As some of you around here may know, I like tower defence. I like tower defence because I’m a real-time strategy wuss; a turtler who loves nothing more than holing up, hunkering down and awaiting my eventual demise. Venturing out was never my thing. AND IN-GAME (sorry). Most of my favourite tower defence games however, have offered a lot more besides mere towers and defending. In this regard Gratuitous Tank Battles is no different. Tipped as an RTS/simulation/tower defence hybrid, GTB marks Positech Games’ follow up to the highly praised Gratuitous Space Battles. It’s hardly Gratuitous Hoverboard Battles but it’ll have to do.
Here’s the trailer, it’s all kinds of epic:
GTB takes place 200 years after the first World War started. Unfortunately however, it never ended; the war rages on, and while some say that war never changes, here it certainly has. Mechs, shields and lasers are now as commonplace as tanks, rifles and soldiers and yet the game still feels like it’s set in 1914. Despite the technological leaps, The Great War remains largely ground based and most vehicles, particularly tanks, look just as gnarly and utilitarian as they ever did. The battlefields themselves are cut up by trenches, pocked by craters and peppered with tank blockades, barbed wire fences and other bits of detritus that wish they were somewhere else. So maybe war never does change. Even the game’s sense of humour seems to be channeling the deluded, dimwitted and high-spirited what-ho and pomp of the likes of George and Melchett from Blackadder Goes Forth, a quintessentially British comedy set in the trenches during World War I (and if you don’t know what Blackadder is then I highly recommend you rent or purchase everything after the first series and watch it immediately).
Though I haven’t played Gratuitous Space Battles (I expect that to change after this) I knew enough about it to expect GTB to look the part. What I wasn’t expecting was it to look quite so good and downright satisfying. The menus and interface are well presented and tidy but it’s the battles themselves that really impress. There’s just so much going on: laser beams, laser sights, tracer fire and missile trails all cut across the screen; tank tracks, tyre tracks, mech and infantry foot prints follow units in their wake; explosions and cannon blasts ripple outwards; shields shimmer; flamers flames and burnt out wreckages and corpses pile up along the routes — it’s pure chaos. The audio is a real treat as well and makes brilliant use of the game’s zoom function, and, while I may be reading a little too much between the lines, I can’t help but feel there’s a bit of a wry poke being made at the disparity and distance between high command and the soldiers on the frontline here. Zoomed all the way out you can see pretty much the entire battlefield, the war below becoming more of an abstraction and being barely audible — at this level only the suitably bombastic and rousing music and interface clicks can be heard clearly. However, fully zoomed in, these things can scarcely be heard above the cacophony of explosions, gunfire and troops screaming out: suddenly the war is anything but a distant abstraction (and is actually very detailed). To quote the Blackadder video above “Don’t worry my boy, if you should falter, remember that Captain Darling and I are behind you.” “About 35 miles behind you.”
There are a number of ways that GTB breathes new life into the often tired and wheezy tower defence genre. Firstly there’s the option of attacking the AI rather than just defending against it. As an attacker you decide which units to deploy, how they navigate the map and which turrets they should focus their attacks on while they move towards the level’s exit point. All units that make it to the exit give you ‘victory points’ and certain special units (mainly supply trucks and infantry) give you more victory points than others. While attacking you are drip fed a finite supply of… uh, ‘supply’, as it’s called, and this is what you use to purchase units. The aim is to gain as many victory points as possible before your supply runs out with a view to reaching a victory point target. Succeeding or failing at this determines how much tech you unlock and I suspect the quality of the tech. Conversely, when you’re defending, your aim is to stop the attacker’s units getting to the exit before the victory point target is reached.
GTB employs a more elaborate rock-paper-scissors type system that determines what is strong against what. Lasers cut through armour, armour protects against ballistics, ballistics go through shields and shields block lasers. It’s fairly simple but sussing out what projectiles are what and which units have what armour in the heat of battle is initially befuddling. Thankfully you can slow down, speed up or pause time altogether during battle as well as issue orders to your units. Once a unit’s armour or shield is depleted its defences are down and it will start to incur ‘internal’ damage, this pretty much means that anything can harm it.
Secondly, in GTB almost everything is customisable; infantry, tanks, mechs, turrets, support vehicles and structures, even the levels themselves can be edited. Unit customisation and unlockable tech is divided into three categories: hulls, components and augmentations. Hulls not only determine the type of unit you’re creating or editing (eg. truck, light tank, heavy mech, missile turret etc.) but also what types of components and augmentations can be equipped as well as how many. Components are the individual parts or systems that have to be equipped to complete a unit (such as armour, shields, weapons, targeting, reloading and propulsion systems), while augmentations are usually bonuses that buff certain attributes. Each component that makes up a unit positively and negatively affects the overall cost and effectiveness of it so getting new tech doesn’t necessarily mean you can make ‘better’ units, it’s very much a balancing act. So for instance, from an attacking perspective heavy armour might be good at making a unit last longer but it’s also heavier and will impede movement speed. This wouldn’t be so bad if units could move around each other but in true TD fashion they move in single file so if you’ve got a heavy tank up front, everything behind it moves just as slowly. From a defence point of view a heavily armoured unit will simply cost more and (I think) take longer to build.
Thirdly, custom levels created using GTB’s terrific in-game level editor can be uploaded as challenges within the game itself for other players to try their hand at. You can even create your own level, play as an attacker using your own customised units and record your attack so that it can be bundled with the level for others to try and fend off. In fact, there’s nothing stopping you playing your own level and attempting to defend against the attack you recorded. So the game effectively allows you to play with yourself.
Fourthly — and this is my favourite aspect of the game which ties in very nicely with the above elements — you can select how the AI plays against you, whether you’re attacking or defending. There are three main modes here: Scripted, Scenario Units and All Units. ‘Scripted’ is exclusive to defending and plays like a traditional tower defence game in that the enemy’s attack pattern is scripted and unaffected by the difficulty setting. This attack pattern is pre-determined by the recording that came with the level (as mentioned above). ‘Scenario Units’ however, takes the difficulty setting into account and allows the enemy AI to adapt and change their strategy depending on your actions, selecting from whatever units were used in the scripted recorded attack. This means that no two attempts — whether you’re attacking or defending — will be the same because the AI is continually trying to counter whatever you throw at it.
Now we’re getting to the best bit.
‘All Units’ works in the same way as Scenario Units but this time allows the AI to not only select units from the scripted recorded attack but also from anything you’ve designed yourself. So you remember that hulking world-destroying tank you designed? Well, say hello to it in the enemy’s hands, you’d better go and make a turret to deal with it. The All Units mode is a very clever way of allowing the AI to be every bit as potent as you are depending on what you create and of course what difficulty you’ve selected. I’ve found that my bespoke ‘problem solver’ units have gone on to do admirably, but in the hands of the enemy have created entirely new problems which I’ve then had to counter in other ways. My heavy long range gatling mech for example has become the source of many problems.
“Right ladies and gents, I want everyone to focus their attacks on that mech.”
“But sir, what do you mean everyone?”
“EVERYONE! If that blasted thing gets through our front-lines, we’ll have empty bloody trenches and a clear path for old Fritzy!”
“But sir it’s heavily armoured AND equipped with a shield!”
“Damn and blast your buts, call in an airstrike and keep shooting at it! Hit the hun where it hurts and all that. We haven’t got all day you know!”
GTB comes with a 12 mission campaign right off the bat and coupled with the ability to attack or defend (two modes of play which feel like entirely different experiences in themselves) you’ve got essentially 24 missions. There are three difficulty settings, Captain, Major and Colonel (easy, medium and hard, respectively) and three AI modes as well so there’s plenty here to get you started before going anywhere near the unit and level editors. I spent a good chunk of my time just playing with vanilla units before the AI’s advanced tech later on forced my hand. Thankfully, creating and editing units is a breeze and if you get the bug, as did I, you’ll be tinkering and tailoring for some time before testing out your work. Do you go for speed? Do you go for range? Do you go for rate of fire or protection or accuracy? Do you go for numerous cheap units or fewer heavy duty expensive ones? Do you create specialised units or jacks of all trades? And what about your infantry? How will they work in a bunker or trench defending and how will they fare marching to the exit point attacking? Initially I found GTB overwhelming and in some cases frustrating because there are so many moving parts and variables — I’m just not used to this much choice — but as I played more and the mechanics and concepts sunk in, I started to get it. There’s a potentially limitless number of challenges to be had here, whether it’s playing your own levels against your own units or other players’ levels against their own. For tower defence fans, that’s pretty damn exciting.
GTB isn’t going to be for everyone of course. If you don’t care one iota about tower defence, tweaking and fine tuning strategies and designs you might want to give this a miss. One thing’s for sure though, stamping GTB as a straight forward tower defence title would be doing it a massive disservice. My advice — indeed my recommendation — is to give the demo a whirl and make your own mind up. I think GTB is superb and up there with some of my favourite hybrid tower defence titles. As it stands, I’m yet to complete the campaign because I’ve been having too much fun dealing with the early missions — as both an attacker and defender on the different AI modes — and fiddling with my first custom map to care. Neither have I unlocked all the tech or ventured online to look at the challenges others have uploaded, but when you consider everything that GTB offers, there’s a tremendous amount of content here, and unique content at that.
To add to all this, Cliff Harris, the developer, has been extraordinarily open and responsive to feedback (good or bad) since the game’s release, actively encouraging players to get in touch and speak up. I contacted him about a month or so ago outlining a few issues I was having and he responded promptly explaining certain things I was misunderstanding (and saying he’d make these things clearer in-game) and noting that others were due to be fixed in forthcoming patches. A few days later most of said issues were fixed. Since then there’s been a number of additional improvements from improved flamer effects and new unit previews in the unit editor, to better infantry deployment and added help popups. Bloody marvelous.
You can grab the demo or purchase the full game from the official Gratuitous Tank Battles website for $22.95 (about £15, and it also registers on Steam). If you purchase a second copy at the same time you’ll get it for half price.
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