Let me colour all of this in with an example. One battle quite early on lets you work with an entire training academy's worth of pilots, but very little cash. I chose to mix things up by deploying nothing but heavily armoured fighters. The turrets of big ships move too slowly to track fighters, and ordinarily fighters can't take down cruisers because their tiny weapons can't penetrate the shields. I figured I'd get around this by equipping half of my fighters with bulky torpedoes that I knew would penetrate those shields. Satisfied, I started the battle.
What happened? Well, basically my forces got held up against a brick wall and given a space wedgie. It was a massacre. All the armour and torpedoes had my fighters manoeuvring so slowly that the enemy had no trouble reducing them to dust with heavy weapon fire. My wounded ego and I went limping back to the drawing board, having learned all about the importance of speed.
It's times like this, when you're organising tense tests of the game's boundaries and still enjoying the occasional success, that Gratuitous Space Battles absolutely shines. Where it falls down is that it can't keep this degree of mystery up. After your first four hours or so, the game's glittering presentation and overwhelming choice of components begin peeling back at the edges to reveal something much more mundane.
Battles never hold surprises, for one thing. It's never the case that you'll take on an enemy fleet and think, "Woah, what on Earth is that?" or "How did they do that?", because while the game has a decent amount of ship components, they don't lend themselves to extreme tactics. This isn't EVE Online or even Homeworld. It's something much more plain, with ships simply hammering the crap out of one another and you doing your best to optimise your own hammering.
While the endgame of Gratuitous Space Battles will see you bending the rules of combat back on themselves to do much more with less, that's simply not a very exciting prospect. The game's a much more exciting challenge when you're playing with new tools, rather than simply inventing more efficient uses for old ones.
Similarly, this game is actually in possession of a brilliant little script, with each component and weapon description hiding a tiny piece of wit or sarcasm. Then there's there's each battle's chat ticker, which shows communication bouncing back and forth throughout your fleet referring to things like a certain much-loved pilot being reduced to space-dust or how a cruiser's mess hall has been destroyed and "it's take-out food tonight, boys!" But in a short time you've laughed at all of this twice over, leaving you alone with a game that endlessly repeats its own jokes.
I do like Gratuitous Space Battles. I think it's a great concept, beautifully presented. I just wish it would let me like it more. The framework's right here, but the game is staring into the void, trying to present a single, mercilessly robust puzzle instead of what I suspect it might have been better at – variety, surprises and jokes. If you feel like dropping some gratuity Positech's way for a copy of GSB, you probably won't be disappointed, but you might surprise yourself at how quickly you move on.
Gratuitous Space Battles is out now for PC. You can buy it direct from the game's website, and there's a demo there, too.