The iOS platform is hardly lacking for games that allow you to send living things to their inevitable death, and Gratuitous Space Battles [$9.99 (HD)] satisfies the tactical itch with a capital T, while managing to bring some big eye candy and a light sense of humor to compensate you for all your hours spent constructing.
When you first launch the app, you’re driven towards a fairly anemic tutorial, which hardly deserves the name. A game like GSB has a lot of meat, layered on top of more meat, with a crust of meat at the center - a simple text-driven tutorial cannot even begin to prepare you for how many numbers there are to be crunched, how many configurations possible, and how many men are ready to die in your service. Inexperienced strategy gamers are going to be overwhelmed with the complexity, and while the tutorial does a competent job of getting you into the cockpit of the starter-ships, it does little to prepare you for the amount of ship-building you’ll be doing.
Ultimately, that’s what this game is about - building. Unlike a traditional tower defense game, you don’t fight off waves of enemies while upgrading in-between. Instead, you’re given a “historical” battle to participate in, and are given all of the enemy troops’ positions, ship-types, etc. Once you initiate the battle, your control of the fight is over - the ships will play out the battle based on a configuration of orders and equipment that you assigned beforehand, and your job becomes that of a silent watcher. Your real goal, and where the game completely shines, is to build and outfit your ships, and arrange them tactically to obliterate the alien host.
Most of the time spent with the game is spent customizing out your various ship-types with gear from a pool of upgrades that you’ve unlocked using the “honor” that you’ve won from battles. In a twist on standard tower defense games, you’re not only rewarded for winning, you’re rewarded for winning with honor. What this means is that while anyone can swing in with a massive Cruiser army and obliterate the alien force, the payout will leave much to be desired. More honor is paid out to the cautious commander, and the fewer ships you field and win with, the more honor you’ll earn to spend on unlocking upgrades, new hulls, and alien races to play as.
Visually, the game is beautiful, filled with detailed backdrops rich with stars, nebula, and distant worlds. Ships are highly detailed and beautiful to look at, and the constant hail of missiles, plasma beams, and scrambled clusters of fighters ensure that the game never gets boring to watch. Thundering music and the sounds of combat are decent, if a little drawn out over the length of the fight.
Being a port of a game that was designed for PC, GSB comes with touch controls that are generic but passable with nothing that really stands out. Pinch-to-zoom works on the combat map, but frustratingly caps out at a maximum zoom that feels too small - especially given the enormous size of the maps. Tapping on the various statistics during the building phase yields crucial information about each, but trying to pinpoint the miniature numbers can prove to be frustrating for the more sausage-fingered couch-commander.
Small touches add a sense of extra value to the game, such as the top panel during combat which plays out messages being sent by your crew, ranging from the tragic to the wry. It’s an unnecessary addition but a fun one, and injects a bit of humor to an otherwise dark and brooding atmosphere. Survival mode brings the endless-wave fun of traditional tower defense, but without the ability to upgrade on the fly. The result is a test for how well you’ve outfitted your fleet, and the only reward is bragging rights to your friends. A fairly in-depth (though extremely text-dense) manual is also included, to flesh out any areas of curiosity a new player might have.
Players who crave a little more direct control over their operatic space-genocide may find themselves bored or underwhelmed, but for the true tactician, there’s a lot to love here. While the $9.99 asking price may seem a bit steep, this is the sort of game that could have easily gone the route of IAP currency, and didn’t. Ten bucks is practically a steal for the tactical war game fan, though a lite version for the unsure to try out would be a really good idea. Additionally, the lack of ability to try matching your fleet against a friend’s fleet isn’t game-breaking, but it would be nice to try your hand against Game Center friends.
Overall, Gratuitous Space Battles is worth obsessing over if you love numbers, tactics, collecting and crafting. It is easy to get lost for hours in the menus within menus, outfitting and saving custom ships, and learning what works and what doesn’t work through trial and error battles against the alien horde. It's a worthy addition to an already-stellar list of deeply tactical games on iOS, and is well worth a look for strategy fans.
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