Shields Holding at 60%

Let’s get another couple of Humble Bundle Reviews out today to close the gap some more. First up is Gratuitous Space Battles by Positech Games.

Gratuitous Space Battles Review
Gratuitous Space Battles is a different take on the strategy genre: You pitch a fleet of customisable ships, with customisable formations and orders against a similar fleet of enemy ships, hit go, and watch the lasers, phasers, missiles and plasma fly. You can do naught but watch during the following battle – watch, and scream or cheer as ships explode one by one, so you better do your job right at the start or you’ll be sending your men to certain death. Each mission limits the amount of money and crew available, and can impose certain restrictions through spatial anomalies. Additional modules can be unlocked at fleet HQ using honor won from completed challenges. You get more honor for completing challenges with fewer resources used. That, ladies and gentlemen, is Gratuitous Space Battles in a nutshell.

The apparent main flaw with the game’s design then, is glaringly obvious: Nobody likes to sit and watch helplessly as their entire force is decimated by the enemy. In an RTS, even when victory is clearly beyond your grasp it remains satisfying to frantically issue orders to retreat or orchestrate a final push towards that tiny glimmer of hope. It’s more distressing still to watch your troops doing the wrong thing mid battle and know that you have no way to correct them. Indeed this was rather a hinderance to my enjoyment of Gratuitous Space Battles when I first started playing, but to my surprise this feeling of helplessness quickly dissipated as I gained experience and mastered the tools available to me.

By the time you’ve completed two or three missions it’ll be easy to spot the weak spots in your formations, pick out the orders that are sending your defenceless frigates to the front of the pack, and even identify the lack of shield or armour penetration in your array of armaments. The game’s detailed graphics and the over-complicated post-battle statistics won’t help you to master this though, and missions remain a matter of trial and error throughout the game as you aren’t given any information on the enemy forces other than the numbers and types of their ships. Ship designs can vary so much that the design of enemy ships is critical to finding a winning strategy, and though giving you a full spectrum of details on the opposing force may have spoiled the game, I can’t help but think some clues would have been helpful. Regardless, from my experience victory seems to rely on creating a balanced fleet and ordering them to stay close to each other using Formation, Protector, and Escort orders. Vulture and Co-operative orders help to ensure that enemies are taken out efficiently, and there are numerous other orders you can give out for more in-depth strategies. One thing I felt was missing was the ability to set specific waypoints for ships at the start of the battle. Without the ability to do this you will have difficulty predicting the direction your ships will set off in at the get-go, furthering the trial-and-error nature of the game.

For all that the game has ceased to be frustrating to me, I still find myself a little bored when I’m watching the battles unfold. The presentation does help with this; graphics and sound are flawless, even if the ship designs are standard fare. Lasers fly from cruiser to cruiser, fighters swarm in the space between, missiles arc around in pursuit, and hulls light up with explosions. Shields, sparks, smoke, damaged hulls – all are represented flawlessly and with the right sounds as accompaniment. Some of these effects make it difficult to tell what is going on, while others are perfectly clear. Pop-up numbers and messages on the battlefield should help you identify the effectiveness of weapons though, and you can select your own ships to see detailed information on their current state. Largely useless, but equally amusing, is the panel at the top of the screen which scrolls through comms from your ships, reporting hull breaches, shield strength, and kills with some hilarious, highly quotable lines. There aren’t many different lines to been seen here though, so that won’t keep you laughing for long. Fortunately you can slow down and speed up the battle at your will, so you can hurry along to the key strategic points to see if your adjustments were succesful, and then watch the battle at whatever speed you see fit. I’d say the game is still played best with a friend sitting next to you though if you don’t want to be utterly bored.

Orders and ship design details may make Gratuitous space battles seem intimidating at first, but in the end there aren’t many options available to you for each. Orders come down to where you want your ships to be in relation to each other, and general ideas they should try to follow, such as attacking damaged ships, focussing fire in co-operation with friendlies, or retreating when damaged. When designing ships you’ll find you generally always need engines, some crew, shields, armour, power generation, and weapons fit for purpose. It’s almost never beneficial to create a jack-of-all-trades ship, so decide whether you want your ships to be targeting fighters or frigates and cruisers, breaking down shields or tearing through the armour and hull of enemy ships. Though fielding a balanced fleet is always a safe strategy, I’ve found missions where sending in a swam of my armoured, shieldless frigates – dubbed Knights – works very well. I later created a Knight Mage variant with lasers for destroying cruiser armour, and fielding a mixed group fo the two ships is pretty damn effective. Besides that I’ve made fighter-repairing True Carriers, long-ranged Anti-Cruiser Cruisers, and weaponless, shield-heavy Bruisers to soak up damage out front. In this way ship customisation is a very successful feature of Gratuitous Space Battles, and one that is a lot of fun to experiment with. Experimentation really is the key to success, and definitely the key to overcoming the apparent complexity of the game.

Gameplay is broken up into separate, unrelated missions, or you can go online to face off against other players. I haven’t tried the latter, but while playing the missions I couldn’t help but think something was missing. A persistent campaign or galactic conquest mode would have been perfect for this type of game – forcing you to allocate resources sensibly across your empire rather than arbitrarily imposing limits on each mission. Oddly enough, there’s actually a DLC for that. I haven’t tried it out, but here’s a link to a review of the DLC by someone else.

In the end Gratuitous Space Battles has far exceeded my expectations, but still leaves me feeling somewhat empty as I watch battles unfold without my intervention. I recommend you try it out if you can grab it for a good price. Maybe grab a friend too, some beer and snacks, devise strategies together and watch the mayhem unfold in glorious 2D. At least the battles are actually fun and pretty to watch even if you can’t do anything about those lasers sweeping across your hull and burning your crew of 256 to ashes. You’ll get kicks out of forwarding ridiculous strategies and staring in awe as they actually succeed, and there are some pretty funny weapon descriptions to read over in fleet HQ.

Maybe this game just isn’t for me. I can certainly see it being a lot of fun if you had the time to truly master its intricacies and take it online, but I’m a student, and have not the time for that. I’m also a doer, not content to sit and watch, which is why I like my strategies real-time.

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