Gratuitous Tank Battles and Expansion: The Western Front

Gratuitous Tank Battles: The Western Front
Gratuitous Tank Battles Western Front Cover
Platforms Windows
Genre Tower Rush
Buy from Developer

Gratuitous Tank Battles is a unique take on tower-strategy mechanics, created by a man who clearly has a strong attention to detail. This article will be covering both the base game, released this past May, and its expansion The Western Front, which is being released this today on Steam. Both are developed by Positech Games, which is more or less known as Cliff "cliffski" Harris. At first glance, GTB appears to be a standard tower defense game covered in a fine finish, but things quickly become more complicated. For a bit of background reading, we do also have a preview of the game which goes over the basics from a different point of view.

When the player starts the game and passes through the tutorial pop-ups, you head to the "Battle Browser" to begin a conflict. This browser shows the current campaign map and missions along with custom levels and online community challenges. The campaign mode is a semi-branching series of missions to complete, with the optional paths generally containing maps with some sort of gimmick. For example, we're given particularly infantry-heavy battles, and night maps with toggleable low-light vision. Most of the normal maps have a standard 2-4 paths to defend and a fairly decent amount of tower placement locations. The original GTB campaign has eight pre-set maps, with five mandatory and three optional. We're fighting battles from the UK perspective in an alternate universe where World War 1 has lasted 200 years. This campaign has little to no story to speak of, but each level opens and ends with a bit of "inspirational" flavor text. Since that's about all we know about this world, the lack of any flowing story makes the campaign feel more like a sequence of random fights rather than a strong goal-oriented task.

Gratuitous Tank Battles Flavor Text Closeup

The battles themselves are by far the most interesting part of the game, largely because of how Cliff refuses to follow tradition and takes several significant diversions from standard tower defense. Let's make a brief list.

  • Defending and attacking: GTB is created to fully accomodate both player attacking and defending on each map, and towers take damage as well. The give-and-take makes it more difficult to create an overwhelming, static defense. This is why I consider this more of a "tower rush" title.
  • Scripted battles and adaptive AI: On defense, you can fight again a preset attacker run or choose to play versus an adaptive AI that tries to counter you. On offense, you can only choose to play against an AI defense. Your personal runs can be saved and uploaded for your friends or the public to battle.
  • Extremely customizable: As you play campaign, you unlock base towers/units and individual parts for each, with the ability to create your own towers and units for use in any mode. In fact, nearly the entire game is focused around player creation rather than the base experience.
  • A sense of blindness, especially on defense: You have no idea which units will be attacking, you don't know their initial paths choices, you don't have a concrete representation of their hit points, and towers can take a while to build, so it's difficult to react. Very stressful. This blindness is likely implemented to promote a sense of "fog of war," I imagine you'd often have better military intelligence during a real-life ground scenario anyway.
  • No "mazing" or movement manipulation along with limited tower positions: Many TD games don't allow creation of mazes anymore, but GTB can often be strict in limiting tower locations as well.
  • Addition of infantry: Playing defense becomes much more interesting by use of infantry, which you can drop separately in bunkers and trenches around the map. Unlike towers, they become active immediately and are relatively protected by most forms of damage outside of rapidfire weaponry. If they can stay up, they're often a good use of supplies, but generally need some sort of protection. Overall, infantry is a strong unique element of risk/reward and an important layer to defense. On offense, they're somewhat less interesting and more risky due to dropping supplies in form of dogtags.
Gratuitous Tank Battles Desert Mess Cover

Like many players (I'd assume), my initial playthrough was by shoehorning the game into traditional tower defense settings; playing on defense versus scripted units. After some rough patches early, I began to "cheat" and checked the first wave of attacking movements before I started laying towers. Often times you had two possible attacker paths on completely different sides of the screen, and only one was active at the start, making it near-impossible to react and form a full defense in time. This felt fairly cheap, so I resorted in kind by checking the scripted movements beforehand and restarting the map. I also turned game speed down to .4x or .6x on my initial runthrough, as that gives you much more time to react and properly defend multiple paths. In my opinion, the default game speed should probably be ~.5x for first-time players (note: I resolved my issue with speed - keep reading). After that, I mostly held to a solid plan of heavy + gatling towers in front, surrounded up by missile towers everywhere. Tower repair and rapid-fire support should be used in every possible slot. A lot of people seem to have difficulty working through the game, but this strategy worked well. Considering I completely and unintentionally ignored dogtags supplies from downed infantry units until most of the way through both campaigns, I'd say that the difficulty isn't too unreasonable. If anything, missiles may be a bit overpowered if they're put in a position to succeed with support buildings and anti-infantry help. This game has a rock-paper-scissors system of lasers, ballistics, and rapid guns (against shields, armor, and infantry), but you only really need to counter properly in the first wave or two if everything goes well, before you have a larger defense in place. To give an example of the gameplay, here's a video of one of the Western Front missions. Unfortunately, this map is particularly unfriendly to defensive infantry, both because of bunker placement and swarms of machine gun vehicles.

Presentation of the game is surprisingly strong for such a small team. Pre-match visuals and sound mesh perfectly to create a retro war feel, and the battle production is smooth as well, with strong effects and massive detail across the board. The game itself generally runs quite well, although it doesn't work correctly at non-standard refresh rates, and this is the cause behind the speed problem I had while playing. Running at 120hz, the battles play out at double speed. The engine seems to be fully attached to the frame count rather than time. Super Meat Boy had the same issue, but limited to certain scripted events. The above video shows the issue part of the time; fraps theoretically allows games to run at an unfettered framerate while recording, but usually holds to 60fps in practice anyway. At some points, the video noticeably speeds up as fraps no longer limits the fps. Aside from this speed problem, GTB runs very well, although some heavy situations slight slowdown can occur by virtue of the game seemingly only using one thread.

So what can The Western Front add to a game already dominated by player customization and content? Well, it adds a new full "World War II" scenario from the US perspective, complete with eight new maps and two scripted battles per maps (both German and American attackers). We naturally also receive new German and American units (eight of each) and a few new unit attachments for customization. Priced at $6 compared to $20 for the main game, I'd say this is a relatively good value, although personally I feel $4 or $5 would be more appealing just from the number standpoint. The issue is that it would be hard to price creation-focused content, although he does has experience at that price point with Gratuitous Space Battles DLC. If a player enjoys this game enough to purchase an expansion, they're likely focused more on the modding aspects, so the price may have to be fairly low to justify a new sale. The new scenarios and maps are fun, but they don't exactly change the game in a terribly meaningful sense. Without any story or unique battle encounters, the player doesn't really find a new experience. Cliff seems to be thinking that enough players will be intrigued by WW2 units and "the ability to equip Tiger tanks with lazers," and he may be right.

Gratuitous Tank Battles Lazers Cover

This is where I wanted to add more about the expansion, but I can't find more words. It adds the WWII scenario with new preset maps and more unit options, but it's the same experience, so that's about all I can say. Let's just sum things up. Gratuitous Tank Battles is a surprisingly deep "tower rush" game with excellent production values and nearly unmatched customization. Its unique take on genre mechanics are refreshing and a sign of a creator willing to take risks and reach in attempt for greatness. Unfortunately, like similar titles, it seems to be too caught up in certain parts to make a genuinely complete game. Like say, inMomentum, Sanctum, and many bare TD titles, GTB makes not even a small attempt at story or sense of urgency towards pushing the player towards a conclusion. As a result, the game loses its aim as a series of random levels and becomes instantly forgettable as a complete experience. You don't need full production like Anomaly or the depth of character story in Immortal Defense, but most players need at least something more to latch onto for a full game to be truly relevant. With a built-in campaign structure, I would have expected more. In fact, I didn't even see any credit sequence after completing the levels, although my game did hang while connecting to the server (again, that works as a conclusion, and I'd imagine others had some hand in creation of music and art at the least, even if Cliff didn't feel the need to promote himself in credit form).

Despite complaints, I do think the game is very well made and and impressive accomplishment. GTB is a good evolution of the tower rush concept and Cliffski proves a very capable developer of his studio, even including its own encapulated online system. The Western Front adds more gameplay time and grants the user more playable options. But I just wish GTB had slightly different priorities to become a more complete title and be more responsive to gamers as a whole rather than focusing almost entirely on the customization community.