Beta spotlight: Gratuitous Space Battles

Author: Kevin Spiess
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Tuesday, September 1st, 2009
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/gratspacebttles/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

Probably my favorite variety of war takes place in space with giant warships, and stuff such as laser beams, torpedoes and fighter craft. You know, space-war stuff.

I don't think I'm the only fan of this kind of big-scale carnage. One of the first (of all time) computer games that used any sort of graphics was Spacewar!  -- and that was 47 years ago. Since then, spaceships and the strategy gaming genre have been a common pairing, again and again, on home computers.

Bringing us to now: it's 2009, and a guy named Cliff Harris -- a mostly one-man dev' team in the U.K -- is working on an upcoming PC indie game called Gratuitous Space Battles.  Cliff must be a big fan of space wars too.

The premise of the game is quite simple -- the title says it all. This is a game only about making battle fleets of space ships, and sending them into battle to see them annihilate, or be annihilated. 

Being in beta, it is too early for a proper review -- but let me tell you all about Gratuitous Space Battles.

This is a strategy game through-and-through. You will not win by making split-second decisions, but instead, with experimentation and planning. There is no 'easy' mode in this title; if you are looking for a fast gaming fix keep looking. Triggering anti-matter explosions, and mercilessly wrecking the game's four space-faring alien races is going to take some practice.

Gameplay is broken down into three stages. 

The first stage is designing your space ship. Right now there are three sizes of hulls: fighter, frigate or cruiser. Each ship has a certain amount of spots that can be loaded with equipment. One cruiser hull for example, might have 18 spots. As the ship designer guy, you must decide how to prepare your ship best, for the battle ahead. You have a large variety of engines, shields, weapons, generators, and all sorts of other spaceship parts to choose from. 

But this isn't a game about one ship -- it is a game about a whole fleet. Which brings us to the second stage of the game: fleet arrangement.

After choosing to take on an online fleet, or a AI controlled one in the extensive single-player campaign mode, it is up to you to decide which ship goes where, and the composition of your fleet. You have a set amount of cash -- for the first challenge, it is 20,000 credits. Each ship you designed has a price. You can see how the enemy's fleet looks -- you have to size them up and think of the best way to go about destroying them.

Want to try to take out the enemy with only fighters, and two ships you designed that only carry torpedoes? Place your ships, and then place your orders.

Which brings us to the third stage: the gratuitous space battle. You don't control your ships here. This is hands-off. You just watch the giant battle unfold. The most you can do here is click away on your ships for info, trying to figure out why the battle is going well, or why you are getting decimated. The battles look really good -- it is very impressive that all the ships (of the four game races) and all the effects were done by one man. As hardcore indie strategy games go -- and this is certainly one -- Gratuitous Space Battles looks great.

Gratuitous Space Battles is not a game that tries to please everybody. It is aimed at a particular type of gamer -- one that likes hardcore strategy. The closest relatives of this gameplay are the ship combat parts of 4x PC strategy games such as Stars!, Master of Orion 2, or Sword of the Stars. While many gamers might find things too hands-off in Gratuitous Space Battles, for the fans of true strategy titles, this game might seem like manna from gaming Valhalla.

Personally, I had a blast playing it. Though truth be told I spent most of time so far just getting used to how the game works, and figuring out the range of commands and items available to use for your ships. In my first session of play (about 1.5 hours), I was not able to get by the first game stage of the campaign. Which -- for me -- was terrific. Most games are too easy, I find. I like a game that really challenges me -- and if you do to, maybe you'll like this title. 

This isn't a game you can dive into; it'll take a commitment of time. But you'll probably enjoy it the more you play it -- not the less, like more action-orientated games.

Besides the lengthy single-player campaign, Gratuitous Space Battles also features a multi-player 'Challenge' mode. Thought you designed an indestructible fleet? The challenge mode lets you create scenarios to be shared with other players, to see if they are up to the task of taking you down a notch. Challenges can shared to all players, or sent to one player in particular.

Cliff Harris and Positech Games have been around for over 10 years now. I've enjoyed some of his earlier games -- Rock Legend and Planetary Defense were my favorites -- but this is first Positech game that I could see turning into big indie hit, reaching a wider audience. Specifically the multiplayer capability of Gratuitous has a great deal of promise: the game has a significant deal of variable gameplay and potential strategic depth. Also, matches are only a few minutes long as well, which is a refreshing and uncommon change, for a strategy game.

Gratuitous Space Battles is in beta right now. For $20 USD, you can buy the game, to be downloaded when it is done -- and in the meantime, you gain access to the DRM-free beta. For myself, the game ran fine, but your mileage may vary. It has yet to be tested on a wide range of hardware. Also, some game content has not been integrated into the beta so far. That being said, you may want to hold off on Gratuitous until it is officially released -- but if it is a game that sounds interesting to you, I certainly recommend you keep an eye on Positech's blog, and snatch this one up when it's finished.

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