February 10th, 2010 | By Zak
Gratuitous Space Battles, from Positech Games, is the UK developer’s next great addition to indie gaming. If you are a fan of space management games, where you collect resources, expand territory and deal with advisories through careful diplomacy – this game is not for you. Let’s be honest people, half the time we went through the trouble of all that management stuff was to build kick-butt ships and lay waste to rival factions. Thankfully, Cliff Harris has relieved us of this time consuming resource gathering burden. GSB has taken us straight to the main event: lasers, explosions and victory with honor. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot more depth to GSB than just giving the people what they want. You’re still going to have to work for it.
On its face, GSB is a strategy game with some management and tower defense elements thrown in the mix. Like other great strategic games, GSB forces you to learn from your mistakes. With few exceptions, I was forced to watch as my beautiful armada was destroyed in glorious fireballs. I only avenged my past failings with a better strategy and keener tactics. The strategy involved in accomplishing each mission is where the real genius of GSB comes into play. Once the battle begins, all you can do is sit back and watch as the two armadas clash. The ships have some AI which can lead to unintended consequences and occasionally disaster for your fleet. More often than not you are going to have to rethink your initial strategy. Positech has also placed some nice little obstacles in some scenarios (like spatial anomalies that allow no fighters!).
GSB gameplay breaks down as such: you build the ships in your fleet, you place the ships on the battle gird, give orders to your ships and click the fight button. If you are going to get anywhere in the game, ship design is a must. This is where some of the management elements enter the game. Each class of ship has a unique number of modular components for weapons, engines, defenses and other specialty parts. The player has to balance these parts to create a viable and effective ship. Ship specialization increases with the level of mass; bigger ships equal bigger booms! Ship customization can even be completed at the battle placement screen for those last minute tweaks.
Once the player is happy with their mad ship building skills, it’s time to put the strategy into place. There is a limit in pilots, tonnage and treasure to each level, so the player must choose ships that can be most effective against the enemy, maximize the honor to be won and provide a good show. Battle prep is the key to victory. Each victory brings honor which can be used to unlock new parts for ship upgrades, ship hulls and eventually unlocking other species.
The player has the option of assigning various orders to each ship or fighter group. For example each ship can: protect a certain ship, escort ships, attack a certain type of enemy and even retreat at a player set amount of damage. By assigning orders to certain ships, the player can effectively create layers of defense; combined with specialized ships this can lend itself to complex strategic ship placement. With the various orders, the player can lure the enemy into a trap just as easily as commencing an all out assault. There is something deviously satisfying about watching your enemy fall hopelessly into a carefully laid trap. Get the right combination of placement, orders and ship design and sit back and enjoy the ride.
GSB is visually spectacular; there is simply nothing I didn’t love about the graphics. From the cut-to screens to the over-the-top particle effects, every detail has been well thought out and brilliantly presented. Another great feature is following a single ship through combat; the player can zoom in and watch the ship be taken apart by enemy fire or dole out a good thumping to enemies. The graphics remain flawless throughout both the macro and micro view. Zooming in on the action is simply a feast for the eyes and draws the player into the action. Together with the sound effects, the explosive manifestation of some weapons jolt the camera for a great concussion like distortion; which makes explosions all the more pleasing to the senses. There’s nothing quite like watching swarms of fighters take down a capital ship.
From the opening score, the sounds and music take GSB to the next level of interactive enjoyment. One of the really effective elements Positech has chosen to include is the interactive sound effects. Different weapons have unique sounds, which is gleefully fun with missiles and pulse weapons. When you zoom in on the action, the sound effects of that part of the battle come into clarity instead of being lost in the macro-view. It’s an endearing quality that enhances the action sequences. The entire game is served well by the epic music and perfectly suited sound effects.
Each battle is a singular experience and I literally spent hours just trying to see how few fighters/ship I had to commit to win each battle. Since there is AI which lends itself to random outcomes, battles vary time after time. I haven’t even mentioned the clever and colorful communications dialogue during the battles, it’s just fun to watch. In addition to the campaign mode, GSB offers a survival mode (which tells you upfront that you will eventually lose) and user-created challenge mode, which can be fairly difficult. All these games modes combine for hours of explosive entertainment. And for those who can’t get enough, there is an expansion pack with a new race and new ships (see issue 8).
I rarely get uber-excited about forthcoming games, but I had my eye on this one for a while and I wasn’t disappointed. Sometimes you just need a really good strategy game with no apologies and self described “over-the-top explodiness.” To fulfill this necessity in life, Positech Games has given us Gratuitous Space Battles. Good hunting!