War, like playing silly buggers, is something best confined to the frame of a computer screen. And if you’re looking for silly-bugger warfare, why, you’d be pressed hard to look farther than Positech’s Gratuitous Tank Battles.
GTB is pretty thoroughly like and yet unlike its spiritual predecessor, Gratuitous Space Battles. You’re on earth instead of the yawning eye sockets of the universe, exchanging fire with crunching, mechanical brutes of riveted steel instead of the seething insects of interstellar death.
That is to say, you’ve got to stop some bastard’s big, gruesome machines and cannon fodder from getting through some tunnels, and you’ve got to shove your own gruesome machines and cannon fodder through some tunnels while some BASTARD tries to stop you.
So it’s tower defence and offence all wrapped up in a bow. A smoking, ragged bow that’s been used as a garrotte. It’s fucking hard, is what I’m saying. But this frustration is mitigated by the fact that you can make magenta mechs.
But I’m getting yonder of myself.
The story belying GTB involves an alternate take on World War I that has been going on for about, oh, 200 years. Scintillatingly, there are lasers and also mechs among your stock of tanks, infantry, lorry-trucks, pillboxes and sandbags. And your superiors are utterly barking, which comes across fantastically in the game’s charming, often hilarious writing.
There are two main ways to play GTB. The first is the single-player campaign, in which you attempt to capture territory from the ever-to-be-maligned Germans through a series of battles in which you play either besetter or beset. The rest you play online.
It starts off fairly innocuously, showing you the scopes and just generally mucking about with bloodied boots. As a defender, your job is to place units – grunts, turrets and support structures such as hospitals – on strategic spots along a route (or series of routes) to stop a long line of attacking units from reaching the other side. When you’re attacking the roles are reversed.
It’s all done with the use of supplies, which are exchanged for units and replaced slowly over time. You start off with a chunk, pop down your opening gambit and let the game fly. The trick is to gauge the order and combination of your enemy’s placements and counter with the right guns at the right time. Easy said, but do you place the first thing you can, desperate to stop that mech from stepping off the map, or do you let it go, wait and drop something meatier in the hopes of staunching the tide to come? Do you demolish that turret idling near the back to free up supplies, or do you leave it there to catch that straggling tank smoking its way through the trenches?
You’ve also got to make sure you don’t wait too long without making placements, because when your supplies reach their cap they stop rolling in until you start using them again. The attacker has a given amount of time to smash through the defences, and when that’s up his or her supply rate drops to zero.
And the speed with which you can build units is not only measured by supplies; you only have four of each class of unit ready to hand. Use more and you have to wait for them to be delivered.
For the most part your placements are fire-and-forget: you drop them and they do their thing. But it’s also possible to fine-tune their action, sending assailants down this road or that, or ordering a missile rack to target a supply vehicle or the ambulance that is, infuriatingly, keeping the infantry alive.
Things are further shot up with attack and defence specialities. There can be up to three layers of defence keeping beams and projectiles at bay – energy shields, plate armour and, well, the guts of whatever it is you’re trying to protect. Correspondingly, you need to mix things up to ensure you have the right combination of firepower to whittle back your opponent’s forces.
It can get incredibly frenetic, keeping an eye on multiple lines of attack and defence, keeping tabs on unit health and concentration, keeping your palsied hands calm enough to hold your government-issue cigarette still… Thankfully, it’s possible to set the speed of the action at anything from pause to let’s just get this over with, you arseholes. There is even an option to advance the chaos frame by frame.
But there is still a lot to keep track of, with the difficulty curve passing an event horizon of horror in three easy steps. Battles start off with with a simple path to the finish, but later on you have to contend with labyrinthine tangles of thoroughfare that are impossible to cover without redeploying your resources all over the damn place. In the dark. With some Cold War–era night vision goggles. And you’re looking out for the last embattled grunt in a squad to keel over and drop his dog tags, which you can pick up for cash. Oh god, and then there’s the air strikes (if you’re defending), which are just as likely to glumph your own troops.
But this is all just the start, see? Finish a battle and you get a new unit to kit out. Manage to win that battle and, in addition, you get to choose between two perky components with which to do the kitting. To access the new stuff you have to leave play and enter the unit editor, which is quick enough but could have been more integrated and flowing. The unit editor lets you change your loadouts, edit the look of your units, and create new ones, choosing from a hefty array of armour, shielding, gunfuck, propulsion, targeting, reloading and augmentation options.
Balance is the bitch: that devastating rib-rack of missile massacre is tasty, but it’s also going to give your average mech a hernia. More armour makes you harder to stop, but it slows you down and gives your assailants more time to stop you. Also, you have to bear in mind the supply cost incurred by each of your equips.
You can also, pivotally, change colours. I experienced untoward quantities of glee at being able to create a pink tank called Sparkle Magic to lay the punk-down on the front lines. It is, to a word, gratuitous. Gloriously so.
Especially when you sit back and watch the carnage unfold. I’m no war hound, me, but by Dixie, this is a fun game to watch. I got all tense watching Sparkle Magic take on a veritable viper’s nest of humourless anti-tank tribulation. Go Sparkle Magic! Go, you over-bloated belly of warheads!
If you allow the sneaky AI to deploy units you’ve created, you’ll find you’ve set up a splendid loop of headaches for yourself. Once you’ve perfected that finely balanced armada of mechanised bullies, switch places and you’re suddenly pitted against them. It’s like being a double agent with multiple personalities – you’re shafting yourself at every turn. It’s nasty. It’s wonderfully nasty.
Once you’re done with the single-player campaign (good luck – have you tried it on hard?), you’ve got a few options at your disposal. You can make your own maps, blunder through murder holes other players have created, or take on “challenges” – recorded attacks, complete with custom units, posted by distant players to vex the living shit out of you.
If I were forced at Plasma Walther PPK–point to admit my least favourite part of the game, it’d be the online stuff. I really like the main campaign, and it would have been nice if I could have accessed more, player-crafted campaigns instead of the potluck selection of maps and challenges; fun as some of them are, I missed that sense of cohesion and progression.
The map editor, meanwhile, is workable but feels limited, and to be honest I’d rather play the maps than make them.
But none of this sullied my experience. Gratuitous Tank Battles strikes a salubrious balance: it’s frustratingly fun, deep without being pedantic, and harrowingly hypnotic, like a post-traumatic veteran juggling potato mashers.
It’s the perfect way to spill blood over a cup of tea, in other words.