Wot I Think: Gratuitous Tank Battles

By Tim Stone on March 26th, 2012 at 8:00 pm.

In my experience there’s only one way to assess a corridor-bound RTS. You place it at one end of a winding word-road, line that road with all manner of critical gun turrets, then push the muzzle of a Webley service revolver into the small of the game’s back and bark “Get moving!”.

Gratuitous Tank Battles“Get moving!”

A stone’s throw from its start line, our £19 test subject trundles into range of an MG Turret of Visual Vilification. Expecting an easy kill (Positech aren’t big enough to have anything as grand as an art department) the turret spits twin streams of 7.92mm disdain at the indie intruder. The rounds might as well be dried peas for all the damage they cause.

GTB’s top-down tussles are smoke-smudged, flame-flecked spectacles of the highest order. Watching as the multi-coloured lasers lick, the fizzing missiles home, the muzzle shockwaves ripple, and the heaps of corpses grow, it’s easy to forget that the Hell-ish scenes that are causing your canteen of char to go cold, are the work of a bedroom outfit. Want to wallow in senseless devastation and sanity-threatening battle clamour? Cliff has created the perfect wallowing hole.

After a brief two-tile respite the gauntlet-runner enters the domain of a fearsome Flame Tower of Tower Defence Doubts. Rising columns of green damage reports, indicate all is not well beneath the target’s steel carapace.

If, like me, you’re a person whose moustache is regularly snowflaked by Achtung Panzer, singed by Combat Mission, and stolen by Men of War, GTB’s genre-determined tactical constraints may feel suffocating at first.

And at second and third.

My first hour with the game is spent frantically repopulating trenches and erecting gun towers along various snaking, foe-thronged roads. Disconcertingly, when I stop for breath I realise I’ve been picking my turrets and troops semi-randomly. “Hmm, haven’t built an MG nest for a while. Better slap one of those down. Crikey, and I don’t have any anti-tank infantry! There’s an empty trench… ”. Though I’ve read the bit in the manual that says that shield-equipped attackers should be countered with ballistic units, armoured ones with lasers, and grunts with MGs, the variety of attackers and their pace mean it’s very tempting to just throw down a mix of defences and cross your fingers.

My sceptical frown softens a little when I discover the pause button and start prodding it periodically to halt the meatgrinder. With the battlefield frozen, I’ve time to study the composition of attack forces and shape my defences with a little more thought.

It softens further when I remember that in addition to manufacturing Maginot pipelines, the game also gives us the chance to push men and materiel into them. All of GTB’s challenges can be played as attacker as well as defender. In the assault role there’s a little more tactical elbow-room. Not only are you selecting unit types, you’re also choosing routes (often there are several paths to point-scoring exits), and deciding how best to secure the supply crates that drop at random in the quieter corners of maps.

A collected supply crate unlocks a supply truck. Get one of these soft-skinned battle-winners across a map in one piece, and your vital victory-determining tally is given a huge boost.

Trailing streamers of black smoke, GTB has barely moved beyond the reach of the flame turret when it finds itself on a stretch of road sentinelled by a Flak Tower of Campaign Cynicism. POM-POM-POM goes the lofty guardian. OUCH-OUCH-OUCH goes the pummelled target.

GTB’s eight episode campaign might be playable from two perspectives, incredibly challenging at the highest difficult level, and supplemented by an arsenal of user-made maps and challenges that grows by the hour, but you may still find yourself feeling short-changed.

Though community-crafted levels are always a convenient click away (assuming you’re online) and are rated and commented upon by downloaders, sorting wheat from chaff can still be hit-and-miss. Unofficial engagements also lack splendid briefing blather like…

“The battle must be fought to defend the port in the fort. Under no circumstances abort and let Fritz and his sort hold court in the fort.”

and

“Look smart and this dark deed will be the spark that ignites the flame that lights the torch that signals the finish of this marathon Great War.”

Cliffski’s inspired Blackadder-meets-Rogue-Trooper fantasy needed more space and time to grow. Extra battles could have been used to nudge the player towards the intriguing world of unit creation and modification.

The campaign probably also needed the artillery support of a skirmish generator. A mode that offered random map fights against randomly constructed units, done right might have been GTB’s crowning glory. The impressively adaptive AI would certainly have coped.

Looking slightly worse for wear, Positech’s panzer finally escapes the clutches of the flak gun only to scurry into strike range of a squat Missile Launcher of Longevity Questions.

A little short of tactical breadth and a little too reliant on user-made missions, how long GTB remains on your HD may well be determined by how entertaining you find its unit tampering and DIY cartography.

As you advance through the campaign and win or lose downloaded missions, you unlock components that can be bolted together to build bespoke defences, infantry types and vehicles. With dozens of different hulls and hundreds of components available, the number of possible combinations must run into the millions.

Because homemade units are also used by the AI, you can very easily find yourself locked in a fascinating self-perpetuating arms race. You build yourself a new missile-spewing heavy tank, use it to crack a particularly tricky map, then – perhaps utilizing the ingenious play-against-a-recording-of-a-previous-attack facility – realise you can no longer defend successfully on that map. A foil for the missile-spewing heavy tank is obviously needed so you fire-up the editor again and cobble together an exorbitantly expensive yet scarily effective multi-laser tank killer. Shredded by criss-crossing death-rays, your next attempt at attack ends in ignominious failure so it’s back to the editor to build a mech to counter the laser turret.

And so it goes on.

The map editor is a little too fiddly and limited to be enticing. I expected to be able to sculpt hills, route rivers, and maybe even add the odd shell-ravaged village or town to my battlegrounds. Sadly, such things are impossible. Despite a range of themes including Somme mud and Stalingrad snow, and a nice selection of battleground sundries including corpses and dragons’ teeth, GTB’s maps and consequently its missions can lack personality.

Dented and bleeding burning oil, the attacker negotiates the last of a series of hairpin corners. Waiting for it around the bend is the skilfully dug-in Anti-Tank Gun of Tank Trivialisation.

According to a recent study by tank think-tank Tank Think, the eight best things about tanks are:

  • Their ability to trundle over barbed-wire, crash though walls, crush cars, and swim rivers.
  • Their ability to shrug-off piddly munitions with a sonorous CLAANG! or a jaunty PTING!
  • The way their multiple weapons allow them to engage several targets at the same time.
  • The way their turrets fly into the air and their caterpillar tracks spool onto the ground if they get hit in the right places.
  • Their fondness for lurking ‘hull-down’ in hollows and sunken lanes.
  • The clanky, squeaky noise wot they make.
  • Their preposterous size.
  • Their evocative names.

GTB’s lumbering landships really only exhibit the last two of these qualities. For all the titular promise, this is a game that fails to capitalize on, or even communicate much of what makes caterpillared death tractors so colourful and compelling.

As I watch my personally designed Cornwall Mk. IVs and Caractacus Mk. VIIs bimbling towards death or glory, I find myself wondering why maps don’t feature wire-clogged shortcuts that must be traversed by trundling panzers before infantry and mechs can use them. Why can’t tanks hose trenches with bow or co-ax MGs while simultaneously battering blockhouses with their main guns? Why isn’t the odd AFV reduced to a static shell-slinger by a lucky engine or track shot?

Ah. I think I’ve just figured out the answer to that last one.

I’m not expecting Steel Panthers or Combat Mission, but it would be nice if GTB’s tanks were a little tankier, its WWI and WWII echoes a little louder.

The exit tile is in sight but GTB now has more holes in it than Sir Douglas Haig’s Bumper Book of Battle Tips. Can it haul itself past the MG Nest of Niggling Bugs and reach The Finish Line of Cautious Recommendation?

Yes, it can. The odd crash here and there (to be fair to Positech there’s plenty of pre-purchase warnings about the game’s beta state) some conceptual misgivings, and some disappointment over the emphasis on community-made content, doesn’t mean I won’t be firing-up GTB now and again to watch phalanxes of marching mechs, perambulating panzers and sprinting stormtroopers being cut to ribbons by ludicrous concentrations of laser, MG and missile fire. It doesn’t mean there won’t, in all probability, be a Cornwall Mk. XII and a Caractacus Mk XVII.

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47 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge

    SpakAttack says:

    Think you broke the front page…

  2. Torgen says:

    The building of custom counter weapons and counter-counter weapons in a never-ending spiral is what kept my brother and I glued to SSI’s old Cosmic Balance game. I wish I knew of a modern spaceship game that combined the ship design and tactical combat of Cosmic Balance I and strategy and galactic warfare of Cosmic Balance II, without the bogging down of a large economic system. It was fun to build ships and send them to war, then drop down into “we go” tactical turn-based combat.

  3. TsunamiWombat says:

    Considering GSB has it, it’s a little odd that GTB doesn’t have locational damaging. In GSB your engines or individual turrets could be knocked out.

    • Yemala says:

      Pretty sure it does, at least for the defenders – just select the unit, pops up in the bottom right.

    • Premium User Badge

      Napalm Sushi says:

      It does. My most common reason for selling a turret or losing hope for a tank/mech is because its loader has been destroyed and its rate of fire reduced to negligible, or its been reduced to a monument by the destruction of its weapon. This should probably be corrected in the article.

  4. wodin says:

    A shame really. Sounds like it could have been a classic with more though and depth. I have a short attention span as it is and many games don’t grab me due to lack of depth. This seems liek one of them so I will pass.

    I wish he had made the WW1 sim things he was thinking of in the first place.

  5. Premium User Badge

    frymaster says:

    My only concern with GTB is that I reported serious* bugs with GSB during its beta that have never been fixed. While I could work around some issues, the game is still essentially unplayable for me two years on.

    From the screenshots and descriptions, it seems like the charm of GSB has made it through intact (the ship status reports from GSB still make me smile), but I just cannot justify investing in a game that might be so unstable.

    *gamebreaking for a small number of people; would have no effect on the rest

    • Duke of Chutney says:

      im not going to call judgement or anything but im curious as to what these bugs are?

      I quite liked GSB but you could transfer most the criticisms above to GSB. Essentially its a game about tweeking designs and pressing the go button to watch the show. I really like the spaceship graphics so watching the show worked for me.

      I agree on the value for money issue though i sympathise with Cliffski, so might buy it anyway.

      • Premium User Badge

        frymaster says:

        the ones I could identify are where he tries to write stuff to the game’s install directory.

        This will work for:

        Anyone who installs their game outside of program files
        Anyone on XP who is an admin
        Anyone on Vista or above who has UAC turned on (part of UAC involves file redirection to silently write to userspace instead)

        This won’t work for:
        Anyone who’s a non-admin on XP
        Anyone who’s a non-admin on Vista or above with UAC turned off
        Anyone on Vista or above with UAC turned on, where it’s decided to turn off file redirection for compatability reasons (this is what got me, after some crash or other win7 decided to turn it off because it thought that would help)

        Writing to a program’s install directory is a schoolboy error, and is ALSO easily solved. I was able to point out the game doing this in beta. The issues were never fixed

        Of course, I can work around those errors, but the game still crashes. I have sod all desire to troubleshoot the crashes, because the author plainly doesn’t care anyway.

        • cliffski says:

          Yes he does.
          I’m not aware of a single byte of data on XP,Vista or 7 that either GSB or GTB writes at runtime to the program folder exactly for this reason. They should write ALL their data to \mydocuments\my games, unless the game detects that it is *not* running on xp or later, which I guess may be triggered by running certain beta or release candidate O/S versions that report their version number wrong.

          I’m very happy to be proven wrong though.

  6. remover says:

    I like the looks of this and I like his other game. Call me a cheapskate, but the price was always the dissuader for me on his stuff. I know he put a ton of work and time into it, but by the time you buy all the DLC and everything, it costs the same as some games that have a lot more “value” and bulk to them and content and all that jazz.

    At 10 bucks I’d be excited. At 22, I have to consider all the other things I can get for the same price.

    • Reapy says:

      Same here. I can tell that I’d buy the game and get bored with it pretty fast, just not into tower defense and all that, but I do like the graphics and think that watching things slug it out would be fun for a bit. Overall though that’s not really worth 20 bucks for me…but don’t worry, I grabbed GSB (and got bored with it in 2 hours) for 5 on a steam sale, I’m pretty sure this guy will make the rounds too.

      Probably going to pass on this one overall though, just not that into tower defense. Though will say again I really like the art style and way things go boom pop in it.

      • Steven Hutton says:

        Yeah, I got bored of it in around that time, sad to say. Doubly odd because I must’ve put over 100 hours into Defence Grid.

    • Starky says:

      I think his price point is about right for the opening price.
      Sure those of us mildly interested for whom this isn’t a must by won’t get it at that price point, but like everything we’ll just have to wait for a 50% off sale (as it will inevitably come), then we can buy it at a price that more reflects our interest and probable time spent with the game.

    • Premium User Badge

      Carra says:

      I’ll just wait until I can pick it up for $10.

    • trjp says:

      I have to join the “the price is a bit offputting” club – yes, I know the market can’t keep racing to the bottom and all that BUT what’s being offered here is a Tower Defence game with a bit of a twist in terms of playing both sides and replaying the game against yourself.

      I find the comments about the content particularly worrying – I’m not keen on a game which has a premium price AND expects the community to entertain itself!!

      Whilst the idea is intriguing – it’s not almost-£20 intriguing – not when there are games like Defence Grid (cheap as chips) and Kingdom Rush (free) and so on…

      Hell I don’t think I’d paid over £10 for a game in about 2 years now!!

      • cliffski says:

        Hello :D
        The game doesn’t expect you to create your own content, it offers it there as an option, mainly because people absolutely swarmed to the challenge system in Gratuitous Space Battles (currently 72,000 online challenges, and thats excluding ones I eventually pruned due to lack of activity).

        There should be enough content right now, given the two different play styles (attack/defence) on 8 maps, with 3 difficulty levels and 3 different AI modes for each.
        Added to that is the whole custom-unit feature, which means maps can be extremely varied.

        But even having said that, there are plans to add more campaign maps before final release.

  7. dsch says:

    Review of the review: over-laboured with corny metaphors, difficult to piece together at times.

    • P7uen says:

      Review of your comment: unpopular and unnecessary, but with a certain tone and charm appreciated by the audience.

    • Simon Hawthorne says:

      I’m sorry to say that I agree with this – I don’t feel like I have a grasp of what the game is like from this review; that’s something that RPS is really good at so it’s a shame to see that strength wane. Maybe other people will love this review but I’m afraid it wasn’t the review I was looking for.

    • Utgaardsloke says:

      This review suffers from metaphoritis.

    • Zarunil says:

      Agree, this review was overly metaphorical and hard to read.

  8. Premium User Badge

    princec says:

    Played this round Cliffski’s house with Paul from Mode7 a few weeks ago, on Cliff’s living room telly. Pretty epic. It’s got vastly more depth than an ordinary “tower defence” game. And of course, you can play the attackers! How cool is that?

    Multiplayer is where this game is at.

  9. mckertis says:

    I like the concept, as with GSB, but once again, component placement has no meaning, there are no shooting arcs and you cant put things behind other things. What’s the point then.

    • realityflaw says:

      I was under the impression that there will be positional damage as in GSB, so that components that were nearer the incoming attacks would be more vulnerable to fire.

      Or did I totally imagine that in GSB?

  10. Caiman says:

    I get the distinct impression from this review that Tim was looking for a different game to the one Positech have produced. To me this looks like Tower Defence on steroids, an evolution of the genre with a bit more depth than usual, plus plenty of community map sharing. Tim seems to be disappointed about what it isn’t, rather than what it is.

    I shall wait for the release demo, but having seen the videos I remain really interested in this.

    • Shadowcat says:

      That Tim would find the game lacking as a Tank game doesn’t come as a big surprise, which is exactly why I was extremely surprised to see Tim reviewing this in the first place.

      Especially so when… Jim? John? (one of the two) really loves the Tower Defence genre, and would be in an ideal position to compare it against the competition.

      I’m not really sure what happened here?

      • LionsPhil says:

        Surely even for them Tower Defence fatigue must be setting in.

      • sinister agent says:

        Surely a review from someone who’s not a big lover of the genre is a good thing now and then? I’m not a fan of tower defence games, and reading a glowing review of another one by someone who always likes them would have pretty much no effect on me, whereas if I happened to know that someone is neutral or even hostile towards a genre, their being impressed by it carries a lot more weight.

    • Tim Stone says:

      “I get the distinct impression from this review that Tim was looking for a different game to the one Positech have produced.”

      Fair point, but is it possible to criticize a game without mentally re-designing it to some extent?

      If GTB had been built around a random map/random unit skirmish generator, or featured more gameplay mechanisms inspired directly by WWI/WW2, I know I’d have enjoyed it more. I suppose I could have stayed stum about that, but I’m not sure what purpose that would have served.

      “That Tim would find the game lacking as a Tank game doesn’t come as a big surprise, which is exactly why I was extremely surprised to see Tim reviewing this in the first place”

      Hopefully, one of the RPS regulars will share their thoughts on the game at some point. I’d be the first to admit I’m not naturally drawn to Tower Defence games. That said I am fond of tanks, battles, gratuitousness, and a bit of mainstream RTSing now and again, so GTB had a fighting chance of impressing me (Which it did, though not perhaps as much as I’d hoped).

      • cliffski says:

        A random map generator is certainly not out of the question, but I do tend to think that hand-placed stuff in tower defense maps is always going to be a bit better, hence the encouragement for players to design their own custom maps.
        An AI algorithm can happily plot routes from A to B and define some variables, but placing aesthetically pleasing little clumps of ammo-supply crates next to a row of trenches is something (I suspect) best done by a human for now.

        The good news is that I have every intention of adding extra campaign maps before the games final release. Compared with the grief of coding the engine, adding some more maps is actually quite easy and relaxing.

  11. RegisteredUser says:

    Cliffski is still the Nr 1 unlikeable guy that tries to singlehandedly stop the evil pirating horde of the internets to me, uploading fake torrents to the pirate bay, running rampant in comments, writing entire blogs filled with “Why pirates are the scum of the earth” themed entries and always taking the “other” side of the argument in any and all piracy/DRM related threads. (Or feels insulted if you want to only buy his game at a lower than x $$$ price, etc pp)

    Even if the game were the greatest classic of all times, does anyone think I am highly incentivized to either look into it or like it or even buy it with that background?

    There is a human element to sales, too.

    Part of me is actually sad he’s worked all of his to me visible online existence to become this very embodiment of douche-positioning, because for everything else I know about the stuff and him, he seems to have a whole lot of what made me buy almost every HIB that got released: A passion for making games and wanting to continue to do so.

    It is just that how cliffski goes about it makes me absolutely not want to support him in any way whatsoever, whereas I feel the polar opposite about most other indie devs(especially those with a bit more advanced thoughts on the whole piracy subject).

    • Premium User Badge

      Llewyn says:

      You seem to be confused. “Douche-positioning” is pirating games, not campaigning against it.

    • Premium User Badge

      princec says:

      I think you might be one of those vocal minorities that we are all warned about when venturing on to the internet. Your views and similar are plastered all over the place, whilst the 99% of the rest of the world says nothing, thinks you’re clueless, and buy the games.

    • bill says:

      Based solely on his comments on RPS he seems like a pretty nice guy to me. I’ve certainly never seen him say anything aggressive or offensive. He explains his views pretty clearly and interacts with other gamers. Not really sure what else you could want.

      Don’t see how anyone could really complain about fake torrents either.. unless they are packed with viruses or something like that.

      • Vercinger says:

        Interestingly enough, the only times I’ve ever had virus alerts for torrents were when I was downloading his games. Especially Democracy 2, which had tons of infected torrents all over the internet.

        However I highly doubt Cliff had anything to do with it. RegisteredUser’s post is the first time I’ve seen someone make that claim, and I’d need evidence to take it seriously.

        —-

        As for Cliff himself, I haven’t seen many of his posts, but what I have seen includes him not having any idea how problematic, or even inaccessible, online payments can be if you’re living outside the US, Canada and Western Europe. And then claiming that we’re faking it as an excuse to pirate.

        Seeing as he self-publishes, knowing about these problems is part of his job. Understandably, such incompetence is not endearing.

  12. robc says:

    I am a fan of tower defense games. I thoroughly enjoyed Defense Grid, Unstoppable Gorg, and Anomaly Warzone Earth. I am not crazy about GTB. I think Tim’s review captures many of the weaknesses of the game. I do think fans of Gratuitous Space Battles will enjoy the game. Here are some of the final thoughts I have at the end of my preview. If you are interested in the whole review, it can be found here: http://www.oneguytoomanygames.com/2012/03/gratuitous-tank-battles-preview.html

    Gratuitous Tank Battles puts me in an awkward spot. On the surface it appears to have the features that would combine to make for a fun game, but I had to force myself to play through the campaign. I’m at a loss because there isn’t an obvious problem I found with the game. The combat was hectic and challenging at times, but uninteresting. The player has a lot of choices when designing his units, but I didn’t feel compelled to do any more than I had to. If there were some truly unique and interesting abilities to design units with, the unit customization could have been an interesting aspect to the game play. In the end it’s essentially just rock, paper scissors – lasers beat armor, ballistics beat shields, machine guns and flamethrowers beat infantry. There is a little more than that, but nothing that really elevated it to the next level for me. I prefer the clearly delineated units in other tower defense games to creating my own variations. My guess is that fans of this series would not agree with me.

    Rob Clark, One Guy, Too Many Games