Gratuitous Tank Battles, this week’s object of praise/nitpicking, is the brainchild of Cliff ‘Cliffski’ Harris, founder and currently only member of Positech Games. Positech Games — and by extension, Cliffski — are well-known for their previous game, Gratuitous Space Battles. Now, this would be the part where I mock their originality and/or name-writing committee, but I actually really liked Gratuitous Space Battles. I hardly ever actually play it, because it’s ridiculously complex and expansive, but I own almost all the DLC, and I can sit and gaze at the component list for hours. No, that’s not a joke.
Far from being set in space, Gratuitous Tank Battles (the game I’m reviewing today) is set in an alternative timeline where World War 1 never ended, stretching out far beyond the year 2000. It promises adaptive tower defense with a distinct retro-future-infantry-war vibe, and I’m curious to see if it can deliver.
(Mechanical spoiler level: Low if you’ve played Gratuitous Space Battles.)
Not a whole lot to say about Gratuitous Tank Battles’ opening screen. There are options, but they are mundane and not really noteworthy. I make a profile, name myself, and take note of my empty Friends list. Some day, I tell myself. Some day.
I do like that the ‘Manual’ button, which I expect to launch another half-hearted Help screen, actually closes down the game and launched a PDF manual. Alright, in fairness, I like the part where it closes the game down a little less, but whatever works. The manual is well-written and funny, and I spend a good ten minutes with it before relaunching the game again. There, I mess around with the Unit Design function a little, but it’s large and confusing and full of things I don’t understand. Gratuitous Tank Battles does a thing highly similar to Gratuitous Space Battles, where it will blue out the screen and show a set of popups as a tutorial, but that doesn’t help if I’m just quickly checking screens out. Luckily, there’s an option to reset these tutorials afterward, so I reset everything to a fresh slate and continue on.
The Battle Browser button turns out to be where the action starts, as it takes me to a map full of interconnected black locks. This is the campaign map, the game teaches me: from here I can learn the art of war by fighting through different battles. I can play almost all battles as attacker or defender, which is a nice change of tower-defense pace! Emphasis on almost: this first battle is Defender-only. There are three difficulty settings — Captain, Major and Colonel — of which the game recommends I start at the second one.
Nice touch having the infinite Great War start at a re-thread of the Battle of Verdun, one of the longest and bloodiest battles in the actual First World War, incidentally.
But wait, we’re not done yet! As a defender, I get to choose between three sets of unit choices for the AI. There is a pre-scripted set of units available for each map, which completely ignores the selected difficulty in favour of an eminently reproducible experience. I can also give the AI free reign of all units included in this scenario, or allow it that and any units I myself have designed.
I decide to go with ‘Scenario Units’, because I’m curious to see what the adaptive AI will do. And with that, we’re actually off!
After a quick loading screen, the game drops my in a blue-tinted war-zone. Oh, no, wait: that’s the tutorial popups again.
Alright, cutting the jokes for a second. As I’ve mentioned, Gratuitous Tank Battles is primarily a tower defense game; doubly so now that I’ve actually selected the Defender role. The idea is simple: the Attacker’s goal is to march their units along one or more paths to one or more end points. Every unit has a Victory Point value, and every unit that makes it across the finish line adds this value to the Attacker’s final tally. The Defender, obviously, aims to stop this from happening. Both Attacker and Defender get a steady stream of supplies over time, but while the Defender’s supplies are effectively infinite, the Attacker’s aren’t: their stream stops after a set amount of time, indicated by a clock-like circle on the top of the screen. And that’s your basic setup, really: The Attacker has limited time/resources to get a set number of units across the field, and the Defender tries to prevent the Attacker from succeeding.
Right now I play as the Defender, which means I have the possibility to set up a few units before the AI-Attacker starts. I could also decide to conserve the starting supplies and wait for the Attacker to show their hand first, but the game warns me that any unit placed after the round starts has a build time associated with it. I don’t know how bad this will get yet, so I’ll just place some units now.
I look at my units. There are three infantry units in my list, and six turrets — three groups of two, I decide. A mouse-over of each of them gives me a name and a short description. Recruit Riflemen are ‘Cheap’. Veteran Laser Infantry are ‘Slow. Good against armor. Expensive.’ The PK42 Smart Laser Cannon is ‘Good against armor. Protected from lasers.’ And so on, und so weiter.
Turret placement in Gratuitous Tank Battles is sharply limited: only a few spots light up green when I select my 88mm Cannon for placement. If you’re expecting to be able to place turrets along hand-picked choke points, you’ll be unpleasantly surprised. Infantry placement is also limited, but more predictably: infantry needs to be placed in trenches. I place one turret and one squad of infantry, and that’s as far as my supplies get me! Let the battle commence, I guess.
What happens next is… well, tower defense gameplay, really. The Germans send in mechs, which my current cannon is a good match against, so I build a couple of smaller cannons. They send tanks, which my laser infantry can deal with, so I recruit some more and build laser turrets. They send infantry, so I counter with flame turrets. One large difference between this game and tradition off-the-path tower defense is that the Attacker’s units actually attack my turrets while travelling. It’s secondary to their immediate objective — get to the end — but that doesn’t make it any less noticable. Turrets take damage, catch on fire, and explode, and infantry dies by the trenchload.
It’s a close match, and a few German units get through, but by the time the final air raid siren sounds, it’s 110/200. I win.
The game congratulates me on my victory with some incomprehensible gibberish, and new toys! I get one piece of technology just out of hand — predetermined or random? No idea — as well as a choice between two other pieces. Either a II-Shotgun or a V-Turbolaunch Missile System. I don’t know what the numbers mean, but I do know which one I’m picking.
Missiles in hand, I go into the second battle of Vimy Ridge, again as a Defender and again against a Scenario Units AI. The first thing I note is that there is a distinct lack of turbo missiles among my forces. The second thing I note is that this battle is not going so well. I’d go as far as to call it a humiliating defeat.
What happened? Honestly, I don’t know. Part of blame might be that I built my defensive line around a large double-looped set of trenches, reinforcing the laser infantry there with armored cannons. The AI responded by sending out shielded laser mechs and machine gun tanks, the latter of which absolutely annihilated my infantry line. I mean, really erased them without a second thought. Because laser infantry is expensive, I was left lacking in money to build adequate defenses, and because I didn’t notice what was going on at first, I spent a lot of money on addition meat-grinder infantry. This left me pretty much without turrets, halfway through the match, with a long line of tanks leisurely driving towards the finish line. I don’t know if I should credit the adaptive AI or my own inattentiveness, but it’s a loss nonetheless.
Apparently, a loss rewards me with only the static technology, not the choice. I already forgot what my second reward was, because my first reaction to this loss was to read up on damage and damage mitigation some more. I failed, in part, because some of my turrets just kind of melted. What gives?
Damage and damage mitigation in Gratuitous Tank Battles follows a fairly simple like-beats-like model: armor protects against kinetic projectiles, shields protect against energy weapons. Of course, that’s the basic theory: there’s more variables than that in play. Certain weapons, like machine guns, are much more effective against infantry, for example. It transpires that the laser mechs the Germans sent out against my armor cannons were supposed to be an even match, but that my over-reliance on infantry made me vulnerable. I also notice, looking back, that the Germans started using support vehicles in this battle, which I should have taken out earlier. Which, incidentally, teaches me I can target my units.
The second attempt goes much better. I start off with a decent mix of armor and shield turrets. The AI sends out waves after waves of ambulance-supported infantry to counter this. I place cheap Riflemen in the trenches and machine guns along the path, but I’m careful not to overextend: this pays off when about halfway in, the AI switches tactics, sending out heavy mechs and tanks. My main line — anti-infantry as it is — is pushed back, but I have time and money enough to build a secondary defense line further down. In the end, not a single German unit passes.
Next, I decide to try this very same battle as Attacker. Here, I get a similar choice: allow either Scenario Units or All Units? There’s no scripted mode for the Defending AI, which wouldn’t really make much sense anyway.
Attacking is performed by placing units on a certain group of squares at the start of the path. Units then walk forward, shooting at things as they go, until they hit the end of the road of die. It’s less spatially involved than defending, and instead relies on me having a good grasp of what the enemy is building and how to counter it. There is also an additional element of ‘supplies’: if I reach dropped supplies within a certain time, I get the ability to spawn a ‘Supply Truck’, a 1500-point-value non-combat vehicle that can pretty much make the match immediately if I get it across. It also serves as a decent fire-soaker, since the defending AI will target it with preference.
Attacking is hard. Especially early on, it feels like all I’m doing is sending units to their pointless deaths. While turrets get damaged, and sometimes destroyed, it feels like the defending AI has plenty of resources at hand to make up for any gaps I make. It isn’t until I start sending out heavier units that my column actually gets anywhere. Still, I have to try three times before I actually manage to win as an Attacker.
Speed is a element of the Attacker’s strategy that the Defender simply doesn’t have. Different units move at different speeds, and fast units cannot overtake slow ones. In later levels, where you get multiple lanes to play with, you can plan multiple approaches at different times, stagger units so they reach objectives together, or queue fast units behind slow ones so they can take off once the slow unit dies. It’s an interesting addition, to be sure, and it makes Attacker life a lot more interesting. I still prefer Defending, I think, but I’ll try both of them a bit more.
And that’s where we are right now. I’ve played as Defender (fairly succesfully) and as Attacker (less so) and in doing so, I’ve noticed two things. One, that the AI uses some toys I haven’t even seen yet. And two, that I’m fairly sure the pre-made units are not as effective as they could be. I guess it’s time to brave the depths of the Edit Units screen and see what I can come up with.
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