PC Gratutious Space Battles

Scott Tortorice

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I love science fiction gaming. Be it massively multiplayer extravaganzas or more sedate single player 4Xers, there is just something eminently suitable about using a technology-loaded PC to simulate technology-loaded vessels atomizing each other with plasma death beams. Guess I’m just quirky that way. Fortunately, there never seems to be a dearth of game developers willing to feed my appetite for death amongst the stars. The most recent entry to this genre is Cliff Harris’ Gratuitous Space Battles, a game that promises to bring “over-the-top explodiness” back into space games. Does is succeed? Read on….

Get Out the Blueprints

Gratuitous Space Battles is not like other space games you may have played in the past. As the game’s tongue-in-cheek title suggests, GSB is all about the most interesting part of intergalactic relations: the part where you whip out your electric death ray. Forget diplomacy, resource harvesting and empire management – it’s all about battles, battles, and more battles. With that in mind, Gratuitous Space Battles places a lot of emphasis on vessel design, perhaps more so than other similar games.

While GSB does come with some preloaded vessel designs, any space admiral worth his salt will immediately begin designing his own. Vessels in GSB come in three sizes: fighters, frigates and cruisers, with several variations of each class offering certain bonuses, such as increased armor, power output boosts and speed bonuses. Naturally, the larger the vessel class, the more technological gizmos can be fitted to the ship.

When in the ship designer screen, the player is shown a picture of the vessel with a number of blank hexagons and square slots. Into these slots the player can place any mixture of equipment, including weaponry, defensive equipment, power generators, engines, even crew quarters, with each component given a humorous description and plenty of performance statistics. It immediately is clear that there are a large number of combinational possibilities. Should the player make a frigate that emphasizes speed at the expense of weaponry? Or would he be better served by one that packs on plasma turrets at the expense of multiple engines? Or maybe lots of shields would be better? Or torpedo launchers? The possibilities are nearly endless. Fortunately the player can mix and match to his heart’s content, tweaking the design until he is satisfied. At that point, all that’s left to do is give his creation a name and save it.

Deploying the Fleet

GSB offers two types of battles: eleven set scenarios (plus one tutorial), or two 'last stand' situations. In the former, the player is charged with defeating an enemy fleet that will vary in size (depending upon which of the three difficulty levels are chosen), while the latter throws wave after wave of enemy vessels at the player until he is finally defeated - the goal here being to survive as long as possible and rack up the highest score by inflicting damage.

After making his selection, the player is brought to the force selection screen. Here, he will see the silhouettes of the enemy vessels he will be fighting on the right side of the screen, something that is helpful when trying to determine what force mix will be optimal. Further guiding the player in his choices is a limit placed on the amount of pilots available and the total cost of ships. Ah…now it becomes clear why that super-expensive cruiser you designed might not have been the best way to go. Don’t worry, the player is free to jump back into the ship designer and make a new ship that can be included in the coming battle.

Working within the above limitations, the player begins selecting his ships and placing them in some sort of formation on a grid displayed opposite the enemy fleet. Then comes the tricky part: assigning them orders. You see, unlike other space battle games, GSB is more like a tower defense type of game where, once the action starts, the player is unable to micro-manage his fleet; the ships will be on their own, responding to the orders set beforehand - a twist I really like. The player needs to carefully think about how he wants the battle to unfold and the best ways to utilize his designs to achieve that vision. He must also take into consideration any special conditions that might affect the coming fight, such as nebulosity that will prevent fighter deployments (these conditions are noted in the scenario description).

Giving orders is relatively easy: click on a ship, or a group of fighters, and select the orders menu. The player is then presented with a short of list of possible directives with descriptive names, such as “vulture” (only attack damaged vessels), and “maintain formation” (ships will stay in their player designed starting formation no matter what). There are nine orders in all, and the player can mix and match them with the exception of a few exclusive orders. In addition to the above orders, the player can also set priority target orders and maximum engagement ranges with a series of sliders based upon target class.

From this screen the player is also free to name his vessels with a handy random name generator, something I found added a nice bit of personality to my vessels, especially when the name generator would come up with something wacky like ‘My Proboscis Sucks’ (ha!). Finally, once the player is satisfied with his deployments, he can save the formation so it can be used in another battle, a great labor-saving option as more than a bit of work goes into them.

Then it’s off to the…

…Gratuitous Space Battles!

Once battle is joined, GSB impresses. It is a very pretty game, with colorful celestial milieus and nicely detailed spaceships, but bear in mind that this is a 2D game where all the action is viewed from a top down perspective. Regardless, once fleets meet and battle is joined, the screen lights up with lances of laser beams, glowing shield bubbles, dog fighting interceptors, and, ultimately, exploding vessels and lazily drifting wreckage. GSB puts on quite a show, one that becomes more impressive the closer the player zooms in on the action. This is definitely a good thing as the player is largely a spectator at this point, helpless to influence the on screen destruction he has wrought with his designs and orders.

It isn’t just pretty “pew-pew” effects, though, as the player is free to pause the action at any time to take a closer look at what his ships are doing. Displayed along the bottom right of the screen is the “ship inspector”, a graphical summary of a ship that shows the state of its constituent components. If the component is filling with red then you know it is sustaining damage. A similar graphical system applies to shield strength (but in reverse). Lastly, a white line below weapons indicates how long before the next salvo is fired, or in the case of auto-repair units, how much repair supply it has left. Providing additional information about the state of your vessels is the communications window at the top of the screen. Here, the player can read missives from the captains of his vessels, many of them being quite humorous (one of my favorites: “Don’t worry, they couldn’t hit a thing at this dist….<end signal>”). The player can click on the name of the ship to center the vessel on the screen, something helpful when you need to quickly find out what is going on, especially after your captain reports that “pretty much everything here is on fire.”

Battles continue until one side drops below 10% on the game’s scoreboard, or the player sounds the retreat. Once the missile batteries fall silent, the player can inspect a bunch of statistics, such as which ships survived, were damaged or destroyed, along with how many of their shots hit, penetrated, what damage they received in turn, et cetera. Of course, if the battle ended in defeat, the player needs to apply this information when reforming his fleet, taking into accounts what ship systems worked, which need to be replaced, and what new orders may be required to achieve a victory in the inevitable rematch. However, if the battle ended in victory, then “honor” points are awarded that the player can use to unlock new ship designs, components, or even a new race or two. The total amounts of points awarded are based upon the amount of the budget used by the player in building his fleet prior to the battle (use less of your budget, earn more honor).

Multiplayer

GSB uses a “challenge” system for its multiplayer component. What this means is that a player can create a fleet and deployment plan as if preparing to battle an AI, but instead they can upload it to Positronic’s server where other players can try to beat your master plan. A player can make an “open” challenge, where anyone can play it, or challenge a specific opponent. When a player accepts a challenge, the server will keep track of how many attempts it takes to achieve victory.

So What’s Not to Like?

GSB is a fun game…but it could be so much more. Ultimately, this is my biggest gripe. While it is fun to fight one skirmish battle after another, tweaking the fleet here, swapping out a component there, it starts to feel like a bit of a pointless grind after a while. What GSB desperately needs is some sort of campaign to tie all the battles together. While the one-off skirmishes are enjoyable, I would imagine that they would become absolutely riveting if they were somehow tied to the fate of a galactic quest for domination. In fact, I believe GSB’s combat system, where the player is (realistically) unable to micro-manage the battle to the detriment of dimwitted AIs, would serve to make such a campaign uniquely challenging.

Other than that, there are only a few minor gripes. For example, I would like to be able to zoom out a bit more, as right now the battles are often too big to fit on one screen, forcing me to frequently pan to take in all the action. Also, the sounds of battle are a bit muted for my tastes. I would like to get more ‘bang’ for my buck, so to speak.

I also would like more feedback during a battle. I understand the idea behind the minimalist ship inspector - it would be a crime to take up too much screen real estate with such a pretty game – but since the player is largely passive during the battle, I would appreciate the ability to chew some detailed feedback during the actual battle, even if it means I need to pause the game to view a larger ship inspector with detailed statistics for each weapon, for example.

Lastly, I wish I could save a replay of a battle. There is a lot going on in one of these skirmishes and I would love to be able to replay the entire engagement from beginning to end so as not to miss any important details. Also, a replay file would come in handy when bragging about your latest victory (even better if you could upload it to the Positech multiplayer server)!

Closing Comments:

Gratuitous Space Battles is a fine entry into the world of death-dealing warships in space. In its current form, GSB makes for a visually impressive tower defense type of game; something perfectly suited for killing some downtime. However, I look forward to the day where this good first step in expanded into something more ambitious (Mr. Harris is already working on one expansion). Until then, GSB is a good game - at a good price, no less – to help satiate the ever-present need to unleash mayhem amongst the stars.

7.5 out of 10
 
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