Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gratuitous Space Battles Review

Gratuitous Space Battles, developed and published by Positech Games.
The Good: Completely customized ship designs offer a plethora of strategic options, slider-based orders for tweaking your grand plan, innovative handling of multiplayer
The Not So Good: Non-interactive combat not for tactical players, filtering through designed ships is arduous, default ship configurations would be nice, limited to fourteen maps
What say you? A pure strategy game ripe with design depth, ship variety, and explosions: 7/8

Most real time strategy games involve an inordinate amount of waiting for something to happen: waiting for resources, waiting for units to move, waiting, waiting, waiting. What if we did away with all ancillary material and got straight to the killing? It’s like if all NASCAR races were just crashes! Well, I guess they have that already, but still, point taken! Developer Positech Games has heard your cries for violence and released the appropriately-titled Gratuitous Space Battles. In this strategy game, you design the ship fleets and set orders, and watch as the AI pilots carry out your commands and the carnage ensues. Does this more streamlined approach work?

Gratuitous Space Battles displays all of the bloodshed in 2-D, but the game actually looks pretty decent. One of the advantages of ignoring that third dimension is that all of the ships can have detailed textures and look much better than what a 3-D model would produce. The models are also quite varied between races, resulting in some different-looking engagements. The backgrounds are more repetitive, however, as most battles seem to take place on “anonymous nebula 12.” The weapon effects look as good as any movie, with bright, deadly lasers and fast-moving missiles. The explosions are not as dramatic as I would like (the shockwaves and fire are a bit too subtle), but you can gauge enemy damage accurately by visual clues. The game is on the demanding side for a 2-D game, as my crappy laptop with one of those on-board Intel video cards couldn’t handle the truth. The sound design is what you would expect in an independent title: satisfying, if not terribly varied, effects. Although there is no voice work in the game, Gratuitous Space Battles does have appropriate background music to accompany your glorious destruction.

Gratuitous Space Battles removes all of that boring resource collection and repetitive base building and replaces it with ship design and strategic planning, which is more along the lines of what a real commander would deal with. The game is presented in a series of battles across the galaxy; missions are unlocked in order and may incorporate alternative rules through “spatial anomalies,” preventing the use of shields or slowing down ships, for example; it’s a nice touch that prevents using the same dominant fleet for all of the missions. There are only fourteen maps to choose from, though; I would like to have the option to customize the spatial anomalies, or even have them randomized. Most of the maps involve battling an enemy fleet in skirmish mode, although the last two are survival modes that keep the enemies incoming until you die; high scores for this mode are uploaded to a central server so that you can see how horrible at the game you are. The less ships you use to defeat the enemy, the more honor is accumulated, which is used to unlock additional parts and races (which grant more hulls with varied starting attribute bonuses). Playing at higher difficulty levels does not grant more honor, which seems counterintuitive to me. I did like the fact that Gratuitous Space Battles does not offer an “easy” difficulty setting, because if you need to play on “easy,” then you are not be fit to command large spaceships in the first place, loser. One of the more intriguing aspects of Gratuitous Space Battles is how the game handles multiplayer. Instead of relying on some real-time component, which, to be honest, would be difficult to pull off for an independent game where player counts are low, you can issue a challenge to any (or a specific) player that pits your fleet from any map against theirs. You’ll never know quite what to expect, since the only information you are given is what types of ships they are using, rather than their specific components. The online server records how many attempts it took to defeat the opposing armada to serve as a sort of scorekeeper of dominance. It’s an elegant way of handling the added dimension of human opponents.

The main crux of Gratuitous Space Battles is the ship design, and thankfully we have plenty of options to choose from. You’ll be spending an inordinate amount of time in this part of the game, so if intricate ship design doesn’t interest you, look elsewhere. There are three types of ships to outfit: small fighters, medium-sized frigates, and massive cruisers. Each of the game’s four races has the same three types, although they look different and have varied starting bonuses (it would be nice if the bonuses were more varied and plentiful). You are given a great amount of freedom, as there is a wide selection of parts (numbering in the hundreds, using my best estimate) to stick on each ship: weapons (lasers, beams, cannons, torpedoes, rockets, EMPs, missiles, plasma), defenses (shields, armor), engines, crew quarters, and power plants. There are only vague hints on what each weapon and system are specifically useful for, so Gratuitous Space Battles involves a lot of experimenting with combinations to find effective designs. It seems like beams are for armor, lasers and blasters are useful against shields, and missiles and torpedoes are for long-range attacks against slow vessels. During your design process, it is imperative to balance crew and power requirements efficiently so that you do not waste resources. In addition, using the same particular component makes each individual part less effective, which prevents spamming a particularly effective armament. Designing your ships can take quite a while, and there is great depth in coming up with effective combinations. This is one of those games that you think about while you aren’t playing (what if I did this). Having this amount of freedom does make for a significant learning curve, as all of your options can be overwhelming. It doesn’t help matters that Gratuitous Space Battles only gives you three (poor) designs to start out with. I realize that the major focus of the game is on ship design, but it would still be nice to see some examples to get you started.

After you have designed the ultimate fleet of destruction, it’s time to take to the battlefield. Before each mission, you can choose the arrangement of your ships and give general orders to them. You are limited in terms of available pilots (which prevents spamming fighters) and cash (which prevents spamming large ships), but you can choose any of the ships you have designed. Adding vessels is a drag-and-drop affair, and you can place a number of ships consecutively by right-clicking. The interface for this aspect of the game leaves a lot to be desired, as all of your designs are simply in alphabetical order and cannot be sorted or filtered. Considering that later in the game you might have a ton (2000 pounds…they weigh a lot) of designs, it would be super helpful to be able to filter out, say, all cruisers with missile launchers. Although you do not get direct control over your fleet during combat (that task is for your generals and such), you can give orders to help coordinate the attack. These include sliders for setting the priority of attacking frigates, fighters, and cruisers, as well as the range at which your ships should do so. You can also set special behaviors, like escorting another ship, moving in formation, attacking only damaged ships, or repairing during combat. The orders options don’t give you the amount of precision I would like to see: in a lot of battles, ships just group together in an unorganized mass of confusion. It’s difficult to keep ships together while still using the speed advantages of the smaller vessels.

All that work is put to the test during the automated battles. As I have mentioned several times already (remember?), battles are automated (that’s why I called them “automated battles”) and require no interaction from the user: it’s just up to your designs and orders at this point. The gratuitous space battles of Gratuitous Space Battles are drawn out (mainly because the enormous cruisers crawl sooooo sloooowly), so thankfully there is time acceleration to speed things up. You are given detailed information on friendly ships by clicking on them: shield strength, shield stability, armor strength, and damage and usage of all modules. Damage simulation is pretty sophisticated. During combat, armor does not repair (unless you have fancy robots that do it for you) while shields do, and weapons may “bounce” off if they do not have enough armor or shield penetration; this can make ships invulnerable to low-penetration weapons, something to consider during the ship design process. Alternatives to penetrating shields include using destabilizing weapons or using fighters to attack from the inside. It is easier to use beams, missiles, and torpedoes against slow moving targets, and incoming weapons can be countered with point defense, and those can be countered with EMPs and target painters. Finally, being next to a large ship that explodes can cause damage and causes your forces to say something funny in text at the top of the screen. As you can see, the robust ship design is used to good effect, as there are plenty of options at your disposal for eliminating the enemy threat. The same basic AI is used for ships on sides, and it does OK finding and attack ships and following orders you have given. Again, it would be better if the ships would organize themselves better automatically instead of needing really specific and detailed instructions: these are supposed to be highly trained naval officers, right? The key seems to be using a balance fleet that can counter any incoming threat, or playing once and seeing what the enemy has and then making adjustments for your subsequent attempts. Gratuitous Space Battles gives a lot of detailed stats at the end of a game, win or lose, so you can see the effectiveness of individual weapons and shields to make your designs better next time.

Gratuitous Space Battles replaces the typical tactical game with enough strategic depth to make an interesting game. The sheer number of parts available for your custom ship designs makes for an impressive amount of strategic freedom. It’s like the ship design of Galactic Civilizations, but much more varied and with none of that annoying “diplomacy” getting in the way. Coupled with the ship customization is the pre-battle planning, done through orders given to individual or groups of ships; they also give you decent, but not complete, control over your armada. The battles are completely automated, which will deter the more tactically-minded among us, but I actually prefer the approach of Gratuitous Space Battles: you didn’t lose because you can’t click fast enough, you lost because you can’t design your way out of a paper bag. And you’re dumb. There are only fourteen maps to choose from as you unlock them in order, but, honestly, they don’t play any role other than the restrictions imposed by the spatial anomalies. A very smart approach to multiplayer is done here: people can post their fleets that you can fight against, but you don’t have to be online at the same time in order to do so. The interface could use some cleaning up to filter parts by attributes or access your custom designs more easily, but these are minor issues that don’t negatively impact the game too much. Gratuitous Space Battles can be very time consuming and also quite difficult if you have designed inefficient or poorly balanced ships. Though most people will unlock most of the content quickly, the human-designed challenges should keep players busy long after, and they always offer something unexpected to deal with. In short (too late!), strategy gamers will find a lot to like in the depth Gratuitous Space Battles has to offer.