Ever since Command & Conquer released back in 1995 up until recently, the real time strategy series was the gold standard for the genre. Famous for its corny yet entertaining FMV videos, accessibility and tactical depth, the series inspired an entire generation of RTS titles before a number of cancelled and lacklustre entries saw it fall behind its competitors. There’s a big void left by C&C, especially on consoles where there’s a distinct lack of RTS games in general, and Petroglyph Games (a studio with a wealth of C&C development experience from the Westwood Studios days) are looking to fill that gap with their “most fast-paced, friendly, and accessible RTS game to date” called 8-bit Armies.
To a varying degree, they succeed.
8-bit Heroes will be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever played a C&C game, despite the colourful voxel art that is employed throughout. Each and every mission begins with a HQ situated in your corner of the map from which you can build outwards. Refineries covert resource collected by a Harvester into cash for you to spend on new buildings and troops, a staple of the genre. From there, you can purchase barracks and motor pools, power stations and tech centres, helipads and turrets to train troops, build tanks, power your facilities and protect your base. It’s typical base building fare in the same vein as C&C that locks out certain buildings until you’ve built others (or progressed far enough in the 2 campaign modes to unlock them).
Another staple of the genre is the “rock, paper, scissors” benefit and weakness that each unit you can train/build has over another employed in 8-bit Armies. Rocket troops are great against vehicles but are weak against machine gun turrets. Infantry gunners are great against other troops and buildings but are terrible facing off against almost any type of vehicle. Flame tanks are great against infantry but are useless against helicopters or standard tanks. Each and every unit you build in this game has a counterpart it has an advantage over and a unit is it disadvantage by in battle. In the early skirmishes of the game, the troop/vehicle selection in the game is limited but the further you progress, the wider the choices get and the more strategic your purchases will need to become, ensuring you’ve got enough of each troop choice without sending wave after wave of the wrong type to die in order to complete your objectives. One of the most interesting aspects of troop building in 8-bit Armies is how they interact with 1 map in particular, the volcano map. Streams of lava separate you from any other HQ and infantry are damaged when crossing it which means you must use Armoured Transports to ship your boots on the ground around this map or risk rocking up at your opponents base with a half-baked squad. This is one of the few innovations added to the traditional C&C game play 8-bit Armies sets out to emulate.
The Skirmish mode (where you set up a quick match against a chosen number of AI opponents on one of 10 maps) is the purest form of RTS in 8-bit Armies where the aim is to decimate your enemies and destroy their HQ. The game’s 2 campaign modes, set across more than 20 missions and 2 factions (The Renegades and The Guardians, each with their own tech tree), mix this up by setting specific objectives like destroying every type of 1 particular type of building. Each mission can be played on 3 different difficulty settings, the easiest AI setting being almost peaceful with the opponents letting you get on with base building and only occasionally sending a small group to attack while the most difficult AI setting poses a real test for RTS veterans. To add to the replayability, each mission also has 2 optional objectives to complete such as “Don’t destroy any [X Building]” or “Don’t train any [Y Unit]”. Sticking to these optional tasks adds some real spice to the proceedings, even on the easiest AI difficulty, as they usually ask you to use troops that are disadvantaged in the mission situation. Each optional reward completed grants you a star (added to the single star reward for completing the mission) to a total of 3 stars per mission which stack with every other star earned. As you earn more stars, you’re granted a better starting situation on all subsequent and previous missions like more units or cash. It’s a smart system that keeps you coming back for more.
8-bit Armies also has online play in either co-op or versus multiplayer but unfortunately I’ve been unable to test either of these modes. Pre-release, the online lobby was deserted and since release, it hasn’t been much better. I’ve postponed publishing this review for as long as possible in the hope that I could get a few matches and could pass comment on how they run because, as good as the AI is in 8-bit heroes, there’s nothing quite like facing a human player in a tactical face off. I’ll keep trying and should I find someone online, I’ll update this review.
Now, to the rub. One of my personal favourite aspects of the Command & Conquer of yore was its personality and charisma. Those FMV videos, even Tim Curry “escaping to the one place that hasn’t been corrupted by capitalism” speech in Red Alert 3, really added something to the series for me, as did the troop design which really tied to the characteristics of the factions. Much of that is missing in 8-bit Armies. The campaign missions are introduced by a simple passage of text in the menu that are little more than a framing to the objectives. Each faction has their own unlockable progression but they’re so samey that it often feels like the only difference between them is the colour of their armour.
Then there’s the control scheme. Petroglyph Games have done an admirable job of making the Real Time Strategy genre accessible on consoles by mapping troop spawning to the Dualshock 4 buttons. When in the build menu, a click on either Circle, Triangle or Square will allocate the selected unit to that particular troop group. Once they’ve been spawned, a press of circle/triangle/square then selects all troops that were spawned via that button press. It’s an imperfect solution however. Only having 3 different groups of troops allocated to button presses certainly limits your options; while you can select and direct singular troops/vehicles, there’s no way to select multiple units without selecting them all via the button press (or at least, If there is, it wasn’t ever clearly signposted in the tutorial or in-game and I didn’t get to use it). Allocating units to just 3 groups also limits your tactical solutions, especially when the troop selection starts to expand. When you know there’s a group of flamer tanks that will totally mangle your rocket troops, but your tanks are allocated to the same troop group, you’ll end up sending units to a certain doom because it’s more convenient than directing individual units. While this makes a genre that is usually unwieldy on consoles rather simple, it’ll likely frustrate RTS veterans.
8-bit Armies is an easily accessible, visually appealing RTS game with a top quality soundtrack. If you’re an old-school Command & Conquer fan that’s looking for something to scratch that itch on the PlayStation 4, this is undoubtedly the best option in that regard. It’s fun, as tactically deep as you want it to be with a enough content to keep you busy for a few weeks. Unfortunately, while most of the game play staples have translated well from classic C&C to this, the control options are still lacking, begging for a mouse and keyboard with the Dualshock 4 acting as a poor translator. It’s also lacking some charisma, feeling almost sterile at times, falling an FMV or 2 away from greatness.
8-bit Armies is available now on PC, PS4 (review version) and Xbox One.
Developer: Petroglyph Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided a copy of the game by the publishers. Please see our review policy for more information.