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Gratuitous Space Battles Review
Ever heard of Cliff Harris? If you said yes, congratulations - you're obviously an indie gaming geek of the highest caliber. If you said no however, don't feel ashamed. Cliff Harris would be just some guy in the United Kingdom if it were not for one thing - the fact that he makes some excellent video games all by himself.
The latest of these is Gratuitous Space Battles. As the name suggests, the game is all about blowing things up in space. It may even lull you into thinking that Gratuitous Space Battles is somewhat generic, and indeed the vagueness of its title has caused it to be compared to a range of titles including Master of Orion and Freespace 2. Gratuitous Space Battles is actually a very risky game however, with a design concept which has little in common with typical space-strategy games.
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Gratuitous Space Battles is perhaps best described as a ship management game. A quick glance at the visual media surrounding this game makes it easy to conclude that it is a sort of real time strategy game in the vein of titles like Nexus: The Jupiter Incident and Haegemonia: Legions of Iron. In fact, the player has no control over the battle once a match has begun. There are no orders to be given, no tactical maneuvers to execute, no special abilities to carefully time.
The core of the game occurs before the battle starts. The game's single player comes with a number of pre-packaged scenarios of increasingly difficulty. The player can see the basic layout of the enemy fleet and is given a certain number of resources to spend on ships. Some scenarios also have special conditions which limit the use of certain ship hulls or components. This may sound like a puzzle, but it isn't. There are many ways to win, and it is up to the player to think creatively. Unlike most real-time strategies, which are all about micro-management and split-second decisions, Gratuitous Space Battles is all about planning. If that gets your juices flowing, Gratuitous Space Battles is sure to please.
The ships themselves are the ink through which your plans are written. Fighters, frigates, and cruisers are available. The hulls come empty with a set number of hardpoints for equipment. It is entirely up to the player to turn these empty hulls into fighting ships - there are no pre-built options besides a few weak tutorial ships. The ship building itself is wonderful. There are tons of components to choose from and tons more to unlock as the game progresses.
The only problem with the game is the battles themselves. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that simply watching the battles unfold can become boring after a while. What is surprising however, is that the battles are remarkably bad at conveying information. The enemy ship configurations are never revealed, and there is no real-time data concerning how much of your damage is being absorbed by enemy shields or how quickly your units are moving. This flaw isn't as bad as it might seem though - as said, this game is about preparing for battle rather than the combat itself.
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Despite the lack of real-time battles, there is multiplayer in Gratuitous Space Battles. It comes in the form of an ingenious challenge system. As mentioned, the single player gameplay takes place during scenarios which pit a set enemy fleet against your forces. Multiplayer in Gratuitous Space Battles works by allowing players to make up their own scenarios and placing them online. Other players then download them and try to come up with a fleet that can defeat the one that you've posted.
This isn't the kind of gameplay which will cause players to start professional gaming leagues, but it is entertaining and highly compartmentalized. Scenarios don't take long and players who have completed a scenario can rate it both for enjoyment and difficulty. There is no need to wait for others to join a lobby and there is no lag to worry about. Want to play a scenario on your laptop while in the airport? No problem at all. There are very few games with more accessible multiplayer.
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Graphics and Sound
Everything in Gratuitous Space Battles is 2D, so those hoping for a beautiful space opera may be disappointed. The game's visuals make the most of this technical limitation however, with colorful and distinctive presentation. There are four races in Gratuitous Space Battles (five with an optional DLC pack) and each has its own unique graphical style. The components also have a unique visual flare, making it easy to identify a laser from a tractor beam. Ship damage is particularly impressive. Heavily damaged vessels burn as they drift in space and are rocked when particularly nasty weapons hit them.
The sound is not as impressive. Both sound effects and music are generic to the point of being unimportant to enjoyment of the game. I realized this when playing the game in the same room as my wife, who was working on a project which required concentration. I turned the sound off so as not to bother her but forgot to put on my headphones and didn't even realize until half an hour later.
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Gratuitous Space Battles is an amazing game, although a specific one. The focus on planning will undoubtedly turn off gamers who prefer games to be action packed. The need to sit back in watch the battles unfold can, as said, become tiring. The battles can be accelerated at up to 4x speed, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't use that once in awhile.
If you're into strategy and spaceships however, this game is the perfect playground. There is a wealth of room for experimenting with different ships and different fleet deployments. And because of the multiplayer challenge element, there is always a new battle to fight. Anyone who is a strategy gamer simply must give this one a try.