GSB is a strategy/management/simulation game that does away with all the base building and delays and gets straight to the meat and potatoes of science-fiction games: The big space battles fought by huge spaceships with tons of laser beams and things going ‘zap!’, ‘ka-boom!’ and ‘ka-pow!’. In GSB you put your ships together from modular components, arrange them into fleets, give your ships orders of engagement and then hope they emerge victorious from battle (or at least blow to bits in aesthetically pleasing ways).
What We Think:
Strip away the Force, the trade routes, and the convoluted plot points, and you get down to best part about running into the wrong guys in a dark, galactic alley: epic space battles. Gratuitous Space Battles gives you a budget and a handful of ship classes. The rest is up to you.
To be completely honest, my initial GSB experience was vexing to say the least. Sure, the ship designs were inspired, and the music set the Star-Trek-Wars-Midichlorian mood that the genre required, but upon sitting down and starting my first campaign, I was caught off-guard by the seemingly basic mechanics. It was simple enough: place your ships, divide up the resources allotted for the skirmish, and then launch into battle.
And that was it. This was not an RTS like Sins of a Solar Empire, nor was it turn-based or even truly a simulation like Sword of the Stars – it was just: set up, launch, sit back and watch in futility as my battalion was atomized in slow motion. I tried, in vain to affect something, but all I managed was to move my map left or right or zoom in and out.
So I called up my IGR buddy, The Indie Game Freak, to test out the online “multiplayer” experience – surely here the game would finally cough up its promise.
After some frustrated attempts to get into the same “Challenge”, we figured out the system required that one player set up the field parameters, basic fleet requirements and even ship deployment and then issue a challenge to the other player by virtue of their handle, and then the opposing player accepted the challenge, assembled a fleet within the challenge parameters and deployed their fleet in contest.
At this point we expected some good old-fashioned one-on-one combat where, like a turn-based strategy, we might see our follies, redirect or accommodate our missteps, and duel to the death. In fact, what we discovered is more like a tower-defense game for two where each side sets up what they intuit will cover the counter-deployment of their adversary and then sit back and watch the fireworks, except that in this tower-defense game, purchasing and adding units after the wave deploys is not an option.
Black Hole Sun Tzu
Additionally, we learned quickly that the online features of the game are not exactly what the average gamer has come to expect (note that misdirected “expectation” is a recurring theme here). Once we managed to get on the same page, we both launched our attacks. With his faster processor, Freak declared victory on his end while the battle continued to loop and swirl on my screen. Thinking we were still in a real-time head-to-head contest, I chalked up the delay to network lag, and watched for my imminent demise. To my shock, I also won the battle. Though we were both engaged in the same challenge, it had played out in two completely different ways. So what was going on here?
Turns out the game really does want to be a single-player game. The online challenges are more about establishing limits, amassing the best force you can based on those limits, and opening it up to see who can take down your tweaked mega fleet. The so-called multi-player mode is really more of an addendum wherein your buddy is doing little more than customizing the enemy, and thus it plays out like a play-by-email game with the convenience of not having to search through your contact list. To be fair, the developer’s site points out as much.
Space Lord Mutha Mutha
Had I packed it in at that point, I would have missed out on a game that rewards players who are patient enough to really drill down into the deep customization options and hammer out a decent strategy. Picking the right units is only a small part of it. Now where would you like to position them? Will you lead in with the fighters, or hold them behind the frigates? You’ll need to set priorities for types targets using the sliders to determine what to hit first.
Despite the fact that a battle can encompass hundreds of ships, every one of those ships can be assigned tactical AI behaviors that in themselves offer a multitude options, which, when taken as a multiplication of defensive, repair, flanking, retreat or targeting tactics allows a seemingly infinite set of combinations.
If the thought of watching a battle unfold seems like a big waste of time, GSB has you covered. Just move your view to wherever the action is. Now watch as each individual ship lets loose its diverse payload of weaponry. The visuals erupt with a plethora of explosions, missiles, and laser blasts all criss-crossing as they lumber or speed towards their intended targets. Each and every hit is registered and can be reviewed at the end of the challenge. Considering the oftentimes huge number of ships onscreen, that’s an impressive feat.
Thoroughly space-curb-stomp your adversary while minimizing friendly casualties and you’ll be rewarded with Honor points. These can be traded in for ship upgrades, hulls, and playable races. There is a wealth of options to select from, and any ship you modify can be deployed in your next mission. Finding the right mix of speed, power and maneuverability is going to take a lot of work, and just when you’ve tweaked your fleet to the point of perfection, a space anomaly resident in the next challenge will nullify the effectiveness of your boosts. The best boosts and ships don’t come cheap (unless you are playing The Swarm – see below), and battle provides your only currency.
With three expansion packs that include The Tribe, The Order and The Swarm, GSB adds even more variation and complexity. New alien races with their own strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities not only spice up but vastly expand strategic considerations. Interestingly enough, honor points must be earned and spent before being able to actually “unlock” these expansion ship types.
The Tribe introduces 11 new ships, the kinetic weapon type and enhanced repair modules. While their shield and armor strength are halved, their hulls are twice as tough; precisely the sort of change-up that will cause the road-weary GSB player to have to rethink everything.
The Order adds 10 additional ship styles, 4 new weapon types including the Radiation Gun that functions as a DoT, Nuclear Missiles, Firefly Rockets that offer normal cruisers an extra burst of speed and Anti-Fighter Limpet Mines that act as gum grenade style speed debuffs so that anyone can take a swing at the victim. This expansion also introduces some new ship bonuses and two new maps, but the fundamental gameplay remains otherwise identical to the original.
The Swarm is the the third and most recent expansion to the GSB universe, and once again presents ten new ship types, new ship equipment comprising disruptor beams for tearing through strong shield types, the new “nest crew” module that allows more crew in less space, and smart bombs for detonating all missiles (be they hostile or friendly) within their radius. Really these are just variations on a theme and beyond upsetting your comfort zone, do little else to modify gameplay. Living up to their namesake, Swarm fleets succeed by virtue of their low-cost, high population density tactics. They are the Zerg of the GSB battlefield. A pair of pretty new backgrounds…er…maps, round out the package.
Of course, the original game plus the three expansion packs can be purchased in the Gratuitous Space Battles Collector’s Edition for only $24.99 – an absolute no-brainer, considering the core game alone costs $19.99 and the expansion packs are $5.99 when purchased separately.
Gratuitous Final Thoughts
GSB is not a game for casual players, unless by casual you mean that Dwarf Fortress is just another simulation game – because despite a tutorial stage, comprehending the very nature of the gameplay takes quite a bit of mental adjustment. What it is, however, is a game that will feed the obsessive compulsive statistician within, affording reams of data about every component of the battle, from every shot fired and the damage it caused, to graphs and percentile charts outlining what constructs achieved what damage ratios, to even the alarmed commentary of the respective vessels crew members as they realize they are irrevocably going up in flames.
This last feature can prove rather useful, as the dialogue affords hints to what may have gone wrong. If you have the time to review this commentary, then you may find clues to improving the outcome in future conflicts.
There is no storyline or even contextual setting whatsoever, but then again, with a name like Gratuitous Space Battles, why would you expect anything like a narrative campaign? The definition of “gratuitous” is “without reason,” after all. What you will find are “scenarios”, most relevant in the single-player mode, that consist of cool-looking space-themed wallpaper, and some prefab enemy combos to blow up.
What it does, it does very well. The game offers up a decent wealth of challenges, and once those are surpassed, the ability to issue and accept challenges will keep any budding strategist occupied. Ultimately, I felt as though it could be a fuller experience with a few elements to link it all up. If you think a game needs an all-star voice cast, and mo-cap cinematic cutscenes, keep moving; this title was never meant for you. However, if you’re willing to take time with a relentless battlefield strategy title whose only real reward is the next looming ass-kicking, GSB brings the goods. You’ll have to fight for them, but they’re in there.