Saturday, May 08, 2010

Review: Gratuitous Space Battles

It says something about my computer game playing habits lately that I had to look up "tower defense game." It doesn't surprise me that people find these sorts of games fun. Tower defense was basically my primary strategy when playing RTSes, especially of World of Warcraft II. That said, RTS is not my genre of choice these days. Most of my gaming is older turn-based strategy, like Master of Orion II, Bio-Ware RPGs, and neat little things like Positech Games’ Gratuitous Space Battles.

The game is exactly what it says on the tin: really pretty (even though sprite-based) battles in space between slow crawling capital ships and swift little fighters. The backgrounds are full of the Technicolor glowing nebulae that the Hubble space telescope and Babylon 5 have made us come to expect in space. What's a little odd is the focus of the game. It's not a flight sim with RPG elements, like Elite, or 4X game like Master of Orion. It's not even a turn-based RTS combat simulator like Starfleet Command. Instead, it really is more like a tower defense game, except your towers are spaceships which crawl slowly across the screen towards enemy spaceships which are crawling slowly the other way toward your ships. You don't command ships in the battle; instead, you set things up beforehand, unleash the fleets and sit back to watch how it turns out.

So what do you do? The first stage of the game is designing your ships. The game comes with four races, three of which you have to unlock through successful gameplay. Each class has different hulls in three categories of ship: small zippy fighters, not quite so small and not nearly as zippy frigates, and big lumbering cruisers. Each hull has a certain number of hard points and slots for general equipment. In the ship creation screen, you fill the hard points and equipment slots with the gear you want your ship to have. If you need a fighter-killer, you outfit your ship with quick, low-damage canons and missiles, while another ship may be equipped with big but slow beam weapons that pack a lot of punch. Most hulls add extra bonuses towards certain stats on the ship like power generation or speed.

After you've designed your ships, it time to see how they actually perform in combat. The game comes with some preset scenarios. When you load one of these up it first tells you about any special conditions. These can range from the classic Wrath of Khan nebula situation where shields don't work, to logistical limitations on which pieces of equipment or hull types can be used. You are then shown a map of the territory in which the combat will take place. Maps vary in size, so small little skirmishes don't necessarily have to start with your ships crawling diagonally across a vast expanse towards the enemy for hours before the fighting actually starts. You'll see the enemy fleet already in its line of battle. This allows you to arrange your fleet in tactical response. Usually, this will probably mean some variation on the denied flank, but since you can run any scenario as often as you like, you can try out all sorts of different configurations and combinations of ships.

As you're arranging your ships, you can give them commands that they will carry out once the battle starts. These consist of which ships to engage in combat at which distances, formation and escort commands, and whether or not to attempt to withdraw from the front lines when they start taking too much damage. As with most computer-based tactical AI, the actions of your ships can be both predictable and, at times, really wonky. This does allow you to achieve certain effects in a roundabout sort of way. For instance, if you don't want your fighters to speed ahead straight for the enemy, you can assign them to escort a fragile frigate with paper-thin armor. The fighters will then swirl around the frigate as it crawls towards the enemy, and then swarm over the enemy once they've destroyed the frigate.

After you've got your fleet arranged, you click the “fight” button and watch them go. The space battles are gratuitously gorgeous, as you'd expect. Great glowing missiles leave trails in their wake, glittering bolts of plasma glitter across the screen, and laser beams rake their targets, all causing explosions and fires to erupt on the targeted hulls. Unlike other games on similar subjects I've seen, Gratuitous Space Battles actually shows you the damage being done to enemy ships. In spite of the sprite-based graphics, you can zoom in and watch the turrets on the ships turning towards the enemy and firing. You can also see them burst into flames when they are crushed by missiles and laser beams. Hulls become peppered with flaming holes that belch smoke and sparks. Destroyed ships drift as blackened and shattered hulks, bits of twisted metal floating as debris in your battle space. The whole thing is just fun to watch.

After the battle you can review reports on which ships and weapons did (or suffered) the most damage. These reports are not quite as detailed as I would like, and they don't tell you which of your ships hurt any particular ships on the other side. Or at least, I haven't been able to figure that out in the data I've seen. Still, it's pretty easy to figure out which of your weapons are effectively harming the enemy and which are just pinging ineffectively off their shields.

And that's the game. Rinse and repeat as desired. You can set up a situation and fleet and challenge others to take it on, or accept challenges others have created. It's quick, easy to get into, and fun to play. It doesn't require a whole lot of time, and if the space battles are crawling on a little too slowly, you can always speed up the action. The music is appropriately strident, full of drums and horns, but I imagine it's going to get old very quickly. Still, the music and eye-candy are surprisingly good for a game that sells for only US $10. If you do get bored with the fleets provided by the basic game, a few modded fleets (some based on IPs like Star Wars and Starship Yamamoto, a.k.a. Star Blazers) are available, as are official add-ons of new fleets to fight with or against. At the price, it's hard to argue with. But there's no substitute for downloading the free demo and trying it for yourself.


Allandaros said...

You didn't mention the absurd radio messages that your fleet returns:

"I’m pretty sure the ship meant to stay in one piece. This is not good news."

JB said...

Ha! That sounds like a pretty cool game. I wonder if I can get it for Mac.

David said...

The demo was fun, but I don't have nearly enough time to play the games I own now.

faustusnotes said...

I got a few hours of good value out of this game, it's very entertaining. The spaceship names are cute too, and the commentary (though it gets a bit repetitive). Replaying some of the set scenarios on hard or expert was actually quite challenging, and sometimes you actually did need to vary your tactics and the mix of fighters to cruisers, etc.

Limited term fun!

JB, just use bootcamp to install windows on your mac. I did, and never looked back...

xgametop said...
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