the approximate location of an enemy strike group. In this situation, you can either take them head-on by sending your ships to face them, you can send tactical missiles their way in the hopes that they actually hit their target, send an aircraft carrier to intercept the enemy, or you can actually trick them in order to slip by undetected.
Since the enemy is pretty good at detecting you if you have a radar on, you can exploit that by building a custom ship with one and then use it to lure the enemy away, thus allowing your main fleet to proceed unharmed and undetected. Still, you always have to keep an eye out for fuel, ship’s morale and fatigue. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself stunlocked when trying to repair and refuel while enemy squadrons are closing in on your position, leaving you no way to safely escape. It’s easy to let your guard down and pay the price for it.
Even though settlements are the closest thing to a safe haven in HighFleet, they can be quite tricky. Sure, they are the major places where you can repair your ships, refuel them, retrofit them (there’s also a ship editor in the main menu), acquire specialized ammunition, and even recruit allies to your cause, but they also pose a threat. Not only they’re always defended, but the enemy is also constantly patrolling the routes between each town. Furthermore, if you spend too long docked, someone might just alert the enemy to your presence. If you think you can just lift off and leave, then you’re wrong, as refuelling and repairing take a lot of time, sometimes days, so you have to plan carefully. It might be worth it to leave your ships unrepaired if the enemy is closing in on you and you have enough fuel to make it to a safe harbour.
Just like the strategic layer, the combat element of HighFleet is also pretty robust. At first glance, it might look like a regular 2D side-scroller where you’re just flying around and shooting enemies down, but there’s more to it than that. Each encounter tends to be pretty short, and you can only control a ship at a time, even if you’re facing multiple enemy ships, which I have to admit is somewhat odd at first. If you lose a ship, or if you choose to retreat to avoid losing it, you’ll immediately go right back into combat with the next ship from your lineup.
In combat, movement is key, as you must use your thrusters to move around and avoid enemy gunfire. It’s important to keep track of enemy fire and anticipate its trajectory. Likewise, you must also lead your shots to make sure that they hit their target. By moving carefully and positioning yourself properly, you can even use enemy ships as meat shields and trick enemy missiles into hitting their own allies. Combat can be difficult at first, but it’s pretty satisfying once you start to hit your shots and witness your enemy go up in flames. In that sense, the combat feels extremely rewarding once you get the hang of it.
Even though I think that the core experience of HighFleet can be pretty compelling, unfortunately, the game isn’t without its issues. For starters, the tutorial, which also serves as a prologue to the campaign, leaves a lot of things unexplained. I’m not only referring to game mechanics here, but also to the overall strategy that’s required to play the campaign reasonably well. It’s only by continuously playing the game, or reading guides and the forums, that you’ll come to realize some of the game’s intricacies.
Additionally, for a game where your mouse is a vital part of the gameplay, it’s also pretty odd that the mouse behaves pretty erratically. I’m pretty sure that the game has a ridiculous amount of mouse acceleration, for whatever reason. It’s really annoying and gets in the way of the gameplay, particularly when you’re aiming during combat. Although I managed to get used to it, there are still times where it can mess your aim during combat. On top of that, the combat can also be complicated due to the fact that the direction that your weapons are facing are represented by these really small arrows that orbit around your ship. When there are a lot of explosions, or when your ship is on fire and smoking, it can be pretty hard to spot these arrows and know where you’re actually pointing.
In any case, it can’t be denied that HighFleet looks absolutely beautiful. The game has a very distinct and striking look, the inside of your main ship, the flaming thrusters, and the numerous projectiles flying during combat, all these things culminate in a wondrous visual spectacle. Likewise, sound design is also on point. Even the weakest weapons sound exceptionally powerful. Each shot fired sounds menacing and daunting, and ultimately, each combat engagement sounds like a loud thunderstorm of gunfire. It’s a joy to listen to. Still, while the game certainly looks stunning, sometimes, the number of visual effects on the screen during some fights can be disorientating.
Despite my complaints, I want to stress that, under the hood, there is a brilliant game here. However, the game isn’t the most approachable, and so it may rub some people in the wrong way. The systems needed to succeed are in the game, but initially, it might feel like there is little room for error, it might seem like things are hopeless and that the game is almost impossible to beat.
I have to admit, I found the game to be overwhelming during my first hours with it. Still, I’m glad that I pushed through and learned its inner workings. It’s so worth it. Nonetheless, I also feel that I should emphasize that, if you saw clips of the combat and that’s all you’re interested in, then you might end up frustrated due to how heavily that part of the game relies on how well you perform on the strategic layer. I also feel like the standard ship designs aren’t the best. I think you’re encouraged to play around with the editor and come up with your own designs that better suit your playstyle.
With that said, it’s not like you can just slap a bunch of weapons on a ship and call it a day. Parts add weight to each ship, weapons require ammunition autoloaders, ships need crew quarters and fuel tanks, and armour is obviously always a nice addition, despite the extra weight. There’s a balance to be struck on each ship that you build. It’s crucial to have various ships with different purposes, as it’s pretty much impossible to have a ship type that excels in everything.
In any case, there’s no denying that HighFleet is a niche and time-consuming game. This isn’t something that you can pick up and quickly learn how everything works, or what the most optimal strategies are. This fact alone will certainly make some people cross off HighFleet from their list, but it will also surely please many others. Nevertheless, if you can push through its faults, HighFleet is one hell of a game that I thoroughly recommend checking out.