When I arrived at the Wiltshire HQ of Positech Games I was met at the door by receptionist Cliff Harris. The studio's PR manager, Cliff Harris, then made me a mug of tea before introducing me to the head of development, Cliff Harris, who took me down the hall to meet the lead designer, Cliff Harris.
Positech Games isn't a typical developer, so it's hardly surprising that the upcoming Gratuitous Tank Battles isn't a typical tower defence game.
Tucked away in a small backroom in his 18th Century home, 21st Century Cliff is building a game that's as much about galloping through the Valley of Death as ensuring the Valley of Death is good-and-deathy. As well as being asked to line wiggly assault corridors with all manner of turrets, towers and infantry bunkers, we'll have a chance to sample the slaughter from the other side, sending our own armies of inexplicably eager mechs, tanks, and grunts down AI-controlled avenues of doom.
In attack, while it's the swivelling robo-walkers and ponderous angry houses, that will dish out the most hurt, it's the vulnerable footsloggers and softskinned vehicles that are key to success. Though every unit that reaches an exit will nudge you closer to a map's victory threshold, it's the safe arrival of infantry squads and support trucks that really swell points totals.
Interesting beasts those supply trucks. To spawn one you must first grab one of the crates that are periodically airdropped onto the map. That's often easier said than done as the obtuse AI invariably seems to deposit them along neglected routes (many maps offer a tantalising choice of paths to exits).
As fast as you feed carefully selected attackers into the meatgrinder, the AI will be bolstering its defences with carefully selected and sited structures. Fond of mechs? Expect your canny foe to lean towards the kind of static shell throwers that make short work of their energy shields. Partial to caterpillared behemoths? Your vanguard will probably have to plough though a sizzling lattice of purposely placed lasers. Though unit customisation throws several thousand cats among the several thousand pigeons, there is reassuring rock-paper-scissors at the heart of GTB's firefights.
Aware that some Gratuitious Space Battlers found the myriad build choices befuddling, Cliff is aiming for a simpler, more logical construction system this time. For instance, when we scan the beam weapon selection, instead of screen full of enigmatically titled models, we're likely to find ourselves confronted with just two or three blueprints. The artistry will come in how you buff the basic designs with special augmentations.
With customisation comes uncertainty. As Cliff explained “I like not knowing what's coming next... the tens of thousands of combinations should give incredible longevity. It's not just a case of learning the puzzle. I want my Tower Defence game to feel more like an RTS”
Tailoring units to increase their range, survivability or destructive punch is what all the sensible COs will be doing. I suspect the rest of us will be using the unit editor primarily to alter the hue of mech interior lights, and paint our angry houses a fetching shade of pink or puce. Cliff is justly proud of some of his graphical flourishes. Touches like the cosy glow that seeps from the cockpits of those mechs, the shimmering heat haze on desert maps or the night vision view that transforms gloomy nocturnal offensives into vivid electric-green tapestries of death, are all the work of Positech's Chief Artist (guess who).
The project isn't a completely solo effort, however. The freelancer responsible for GSB's vessels has been recalled to provide unit sprites - a task he's admirably suited for, having earlier worked on Mech Commander's visuals. External help has also been sought for the eye-catching propaganda posters that grace loading screens.
Combining WWI/II stiff-upper-lippery with futuristic gloom, the posters hint at the game's still largely unwritten back-story. The man behind humour-flecked gems like Kudos and Rock Legend, is tentatively toying with the idea of giving inter-mission flavour texts a Black Adder Goes Forth tone: “General Melchett but with mechs”. There's a logic to the link. Moustachioed fossils sending thousands of men into the jaws of death day after day? Most Tower Defence games make pretty decent Great War metaphors.
Time to explain - or try to explain - GTB's most mind-bogglingly and, potentially, moreish feature. Cliff regards his singleplayer campaign mode primarily as an extended tutorial. He fully expects the majority of GTB games to involve online challenges - user-made missions with custom-made maps and/or custom-made forces. Once you've tired of playing the bundled thunder-runs from both sides against the AI, and tired of playing them from both sides against yourself (it's possible to use your tactics as AI scripts in subsequent sessions) it's time to breakout the map editor and/or go rummage amongst the mountains of uploaded challenges.
That map editor looks like a piece of cake (or 100-pieces of Battenburg stuck together, to be precise). Its tile-based simplicity should mean the GTB file repository is soon as well-stocked as the groaning GSB one. Cliff expects many cartographers to include custom unit selections with their real estate, meaning downloaders will have the choice of fighting with and against familiar forces, or employing units that may as be as avant-garde as they are gaudy. Will there be Somme-like infantry-only bloodbaths and eye-gouging mauve-vs-lemon chromo-clashes amongst the online offerings? Almost certainly. A simple rating and comments system should mean sorting the unforgetable wheat from the unwinable chaff should be easy.
My inner wargamer, Bernard, was a little disappointed to hear that the game may not ship with any historical AFVs (Familiar Forties lumberers like the Tiger are Sherman may arrive as DLC). He was also mildly disappointed that Cliff's re-imagining of the Tower Defence game didn't stretch to unit morale (Dealing with the wavering resolve of inexperienced or poorly led forces might have been fun) but this game really isn't aimed at the Bernards of this world. Though Cliff's desk is adorned with model T-34s and Tigers, and the dev is no stranger to the utterly splendid tank museum at Bovington, this is a game that puts fury before fidelity. The mesmerising tank battles I witnessed and orchestrated on my day at Positech were unashamedly overblown, unapologetically outlandish. Come to think of it, they were downright gratuitous .