Gratuitous Space Battles
One the surface, Gratuitous Space Battles, from Kudos developer Positech Games, looks like your run-of-the-mill space RTS, something in the vein of the Homeworld series or Star Wars: Empire at War. But when that glance turns into a longing stare, you'll realize it's very different from both of those series and isn't really, in fact, a real time strategy game at all. Gratuitious Space Battles has a whole new system of gameplay going for it that, in many ways, feels more like a tower defense game than anything else.
The basic goal of Gratuitous Space Battles is to create an armada of ships capable of taking out the enemy fleet. This sounds simple enough until you realize what's missing from the equation: player control. You don't actually participate in the battles. Once you set your armada loose, it's up to your starship design, placement, and initial orders to decide the outcome. It's like the old table-top games where once the battle has commenced, you roll the dice and hope for the best. No reinforcements if things look grim, no chance to take other ships and force an end-run in the middle of the battle. Once you set things in motion, all you can do is sit back and enjoy the show. And what a show it is.
Once you've gotten a handle on the basics of gameplay with the included tutorial ships, it's time to get down and dirty with your own designs. You start out with a number of hulls, each with its own base power requirements and costs. Each hull has a fixed number of slots into which you can insert various offensive and defensive technologies. Some slots will allow for the placement of weapons, while others will only allow defensive and operational technologies, such as shield generators, crew quarters, or reactors for powering the ship. The key will be to create a balance between the amount of power required, the number of crew members required, and the amount and type of weapons and defensive technologies you want on-board.
Gratuitous Space Battles really lives up to its name. The visual feast to be had while combat is being played out is superb. Imagine the space battles from Stargate or the recent Battlestar Galactica series. Now imagine that you can view any part of the battle, zoom in on any ship, see anything in the skirmish that you want to see. You can focus tight in on one of the enemy battle cruisers, ready to buckle under the heavy fire of your battalion of gunships, or watch as a squadron of small fighters swarm a larger enemy vessel like wasps slowly picking at their prey. Beam weapons slice through starship hulls like a hot knife through butter, and concussion missiles rock the area with blasts that would rip a hole through anything but the toughest of armor plating. There's more explosions here than the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C. It is truly a sight to behold.
With the visuals go some very powerful audio elements, as well. Now, one may argue that, "in space, no one can hear you scream," but that's just no fun. We want bangs and pows and zaps with our space battles. Gratuitous Space Battles delivers on this front, as well. Concussive explosions, electrifying bolts of ECM impacts, the piercing sound of pulse weapons ripping through shields, they're all there. The sound effects are actually interactive to a point. If you are zoomed out on the battle, the effects from the entire area sort of meld together and are quieter. But, once you zoom in on a piece of the action, the sound effects for that region become amplified. All of this is accompanied by a fully orchestrated background score that completes the gratuitously epic nature of the experience.
There are two types of battles for the single player to work through. The main skirmishes start with a pre-defined enemy armada placement which you have to match with your own ships. You are limited by the number of honor points available for any particular scenario. The more honor points you have left over after placing ships, the more you will gain if you win the battle. Honor points are used, in turn, to unlock new technologies and upgrades to old ones. There are also two endurance levels that pit your armada against a constant onslaught of enemies of unknown configurations and numbers. Defeat for these levels is a certainty. The question is, how long can you last?
There is also a form of multiplayer gaming available with Gratuitous Space Battles in a sort of play-by-mail kind of way. Users can post various armada configurations to the online boards and from there you can pick any configuration and attempt to beat it with your own armada. The results for each battle are then uploaded back to the boards and displayed with every entry, allowing you to see which armada configurations seem unstoppable, and which ones crumbled under the slightest pressure.
Analysis: I really cannot say enough good things about Gratuitous Space Battles. I've been playing with it ever since it went into public beta a number of months ago, and have watched it mature into an excellent, deep, seriously fun space battle game. There is so much more than appears on the surface, and that's what makes it so great. It's more than just throwing some ships into the mix and watching what comes out in the end, although you can do that just to see some quick action. For those who want to master the game, it goes much deeper.
Not only do you have to concern yourself with proper balance when creating your ships, you also have to take into account how those ships will operate when on the battlefield. By giving certain ships orders to either protect other ships of the armada, or to stay in formation with other ships, you can start to combing the forces of certain ships to make a mightier armada. Design a gunship with beam weapons and ECM pulses for taking out the shields and systems of an enemy ship, and group it with a cruiser loaded with missiles and missile tracking systems to obliterate the enemy once the shields go down.
For all of the detail that there is in the design of the ships, there is even more involved in the orders that can be given. You can give orders for ships to stay in formation with other ships. You can give attack orders, telling your ships to retaliate against ships that are attacking them, or to go to the aid of another ship if it gets attacked. You can tell certain ships to retreat from battle if they take too much damage, or even give multiple orders to ships arranged in order of importance. You can literally spend more time designing the perfect armada than the ensuing battle will take. And, truth be told, in order to get really good at this game, that is what it takes. It is an extremely tactical experience.
There is a lot of fun to be had here for fans of space battles, and strategists looking for a unique outlet. The addition of the play-by-mail multiplayer works quite well for how the game is laid out. And silly touches like the names of the ships (Monetarism makes the world go round) and the communications chatter going on throughout the game ("Hull breach on decks four and six. How about lucky deck five?") make this game a must-have for fans of those huge space battles from the movies. Just remember the words of a wise old smuggler: "Good against remotes is one thing. Good against the living, that's something else."