Monday, 3 October 2011

Gratuitous Space Battles (PC Video Game Review)

This game is a joke. To say otherwise would be lying and it’s something the creators of Gratuitous Space Battles were fully aware of while making it. And to be honest, it’s exactly what an indie space strategy game needs to stand out amongst the classics like Homeworld or big names like Sins of a Solar Empire.

The game’s story is basically an excuse to have big battles and there’s very little serious fluff. What there is of any story is based purely around the affectionate parodies which make up the game. Every playable faction is an exaggerated stereotype or caricature of factions in some of the big name franchises.
The Rebels are, unsurprisingly, a rebellion, but one which has gone on for so long that they have become so devoted to fighting forever despite being against violence. Resulting in some great lines like this: Excellent. By blasting our enemies to atomic ribbons, we have truly proven to them that we shall not engage in their bloodthirsty wars.
The Empire is an oppressive dictatorship which has ruled for ten thousand years by an Emperor who is noted to be “under the weather”. Any person who has read the opening description of any Black Library book can tell this is a parody of Warhammer 40,000’s Imperium of Man.
There are seven other factions besides these, each more ludicrous and self parodying than the last.

The humour and themes of each faction is what makes the game stand out in terms of its feeling, but they are just dressings to the meat of Gratuitous Space Battles: the gameplay. Rather than controlling your fleet directly you give each ship preprogrammed orders as you deploy them. You can tell fighters to primarily target other small ships, frigates to engage cruisers, what range they should engage at and other general orders.
You don’t so much play your fleet so much as set them up, give them directions and let them rip into the enemy. It’s something people might find hard to get used to, but it allows you to definitely appreciate both sides beating the snot a lot more than if you were frantically micromanaging everything.

A great deal of effort has been put into the graphical quality of the engagements. The backdrops of planets and stars look beautiful. They seriously help to give a sense of scale and make you feel like you’re watching a huge engagement between two warring fleets like the stuff seen in Babylon 5 and Return of the Jedi.
As your cruisers move into range and start pounding the enemy into hell with plasma cannons, every bolt and shot is rendered and you can clearly see their effect on the opponent’s ships.
Their shields will flicker and the sections you hit of their armour will visibly start to burn and break away leaving molten chunks of steel and exposed decks open to the vacuum of space. When you crush them, ripping through their last pitiful defenses and break their ship’s back, their burning wreck will remain hanging in space as a testament to your victory over them. AND THEY SHALL KNOW THAT OPPOSING YOU IS FUTILE AND THEY SHALL SOON MEET THEIR DEATHS! EXTERMINATE! EX-TERM-INATE!

… Ahem.

The point is you genuinely feel each victory and loss keenly as each ship is stripped down and taken to bits. And you can feel like a gloriously evil prick while doing it, especially when you’re watching escape pods from enemy ships streaking away from breaking up derelicts.
What really helps with the battles is that each fleet has a unique style and colour for each fleet. Typical, yes, but each one is typically fitting of the parodies each faction is supposed to be. For example the Rebels have very rugged but solid looking ships which is fitting of them but resemble evil factions of some well known franchises, similarly a lot of Empire ships look like demonic Deep Space Nines and the Federation have very sci-fi B-50s looking fleets.

The only real disappointment of the combat is its dimensions. The whole thing is displayed as a flat, 2D battle and lacks the ability to dive over and under other vessels like in other space RTSs. This is a cost cutting measure be expected from an indie game, and it does allow for some great graphical displays during battles, but it’s definitely the biggest shortcoming of the gameplay. Thankfully other aspects make up for this.

One of the biggest parts of Gratuitous Space Battles is customising and building ships. Selecting a specific hull you select slots to add on weapons, systems, engines  and other aspects. At the same time you have to balance out how many people it will take to run it, how much power it’s going to use and how much its going to cost to make.
You might be able to build a leviathan of a battleship carrying a full compliment of plasma cannons and full armour, but it’s going to be of no use if it costs so much it has no support.
The more battles you win the more upgrades, hulls and items become available to buy meaning there’s a great deal of customization to be had in building a fleet.

The only downside of this is that there’s an easy way to create fairly reliable ship types.
Through some quick trial and error I was able to create very cheap to build frigates armed with medium armour and ion cannons (fast firing very weak guns) which could rip through almost anything. Fighter swarms, other frigates, cruisers, everything died due to the massed firepower they could dish out. The only times they needed other ships was for a cruiser to be present to bring down the shields they couldn’t shoot through.

If there is any aspect to be criticized in the game it is definitely the score. The soundtrack does a good job at initially evoking a very militaristic feel, but there are only three or four themes in total and only one for the actual battles. It seriously gets irritating over time, but it’s a minor gripe as you can obviously just switch it off.

At the end of the day Gratuitous Space Battles is fun. It’s trying to do something different, it’s well made and it stands out from the competition. It lacks the great background lore found in other stuff of its genre and 3D battles, but you’ll get your money’s worth with this one and you’ll keep coming back to play it. It’s like the Alpha Centauri of space RTS games, basic, fairly simple but having more than enough aspects to make you keep coming back to play more.

The game and its DLC can be bought here and there’s a brief demo allowing people to test out most of the game’s functions. I’d suggest at least getting the demo and playing about with it a bit if this review has made any part of Gratuitous Space Battles sound interesting.

Gratuitous Space Battles and all related characters and media are owned by Positech Games.

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