This is a guest review by Anandraj Singh
If you're a sci-fi fan like me, then one of the things you probably love about the Genre are the space battles. There's really no greater thrill than watching ships flying about, explosions filling out the blackness as something or the other goes down amidst cries of "Shields down!" and such. But all too often such scenes are fleeting in movies; only present for a few seconds or a minute at most of film footage before it's gone to leave us either in the midst of good or horrible characters.
In games, that feeling and thrill is almost always overshadowed by something else - if it isn't the pressing need to complete objectives or protect a ship, it's the need to manage one's resources and base back at home - or sometimes just going "WTF" at the horribly bad plot and/or voice acting. Either way, something always serves to divert one's attention away from the space battle at hand while the few games where it doesn't are rarer than hen's teeth.
Enter Gratuitous Space Battles. Developed by Positech Games, Gratuitous Space Battles (or GSB for short) pretty much cuts through all that. Its goal is simple: get to the space battles and don't bother with anything else.
There is no real story here as much as there is a thin paper spy-mask of one. There are four factions (at least in the initial game - the Tribes expansion adds a fifth) available, each one a parody of a major science fiction archetype but at the same time having a specialty associated with them.
The Federation is the free-market economy taken to the extreme and have good hull designs and strength. The Rebels area group that broke off from the Empire due to the harsh military service - only to go ahead and form their own military to just fight them - with ships that focus more on speed. The Alliance are bugs in space with the motto "Six legs good, 2 legs bad" and have ships that focus on armor and weapon slots, for the most part. The Empire is the tech-oriented species that all work under an emperor that's apparently "under the weather" for the past 1,100 years (despite the fact that the species lives to 100). Their ships have undoubtedly the best shield bonuses in the game by far.
What's brilliant though, is that these little blurbs of info are above pretty much serves to sum up the game's non-existent story - a fact that it recognizes and then brushes aside to provide you, the player, with what matters: the gratuitously explosive space battles.
How it works is simple: you choose a mission (of which there are 10 scenarios and 2 survival-type) and then a race to play with - the default starting one is the Federation. You make some ships according to the style you want, place them in formation and adjust their orders, hit fight - and then just sit back and relax as you watch the fleets close in on each other and grind themselves to dust in a magnificent show of beams, gunfire and explosions everywhere.
The system while simple, can get more complicated should one desire. For instance, there is the ship designer, which essentially lets you fit out your ships with tons of modules, split into 4 categories (Weapons, Defenses, Engines, Other). Weapons come in a variety of mixes, from beams to pulses, rockets and missiles. Defenses range from point defenses to armor, while engines are of course, engines. There are more modules though - from Tractor beams to EMP Cannons/Defenses to power generators and crew modules (the last two of which are required to power/run your ship respectively). Although it may seem to make the matter complex, it doesn't really. There are only two resources to keep track of and balance, and their easy enough to do so while still allowing for a mix of ship types from artillery to close range brawlers.
These created ships can then be assembled into fleets on the battle screen. Orders can be given to each ship (or group of ships) depending on desired roles and placed into formation. All one has to do then is hit 'fight', sit back and just enjoy your very own personal space battle roll out in front of you as fighters zoom out to engage enemy frigate screens, destroying them in a single torpedo wave - only to be shot down as they get tractor beamed and neutered by defense lasers and so on.
Whatever happens, don't be mistaken - the action is good to watch even if it's just from a top-down 2D perspective. The ships are very well modeled and the effects are nothing short of gorgeous - easily better than a few of the full-scale productions I've seen in other games. The explosions are just as good, as are the battle scars ships get as they fight it out.
It all rolls in together to produce what is a fascinating experience, one that really is somewhat unique to the game itself. Even better though, is the fact that Positech Games - the developer and publisher - is basically rolling out patches that add more and more features every so often, suggesting that the game may just expand to include a few more interesting features in the future.
If you ever tire of the single-player scenarios though, there's always more to consider in the form of the online challenges. Challenges are the game's version of multiplayer where one can post up a fleet for others to challenge and defeat. At the same time you can download other people's challenge fleets, customizing your own to defeat them - which is no easy task. There are some very challenging enemy fleets that are put up out there.
Add to this a vast variety of mods available for the game in the terms of custom hulls - from Star Trek vessels, to Star Wars and even Babylon 5 ships which you can find on the forums - and you pretty much have every sci-fi nerd's dream battle generator here. Or at least it would be, if not for some glaring flaws.
Despite having a very novel concept and execution at its core, the game faces the problem in that the novelty wears off fast. In my experience it wore off after finishing off the single player battles - at which point the focus shifted from the "oohs" and "aahs" of the explosions to trying to get unique ship setups that were fun and appealing.
This is largely because the battles are...well, to be honest after a while they tend to get boring. The movement of the ships - even with high quantities of engines - is much too slow and watching a battle even at 4x speed on the larger maps can take ages before the actual fighting starts.
The AI's wonky behavior at times just adds more frustration - which gets worse when you finally see the ships reach each other...and then realize you gave them the wrong orders. What follows then is basically going back to the main screen, resetting the orders (which, if you've got a lot of ship types can tend to be a clunky and drawn-out affair) and then waiting for the ships to crawl across the map all over again before they start shooting at each other. It quickly becomes a dull, repetitive affair that pretty much annoys the heck out of a player.
It honestly could've afforded to move faster - Battleships Forever, for instance, had far more dynamic and fluid game play. The ships moved fast, they reacted faster and had full freedom of movement in all directions (except up and down since it was still 2D). While the RTS aspect complicated matters, the fluidity of the ships allowed for far quicker and more impressive visuals - especially the zen-esque battle that simply continued to roll on the AI alone in the menu's background. That one rolling battle alone was nothing short of amazing no matter how many times you saw it. Despite that being an added feature to a game with far poorer graphics, that one feature alone still manages to outshine GSB in sheer Gratuitousness in a way.
It becomes such that as you go on you tend to focus on the other elements of the game - the challenges for instance, are extremely entertaining because there are challenging. Some of the fleets put up by other players that can be very tough nuts to crack. But one has to then ask the question: has the game fallen into the very pit-trap it was trying to avoid all along?
This is part of the main problem with GSB. It simply tries to be too gratuitous in a way. Even though it manages to avoid the major distractions and headaches that block out the space battles, not enough effort has put into the battles themselves. The best way to put it is thusly: while ships and fleets are super-dynamic thanks to the customization, battles are not. If you've seen two or three battles, you've pretty much seen them all - even when you try to mix things up by having wildly differing strategies they still play out in that slow, annoyingly ponderous pace.
All said and done though, this is still a good, fun game in many ways. The graphics are good, the game play while repetitive is still solid enough to last a few days, while tinkering with fleets and new strategies never gets old. Tack in the challenges and you have a fairly solid deal despite most of its flaws.
It's lasted far longer than some £50 games I've had the bad luck to buy and for £17, you could do a lot worse - but at the same time you have to realize, you can do a lot better. This is especially since the other alternative to this game - Battleships Forever - is basically free and is almost as good; going even so far as surpassing GSB in some minor ways.
Since this is a review that apparently requires a rating (something that I generally hate to do considering how difficult it is to rate something that is, by nature, relative), I'd rate it at a 7.75/10. Beyond that, my final recommendation is this: try the demo first. If you like it, buy it. Otherwise skip it for the time being until its price comes down or it goes on sale.