Available On: PC, Android
Genre: Programming, Tactics
Official Site: Gladiabots
Release Date: August 9, 2018 (Early Access)
Where To Buy It: Steam, Itch.io, Google Play Store
There’s something extremely intriguing about programming games. The idea of setting up an AI to run, see what goes wrong, then dive back in and try to fix the problem is sort of the ultimate test of man vs. machine: “Can I out computer a computer?” When you combine that with all the cheesy childhood fun that is Battlebots? Yes, please. Gladiabots takes the old “robot deathmatch” formula and twists it to where you only control your robots through AI programs; you set them up, and it is totally hands-off once the match begins. You either watch in joy as your team sails to victory or in total horror as they are shredded into scrap by someone with a better plan. The game is still in Early Access, and the core foundation is already pretty strong. However, there are definitely some steps that need to be taken if Gladiabots will break from niche to mainstream success.
Designed by a single-man design team, Gladiabots already has a lot to offer. There is an extensive tutorial, teaching you the ins and outs of programming your fighting robots to maximum ability. A huge number of campaign missions let you put your training into practice, battling against preprogrammed opponents to learn how to adjust your strategy. The last mode seems to be the meat-and-potatoes of Gladiabots: taking your squad online into multiplayer battles, pitting your best AIs against other people from around the world. Essentially, there’s a lot to do already in this game. So, how does it work?
Programming games can be intimidating – am I going to be able to do anything if I don’t already know how to program? Luckily, Gladiabots features a simplified (note: still not simple) programming language that makes it easy to drag and drop your choices and have a reasonable idea how it will all shake down. You essentially create “branches” for your AI to follow, generally following “if-then” ideas: “If an enemy is within a certain distance, then approach it and attack,” or “If there is an unclaimed resource on the map, collect it and score.” Your robot will quickly check each statement and follow the first order they are able to do so. This can lead to some humiliating battles as you learn the system – on a few occasions, I found one of my robots running back and forth, being shot at until they exploded, all because I had set up my orders in the wrong sequence. Once everything comes together, it makes you feel like a tactical genius.
Each game of Gladiabots can be finished in one of two ways: collecting more resources than your opponent, or by destroying the entire opposing team. Resources need to be picked up and brought to your team’s zone, and there are not very many of them on each map. It seems like, as of right now, the strategy that seems to work best is “blow them up, then get resources.” You have a limited amount of bots in each battle, so taking a few (or all) of your enemies before they can do the same seems to be the most viable strategy. Bots don’t last very long if they are focused down by some of the more attack-oriented builds.
Even though Gladiabots has a lot going for it already, I am a bit hesitant to completely recommend it in its current build (PC Beta 1.2). The main issue is that everything is very same-y. That’s a tough criticism to lob at a one-man team, but every round of Gladiabots takes place in a dull-grey arena. Every robot is a very traditional-looking “Spider-bot with a gun.” The sounds, the music, everything: no match stands out. It all blends together into this amorphous blob of watching robots shoot guns. A game like this needs variety. Otherwise, it can descend into “dull” territory, and that is one of the biggest hurdles for both programming and tactical combat games to clear. Gladiabots is going to live and die by its multiplayer base – it doesn’t need a huge number of players, but it needs enough to constantly provide an evolving challenge. If it is unable to differentiate itself, that audience will be tough to maintain.
My other issue with the game may actually stem from a fault in my brain rather than a problem with the game, so take it with a grain of salt. I often had trouble finding the variable that made a mission a success or a failure. Sometimes, I would watch a close battle play out and my team would just barely be defeated. “Ah, I wasn’t able to take out the enemy sniper quick enough. That’s an easy fix,” I would think. A few quick adjustments to the AI, and it’s in the bag, right? My team would march out, ready to correct their problem, and get absolutely stomped. Other times, I would not fiddle with the code at all, just add a few quick “walk up to them and kill them” orders. Mission accomplished.
Maybe it speaks to the failed programmer in me that I need the game to tell me what I’m doing right and wrong, but I certainly can’t figure it out on my own. It led to a few frustrating rage-quits on my part, but maybe that’s just the nature of this particular type of beast.
Verdict: Would I recommend Gladiabots right now? Let’s call it a “Yes, but…” If you already know you like programming games, I would say so. If you’re looking to dip a toe into the genre, but aren’t sure if you should pull the trigger, I would say hold out. It’s deep, fun, and has a lot to offer, but the repetitive nature may turn you off and keep you from experiencing it as you should. Maybe wait for a few more updates so the game isn’t quite so raw before you take the plunge.