I know for sure I have never wondered “what if you crossed Sid Meier’s Pirates with the the 1992 Dune adventure strategy game”, but it turns out at least one person has, because I’ve been playing Konstantin Koshutin and Microprose’s Highfleet on the PC this week and that’s kind of what it is.
Kind of. I hope you’re willing to let me describe in painstaking detail how Highfleet works, because one of the key things to understand here is that it’s like nothing else out there. I fired up this game and was immediately lost, not just because it drops you in the deep end of its lore, but because everything it brings together is so odd and weird and new that I had no references to fall back on. There’s no “oh I know this kind of game I’ll just do this” here.
Highfleet is set in a grimy dieselpunk future that looks and feels like a history of the First World War written by Frank Herbert. You’re part of a big empire coming to crack down on a rebel province, and you’re in command of a hulking big flying fortress that serves as a flagship while also being able to house and deploy loads of smaller ships as well.
When I say you’re in command, I mean it. A good part of the game is spent hunched over your station (above), with a map you interact with by plotting courses (that see your ship head towards them in real-time), radio messages you have to manually intercept by turning dials and a giant lever labelled OPEN that you need to pull whenever it’s time to get outside the ship. It’s all incredibly direct, and hands-on.
Which is a concept Highfleet wears on its sleeve, because most things in this game that need doing need you to do them. When it’s time to land somewhere, a Lunar Lander-like minigame has you manually landing ships, and if you mess it up they suffer damage that you’re going to have to pay for. And when it’s time to fight, you don’t casually issue commands or are given the luxury of taking turns; battles are fought in real-time with tense (and increasingly difficult) arcade action, with no option to skip them or delegate responsibility.
Throw in a strong survival element, with your fleet constantly requiring money, fuel and repairs, and Highfleet quickly becomes very stressful.
But wait, there’s more. A story that unfolds through dialogue sequences doubles as a diplomacy system, where travelling through hostile lands has you making allies with the locals, meeting freshly-arrived colleagues and confronting enemies. Saying the wrong thing at any given time can cost you a helping hand in a fight, or piss someone off to a point where it has direct consequences for your campaign.
Oh, and there’s also a robust ship-building and customisation thing going on, which you need to bury your head in at all times, where you’re able to customise the ships you’re given and design entire new ones, picking every single piece of armour and engine and weapon that goes into them, with each piece’s attributes reflected in their performance during combat.
That’s a lot of stuff just thrown together, much of it seemingly designed to wear me down, and my entire time with Highfleet was spent imagining its creators simply telling me “fuck you this is the game we made” every time I thought about complaining that something didn’t feel right or was too hard.
Which I did quite a lot, because this game’s eccentricities can get really annoying. The arcade action got pretty tedious pretty quickly for me, as did the landing minigame; I appreciate that they’re there, and that there are people who will be very into that stuff every damn time in the name of immersion, but over the course of a big singleplayer campaign I don’t want to have to fight every single skirmish or engage in a glorified parking simulation every time I wanted some fuel.
A lot of time is spent just idling waiting for refuelling and repairs to be completed, the diplomatic stuff feels pretty thin (and even completely random at times) and while the ship-building stuff is mostly cool, it’s also full of annoying little UI hassles that make it far more fiddly than it needed to be.
I keep feeling like these annoyances would be gamebreakers for me under almost any other circumstance, but here, they just feel like part of Highfleet’s world, so perfectly does its setting, art and game design match the overall sense of hostility. In a vast desert where hulking airships are held together with rusty bolts, and everything catches fire at the merest hint of bullet sparks, where the world is barren and all your tech looks like something from the 70s that was dug up and repaired in the 90s, of course things are going to be harsh and unforgiving.
I am suffering because my men are suffering. And when I’m succeeding in spite of all that, and I’ve worked my arse off to intercept an enemy message, manually plot an intercept course on the map then launched a successful attack that I’ve directly controlled, it feels incredible.
And wild, and wonderful, and weirdly given everything I’ve said above, beautiful. I can’t finish these impressions up without mentioning how damn good this game looks. It’s full of fantastic Dune-esque character art, the environments are dripping with stormy, sandy moods, the weather effects are great and the pixel art ships look cool as hell. There’s even a dither effect turned on by default that really bakes in the retro future aesthetic, which you can turn off if you want but which looks very appropriate when left on.
Highfleet is the first game from the “new” Microprose that I’ve played, and I’ve gotta say I’m surprisingly impressed with their selection on this one. It’s easy to say that these kind of modern publisher rebrands are nothing more than licensing deals pandering to nostalgia, but from the setting to the brutality to the dither, this really does feel like the kind of game Microprose would have been releasing in 2021…had it actually survived into 2021.