Way too much attention goes to top tier titles these days. I’m as excited as anyone about the latest hotness from BioWare or Bethesda, but there really are times when I’m really not ready to sit down and go through a major quest or engage in a stressful first person shooting match in the latest Battlefield or Call of Duty game.
That’s when I reach for something a bit more casual, and that usually means lesser titles, the stuff you don’t see advertised online, much less in TV commercials. So-called “casual games” are pretty light for a hardcore gamer like me, but some publishers, like GamersGate, have a wide range of titles that, while not top-of-the-line, are still good, and not what is usually called a casual game.
Gratuitous Space Battles caught my eye, as the name alone sums it up. Naturally, when not buying a top title, one has to worry about support, and I saw that GSB has many updates and expansions, including campaigns. An obscure title with this much support must have some sort of fan following, and that means there’s probably a good game in there.
One download later, GSB was on my computer, and I was ready to give it a whirl. A fast tutorial sums up the rudimentary aspects of the game: you put together a space fleet using available ships and technology, slap them down on a 2D map in a formation, press ‘fight’ and sit back and watch the epic space battle.
That’s it. Gratuitous space battles it says; gratuitous space battles it does. There’s no back story for why there’s fighting, except perhaps the title of the scenario, like “Defending Sirius” or “Gravity Well.” This game plays like those old electric football games I played as a kid, where you set up the little men, and once you turn on the electricity, there’s nothing to do but watch how things play out.
Naturally, games have come a long way since I was a child, and GSB has more to offer than simple fights. Initially, all you can do is pick what ships you want to use and arrange them in a formation, but things change fast. There are several types of “currency” in the game. First are building points available for the match, which determine how many ships you can have; added to this are number of pilots available, which restricts the number of fighters you can use. Finally, there are honor points, the accumulation of which is the true key to success in the game.
As you win battles, you get honor; the amount awarded is determined by how many building points you use to win; winning with a smaller fleet will net you more points. You can replay scenarios to gain honor, but you’ll need to either use fewer points or play at a higher difficulty level. Simply trying to figure out a winning tactic with the absolute minimum number of ships is practically a game unto itself. There are no “levels of victory”; it’s win, or lose, so winning with just one tiny fighter counts as much as winning without a single friendly ship being destroyed.
Honor is primarily spent on technological upgrades, and this is where the game gets interesting, as you can build and design your own ships. Typically, you can spend honor to buy better weapons and armor for your ships. These vary from the standard “bigger laser” and “larger missile” to the more interesting EMP weapons that paralyze ships and carrier bays that let you turn your ships into carriers. Other technological innovations merely give you a choice, trading speed for armor or available energy, for example. You can also spend honor on purchasing new ship hulls, allowing you to use more maneuverable or powerful ships, among other options. There are dozens of options available, leading to a like amount of viable ship designs for each class.
Finally, you can spend honor to pick a different race. You begin as the Federation, a generic human race (and I’m only guessing at human), but for a great expenditure of honor you can use ships from a different race – again, the races are very generic and of minimal background, as the game is entirely about gratuitous space battles.
"…it becomes very clear that the outcome of the battle is a direct consequence of your orders."
Back to the battles – there’s actually more to do than set up ships in a formation. You can give each ship (or ship class) individual orders, telling them to try to engage particular enemy ships/classes, to avoid getting destroyed (important if you have a carrier, as this lets your fighters return for repairs), to target vulnerable ships, or to close to within a certain range, to give some examples. In short, there’s a fairly sophisticated command system, and while you can’t influence what happens after you click on “fight,” it becomes very clear that the outcome of the battle is a direct consequence of your orders. As Sun Tzu might say, “the outcome of any battle is decided before the first sword is drawn.”
But wait; there’s more. Many battles are fought on “space terrain,” spatial anomalies that prevent fighters or shields from operating. This means that you’ll quite often design special purpose ships: ship design won’t always be about just putting the biggest laser you can on the ship. Ship design is basically modular: you just pop off what you don’t want, pop on what you do want, and you’re pretty much set. There are limitations as far as weapons and armor, but, in keeping with the overall design of the game, it’s simple stuff. Similarly, particular enemy fleets might use specialized weapons (for example, weapons that ignore shields), so you might well redesign your ships after a humiliating loss to not be so vulnerable to a particular tactic.
Online play lets you pit your best navy against an actual human opponent, although I don’t see the appeal myself. The whole point of the game is something simple, quick, interesting, and fun, and GSB delivers on all fronts. The graphics are bright but solid, modeling battle damage as the ships take a pounding. The music is forgettable but epic enough, I suppose, and the combat sounds likewise are serviceable.
Much like Minesweeper, GSB is a great game despite its relative simplicity and somewhat repetitious play, and it’ll stay on my hard drive for the occasional game long after I’ve deleted Rift, Oblivion, or a host of other games commanding a much higher price.