There’s something compelling about lasers across a backdrop of nebulae. It reeks of science fiction: the delight of things burning and exploding in space. But ‘gratuitous’ might not be quite the right word for this particular imagination-stoking conflict in the stars, because there’s something clever going on behind all the fireworks.
This is a game that will appeal to a very particular mindset. It’s a game that appeals to tinkerers. The core of the game is tinkering with spaceships. You pick your hull from a variety of ships across three classes (fighter, frigate, cruiser) and start plugging-in equipment. Then you try to configure your ship to its most effective variant, taking into account different possible situations. Once that’s done you deploy a fleet against your enemy. You try to configure various commands and behaviours for your ships to create the most effective deployment for a particular engagement. Then you press ‘fight’.
The battle itself, the action, is spectators-only. This is a point that most people will miss at first glance. This isn’t a real-time strategy game where you manipulate things as you go along. It’s a management game where you set things up and just let them roll. Watch fighters escort their cruisers, or zoom out to engage, depending on how you’ve set things up. The battle and the following stats will show you precisely why you’ve won or lost, assuming you take the time to read them. While the battles themselves provide you with a fun visual pay-off, the skill – the game – lies in your extensive tinkering.
When asked for the reasons why he created a strategy game where the battles can’t be interacted with, lone developer Cliff Harris explained that it should be viewed from the perspective of generals and admirals in battles of old. They had to set things up as best they could, with formations and general tactics, but once the action started, they pretty much had to hope for the best and watch it play out. So it is with Gratuitous Space Battles.
That’s why we say it’s a management game. A fleet-management game. You’re slowly developing the best fleet deployment, working on individual ships and macroscopic tactics as you go. What’s interesting – and longevity-promising – about this is that you can put up fleet deployments as ‘challenges’ online. You can challenge people directly, post deployments for everyone, or select player-created deployments to try your own fleets against. As such it becomes a kind of rolling tweak project, allowing you to constantly fiddle your favourite fleets and pose them against others.
So this is not a game that will readily sell itself to the real-time masses, but it will leave the committed tinkerer satisfied. The main problem with Gratuitous Space Battles is that the ship-building never quite explains itself to you in a way that makes building fun. This is purely an issue of presentation and pace: the ship editing system just needs to be clearer about what weapons are good for what tasks.
Additionally, being able to see things unfold from one or two ships up to an entire seething host would give the gamer a better grasp of the mechanistic processes that underlie it all. Right now it takes quite a lot of reading, comparing and re-reading before you can even start to be sure. Taking a look at EVE Online’s ship loadout tools gives you an idea of what might be possible.
A worse problem for this game, perhaps, is that you can’t always be certain why something worked. And that feeling of bafflement can be quite off-putting.
Dec 18, 2009