Friday, February 11, 2011

Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest Review

Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest, developed and published by Positech Games.
The Good: Enemy fleets downloaded automatically from other players, static planetary structures motivate attack choices, unpredictable enemy encounters force fleet balance, ships retain damage from previous battles, useful auto-range setting, only $7
The Not So Good: Limited campaign interaction with no control over planetary improvements, only one map with no randomization, few strategic decisions, enemy attacks bound by threat levels
What say you? A bare campaign mode makes this a very optional expansion: 4/8

I liked Gratuitous Space Battles. The large (some would say “gratuitous”) interplanetary (some would say “space”) conflicts (some would say “battles”) offered nice tactical ship design and pleasing multiplayer features, where you could easily test out your plans against other human-made strategies. But, as with most things, there is always room for improvement, namely a reason to have such gratuitous space battles. Despite my usual aversion towards expansions, constant clamoring has produced a revival of the game, now that additions have gone beyond just new races. Is the campaign mode that Galactic Conquest offers reason enough to return to the vast expanse of space, or is it reserved only for ardent fans of the series?

The main graphical changes of Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest obviously involve the campaign mode. The campaign map is pretty basic stuff, planets connected by lines, but the paths are animated with tiny ships that provide a glimpse of interplanetary activity. The planets are not animated or in 3-D, something which could have been a possibility since there is only one layout recycled for every campaign. The background is also very basic, though the interface provides easy access to a list of your fleets, factories, and shipyards. Overall, the graphics for campaign mode servers a purely functional role. Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest features some new music, but the remainder of the sound effects seems to be the same. You never expect drastic graphical enhancements in an expansion, and Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest generally continues that trend.

The universe needs genocidal extermination, and it’s up to you to do it! Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest adds a turn-based campaign mode to offer some structure to those battles of spacey gratuitousness. There are fifty-two planets in the universe, connected by wormholes in a manner similar to Sins of a Solar Empire. Unfortunately, the map is exactly the same each time you play: same planets, same places, same buildings. Now, enterprising individuals have gone in and modded the map for some variety, but this is no match for automatic randomization. Each planet can contain several structures, but they are all pre-determined and can’t be changed during the campaign, increasing to the static nature of the universe. I suppose this restriction is one way of imposing strategic decisions regarding which planet to invade next (based on your current economic needs), but you could allow for personal customization of each newly acquired planet and still require interesting decisions to be made. Building uses are predictable: repair yards repair, academies provide crew required to pilot your vessels, factories provide cash for purchasing new ships (and upkeep for existing ones), and shipyards build new ships. There are several classes of each building type, and only the higher-class structures can construct the largest vessels. Still, the stagnant nature of the universe is disappointing.

One thing the campaign of Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest forces you to do is vary your forces: since you are not provided with advance information on enemy ships encountered during planetary invasion, you must outfit each fleet with a variety of weapons designed to take on any threat. This is partially because the enemy fleets are downloaded from other players on demand, an extension on the challenge mode introduced in the original product: a nice substitution for multiplayer features (this also means that Galactic Conquest requires an Internet connection while playing). Planets may also have anomalies that disable certain ship systems, adding another layer of interest. Once a planet is taken, you must keep ships there until the loyalty increases and threat decreases. This is the only way the computer attacks the player: the AI will only take back planets, and they don’t have an active military moving around you must deal with: disappointing. The game’s three difficulty levels will increase the capabilities of the AI fleets, providing an ever-increasing challenge to all skill levels.

Managing your ships is straightforward: you can drag-and-drop fleets to guide invasions, and manage ship members using the control key. Damage incurred during a battle carries over and must be fixed at a repair yard, unless you like losing very large, very expensive ships. Battles remain the same as before, although with a couple of new features. First, you can have the AI adjust the engagement ranges (based on the weaponry) automatically for each ship; this makes setup much faster, and since you’ll be doing a number of battles during each turn, the reduced micromanagement is welcome. You can also order all ships to retreat; those ships left behind after the countdown timer reaches zero are lost to the enemy. Conversely, you can capture enemy ships that surrender once victory is assured, incorporate them into your fleet, or scrap them for better models.

The limited nature of Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest’s campaign mode makes this expansion only hold mild interest. There is very light strategy involved: your only decision is which planet to attack next, and since every planet cannot be improved upon, your choice is driven by which resource (money, crew, ship repairs) is needed most. You do have to field a balance of ships in each fleet capable of engaging a wide range of threats, though, as there is no advance knowledge of the alien vessels you will encounter. In fact, the enemy fleets are downloaded automatically from other players, taking the challenge mode from the original game a step further. There are other automation features as well: since you’ll be playing out a bunch of battles each turn, you can choose to have the AI place and set appropriate engagement ranges automatically to cut down on micromanagement before each conflict. Replay value is low: the universe is the same each time you play, with the same planets with the same improvements (that can’t be changed) in the same place. In addition, the AI will only attack planets you’ve taken: planets with high threat levels are the only targets, and they are easy to combat with garrisoned fleets. The low price tag ($7) makes it so that you can’t expect to expect that much out of Galactic Conquest, so the resulting bare-bones campaign shouldn’t surprise. The campaign adds a minor amount of purpose to the conflicts of Gratuitous Space Battles, but it’s ultimately not that interesting, especially when compared against the detailed planning required for the automated battles.