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Gratuitous Space Battles Review

By Jeff Buckland, 11/17/2009

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The promotional text I've seen for Gratuitous Space Battles makes this independent space strategy game sound like it's got no depth: it "aims to bring over-the-top explodiness", makes fun of diplomacy and resource collection, and shamelessly boasts having no backstory. And while all of these things are true, it also brings in a new element of strategy to space battles that only players of games like the MMORPG Eve Online understand: building a ship correctly is just as important as what orders you give it.

GSB gives you a budget and lets you custom-build a fleet of ships for any given battle. You'll choose between groups of tiny fighters that can be customized a bit, decent-size frigates with a wide range of options to pick from, and the large cruisers that can be outfitted with a massive array of both weapons and other gadgets that will keep your ships alive against the onslaught.

Once you have built your ships, you'll then get to place them in a starting grid on the left side of the battlefield. You'll get to choose how many of each you want, minding the limit in total cost as well as the maximum number of pilots that can be on the field. You can have as many unique designs as you have ships on the field - dozens if you like - and will sometimes need at least four or five specific designs or specialties if you want to survive some of the fights in GSB.

During this deployment phase, you'll have AI-based directives you can give to single ships or whole groups of them: protect this ship, retreat when taking damage, focus fire, gang up on enemy ships that are about to explode. You can stack these together, too, and you'll need to if you want to win the tougher fights, because GSB doesn't have the usual strategy game combat system. Here, AI controls all, and you don't interact at all once the lasers start flying - all you can do is sit back, hope your planning phase went well, and watch things go boom.

Setup is key. If you've balanced your power and crew requirements with the right kinds of weaponry that works at the right ranges and gets through the enemy's defenses, well, the results are glorious. GSB is technically a 3D game, but it all plays out in 2D with sprites representing the ships. It'd have to, as well, as the system requirements would be ridiculously high if each of the game's dozens of ships shown in battle at once were modeled in full 3D. Still, this is by no means an unattractive game, and the special effects and solid sound and music help to keep the game looking great and feeling modern. The only downside to it that I see, and this is a small one, is that the game requires a minimum 1024x768 resolution - that leaves most netbooks unable to play GSB. It's a shame because most netbooks struggle with system requirements for many games, and they otherwise would be able to play this just fine.

The campaign consists of a series of missions that you can play on three difficulties. There's also a Survival mode where the enemy ships never stop coming and you simply fight and rack up points (for comparison on the online leaderboard, if you like) until the endless onslaught kills you, and finally, there are the user-created Challenges. These battles have been set up by other players and allow you to pit your best deployment against theirs, and there's a good range of difficulty here along with plenty of challenges to puzzle through. I say puzzle because some of them will seem impossible until you watch the battle, see what gear the enemy is using, and figure out the right budget and loadout for each of your frigates, fighters, and cruisers - but when you do get it right, the feeling is pretty much the same as when you solve a really tough puzzle.

To progress, you'll gain honor for each campaign win, and you'll gain extra honor by succeeding with a fleet that's well under the maximum budget. You'll then be able to use honor to unlock new parts for your ships, new ship hulls, and three of the game's four races. All in all it shouldn't take you too long to unlock everything if you can figure out how to get 10,000 or more honor for each campaign win, and the gear unlocked isn't always better than what you started with, but it does allow you to better tweak your budgets and build a ship that's pushing its power and crew requirements to the edge without going over.

With dozens of ship hulls to configure a large array of shields, armor plates, missiles, rockets, beam weapons, and lasers, you'll almost certainly find a lot of depth here. You can go for a defensive setup with front-line ships going heavy on the shields and counter-missile hardware while the glass cannons pound on the enemy in the back. You can choose to have no engines at all and let the enemy come to you while you pound them with long-range weaponry. You can even try to swarm upon the enemy with just fighters and bombers, and it even works in the campaign on a few missions.

Gratuitous Space Battles isn't for everyone, as its brand of strategy is entirely weighted towards the setup phase - and the execution is almost completely hands-off. Still, the prospect of building your own ships and using your own unique combinations of general strategies and offensive and defensive loadouts is very compelling for anyone who is a sci-fi space battle enthusiast. The current $22.99 price tag may seem a tad steep for an independent game and the focus on strategy and setup rather than twitch action may appeal to only the most nerdy of space battle fans, but if you're even remotely interested, then the demo is definitely worth at least a try. If you decide it's for you, the game's available at the creator's site, Impulse, or Steam.

Overall: 85%



11/21/2009 08:21:34 PM
Posted by Brian
You had me at "gratuitous".

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