I like Gratuitous Space Battles a lot, so I was surprised to find that Gratuitous Tank Battles didn’t really live up to my expectations. I was expecting the same sorts of mechanics and progression with ground units instead of spaceships, and if that’s what I’d gotten I would have been perfectly happy. There is a lot of similarity between the two titles, but where Gratuitous Space Battles is all sandbox and building blocks, Gratuitous Tank Battles changes things up and turns the whole thing into a tower defense game that never feels quite right.
The unit building is fun and feels a lot like Positech’s first title. I like figuring out exactly which gun is right for the job, and weighing the pros and cons of additional firepower versus additional weight. I’m sure that bores other people to tears, but it’s rewarding to come up with a great design to get through the scenario at hand. Where things fall apart a bit is that, since Gratuitous Tank Battles is a tower defense game, you need different things to be effective on offense and defense. Offensively, there are no healing units available at the game’s outset which makes attacking and winning nearly impossible. I understand that there needs to a sense of progression in a game, but if you’re going to deny me healing units then the patch my units walk needs to be short enough that I can make it to the enemy stronghold.
On defense, Gratuitous Tank Battles leaves out a great tower defense concept: maze creation. With fixed paths, your only avenue to victory is figuring out how to get the most firepower for your money. If the player were allowed to create mazes, other strategies would become viable. You could go all out on that default straight path, or invest your money in some filler turrets to ensure that all of the enemy units walk by your heavy-duty turret three times. Concepts like these are why I come back to Defense Grid: The Awakening but won’t be coming back to Gratuitous Tank Battles.
A sense of progression is important in a game, and it makes sense to lock some units away from the player at the outset. It’s overwhelming in any situation to go straight from zero to 100 options. First-person shooters dole out weapons slowly, RTSs introduce new units (both friendly and enemy) as the campaign progresses, and platformers allow the player to find new abilities throughout the game. What makes this work is intelligent design behind the unlocks. AA guns are introduced at the same as enemy aircraft, the ability to make your character glide after a jump comes up just when jumps become more complex and the city opens up for exploration, and the shotgun makes its first appearance when you start running into enemies wearing body armor. Units are unlocked in Gratuitous Tank Battles by doing well in campaign levels. This doesn’t sound too bad, except you’ll rapidly find yourself unable to do well in a scenario because you’re trying to unlock the unit that you need to do well in the very same scenario.
The folks at Positech make great toys. The level of customization here – including level creation – is astounding. The system makes sense and is easy to use even if things look a bit drab on the screen. Taking the square peg that is the customization and jamming it into the round hole of tower defense just doesn’t work, and it’s a shame because there’s a lot of fun to be had here for the tinkerer who can slog through unlocking any units worth using.
Pros: Immensely deep customization
Cons: Poor pacing and unlock schedule