Today we got to see Positech's sequel to Gratuitous Space Battles for the first time. Logically enough it was called Gratuitous Tank Battles, because it features a multitude of tanks, and even robots. However, it was very nearly called Gratuitous Trench Battles, and even "Over The Top", and you can find out why by reading on, below...
Those of you who dabbled in Gratuitous Space Battles will probably recall that the experience was a little unusual. It was a space fleet manager, rather than the real-time strategy you might have been expecting, and that experience that threw a few people. This was a game where you were the admiralty, rather than the commander, and you simply set up your fleet and your tactics and let the game play out. Terrestrial sequel Gratuitous Tank Battles is a little more hands-on than that, because you can direct a little of where the action is going. The basic premise nevertheless remains the same: intense tweaking and customisation followed by epic, gratuitous battles. This isn't about fleet battles in space of course, but gigantic assaults on the ground. It is about sending tanks, and mechs, and millions of tiny men to their deaths. It's still based in the Gratuitous idea, but this time it's actually a tower defence game. Sort of.
Gratuitous Tank Battles is a far more substantial offering than its predecessor. There's a campaign mode right out of the gate, for one thing, but Cliffski is also talking producing a menu of game modes: "I want all the game modes I can think of," he tells me, and that sounds like a lot of game modes. His references for this new game are diverse: the history of 20th century warfare on the one hand, and PopCap's Plants Vs Zombies on the other. "I suppose what I really want is Blackadder Goes Forth with lasers," he explains. What he is referencing, of course, is the final season of the classic British comedy in which ignoble servant of nobles, Edmund Blackadder, is doomed to serve in the trenches of World War I. In Cliff's Gratuitous Tank Battles universe this war has never really ended, and now - in 2114 - two hundred years of war have resulted in trench warfare which is just as likely to see the deployment of hapless men with rifles and gasmasks as it is great stomping robots. Gratuitous Tank Battles is the whole of modern warfare and its sci-fi future. Tanks of all shapes and sizes are pitted against vast, mechanized defences: WWI style meatgrinders of the future through which your army must pass.
This means that there are two sides to every battle, and in the campaign mode you can choose whether to attack or defend in each scenario. As an attacker you must send in your army of tanks, soldiers, and robots, in a number of waves. Your plan is to wear down some of the enemy defences, and absorb the punishment they dish out, in order to get a certain value of troops out through the exits on the far side of the field. As your units travel you can direct where they fire, allowing you concentrate their efforts on particular towers, and sticking points that might be troublesome to pass. The real trick, of course, is to have made the right kind of customisations to your units in the first place. As a defender your have to set up your grid of towers in the most economical fashion, paying attention to firing arcs and potential kill-zones. Cliff illustrates some of the detail of both sides by slowing down time. He says he'll even be leaving frame-by-frame tools he uses for development work in there for players to pay meticulous attention to what is happening in their battles.
The core of the game, however, is not the campaign but instead in taking on customised attacks or defences created by and downloaded from the community. This was arguably the most successful feature of Gratuitous Space Battles: being able to upload your fleet build to the game and download other folks' builds to try your luck against. This led to all kinds of committed nerdery which Cliff is hoping to see repeated here. Only this time there are asymmetrical possibilities, since you can both attack and defend. Everything can be customised, and that goes for visuals, too. Even the tank turrets can be swapped out for something sexier, on your whim. Cliff is expecting people to produce their own visual motfis, so you might just recognise the pink and yellow liveries of the Rossignol mechanized cavalry from one user-made scenario to another. The real challenge will be in create impenetrable defences, or unstoppable armies.
The focus on vast battles from the off is largely due to Cliff's own response to RTS and tower defence games. "I hate how usually these games start so slowly, with just a couple of units, or one tower," he explains. "What you want is hundreds of units right away, and therefore hundreds of explosions. That just makes for a better game." Cliff is also not a fan of the generic "upgrade" of many RTS or tower defence units? "Upgrade? What do they mean?" he asks. "That's not specific enough for me, I might want to upgrade just the rate of fire, or the ranger." This hunger for tinkering is reflected in the unit editing screens that sit at the heart of the game. This time, though, there won't be 47 types of plasma missile to confound your decision making, and the selecting will be pared down. "No spreadsheet learning curve this time," he promises. There will still be the trademark depth and complexity of army-management, however.
There are some big challenges ahead for Cliff - a balancing nightmare for one - but it's looking strong, far stronger than the original game. We'll be looking forward to see more in the coming weeks.
Gratuitous Tank Battles is scheduled to appear later this year, probably. And it will most certainly have a demo.