So after building my base for about twenty minutes and thinking I had a decent amount of units at my side, I promptly got overran and it was all for nought.
Oh, you’re probably wondering why I opened with absolutely no introduction into what seems like the middle of something. Well, that’s exactly what They Are Billions did: throws you into a survival situation with nothing to go on and expects you to jump right to it. Which is a shame, as with a decent narrative structure I’d be more inclined to care.
Oh alright, I suppose that is a harsh and snarky opener to a review. Yes, I will admit I’m slightly biased as I don’t play a lot of real time strategy (RTS) games. The last one I played, in fact, would be Command & Conquer Red Alert back in the ol’ PlayStation days.
However, that’s not to say I don’t like them, nor is to say that Numantian Games’ effort is a bad game. It’s just that it’s so blatantly geared towards that crowd who have mastered the RTS beforehand, whilst being insulting to those who would be going in blind. It’s the assumption that putting out something with the pedigree of older style games that its based means you should know what you’re doing right from the off. And I didn’t. I still don’t, to be honest. I’m just trying to stay alive.
Right, I’ll stop being facetious. At its heart, TAB is actually a pretty solid take on the RTS formula. Whilst being borne of a genre that gave us C&C, Age of Empires and those in between, They Are Billions does have a few new tweaks and adjustments to make it a somewhat fresh concept (in places, at least).
After you get to grips with the initial confusion of being thrown right in, and getting your head around the crafting/base building steps, it becomes quite a fun take on the apocalyptic survival theme. In my first run, I spent a good twenty minutes or so getting the hang of what I needed to build first.
It began as the “chicken and the egg” dichotomy: I need workers, but I need resources too. So do I build one tent and use my small amount of resources to drip feed units, or do I build a few tents and have more workers, yet wait a bit longer for resources? Or do I build a fisherman’s cottage for some resources, potentially leaving myself open to attack?
It’s in that last sentence that really adds the tension up in They Are Billions. Now, being attacked by enemy units is nothing new in an RTS game. Sometimes your harvesting units get too far out from the base and get ambushed, or some adventurous scout party takes pot shots at your command centre.
But They Are Billions has a slightly different take on that, oh yes. Should your hapless search parties stumble across an infested dwelling, then hell may indeed be let loose. Not initially, that would completely ruin any kind of pace and make it unplayable. To its credit, the game does warn you when you’re about to be attacked.
It starts off small, with pockets of infected [we’re not using the Z word!] having a cheeky wandering into your steampunk surroundings. These are mostly inconsequential, but get too lax and these will start to add up. Skirmishes initially start off with your units fighting back with melee attacks, but you can start to upgrade your perimeter defenses with firearms as time goes on.
What does add an errant turd in the swimming pool of fun is if one of the slippery bastards gets into one of your buildings. You see, the “infected” isn’t just a monicker, as any building that gets breached will instantly convert your units in there to their horde. Thus, if more get converted, and then they take over two more buildings, then they take two more buildings… You can see where this is going. It only takes a fluke rogue agent to cause a catastrophic cascade in minutes, turning the tide of battle rather quickly. Should your command centre either be destroyed or infected, that’s it. It’s game over, man. Game over.
All isn’t doom and gloom, though. Despite the initial steepness and lack of hand-holding bar some text tutorials (I refuse to shorthand this and call it “the Dark Souls of RTS”), They Are Billions does unfold into a decent tale of survival during the end of days. The steampunk aesthetic suits the theme, as technology is advanced enough to keep you a few steps ahead, but it doesn’t descend into space-age gadgetry that can wipe out thousands at once.
Whilst the story is a bit light, it doesn’t hamper the experience. Granted, the core formula remains the same, but you can increase or decrease the risk/reward as you see fit: upping the amount of infected may be daunting, but it increases your end level score. As does the amount of days your campaign lasts, showing that if you can slug it out long enough, your reward and kudos will be a lot higher at the end.
Given the absolute chaos that can happen when the hordes come charging, you’d imagine a game with so much going on would require tight controls and lightning fast digits to comprehend everything. Sadly, the biggest failing of They Are Billions is in its controls. Granted, I expect a lot of you keyboard aficionados are reading this and thinking, “Well yes, duh”. However, I’m one of those stubborn types that stands by consoles and this is the result: trying to manage everything in about a dozen keys and two sticks.
It’s the sticks that cause the most cumbersome though. What would have been logical to me (says the man who doesn’t know a thing about game design) would have been to implement camera control/zoom to the right stick, whilst leaving the left stick for unit/building/menu selection. However, whilst the right stick does control panning, zoom is mapped to the shoulder buttons. It’s not an absolute deal breaker, but the real bugger is the left stick and its egotistical tendencies.
Traditionally, the left stick would move the camera when it reaches the end of the screen. It still does that here, as well as the aforementioned. That’s not the issue, but when it overrides the right stick, that’s when the groans of frustration come forth. When you’re panning with the right stick and you want to select something with the left, only for it to have a tantrum and yank the camera the other way from what you’re doing, that’s when it all goes wrong.
It’s not so bad in the early stages of a game, but when you’re starting to get flanked and you need to multitask, what you don’t want is your camera having an ADHD moment and trying to explore the map. It’s in those moments, when I get overrun, that I end up doing the metaphorical Monopoly board flip, shout some expletives, and play something else.
But this is just my experience. As I said, I’m a novice when it comes to the RTS genre, doubly so when it comes to being on consoles. There is mouse and keyboard support, which Numantian actively encourage. I should probably stop being a stubborn old mule and play with that instead of a controller, and I do indeed to, because I am actually enjoying it. I doubt you’ll see me develop the cognitive functions of a champion StarCraft player, but I’d like to think They Are Billions has drawn me in with its aesthetic and take on the genre. Watch this space…
Speaking of space-watching, Numantian has also confirmed that the campaign mode will be coming to console ports soon (whilst already available on PC versions).
So whilst my earlier cynicism over the lack of content may have seemed unwarranted, it’s still a tad annoying in modern gaming that we’re getting half a game at times. It’s all well and good promising it down the line, but expecting people to tide themselves over with a handful of maps for a time is a bit much to ask of people. Look at the debacle of Street Fighter V, for how not to do it.
Digression aside, this is actually a positive recommendation for They Are Billions. If you’re into your steampunk with a side of apocalypse, then you’re covered. If you’re a WarCraft alumni who fancies a bit of a twist in the not-technical-zombies mold, this will inject some fresh life into the RTS catalogue.
Just take it from me: don’t play with a controller.
They Are Billions is available now on PS4, Xbox One (reviewed) and PC
Developer: Numantian Games
Publisher: Numantian Games / Blitworks
In order to complete this review, we received a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy please go here.
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