For all us Star Wars fanatics, that classic moment from Return of the Jedi where Skywalker - being held captive onboard the Death Star - is forced to watch the Rebel Alliance ambushed by a fleet of star destroyers, really springs to mind when first laying eyes Gratuitous Space Battles.
Not only do the 2D visuals of the game look uncannily similar to the distant photon torpedo blasts, collisions between fighters and shield walls, and the alliance's great lumbering cruisers blown to dust in Return of the Jedi. But Luke's frustration and sense of helplessness as he stares out of that small window in the emperor's throne room, is something which the rookie Gratuitous Space Battle's player can (on their first go at least) certainly identify with. Because while this is a game whose comical title tempts you to just dive straight in expecting nothing more than a bit of good old wanton destruction, you soon find yourself - after watching your fleet get systematically annihilated.- at the foot of a very steep learning curve.
The gameplay of Gratuitous Space Battles is, in some respects, similar to a Championship Manager title. The player chooses their squad from an array of warships, which vary from speedy little one man fighters to huge bulk cruisers, and then kits them out with a variety of different shields, armour, crews, engines and weapons. Then, having chosen their formation, the player enters a kind of Real Time Strategy battle in which their forces engage and attempt to defeat the enemy fleet.
However, once the battle starts, the player is not permitted any direct interaction with their units and must, like an anxious Alex Ferguson chomping on a piece of chewing gum, simply watch events unfold from the sideline. And while GBS is rather difficult to pin down genre wise because it combines elements of both real time and turn based strategy, its take on futuristic warfare is stunningly original. Armchair strategists will quickly find themselves lost in a haven of endless customization options (which grow ever more diverse as the player accumulates Honour which is basically a form of XP) - although, that said, GBS certainly won't be to the liking of every gamer due to its enormous depth and complexity,
Success is all about perseverance, calculation and methodical planning. The player must strive to somehow tip the balance in their favour, either by stocking up on things like shield piecing missiles for an offensive strategy, using stronger shields for better endurance, or by making their fleet as well rounded as possible. It can be a very frustrating trial-by-error learning process, especially when you find yourself constantly overmatched (particularly later in the game), and endlessly having to tweak your squad before finally getting the right balance of attacks and countermeasures.
It's unfortunate that the game doesn't help you out with a bit more advice when things keep going wrong. Indeed, sometimes in your fury you just wish you could get behind the wheel of one of your flailing cruisers and turn the tide James T Kirk style. But recklessness usually only ends in failure, whilst those players who tackle GBS with the foresight of a Captain Picard - always trying to be three steps ahead - usually triumph.
So while GBS might seem like a tongue-in-cheek, maybe even a slightly fatuous title at first glance, strategy gamers will be pleasantly surprised by just how much it has to offer. The graphics are not particularly complex but manage to be nonetheless stylish, whilst the cheeky text commentary during RTS battles helps add to GBS' unique sense of charm. The only slight drawback is the fact the game doesn't go out its way to make many concessions to the player, and sometimes you find yourself really yearning for a few pointers. And while those with the passivity of Master Yoda can probably overcome this, for most of us, watching your fleet being mauled time and time will have you - like Luke Skywalker - dieing to take a swipe at something.