Friday, July 13, 2012

Gratuitous Tank Battles Review

Gratuitous Tank Battles, developed and published by Positech Games.
The Good: Tower defense plus attacking, flexible map and unit editor with online sharing, chaotic battles
The Not So Good: Insufficient interface with poor information regarding weapon use and strategy, unnecessarily lengthy missions with elongated stalemates, high difficulty, few campaign missions
What say you? Offense is added to a tower defense game with very inadequate feedback: 4/8

NOTE: I am dumb. Holding shift can box-select units and you can filter out units using a division tool; both of these are mentioned in the manual and I simply missed them. I apologize to any gratuitous tanks I may have offended.

Trench warfare during World War I caused both sides to sit and wait. Infantry charges were too costly because both sides lacked the tactics and the technology to counteract the powerful machine gun. It wasn't until tanks entered the battlefield that the stalemate was broken and a victor was determined. Imagine, if you will, a Great War that never ended, and now in the future mechs and lasers have been added to break the centuries' old conflict. Gratuitous Tank Battles is a tower defense game where you place defensive turrets or queue up tanks and infantry to fight those emplacements. We know there will be tank battles, but shall they be gratuitous?

Not surprisingly, Gratuitous Tank Battles features graphics similar in style to Gratuitous Space Battles, Positech’s previous offering. The game is in 2-D, with detailed unit sprites that show damage (though not as dramatically as a 3-D version would) and look nice, though a bit static, when zoomed in. The unit animations are a bit lacking and very basic, but the amount of weapon effects, with shields, bullets, and lasers flying across the screen, cover up the shortcomings here. Explosions could have been more violent, instead of units degenerating into a simple black heap. The maps are varied in appearance, with different biomes and time of day effects giving a distinctive feel. While some won’t care for the visual approach of the game, I didn’t find any major faults with it. The sound design is underwhelming. There are plenty of chaotic battle effects when units are being shot, but Gratuitous Tank Battles lacks campy voice work and memorable music to accompany your violent escapades.

Gratuitous Tank Battles starts with the campaign, a series of twelve missions where you can act on offense or defense: the attacker must funnel a set amount of units towards one of the map exits, while it is the defender’s job to stop them. The game features several difficulty levels, but I found all of them to be quite challenging. Most maps feature multiple paths to the exits, which allows the attacker to vary their tactics while the defender must guard all possible roads. Since only twelve missions are not enough, Gratuitous Tank Battles thankfully includes online challenges, where you can upload your best efforts for others to compete against (there are currently over three hundred challenges to try). Not only can you upload results from the campaign missions, you can also challenge others to custom map layouts designed using the included editor. The map editor is easy to use, allowing the designer to specify available paths, deployment locations, and eye candy to make each locale appear more war torn. Even better is the robust unit editor, which allows you to easily create offensive units and defensive turrets. Choose a chassis (tank, mech, turret), components (armor or shields, a weapon, an engine, and targeting assistance), and augmentations (increasing the rate of fire or damage against armor, for example) and off you go. The unit cost, speed, weight, and other ratings are automatically calculated and placed into the game. Additional components are unlocked with experience, and I felt things unlocked quickly enough to not feel restrictive. The unit and map editor should drastically increase the life of the product, as any ability to include community-made content is positive.

There is a rock-paper-scissors system to the game of Gratuitous Tank Battles, but the proper counters are buried by the woeful interface. In essence, lasers destroy armor and bullets (from cannons and guns) destroy shields (plus flamethrowers for infantry units), so it’s a matter of placing the right turret or sending the right units. The problem is that the game never explicitly says this (it’s concealed within the unit editor), and certainly not while you are playing a battle. The vague unit descriptions aren’t enough to quickly determine on the fly which units are best, and the weapon tool-tips display the name only, rather than pertinent stats. You can’t even see any information about enemy units (just the name might offer a clue), so you can be at a total loss while your units die again and again. I would like to see improvements in several areas. First off, units need better and automated descriptions based on their weaponry (like “good against shields”). Secondly, weapon icons are really terrible and indistinct: I cannot tell the difference between a laser and a cannon when I mouse over different units. Solid color-coded backgrounds (say, red for both bullets and armor) would aid in selecting the right units for the right job. Lastly, a filtered list of units (displaying only turrets or tanks with lasers and shields, for example) would make placing things a lot easier. The functionality of the interface in Gratuitous Tank Battles is basic at best and gets in the way of efficiently playing the game at worst.

Gratuitous Tank Battles gives you a quantity of supplies that regenerate over time (until a time limit is reached) to purchase new units. There are only a handful of areas that new units on both offense and defense can be placed, so there is definitely some strategy in using the prime real estate for your best units. You are limited in having a certain number of units of each class (only four heavy tanks, for example), ostensibly for balancing but I never really saw a need for that particular restriction. While units will automatically march to the other side of the map and engage nearby units, you can specify particular targets and explicit paths to follow. In yet another interface shortcoming, orders can only be issued to one unit at a time, instead of being able to box-select several units of interest; this makes for added tedium, especially when many units need your immediate attention. I felt that games in Gratuitous Tank Battles last about twice as long as they need to: the high number of dead units on both sides in the beginning and middle of a game serve no purpose, since you can’t explicitly see what attributes the enemy units have anyway and they will be dead before the end of the match is reached. While you can accelerate time, games are still too long: I always had to significantly accelerate time in every match to cut down on the boredom as I watched my units helplessly get slaughtered one after another. Gratuitous Tank Battles is a difficult game, thanks in large part to the obstructive interface. Your AI opponent can follow pre-scripted placements or dynamically adjust to your units, and it does both of these things well. Still, Gratuitous Tank Battles can be very frustrating to play, since you can have absolutely no idea how to improve your tactics thanks to the absence of useful information.

The lack of meaningful feedback (with all-too-brief tooltips) and a slow pace (even with accelerated time) hurt Gratuitous Tank Battles. It's really hard to figure out exactly why your units are dying; there is a system in place (bullets penetrate shields while lasers destroy armor) but the game tries to make this information impossible to find. Placing units and turrets in the heat of battle is not the time to hide pertinent data from users, but Gratuitous Tank Battles succeeds in this dubious goal. Color-coded unit icons and a filtered list of units would work wonders in making the game more accessible. The games also last a bit too long for my tastes, and considering all of the customization options Gratuitous Tank Battles provides, I'm surprised game length isn't more flexible: I'd really like to tighten up the action and have less units and faster matches. Despite the very short length of the campaign, there is a map and unit editor that has spawned several hundred user challenges, giving the game life beyond the initial battles. Creating this content is straightforward and fun; I just wish the actual gameplay caught up with this level of accessibility. Ultimately, the lack of tactile feedback will relegate Gratuitous Tank Battles to cult status, an “also ran” in the ever-expanding world of tower defense games.