Indie survival RTS They are Billions is getting a lot of positive chatter around the gaming campfire (and deservedly so), but I have to confess that, while I eagerly accepted the review code, I’m not on the best of terms with the RTS genre, instead preferring the chess-like comfort of turn-based strategy where actions can be mulled over at length before committing. While I enjoy a bit of plate-spinnery as much as the next person, I don’t particularly enjoy trying to spin a bunch of them all at the same time, in real-time.
So it was with some amount of trepidation that I booted up They are Billions, my first RTS experience since Starcraft: Brood War, but one of the enjoyable aspects of reviewing video games is that it can take you out of your comfort zone.
Billions is a console port of the Numantian game of the same title, published by Spanish company Blitworks. As previously mentioned, the game is an RTS with all of the base-building, resource management and combat strategy that you would expect from the genre. Numantian have given things a breath of fresh air, however, by adding a devious survival mechanic that hounds the player at every turn and, more significantly, the ability to pause time during play.
The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of a world after a rabies-like infection has reduced much of the population to flesh-devouring zombies. The player is tasked with building a base that can not only survive the hordes of the undead scrabbling at its walls but can also sustain the survivors within them. Although the game is set in the 22nd century, the zombie pandemic has reduced technological prowess to that of 19th-century steampunk and this allows Numantian to have fun with the visual style of the genre tropes and archetypes by adding some distinctive steampunk window dressing.
As a brief aside, They are Billions suffers from a somewhat similar visual problem to the Batman Arkham games. In Rocksteady;s benchmark-setting trilogy, they created a detailed and atmospheric world that was often lost or at least overlooked because so much of your playthrough was spent in Detective Vision. Here, you’ll more often than not have the camera zoomed to such an extent while watching for enemies that the detailed cog and boiler-plate nuance of the assets isn’t visible, so I do recommend zooming all the way in when you can to enjoy their cell-shaded finery.
On console, Billions is immediately a very spartan affair – something that may be hard to stomach with a £20 price tag, at least at first. Rather jarringly, there is no campaign mode on offer, only the survival mode. The campaign will make its way to console eventually but there is no confirmed date as of yet. It’s worth mentioning though, that this is the exact same release strategy that was employed for the PC and fans of the survival mode quickly catapulted the game into the Steam top 10 upon early access release.
Also somewhat unusually, They are Billions does not support PvP – normally the lifeblood of any RTS game – but I will happily admit that, as a self-confessed flat out terrible player of this genre, I do not miss this feature. And, with the release state of present-day games not being indicative of their ‘final’ form, there is always the possibility that PvP could be added at a later date.
Survival starts up very much like a challenge mode. The map type, infected population and duration (in-game days) can be adjusted to create your own custom level of difficulty, although there are standard difficulty indicators for guidance. A score multiplier is affected by the variables picked for each game and scores can be compared with other players online via the menu.
At the start of each game, the player command centre is placed on a randomised map along with a small contingent of troops and the clock starts ticking. Pausing the clock allows for camera movement, the issuing of troop or detachment orders, as well as building/demolishing, but all of these will only occur once the clock is set in motion again.
The player then starts the risk versus reward decisions that are the spine of any RTS gameplay. The cautious scouting of the environment to secure resources and push back the fog of war, planning the shape and design of your fortress, building your army, all while the AI tests your defences in increasingly larger numbers.
Building your base follows the same conventions that the RTS has been using for some time. Every building requires power and workers to operate, so you’ll spend a great deal of time increasing and upgrading your housing, while enlarging the electrical footprint of your base with tesla towers and power stations.
Resource buildings require to be placed on the appropriate areas of the map to reap the benefits that fuel your blossoming colony, the exact placement affecting the amount of iron, gold, stone and food that is received at regular intervals. The fine-tuning of positioning is a neat touch that will certainly affect how your base grows and one thing that becomes apparent early on is that base composition absolutely does matter but more on that later.
Defence is of course key, and the usual suspects are all present and correct: walls, guard towers, ballista, watchtowers, and so on. How you position your defences is vitally important but, as with general building, internal defences will also come into play in later stages.
As the (game) days pass and your colony prospers, you’ll be given access to buildings and workshop that will allow your structures to be upgraded from wood to stone, stone to metal, and so on. Your assortment of troops and their armaments will also grow as your build chain becomes more advanced.
They are Billions does not re-invent the wheel in terms of mechanics but what is there operates as it should. It also means that some age-old RTS problems are bundled in for the ride, like the fixed perspective hiding enemies at times and unit pathfinding occasionally being a little more adventurous than intended.
WORLD WAR Z: STEAMPUNK EDITION
So far, so RTS, right? Oh, did I forget to mention that the game plays in iron man mode as standard? Meaning that the only time the player gets to save is on exiting a game. No save-scumming here if things don’t go your way and, if your city is burned to the ground, your next game starts from scratch.
And then there’s the first time the ravenous undead break into your base.
In the early stages of a game, the undead are persistent stragglers. Lifeless annoyances hammering on your fortress walls a couple at a time or earning easy kill XP for your deadpan-voiced steampunk troops to level up on. As you settle into a session though, the AI will routinely send waves of zombies in ever-escalating numbers to charge your base and, eventually, they will get in.
For the most part, the zombies behave predictably: shambling about until alerted by sound or if they get line-of-sight on your troops. Sure, there’s a mixture of Romero shufflers and 28 Coffees Later speed freaks that keep you on your toes, as well as some familiar hero zombies later in play that owe more than a little design debt to Left 4 Dead, but the real twist is what they do to your buildings.
After a certain amount of damage, a given structure is put out of commission – which is logical enough – but then the workers that power that building become zombies as well. A successful zombie attack is terrifying (especially the first time) as you’re very quickly fighting a battle on two fronts, usually a vicious pincer movement. It is equal parts disconcerting and amazing watching the spread of chaos through your carefully laid out base, especially when the horde infects your worker homes and turn the residents of your budding metropolis into your bloodthirsty enemies.
(STEAM) POWER TO THE PEOPLE!
Billions cleverly forces you to evolve your defence strategy to consider repelling attackers while containing the inevitable outbreak of invaders. Building your fortress becomes an agonising exercise in design as you meet the needs of expansion while planning for your own inhabitants turning against you. It’s an interesting addition that completely justifies that pause button, stretching even the most unsuccessful games into hours long endeavours and quickly earning that price tag.
Control-wise, the port does a good job of adapting mouse-and-keyboard controls to the real estate of a gamepad in a way I’ve not seen since those geniuses at Frontier worked miracles with their console version of Elite Dangerous. There’s a bare-bones introduction to the basics within the first minutes of each survival game but as player confidence and need grows, feverish glances at the help screen reveal that the robust control scheme can more than harness the minutiae on-screen.
Unfortunately, the lack of campaign may be the biggest stumbling block for They are Billions.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about the PC campaign not being especially good, that it uses some mechanics that don’t appear in survival and, most importantly, that it isn’t reflective of what the game actually is. These are all legitimate concerns and, if I’m honest, I don’t miss the grind of having to start from scratch and rebuild your base endlessly only to lose it when you meet an unrealistic victory condition, but campaigns are – if nothing else – structured tutorials that familiarise the player with the fundamentals of the game and its handling.
This leaves They are Billions with a tutorial-sized hole and it’s filled with… A text document?
No, really. A text document briefly describing the core gameplay.
This really doesn’t do anything to mitigate the barrier of entry for those new to the genre. Of course there’s always online help via the community but that feels like it should be reserved for the meta not explaining basic play. I spoke earlier about the unsurprising nature of the gameplay, which is helpful for someone who’s played an RTS before but even then I was struggling to figure out some of the more basic actions.
They are Billions is a good game. It’s a successful RTS hybrid (of sorts) that allows the player to pump the brakes when things get busy while changing up just enough of the gameplay to appeal to fans of the genre. It’s just a shame that it’s presented in such an unapproachable fashion for newcomers as of this review.
My best recommendation? If you know these types of games, dive in and get your hands dirty. You won’t be disappointed. If you’re new to RTS but like the sound of They are Billions, wait until the campaign is patched in and give it a bash then.