Developer: Positech Games
Released: November 2009
Gratuitous Space Battles is exactly what it sounds like. The developers said, you know what? Some people just want space battles without the burden of plot or drama or characterization. So here you go! GSB is a highly tactical 2D space combat sim with gazillions of options and a ton of complexity. It might look like an RTS, but due to the focus on setup it's more like tower defense.
Average review scores are in the low 70s. Reviewers tended to agree that the game is very good at what it does, but what it does is not for everyone. Some critics argued that the number of options actually hides a disappointingly simple core, with the game not allowing as much flexibility as it appears to.
GSB has received a ton of post-launch support: lots of patches, plus 6 DLC packs: The Tribe, The Order, The Swarm, The Nomads, The Parasites, and Galactic Conquest. Five of the six offer a new race, new ships and customization options, and new scenarios. Galactic Conquest adds an entire new game mode, a campaign-like conquer the galaxy type deal, where you must maintain your fleets and worlds between battles and face unexpected conditions and threats.
Full disclosure: I played the game for 15 minutes and decided I didn't like it. Why? Read on.
The number of options is amazing. There are three races, each with their own subsets of the following stuff. You have three basic ship types: fighter, frigate, and cruiser. Each type has several available hull configurations with different resources, strengths, and weaknesses. You can custom-build your ships with the dozens of available modules, ranging from laser turrets to torpedoes, armour and shields, crew and power generation.
During the setup for a battle, you select which ships to use, where to deploy them, and what orders to give them. Orders also offer a lot of flexibility: you can tell ships which type of enemy to attack; to pick on weak enemies; to escort, follow, or protect a ship or group of ships; tactical options like strategic fallbacks or continuous movement; and even more.
The game encourages you to use as few resources as possible during a battle -- the fewer resources you use, the greater your honour reward at the end of the battle. It's an interesting way to discourage players from thoughtlessly throwing out their strongest configurations. Well, they still can, but it offers much smaller rewards than a more careful approach.
One feature that some reviewers considered to be a weakness is that there's no way of knowing anything about an enemy fleet configuration before the battle, other than the classes of ships and where they are. This can lead to frustrating defeats without knowing why you lost. On the other hand, some argued that it was a valuable trial-and-error system. I guess this one's up in the air.
Why didn't I like this game? It's all in the setup. This wasn't exactly a surprise -- it's an advertised feature. All the tactics and thought take place during setup, and the actual battle itself is the computer running the numbers to see who wins. My problem with this mechanic is that it hardly feels like a game. If something goes wrong, there's absolutely nothing you can do but watch your fleet get destroyed. I'd rather be able to manage things as they happen. The hands-off battle is kind of a neat concept, but it's not for me.
If you think you might be interested, absolutely try the demo first. It's free and fairly extensive, and it's a good way to determine whether you like the gameplay style before you pay the $20 for the base game or $40 for the complete pack. But don't mistake this for an action game, because it's really not.