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Gratuitous Space Battles (PC) artwork

Gratuitous Space Battles (PC) review


"Gratuitious Space Battles is a sort of turn-based strategy game, except itís not really turn-based as such. As in, thereís only one turn per game. On the surface, you arrange your fleet of spaceships then send them into battle against an enemy fleet. In single-player this means battling through a plotless series of individual skirmishes. Online it means downloading challenges other players have set up, and trying to defeat their submitted fleet. There's no direct contact with your opponents, except that you're given the chance to leave them a message after the fight's over."



Cliff Harris is one man. He goes by the name of Positech Games, which conjures images of many a developer slaving away together, but no. Heís definitely one person, all on his own.

Which makes his achievements impressive. Formerly a programmer at Lionhead, he left in 1997 to found his own business and make the games he wanted to play. That can sometimes go disastrously wrong. But Harris is smart, and knows thereís a market for what he produces. He is, most certainly, a man with a plan.

Gratuitious Space Battles is a sort of turn-based strategy game, except itís not really turn-based as such. As in, thereís only one turn per game. On the surface, you arrange your fleet of spaceships then send them into battle against an enemy fleet. In single-player this means battling through a plotless series of individual skirmishes. Online it means downloading challenges other players have set up, and trying to defeat their submitted fleet. There's no direct contact with your opponents, except that you're given the chance to leave them a message after the fight's over.

And so, on the surface, the game has a rather typical indie appeal. By focusing his resources on the core of the experience, Harris - as a one-man dev - has managed to refine it. Yet below that surface is something else bubbling away, and in fact, the gratuitous space battles themselves turn out not to be the core at all. GSB is all about customisation.

As you succeed in more battles, you unlock new components, which you can fit to your ships in new and interesting ways. You might get a new engine, which allows your fighters to screech through outer space faster than ever before. Or better shields to protect from enemy fire. Each ship type has several slots in which to plug these new components, all subtly affecting that buildís performance in battle.

Bring your completed ships into a fleet and youíll be able to issue specific orders before sending them to victory or a big Ďsplodey demise. A collection of sliders affect their biases - essentially, which enemy ship types would you like your guys to focus on blowing the hell up? Make final checks, ensure that everythingís in order, then click a button and watch the whole thing play out with glorious laser-based pizazz.

In other words, the vast majority of the game happens outside the bits you'd probably see in screenshots.

That feels fresh for the genre. Even in turn-based strategy, most of your tweaking usually takes place once you're ready for battle, perhaps once you've sussed out your foes and their approach a little bit. Not so here. Once you submit your turn, you are powerless to do anything other than speed up or slow down the playback time, or move the camera around the 2D engine in which these battles take place.

To begin with it's weird. But after a while it starts to make perfect sense. By the time you've hit the harder difficulties and more challenging missions, or decided to download other players' often enormously tough challenges to test yourself with, you'll have learnt to become so careful in your customisation that each of these passive eventual battles becomes a nail-biting scenario.

While the single-player gameís difficulty does ramp up, the curve is nice and smooth, and you'll succeed in your first few battles with very little trouble at all. Itís not until you start facing other human playersí fleets that you realise just how complicated constructing a successful fleet of your own can be. Regardless of the sheer number of ships at your disposal, the size of your biggest cruisers, or the speed of your tiniest fighters, victory or defeat can emerge from the smallest mistake in the build process. Itís like Football Manager in space.

Success is all in the detail, all in the setup. Once your fleet is Ďon the pitchí, so to speak, thereís nothing you can do but bark into the void. The real work comes off the field, scouring the transfer market and... well, this metaphorís getting stretched. But itís fitting. It really is the closest comparison.

Itís an equally compulsive process too, and the battles are just as tense as match day in any sports management title you'd care to mention. There's a distinct feeling of desperate helplessness to be felt: once you've sent your hand-crafted cruisers and frigates and fighters off to meet their destiny, floating around in the void while liberally exploding one another, there's really not a lot that can be done. Trust me - I tried. During one particularly epic face-off, I took to actually prodding at the screen in the hope that my fleet would start doing what I bloody well told them. I can confirm that this is a tactic which doesnít work particularly well.

The name might sound somewhat misleading. These space battles arenít gratuitous at all. Theyíre pretty, with a real sense of scale exuding from the modest engine, but they're stripped of any enormously fancy visual effects. Theyíre large-scale, and often descend into a mass of laser beams firing from all angles, but they never feel too over-the-top. And in fact, the game as a whole is decidedly ungratuitous. Itís a complex affair, but there are no extraneous elements.

But I like to think of that name as a smart pointer towards what really matters in GSB. If anything at all is expendable, itís the purely visual and non-interactive final stages. Hereís a game which acknowledges that planning is everything. Which sort of makes sense from a man with a plan as strong as Cliff Harrisí. I really like Positech. And I really like Gratuitous Space Battles.

Rating: 8/10

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (August 12, 2010)

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