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Wot I Think: Gratuitous Tank Battles

Somme Misgivings

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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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Tim Stone

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