Gratuitous Space Battles: The Outcasts Review
It's been a couple of years since I last played Positech Games' unique indie tactical game, Gratuitous Space Battles, and in that time, the one-man dev team made up of the UK's Cliff Harris has added a new campaign mode where players jump fleets around a starmap, collecting resources and slowly taking over every planet on the map. He's also been adding new playable races to the game, and this downloadable content now makes the entirety of the DLC much more expensive, when bought separately, than the base game (although there is a "complete pack" that brings the cost way down). The latest of this DLC, The Outcasts, adds a tenth race to the game along with a full array of ships and a few new weapon and utility modules that make the Outcasts a bit interesting once you figure out how to take advantage of these gizmos.
Now's probably a good time to talk about what makes GSB unique: you don't actually play the game during battles. Instead, your strategy is executed in the setup as you custom-build ships by selecting a hull and then placing weapons, shield generators, engines, power plants, crew modules, and various offensive and defensive gadgets into the ship's slots. There are the tiny fighters, the mid-size frigates, and the large cruisers, and it's up to you to decide how you want to spend your money and crew allocation for any particular battle. Do you invest in fast, expensive fighters to go after the enemy support craft? Put some cheap, beefy frigates up front to soak up enemy fire? Place powerful cruisers in the back to fling long-range weapons? This is what makes the game interesting, but the twist is that once you place your ships on the left side of the battlefield, you get zero control of your ships when the battle begins. There are some basic profiles and orders you can set for each of your ships, pre-commanding them to stick in formations, retreat when damaged, or charge forward to target specific ship types. These orders can be stacked so that priorities are set, but the most terrifying thing about GSB is that once you've set everything up and pressed that button to begin the battle, all you can do is watch in abject horror as your beautiful feet gets decimated - or wrecks the entire enemy host. DLC or not, this makes GSB a brilliant game that is still fun to this day, especially since no one has come up with anything better in the same style.
This article is going to turn into as much of a review of this Outcasts DLC as it is a re-review of a game that's changed pretty drastically since I last played it, because for me and what I imagine are a lot of other people, it's been a while and a lot has changed. GSB's campaign mode, which is sold as a separate DLC pack, is ambitious-yet-flawed venture that makes players feel a little less in control than it probably should. Enemy movements cannot really be predicted and both defenders and attackers at planets are randomly sourced from uploaded builds from players, so the player cannot prepare for a specific battle. Instead, he must generalize and create a well-rounded fleet able to withstand any assault, and frankly, that's just not really what endeared GSB to me to begin with. It was almost a puzzle game back in the days of offline battles and online challenges, as you took on a linear set of stages with a fixed fleet on the other side of the screen. You had a limited budget and were tasked with outfitting your ships to defend and attack correctly, and only after multiple attempts and being forced to adjust your ship builds would you start to succeed.
In the campaign mode, much of that gets thrown out the window as you're forced to try and create a fleet that can deal with any situation, and the limitations that some planets impose - like no fighters, or no cruisers, or your shields don't work - make it a hassle to manage a winning fleet when taking or defending some planets. What you wind up getting is the unfairness and random feel of a Roguelike, and new players will lose repeatedly while trying to figure out how to expand. Fleet movements are painfully slow in that they can only make one jump per turn, so don't expect to bolster your fleet with new reinforcements anytime soon. In short, I feel like a campaign mode that enables players to do 4X turn-based space strategy without compromising the nature of GSB's uniqueness could have been accomplished, but Positech just didn't quite nail it. (Admittedly, the original offline battle and online-enabled challenge modes are still there, so it's not like anything was taken away with the addition of the campaign.)
So, how about those Outcasts - you know, the thing I was supposed to be reviewing in the first place? Well, this new race isn't exactly game-changing, and if you've already got the base game's four races plus at least some of the DLC, you might be hard-pressed to find your $6 purchase justified, especially if you spent less on the base game when it was on sale. The ships fit into the universe well enough, even if they don't bestow any particularly earth-shattering abilities, and at this point, I see this as just a good way for long-time fans of the base game to continue supporting Cliff Harris and his rather impressive crusade to keep one-man game development teams relevant and important here in 2013.
But if you're on the fence and need a review to decide, then I can't really recommend you bother just for the sake of the new race. At this point, your time and money might be better spent supporting Positech on other releases or just being an evangelist for the games and having fun in the little modding and challenge-driven community that's sprung up around GSB - which is admittedly still an excellent and worthy game for any armchair strategist. As the Outcasts go, however, you're not really missing much if you just leave them behind.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a copy provided by the developer.