Gratuitous Space Battles Review for Mac OS X

Gratuitous Space Battles was first released back in 2009, but has received constant care and attention (not to mention several expansions), and something of a cult following since. The premise is simple: you design space ships and then pit them against an enemy fleet. The “game” here is in the design of the ships though, rather than the battle. Designing a ship comprises of selecting a hull and then installing ordnance, defences and support modules in pre-allocated slots. Building a fleet comprises of arranging ships based upon those designs (limited by a budget for each scenario), giving them orders (such as engagement ranges, target preferences and behaviours such as escorting another ship or retreating when under fire).

There are many games that offer incremental progress. Levelling up characters, increasing stats, and gaining slightly equipment (we tend to call these “RPG mechanics”). Gratuitous Space Battles doesn’t have these. Instead, progression comes through strategy and experimentation. To be clear, there are things to unlock as you progress (via the “Honor Points” system, which I’ll get to shortly), but everything is about having more options. Everything is about trade-offs.

Beam weapons are accurate, but short-range. Better engines allow a ship to move faster, but require more power (which in turn requires more crew) and are more expensive, taking more out of your precious mission budget. All the while, you need to manage crew and power requirements, and thus it can be a bit off a juggling act to ensure optimum efficiency for a particular design. Really, this is what the game is. If you don’t like the idea of iterating through designs, trying different combinations of parts to achieve a harmony of numbers, this is certainly not the game for you.

If this does sound appealing though, you’ll find a lot to keep your interest. First there’s a wide variety of different types of ship. Each race (of which there are four in the base game) has three classifications of ship: fighter, frigate and cruiser. Fighters are fast-moving and can get behind the shields of larger ships but have limited hardpoints on which to install modules, whilst cruisers are slow-moving but can dish out (and withstand) a lot of punishment. Each of those gets access to its own range of modules (with some that are limited to specific races, and several that must be unlocked beforehand). The modules are varied, and probably the biggest strength of the game. The weapons buffet consists of beams, pulses, rockets, point-defence, nukes and bombs. There are countermeasures, decoys, repair modules and cloaks. There are at leas four different styles of shield. There’s a type of armour plating that is light but requires power. And so on.

The game comes with 14 scenarios (including a tutorial scenario and two endless modes) each of which place limits on your fleet’s budget and available pilots (essentially limiting fighters), with some having “anomalies” that add other constraints, such as not being able to use a specific type of module. Each scenario also has three difficulty settings (which change the configuration of ships you’ll face off against). Successfully beating a scenario unlocks the next one, and awards a number of “honor points” based on how much money was left within the allocated budget. Honor points are then used to unlock additional modules, hulls and races. In addition to the scenarios, there’s also a “challenge” mode that allows you to create your own scenarios and upload them for others to try and beat, and of course an assortment of challenges that others have created. It’s a truly wonderful addition to the game, and undoubtedly where you’ll spend most of your time.

The titular battles themselves look pretty good. While there are some really nice effects like shields collapsing (and the odd shockwave explosion or two), there’s perhaps not as much sizzle as I’d like, there’s no feeling of drama about it. There are some humorous messages from your ships that scroll at the top of the screen, which are usually quite funny if you stop to read them (there’s a touch of humour everywhere in the game, from the flavour text for components, to the game’s manual). Post-battle (which you can concede at any point) there’s some statistics to look at.

It’s an unusual game in that the middle is the best part. The start of the game can be overwhelming, as you try to get to grips with what you’re doing. I ended up just sticking with the tutorial ship designs for a long time, whilst I just tried to understand how the deployment aspects of the game worked. It was a while before I delved into the actual ship-building side, and this is almost certainly where most of the fun lies. Once I’d gotten to grips with what was going on (an in particular, that I should create ships that specialised rather than generalised, and that I should iterate specific designs), it was a lot of fun. But conversely, the better I understood the flow of the game, the more I found myself annoyed by oddities in the interface.

The worst of these is the deployment screen. Here you drag a ship from a list of designs onto the battlefield. This sounds reasonable enough but there are many problems with the way it works. First of all, the designs are only identifiable in the list by their thumbnail and a truncated label, which you almost always need to hover over to wait for the tooltip  (as an aside, the game insists on referring to your ships first and foremost by their randomly generated name, rather than their design name, which is typically only available in tooltips). Secondly, the list cannot be organised at all. You can filter by type, but that’s it. Once you’ve placed your ship, you can reposition it by dragging it around (there’s no copy/paste), but it’s on a grid, and ships can’t overlap each other. But sometimes they overlap anyway. And sometimes they don’t overlap, but you still get the wrong tooltip. And there’s no zoom function. Assigning orders sort of works ok, but feels incredibly tedious after a while, with the end result being that I usually don’t bother doing so the first time I run through a new scenario, particularly if lots of ships are involved. You also have to remember to explicitly save your deployment, as sometimes it does so automatically, but not always. The whole screen’s horrible and it feels cluttered, which is even more baffling when you notice that there’s plenty of unused space on either side of the interface.

Another problem is down to the way the unlocking system works. You only accrue honor points by beating a scenario (on a given difficulty) for the first time, or by beating a previous score. This means you can reach a point where you’ll be replaying scenarios over and over in order to get a slightly better score and be able to buy something. Needless to say, it can reach a point where you feel like you’re grinding scenarios just for this purpose, which isn’t much fun. Somewhat ironically, I also found myself wanting to fast-forward through the battles (it’s possible to accelerate the battles to 400% but even this doesn’t feel quick enough), particularly if I was iterating a specific ship design. Although there’s data to be mined whilst watching the game, I found it preferable in many cases to just identify which ships got destroyed when.

Which brings me to the statistics. Although there are a great deal of post-battle charts and other data to look at, much of it just wasn’t (to me at least) useful. Nowhere could I find any data that showed the contribution of a specific design as a percentage of overall damage for example. Likewise, I couldn’t see any information as to how well my shields worked, or how effective a given countermeasure was.

There are some who claim that the game really needs more interaction during the battles*, but to my mind, that is missing the point. This was never a game that was about micromanagement. Instead, what I’d suggest this game really needs a sort of “sandbox mode”, where you can define both sides of the battle. Want to create a fighter build that’s perfect for taking down a specific type of frigate? Then put  a wave of said frigates on one side, and variations of the fighter on the other and see what works (in theory, this should be possible to some extent via the game’s challenge mode, but in practice is far too clumsy a process).

In conclusion then, it’s a game that can best be compared to a club sandwich; packed full of tasty bits, and most interesting in the middle.

* Real-time strategy style controls were recently added to the Windows version of the game, but have not found their way into the Mac version.

Multiplayer

The game has a limited form of multiplayer via the challenge mode, which lets you create your own scenario or attempt one of the challenges created by others. There are also online leaderboards for the survival modes.

Performance & Quality

Generally the port is decent. There are some minor graphical aberrations (as can be seen in the gameplay video), and we did run into a bug affecting some of the challenges. It should also be noted that some of the features available in the Windows version, most notably the ability to issue commands during battle, are not present in the Mac version.

DLC

The following DLC is available for the game:

  • The Tribe
  • The Order
  • The Swarm
  • The Nomads
  • Galactic Conquest
  • The Parasites
  • The Outcasts

With the exception of the Galactic Conquest DLC, each of them adds a new race to play as. Note that the Mac version of “The Parasites” is not available through Steam. The Outcasts is coming to Mac soon.

Of note is the Galactic Conquest DLC, which adds a campaign mode, where you try to conquer an entire galaxy, building and repairing your fleet as you go.

Mods

Several mods are available at the Positech forums, where user BowlNwhsprer has put together a list of all the Mac-compatible ones.

Gameplay Video
Razer BlackWidow Ultimate
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