Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review: Gratuitous Space Battles

I don’t normally review games because I don’t play published games enough to review them.  This puzzle-like video game is an exception.

You’re in charge of fleet creation for a species, fighting various scenarios with various opponents.  You can give general orders to ships or groups of ships in the actual battle, but you don’t control individual units.  It’s somewhere in the range of tower defense, or of the old video game Majesty.  You give the orders, you watch the battle.  If you win, you score honor points for the money you didn’t spend on the fleet, and those points help you buy new technology (new modules and hulls for your ship designs) and ultimately new races to use.

So your primary activity is designing ships.  There are three kinds of hulls of increasingly larger size, fighters, frigates, and cruisers.  (This confused me a little as cruisers have always been middle sized ships in water navies, but here they’re the largest ships.  I’d hae called them fighters, cruisers, and dreadnoughts.)  Each type has slots or pigeonholes for weapons modules and for other modules such as armor, engines, and crew accommodation.  There are variations in the size, module capacity, and the bonuses of each hull such as a bonus to speed or to power production.  The other modules can go into weapons slots, which seems to happen a lot, but the weapons cannot go into the “other” slots.   Weapons include various missiles, rays, and science fiction fare such as tractor rays and EMP generators (and defenses).

So you assign, by drag-and-drop, modules to go into the slots on the ship that you’re designing.  As you do so the game calculates whether you have enough crew space and enough power for the modules you have selected, and it calculates the speed of the ship which is important not only for maneuver but because faster ships are harder to hit.  Each module has a weight, a structural strength that can add to the hit points of the ship, and an energy cost.

The $20 game comes with several scenarios, and for five dollars more ordered at the same time you can get additional scenarios and species.  There is also a “campaign game” that I have not purchased. 

Each scenario specifies the opposing forces in three difficulty levels and the amount of money you can spend for ships and the number of pilots available.  The latter evidently was added because players found that they could buy vast numbers of cheap fighters and beat almost anything.  The scenario may also specify unusual circumstances such as gas clouds that slow down ships or even prevent the use of certain kinds of weapons.  There is never any terrain per se.  The opposing force may consist of imperials, rebels, or other species, each with a different style and different kinds of ships. 

Once you have designed your ships you go to a scenario and drag-and-drop a fleet onto the screen, up to the total value specified by the scenario.  You can place them on your third of the map, which is divided vertically, while the enemy is on the far third of the map.  You can see enemy ships (all hulls have distinctive silhouettes) but you never know how they are armed or protected or powered, and at the hardest difficulty level you don’t see them at all until the battle starts.  You can give general orders to your ships, such as to be cautious or to concentrate fire on damaged opponents.  You can also assign ships as escorts or assign ships to formations. 

Finally you turn it all loose and watch the battle.  I’ve seen someone compare this game to the tower defense genre because you develop and select your forces but then have no control over what they do.  That is, you cannot direct a particular unit, you can only watch them as they follow their orders (and sometimes curse them for being stupid!).  As a person who has bad wrists (repetitive motion syndrome) and bad hands (arthritis) I’m perfectly happy to play a video game that doesn’t require me to move quickly and control individual units.  But many video gamers play primarily because they want to control what’s going on, and they may not be happy with GSB.

The combat has lovely graphics and sound (even though we know there is no sound in outer space).  You see the individual missiles or rays flying across the screen in two dimensions, not three.  Ships can go “over” or “under” other ships but essentially it is a 2-D display, and movement of most ships is fairly slow. You can slow the view way down or speed up to four times normal speed, and you can zoom in so that one cruiser just about fills your screen.  (I’m playing on 1600 x 1080 with an I7 quad core machine, 9 GB of RAM, and 2 GB of RAM on a middling video card; the game has only crashed a couple of times even though I’m running a lot of other things at the same time.)  There’s a mini map in the lower left corner to help you keep track of what’s going on because you can zoom far enough out to see everything at once when there are dozens of ships blasting away.  Although the fighters are just dots at the normal resolution you can zoom in during the fight and see them shaped individually and even see the smoke trails when they’re hit.  I haven’t played enough recent video space wargames to compare this to but it certainly looks and sounds good to me and there is lots of detail in the ships, the weapons, and the damage.

You can see the individual modules in one ship - see the rays recharging, the missiles preparing the next missile, reductions in armor and shield and efforts of modules to repair those defenses.  But you can’t change anything during the battle.

Without the right orders, things won’t go your way.  For example putting fighters in formation with larger ships is a bad idea, use them to escort a large ship within a radius so that they’ll go on the attack to protect the larger ships. 

It doesn’t matter how much you win by as long as you win.  If you can see that things aren’t going to work you can stop the fight.  Occasionally the computer will stop the fight a while before the last ship of one side has been lost although you can still let it go on and watch on a more constrained basis.  Successfully beating a scenario unlocks the next scenario.

The way to acquire some of the many additional ship modules available is to use “honor” gained by successful battle.  Your honor acquisition is the amount of ship credits that you did not spend for your fleet.  And this can be measured at each level, normal, hard, and expert.  Once you get better ship modules you may go back with your newer designs and try some of the older scenarios to gain additional honor.

You begin as the Federation but as you play you can acquire hulls for the other factions and ultimately build fleets for the other factions, though you cannot mix factions.

The game becomes a puzzle, as you try to design more efficient ships using more advanced modules and find ways to use smaller fleets to defeat particular scenarios at particular difficulty levels.  If you’re like me you try things like having ships that are almost all offense, putting them in formations so that they’re somewhat farther away from the enemy and less likely to be shot at.  Judging from the additional constraints mentioned in some scenarios there are players who don’t even give engines to some of their ships, more or less setting up “orbital forts.“

I rarely use frigates as they seem too fragile in relation to their costs but other players may have found ways to prosper with them.

There is an online segment of the game where you can devise scenarios to challenge other players or you can play scenarios devised by other players.  I’ve gone online but I’ve not tried the challenge system.

 It’s an animated military puzzle, with the virtue that old guys with arthritic hands and repetitive motion syndrome, like me, can play it just as well as the young twitchers.  Like any puzzle this game wears out its welcome once you solve the puzzle reasonably well.

I have enough programming experience to be a little in awe of what one man, Cliff Harris, has been able to do with this game.  His latest game is Gratuitous Tank Battles, which I’ve not tried.

Interview with Cliff Harris: