I’ve never liked the word ‘gratuitous’. It’s one of those words that is impossible to say in anything other than a Mary Whitehouse tone. It’s one of the elite cadre of words that has a reputation, and ‘gratuitous’ has a reputation for bad.
Yet here it is, in full, capitalised glory, amongst the title of a new indie game about things exploding in space. Even better, it flies in the face of gratuitous’s reputation. Gratuitous Space Battles is not only good, it’s rather charming with it.
For those not in the know Gratuitous Space Battles (hereafter GSB, acronym fans) is the brainchild of noted indie darling Cliff Harris, responsible for Democracy and Kudos. The main focus of the game is to take all your favourite parts of science fiction films (the exploding space ships) and cram it all into a game worth £16. It’s an interesting move in this regard, as though he’s taken Galactic Civilisation or Imperium Galactica, cut out all the bits with numbers, and dropped what’s left into a tidy little package.
The game part of GSB comes from designing your own armada of shiny death machines and arranging them prior to open conflict. In fact, true to its name, this pre-battle set up is the only time you have any input into what your ships will do. You can give your vessels standing orders, order them to support one another or defend a specific ship for instance, but once you click go that’s your job done. As you might expect from such a system, there will be moments where you will want to get on the phone and order a ship to shoot at the battleship right under his nose, but those moments are never too stressful thanks, in no small part, to the battles themselves.
I want you to stop for a minute and picture your favourite sci-fi film/programme, one with spaceships please otherwise this won’t work. Got it? Right. What you are thinking of there is almost exactly what you get in GSB. I say almost because I’m pretty sure you’ll be thinking of high-speed, stomach churning acrobatics accompanying your lasers, and GSB doesn’t do that. What it does do, however, is some rather delightful light shows. Lasers bounce of shields as capital ships crawl into range of one another, fighters explode as a wry shot from a cruiser catches the pilot off-guard, and torpedoes are shot out of the sky by point-defence lasers with seconds to spare. It’s simply beautiful.
It’s also rather hard at times. Get out of the tutorial missions and the game immediately expects you to understand how things work. Build your own ships, spend your cash and go out there and win. If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a little while getting blown into captivating stardust before you finally start cobbling together a ragtag fleet of competent spacers. It is in defeat where the game shows yet more clever design however.
Losing, even in a game that makes it look good, will eventually wear out its welcome, and in games where battles can take a considerable amount of time there may come a point where it is clear to you that victory is impossible. Those irritating minutes where knowing that there is nothing you can do to reverse this trend can sap all the fun out of a game. GSB can detect when a battle has become unwinnable for one side, and presents you with a handy box to skip to the end. It should also be said that this box will pop up when you’re winning too, but at that point you will want to see your enemies explode into a twisted hulk of debris. While this feature itself is not new (the Total War games have something similar) it seems more intelligent than its predecessors, forcing you to play less of a losing game and get back to the drawing board much faster.
There is a very easy way to sum up this game: if you like Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, or any other show with ‘star’ hidden in its title somewhere, you are going to love Gratuitous Space Battles. It’s both simple and complicated in equal measure, and at the correct moments, allowing you to see the game for what it is: a chance to build your own little space opera. Design, refine and conquer, and do so with some damn fine pyrotechnics.