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Gratuitous Space Battles 2 – Beta First Impressions

By on February 13th, 2015 4:44 pm

Gratuitous Space Battles 2 Beta | The Pristine Enemy Fleet... for now

Every once in a while, it’s nice to take a break from the stresses of taking over the galaxy and enjoy the glory of pure pointless space combat. At least, this is what Positech Games is counting on with their upcoming release, Gratuitous Space Battles 2. Far from being a 4X game, it instead focuses on ship design, pre-battle strategy, and a “hands-off” battle simulator. It has recently launched into full-fledged beta mode, and it is now available for purchase and play from their site. A Steam key is also being provided for later when the game launches there.

The idea behind the game isn’t entirely a new concept, as in many ways it is very similar to its predecessor, Gratuitous Space Battles, which we reviewed way back in 2010. This game is, once again, entirely about the design and planning. Combat is as advertised, “hands-off”, and the only options you have once it begins are to move the camera or speed up/slow down combat once it begins.

So what exactly is new in this sequel? Quite a few things under the hood apparently, including a new custom-built and more capable C++ engine. You can also now enjoy watching combat unfold in multi-monitor mode. Gameplay wise, there is a new ship design system which includes a brand new ability to visually alter your ships in many ways. You can now select from a variety of pieces and parts, color them as you like, and then slap them all over your ships. You can also re-size them and set them in permanent rotation as well. Also new to the series are several new classes of ship including the devastatingly huge dreadnought class of ship, and a brand new carrier system which requires fighters and gunships to be brought to battle via a carrier module. The game also features multiple unlockable technologies, hulls, and cosmetic pieces, as well as 4 races each with unique ship bonuses.

First Impressions

As usual with first impressions/early access/betas, keep in mind that this game still requires a large amount of bug fixing and game balance. In fact, game balance is one of the specific goals Positech has in mind for this beta. Currently, it only includes standard difficulty enemy AI fleets, though harder fleets to defeat are planned. Finally, it is worth noting that the game is currently for PC only, but will be released at a later date for Mac and Linux.

Designer Ships Coming To A Hangar Near You

Gratuitous Space Battles 2 Beta | Overpowered!!

Since this is a game about ship design, it seems fitting to dive into that before discussing combat. At first glance, designing a space-worthy vessel appears like a rather daunting task. There are a ton of weapons, armors, shields, and other accessories to choose from. There are also stats to keep track of, and a lot of them. Cost, weight, damage, minimum range, maximum range, power usage, crew usage, armor penetration, shield penetration, tracking speed, fire interval, damage to shields, damage to armor, damage to hull, are some examples of these stats, and that’s not even all of them.

My first couple of ship designs were utter disasters as I tried to figure out how things worked. You will need to spend a lot of time optimizing your ship slots to be as efficient as possible. You don’t want to wind up carrying way too much crew or generating way too much power. After not too long, I figured out how these stats interacted and realized many of the modules (though not all) fulfilled similar needs but varied in cost, power, weight, and crew requirements. The weapon selections also became easier once I realized they often fit nicely into categories. If I knew I needed a shield piercing long-range weapon, I was able to narrow my selection down to a few choices for example. Then of course you have your exceptions, the more specialized equipment such as ECM weapons, limpets (robots that attach to enemy ships), shield disruptors, tractor beams, targeting systems, point defenses, and boosters that allow ships to power up other nearby ships. There is a very nice variety to be had, and it is worth noting that some equipment is unique to a specific race’s ships as well.

Gratuitous Space Battles 2 Beta | A very basic example of what can be done

Enough about performance though, what’s really important is that your pilots aren’t driving ships around that could easily be mistaken for derelicts. This is where the visual customizations come in, and there is certainly no shortage of choices in this regard. With a large variety of modules on offer, you can really make your ships look unique if you want to invest the time. There is a large palette of colors to choose from and every piece can be re-sized or set in motion if you desire. I have to give kudos here to Positech for allowing players to make their ships look not only diverse in their hulls, but also in their appearance. This is a unique aspect of the game that is a lot of fun and potentially a huge time sink for the artistically gifted. I myself designed some mildly interesting ships in a brief period of time, but I’m sure far greater things are possible.

It is worth noting that not every component, hull, race, or cosmetic enhancement is available right away. There is a research system in place that requires you to spend credits earned in battle to unlock these new items. Credits are earned in combat and are directly proportionate to how efficient you are in that area. A cheaper fleet that can get the job done with few casualties is your fastest path to earning stacks of cash. Unlock costs are currently very reasonable, perhaps even too reasonable, as I found myself able to buy all of them after 2 or 3 big victories.

Grab a Snack and Watch Things Explode

Gratuitous Space Battles 2 Beta | Assigning an order to a dreadnought

While combat is hands off, and it is feasible to treat it like a movie once it begins, ship design and pre-battle setup really do make a difference. You are responsible for selecting the ships to use, laying them out into formations, assigning them orders, target priorities, distance preferences, and other tasks that help them perform as you’d like once combat kicks off. You can even make ships whose job consists of picking off weakened targets if you’d like. Essentially, you give them a basic AI to follow in your absence.

There are essentially 2 types of combat in the game. The primarily type of battle is from the battle menu, where there are currently 10 different battles to participate in. You could also say it has 10 unique puzzles to solve. The enemy fleet composition and layout on each stage is always the same, at least at this point with only standard difficulty enabled. Your challenge is to defeat the enemy with as few casualties and as little budget expenditure as possible. I’ve played through all 10 of these with little difficulty, but I suspect this is partly due to game balance issues, and partly due to the lack of harder difficulty options at present.

The other type of combat is the Challenge mode. This is very similar to what was present in the original game. In this mode you compete against a pre-built configuration put forth by a human player. This is all done in advance, so there is no need to wait and you can hop into combat right away. Now, it’s no secret that I’m no fan of multiplayer PC strategy gaming, but I must say I like the way it is implemented here. I could easily see myself putting together various fleets, testing them out against the challenges, and then issuing my own challenges to test just how good my designs truly are. This is where I suspect this game is going to truly shine and thrive after release. Unfortunately, it seems like this mode is still a bit bugged, as my PC crashed toward the end of each of these and no recorded victories or defeats are present for any of the few challenges players have put forth. A disappointment, but not unexpected for a beta.

Beta Issues

It wouldn’t be a beta without issues, and it certainly has some. I’ve encountered numerous crashes and graphical artifacts. Thankfully, most of these had known workarounds or were resolved by exiting and relaunching the game. The worst offender is the repeatable crash I mentioned that happens towards the end of any Challenge mode battles. Once in combat, I actually experienced very few issues. I even ran the game in the new multi-monitor mode across my 2 screens, both using different native resolutions, and it worked wonderfully. The game also runs very smoothly and I didn’t notice any frame rate issues despite tons of fighters and missiles flying around at 4 x normal speed. Performance was in a word, excellent.

Gratuitous Space Battles 2 Beta | The NOT so Pristine Enemy Fleet

Balance is the other big issue I see right now. While I’m not an expert at “gaming the system” when it comes to strategy games, I’m no new recruit either. It is perhaps unsurprising given its beta status that I was able to completely break the difficulty of the game with a relatively simply ship design. With just a handful of identical dreadnought designs, and a few frigate class escorts to take out pesky enemy fighters, I was able to run the table on all 10 missions in only 90 minutes or so. Not only did I win, but I won big, typically using less than 50% of the maximum fleet budget available for me to deploy with. This inundated me with funds to complete every available research option. I have to believe this is not the intended result, as the unique puzzle aspect expected of each battle is completely null and void when a one-dimensional strategy is able to dominate every time. Granted, this was on normal difficulty and harder difficulties will emerge, but for now there is no challenge to be had unless I purposefully choose to handicap myself.

Closing Thoughts

I wasn’t a big fan of the original Gratuitous Space Battles, but I also felt that I hadn’t given it a fair chance. I picked it up late in its lifespan very inexpensively, and just never took the time to dive in. Having played the sequel, I found myself enjoying the experience. Once complete, and balanced, I suspect it will be a solid game for those that enjoy analytical and mathematically oriented ship design. Thrifty ship designers, puzzle solvers, and efficiency experts will also likely find something to enjoy here. I believe high level play, which I strongly suspect will be found in the human versus human challenge mode, is going to require an in-depth knowledge of maximizing and streamlining ships so that they are as cost-effective as possible.

If you enjoy friendly competition and one-upmanship, I suspect you’ll have a lot of fun exploring the intricacies of the game. Since crashes and balance issues are preventing me from further exploring this option right now, we will have to wait and see how things shake out when we review the game post-release.

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  1. Jeff P says:

    Well-written article. I found the first GSB to be interesting for a couple hours, but frankly, it didn’t seem to have much purpose. To me, it felt like it should have been the combat aspect of a larger game. GSBII gives me the same impression.

    Many years ago, a software developer (it was so long ago I can’t recall the name of the games or developer) created both a starship simulator and a tactical ground combat game. Both products were stand-alone, but the player had the ability to link the games. This way you could board other starships with marines and fight to take over an enemy ship, or conduct planet raids.

    I would like to see Positech Games (or a partner developer) create a space strategy game that could incorporate GSBII as the fleet combat element. IMO, such a development would go a long way toward making GSBII a more complete experience.

    • t1it says:

      I have similar ideas and also in other genres. Imagine for instance combat mission (yes they haven’t done anything new at all last 15 years but still) + command ops
      or EU series + TW series (yes, these too aren’t the most “creative” bunch of developers despite their name :D).
      Obviously there are lots of “mismatches” and conflicts in design but just imagine…

    • Sounds like a certain game I know of that’s in development!

      • t1it says:

        Your game is probably going to be the closest which is why I like it already but it’s seems like the 4x (non-battle) part isn’t all that revolutionary. Not that I expect something revolutionary from any developer (it’s not feasible on multiple accounts). With “revolutionary” _I_ mean something that is very deep – not DistantWorlds “deep”(not much) – but SpaceEmpires deep AND that is – somehow – manageable with a competent AI. That’s the game in my dreams. Such a game also needs a deep battle system like this one have. No offense but your game isn’t the first one of the kind (which I know you know) hence I wouldn’t compare it to these hypothetical games. Your game looks like it’s going to beat or equal MoO2, ImperiumGalactica, Ascendacy and a bunch of other classics in actual design and especially – the fun! Props to you!

    • Mark says:

      Terrific idea Jeff, I’d love to see more interlocked games too. And I agree that GSBII seems a bit limited as a stand-alone game.

    • SixFingeredMan says:

      Sounds like Rules of Engagement 1 & 2 and Breach 2 & 3 (I don’t think the first one linked up), from Omnitrend. Fun games.

  2. Mark says:

    “hands-off” battle simulation? Really, what’s the point? Directing the battle is the most interesting part and this game gets rid of it. Talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water….

    • AstralWanderer says:

      For a standalone game, I’d tend to agree (though if this allows for battles involving thousands of ships, then the hands-off approach gains more merit). However as part of a strategic-scale empire-builder for in-depth tactical combat, such an approach could be very useful – adding depth to combat and ship design while not bogging the game down with dozens or hundreds of combats.

      The original GSB seemed to offer this with the Galactic Conquest DLC, but the online requirement for it (for downloading new ship designs) put me off ever trying it.

      The Rules of Engagement/Breach combo mentioned in another comment is definitely an attractive option and it is a great pity that so few other developers have tried anything similar. Having, for example, a Space Empires style strategy game creating randomised battlefields and invoking a Homeworld style tactical game for detailed combats could be near-nirvana if done right (e.g. giving empires a limited number of leader/general/admiral units and only offering the option of detailed combat when such a unit was present, making them strategically critical).

      But maybe Positech has something similar in the pipeline – with GSB, GTB and now GSB2 Cliff must be getting bored of tactics by now… ;)

  3. Ashbery76 says:

    The games needs a 4x style campaign.Battles alone are not enough for my cash.

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Post category: Early Access, Game First Impressions, Game Previews