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2009.12.20 Gratuitous Space Battles

posted Dec 22, 2009, 5:38 AM by Troy Cheek   [ updated Jan 3, 2010, 5:41 PM ]
Imagine, if you will, that you're watching your favorite epic science fiction movie or series or direct-to-video and some truly spectacular special effects kick in and, for just a moment, you feel like you're really out in space watching cruisers the size of aircraft carriers soaring majestically while blasting each other with ionizing death rays.  Of course, that feeling comes to a sudden halt the next time you go to commercial or switch back to whatever's happening down on the planet or, heaven forbid, there's a bit of character development.  You suddenly miss that feeling.

Gratuitous Space Battles is all about that feeling.

YouTube Video

Gratuitous Space Battles (hereafter referred to as GSB) comes to us from the good people at Positech Games.  It turns out that the good people at Positech Games are actually this one guy named Cliff, but I like that turn of phrase, so I'm not changing it.

While many space games have exploration and exploitation as their goals, all GSB has are battles.  You don't go out and find resources, spend money on research, build up a fleet, then battle to defend a planet or something.  GSB skips all that.  GSB has three basic stages:
  1. Ship design.
  2. Deploy and assign orders to ships.
  3. Watch ships blow each other up.
Ship design uses a drag and drop interface where you choose the basic hull, then add weapons and shields and engines and other doodads.  There are tons of doodads.  There are beam weapons which look like your basic Star Trek phasers, pulse weapons which look like your basic Star Wars lasers, plasma blasts that look like your basic Star Trek photon torpedo, missiles/torpedoes/rockets that look like something out of Battlestar Galactica (reimagined), and I forget what else.  There are several different types of shields and armor, repair systems, EMP weapons and shields, and carrier bays.  Basically, if you're ever seen it in a science fiction spaceship combat movie, it's in here.

Once your ships are designed, you can deploy them.  Each mission has different limits on the number of pilots available, the number of "points" available to spend on ships, and the equipment available.  If you only have a few pilots, you might want to go with a few large cruisers.  If you only have a few points, you might want to go with a squad of small frigates instead of one cruiser.  If you have lots of pilots, you might want to look into deploying a huge swarm of fighter craft.  And, of course, as soon as you learn to depend on a certain weapon or defense, supply shortages will force you to do without it.
Assigning orders to your ships is important because, once the actual battle starts, it's strictly hands off.  The individual pilots will carry out the battle itself.  The best you can do is give them general guidelines before the shooting starts.  You might order a cruiser with long range weapons to blast away at other cruisers from far away.  Order fast cruisers with short range weapons to close quickly before engaging.  Order fighters to concentrate on enemy fighters or ignore them and go for the frigates.  You can also order ships to coordinate fire, concentrate on ships already damaged, retaliate against ships attacking them or their comrades, maintain formation with or escort other ships, or to retreat when damaged.

While the battle plays out, you have complete control of the camera.  You can zoom in on anything interesting.  You can also speed up or slow down the playback.  I think the idea is that you're not watching the actual battle but rather some kind of post-battle analysis.  Regardless, you can't do anything during the actual battle but watch.  That's when you feel like you're watching one of those epic battles from your favorite science fiction series.

After the battle, you might get "honor points" depending on how well you did.  The fewer points you spent winning the battle, the more points you get for winning it.  Points can be used to buy new hulls, unlock other races, or purchase the designs for new ship modules.  Most of the included battles have multiple difficultly settings (though higher difficulty is usually accomplished by simply throwing more/bigger ships into the mix) so there's lots of replay value.  Successfully completing battles will unlock others.

I found myself replaying each battle over and over with fewer ships in my fleet until I determined the very minimum number of points I had to spend for a victory.  This maximized my reward points.  With these points, I could buy new hulls and modules.  I then had to go back to fight those earlier battles again with the new ships and weapons I'd just designed.  I have just started trying to win those same battles again with other races.  The different races supposedly have different strengths and weaknesses, not to mention unique weapons.

When you get tired of the dozen or so included battles, you can go online and play challenges posted by other players.  There are also a couple of "infinite" battles where you face wave after wave of attackers.  You can't possibly win those, but you get points based on how much damage you do to your enemies before your inevitable demise.

The battles are depicted in a pseudo-2D overhead view.  Ships can pass over and under each other, but the battle is mostly played out in a single plane.  While that seems primitive in today's 3D gaming world, this allows the game to produce very good graphics on any relatively recent computer.  To top that off, there's literally an entire screen full of options you can enable or disable to give you the best possible gaming experience.  Don't like to be distracted by blasted hulks floating through the battlefield?  Turn them off.  Don't like seeing those escape pods fleeing the battle?  Turn them off.  Trying to play the game on your ancient notebook computer?  Turn them all off.

While the game is 2D, it's beautiful 2D.  The ship models may be pre-rendered sprites with animated sprites overlaid (or however the actual graphics are produced) but the results are very pleasant to look at.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I have paid money to watch movies with space battles that didn't look this good.
While I think GSB is a great game, I do have a few minor quibbles.

First of all, the various hulls and modules and races seem a bit generic.  Intellectually, I know that this hull has a speed bonus or this race has a shield bonus or this weapon hits with 20% more force for just 10% more in price, but I just don't feel it.  Even the first expansion pack, which adds two new missions and a whole new race with some unique hulls and modules, just feels like more of the same.  That didn't keep me from buying it, mind you.

Secondly, the pilot AI can use some work.  Sure, I'm the admiral and I can't micromanage my fleet.  I understand that.  But if I order my big, slow, ponderous cruiser loaded with shield breaking, armor cracking, massive weapons to concentrate on enemy cruisers over fighters, I expect it to concentrate on enemy cruisers over fighters.  Instead, I can set priorities something like 1% fighter and 99% cruiser, but still for some reason I might find my cruiser stuck in some far corner chasing fighters, firing ineffectual laser beam after ineffectual laser beam at things it has a 0.0005% chance of hitting but which are slowly whittling away at its shields while enemy cruisers are carving big chunks out of the rest of my fleet.  The alternative is to remove the order to attack fighters altogether, which means that while my slow cruiser is creeping across the battlefield to get into range of its preferred targets, its weapons are inactive instead of at least trying for the occasional lucky potshot at a fighter.  It also seems that my ships will occasionally fly right by unshielded, damaged enemies while chasing their preferred targets (which are still out of range).  If there's a setting to pursue your favorite target while blasting anything that moves in the mean time, I haven't found it yet.

Thirdly, there's a bit of rock-paper-laser going on.  Some weapons are better against some defenses.  There are various weapons.  There are various defenses.  Some weapons are more effective against some defenses than others.  You either have to guess correctly or field a mix.  Fighters can get under shields, so you need lots of armor.  But the only defense against plasma launchers is speed, which is hard to come by when you're packing armor.  It sometimes comes down to fine tuning your fleet to defeat your enemy, then having to come up with a completely new fleet to defeat the next enemy.  This is kind of the point, and I won't deny that it increases replay value immensely, but it is just a bit frustrating to come up with the perfectly balanced cruiser and then have to scrap it.

To counter all that, the game is mod friendly.  Most of the configuration is in plain text files.  While the graphics are a little more complicated, there have already been new ships added to the game.  I really like playing with Stargate SG-1 ships.  A friend of mine is really looking forward to a naval warfare mod.  I've even tweaked a few modules to make them more balanced.  Well, more balanced in my fractured view.

And for those who aren't convinced to buy it (though some people pre-ordered based solely on the name), there is a gratuitous demo version available.

So, give Gratuitous Space Battles a try.  Your inner sci-fi geek will thank you for it.  Your eyeballs are another matter entirely.
Update:  While I was writing this, Cliff came up with some neat banners and asked that we spread them around.  Please do so.  And before you ask, I'm not getting paid for this.