The RTS genre, once the king of all PC games, has been relegated to the sidelines for the past decade or so. You’ll still see its roots in the new genres that it spawned, like the MOBAs and Tower Defense games that are now ubiquitous, but an honest to goodness RTS is few and far between. Indeed the last true RTS I reviewed was almost 2 years ago now and since then there hasn’t been anything that has caught my fancy. However that changed when They Are Billions caught my eye when it popped up as one of the top games in my State of the Game post series. Now I typically steer clear of Early Access titles, reviewing before 1.0 always feels a little premature, but given that the hubbub surrounding the game didn’t seem to be dying down I figured it was probably worth a look in.
17 hours later I can report that it is, even if it still has the rough edges that comes with Early Access.
They Are Billions is set in the distant future where a great zombie apocalypse has destroyed almost all of civilisation, leaving but a few thousand behind. Your job is simple: survive 100 days in this world by building up a colony that can withstand the raging hordes of zombies that will come after you. To do so you’ll need to gather food for your workers, gather materials to build defenses and buildings, and train an army to fend off the dead. It all sounds easy right? Everything does until there’s a horde of zombies kicking in your door.
The game’s visual steampunk aesthetic has a slight dream like feel to it, I think partially due to the fact that it’s all hand drawn and animated. Make no mistake though the hand drawn part doesn’t mean a lack of detail as you can zoom in ludicrously close if you want to try and pixel peep on your units. The engine powering it is a custom one developed by Numantian Games and is apparently capable of handling quite a lot of units on-screen. Certainly the game didn’t miss a beat on my PC, handling the larger zombie invasions without breaking a sweat. Those hoping for Linux and OSX versions will be disappointed though as it’s a .NET based engine and the developers aren’t particularly interested in trying to optimise it for those platforms in the near term. For us of the Windows PC master race however we can get this in up to glorious 4K resolution, if that’s your thing.
They Are Billions is a combination of RTS, city building and roguelike game elements. The game takes place in real time and the base building, whilst comparable to your typical RTS affair, feels a lot closer to city builders like Banished than it would a true RTS. The roguelike elements come mostly from the random map generation which, depending on what seed you get, can make your life incredibly easy or frustratingly hard. Of course there’s nothing stopping you from playing a map for 5 minutes, seeing what you’ve got to work with and restarting if you don’t like what you see. There’s upgrades to be researched, tech trees to unlock and various different types of army units all of which have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. All in all it’s a pretty competent RTS, something I didn’t expect given the fact it’s PVE only.
The game currently has no tutorial to speak of so after selecting your map preferences (more on that later) you’ll be dropped unceremoniously into a game with a command center, 5 troops and a whole lot of questions. The basics are relatively easy to figure out: there’s primary resource categories like wood and stone, secondary resources like workers and food and the ultimate limiting factor: gold. Anything you build will draw from all 3 of these resource pools and different tiers will have different requirements. Bases have a power grid which can be extended through the use of Tesla Towers which limits where you can build things (even unpowered defenses, for some reason). This usually means that you’ll be able to expand aggressively up until a point where you’re short of a critical resource. It’s at that point you have to figure out what you need and whether or not your current territory can provide it. If not you need to expand and thus you must venture forth into the unknown.
Here is where the game sets out its first challenge for you. The map is littered with zombies, some by themselves and others in groups. Some of them wander around and, when you’re unlucky enough, one of them will stumble into your colony. If you’ve got some defenses around you’ll know but often it’s not possible to have every approach guarded or fenced off. So the first dozen or so games are likely to end in tragedy because a single zombie got through, managed to infect one tent or other structure and the infected multiplied out of control from there. If you’re also unlucky enough to stumble across one of the zombie towns (which look like theme parks for some reason) you could also unwittingly bring a horde of zombies down on yourself with your only hope being that they stop chasing you once you’re out of vision range. This by itself would provide enough challenge to keep most players interested for a good while but They Are Billions doesn’t stop there.
Oh sweet jesus it doesn’t stop there.
Every 10 days or so you’ll be treated to a wave of infected coming at you from an area of the map (north/east/south/west). It’s up to you to guess which side of your colony they end up on and you’ll have a limited amount of time to ready your defenses before they get there. The first few waves can be easily dealt with by your original troops and a wood wall but the numbers get exponentially larger from there. The size of these hordes can be changed by a setting when you set up the map (as can be the number of zombies that are scattered around) but even then if you misjudge where they’re coming from or don’t have the proper defenses in place when they get there it can be all over quicker than you’d think. Indeed several of my games ended because the horde figured out that one section, even though it was a much longer route to get to, was much less defended than my other parts and blasted through my woeful defenses. I’m sure the waves get absolutely terrifying beyond the 70 day mark but I honestly couldn’t tell you because I never got there.
I did eventually manage to get a good strategy in place but the problem is that, in order to endure the later waves, you must expand in order to tech up sufficiently. This increases your attack surface and thus, the more defenses required to keep it in check. There is, of course, an equilibrium point but I only managed to reach that after numerous failed games and several difficulty notches down from the standard. It was at this point where I started to grow tired of the game and decided to leave it at that. Honestly with 17+ hours in the game I don’t think that’s a bad thing, indeed I’ve put down higher budget titles much quicker and for less than what They Are Billions has done to me. I guess I want to mention that to say that whilst there is a lot of replayability here it’s not infinite and the rough edges of Early Access are likely to start wearing on you after a while.
Those rough edges are quite numerous too. Army management is a chore as the hitboxes on the zombies are so small that trying to micro units is a complete waste of time. Similarly upgrading buildings with hot keys will sometimes work, sometimes it won’t which means its usually quicker to just click to make sure that it will work. Double clicking units and buildings will select all of those types of units, even those out of your current vision range. This can be problematic when you’re trying to say, upgrade a wall before a horde as you could inadvertently end up selecting all the walls and upgrading the ones on the other side of the map. Crashes aren’t common thankfully but alt-tabbing did cause it to lock up on occasion and I did have it refuse to start a game sometimes for whatever reason. Finally the pathfinding on units is so bad that you’ll often find groups of your own units getting stuck on each other, soldiers getting stuck in zombie hordes that they can navigate around or even units deciding to take the most absolutely absurd path to get to where you directed them to. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if you could queue up move orders but that doesn’t seem possible currently (this also impacts patrols, which can only have 2 points currently). Of course these are the kinds of things that you expect to see in an Early Access title, and I’m sure they’ll be made better over time, but if you’re thinking about diving in now caveat emptor.
They Are Billions brings a new experience in the RTS genre that I don’t think anyone was expecting. The combination of RTS, city building and roguelike elements blend together into an experience which has quite a lot of replay value in it. I certainly didn’t set out to spend as much time in it as I did and so there definitely is something there that many will enjoy. The Early Access tag is well earned given the numerous issues that need to be ironed out, including content related things like a tutorial and the inclusion of a campaign. In its current form though They Are Billions is definitely worth it for those who, like me, have been craving a new RTS experience but have been left wanting by the offerings that have come to the table over the past couple years.
They Are Billions is available on PC right now for $24.99. Total play time was 17.4 hours with 6% of the achievements unlocked. Game was played during Early Access.
The following that Bethesda games have is anything but unwarranted. Their games are some of the greatest examples of giant, open world RPGs that are packed to the rafters with detail. Their continuing support of the modding community has meant that many of their titles have had life well beyond any other similar games. They do, however, have a tendency to be released with a number of quirks, glitches and issues that dramatically affect playability. Fallout 4 continues the Bethesda tradition (and the Fallout franchise) in earnest, giving players an exceptionally large world to explore whilst suffering from some incredibly rough edges that severely tarnish this otherwise brilliant game.
Fallout 4 throws you into a post-apocalyptic wasteland based in the pre-war state of Massachusetts, now called The Commonwealth. You were one of the lucky few to be granted into one of the numerous Vaultec bunkers, protecting you from the war that raged on outside. However your bunker was not like the others, instead of living out your days underground you were instead frozen in stasis, left to dream away the years. You awoke only once to bear witness to a terrible event before you were quickly frozen again. When you awake again and find the world in ruin you have only one goal in mind: to right the wrong that was done to you on that tragic day.
With 7 years between titles you’d be expecting a large upgrade in graphics and Fallout 4 certainly delivers that. All of the expected current generation trimmings are there like advanced lighting effects, dynamic weather and scenes that are chock full of detail. When compared to its current peers though it’s a little below average, with lower poly count models and less detailed textures, however that’s likely a function of the large draw distance that Fallout 4 favours. Indeed there are many other areas that likely received a lot more focus than the graphics and, considering the mod-centric approach Bethesda takes towards their games, it’s likely something they felt would be remedied without a lot of additional effort on their part.
Fallout 4 has a breadth of detail that’s hard to do justice in a single summarizing paragraph and I’m sure there’s things in the game I simply didn’t see even with the large amount of time I spent in it. At its core Fallout 4 is an open world FPS RPG with city building thrown in as an extra distraction and progression mechanic. There’s a main quest line you can pursue if you so wish or you’re free to wander off into the wasteland, searching for hidden places or doing battle with the various inhabitants. You can barter for gear or craft your own, something which takes a rather large amount of investment but is most certainly worth the pay off. You can join factions and help them in their crusade to better The Commonwealth and bring companions along with you who provide interesting dialogue and can do certain things for you. In all seriousness there’s something for pretty much everyone in Fallout 4 as it can be pretty much whatever kind of game you want it to be.
Combat feels very much the same as its predecessor, retaining the VATS percentage based attack system alongside the more traditional FPS style play. I had chosen to not invest points in VATS skills in order to put them elsewhere, hoping that my FPS skill could make up for the difference. Whilst that’s true to some degree Fallout 4’s combat is most certainly based around the use of VATS and I found myself relying on it more and more as I continued to play. That could be partially due to the fact that the FPS experience isn’t as polished as say Call of Duty‘s as the reticle didn’t always seem to be in complete alignment with where my bullets were going. Your mileage may vary depending on your build though as I’ve heard aiming isn’t much of an issue if you’ve built yourself a melee slugger.
Levelling up in Fallout 4 seems to come often enough so long as you’re engaging in some form of activity. Pretty much everything you do, from exploring to building cities to doing quests, will grant you some amount of XP. If you’re looking to power level (like I was) then investing heavily in INT early on is a must as I was rocketing past my friends who had a similar amount of play time. If you’ve focused your build elsewhere there are other ways to increase your XP gain, like the Idiot Savant perk. Whilst the inclusion of a respec ability or service would’ve been great the relatively easy levelling means that you were never too far off unlocking a perk you wanted. Again if you’re reading this some time after Fallout 4’s initial release I’m sure there’s already a mod that can help you in that regard.
The city building part of Fallout 4 is anything but shoe horned in and provides a very effective way to progress other aspects of your character that might be lacking. The picture below is my purified water farm out at Sanctuary, something which provided me both with a reliable supply of caps as well as a relatively effective and free healing item. Getting your settlements up to a good size, with all the right trimmings, does take some effort to get done (especially if you need to go hunting down certain materials) but the rewards are most certainly worth it. It would be nice to have a bit more clarity around what influences certain things, like what attracts more settlers or what influences raids, but after a while you start to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.
The crafting system feels like a double edged sword. On the one hand it’s hard to deny that the crafting system is deep and rewarding as some of the things you can craft (or mod) are really quite overpowered. On the other hand however it’s marred by the age old inventory problem, where you can never be sure what you’ll need and so you feel compelled to grab everything in sight. Whilst the tag for search system is a great addition it would’ve been nice to have something akin to a recipes book that I could consult whilst in the field. Sometimes I know I wanted to make a certain mod but hadn’t flagged the items for search before I had left my workshop. Jumping out of the quest, going to a workbench, and then trucking back in isn’t something that I’d call fun which is why I often left it. Once your settlement gets to a certain level you can get around this a bit with stores, but it’s still a bit of a pain.
It wouldn’t be a Bethesda game if it wasn’t extremely janky and Fallout 4 is no exception. In my first hour I encountered no less than 3 bugs which completely broke the game for me, leaving my character unable to progress. The most irritating one of these was when I’d go to use a console and then get stuck when I quit out of it. As it turns out this was an issue with systems that would render higher than 60fps, as the physics simulation is tied to the render rate. This meant my character would jerk out too fast and get stuck in his own body with every control proving to be unresponsive. To fix this I had to set an FPS limit on my graphics driver in order for the game to work properly. I have not once had to do that before and honestly it’s astonishing that you could have a PC that’s too good to play a game. It’s telling that my in game save says I’ve played for about 27 hours but Steam says 31 as that’s how much time I’ve lost to bugs that could only be solved by reloading the game.
It’s not just game breaking bugs either, there are some design decisions made in Fallout 4 that just don’t make sense on the PC platform. The 4 choice dialogue system, with its summaries that often don’t match up with what your character actually says, feels like a backwards step. I can understand the pip boy interface is part of Fallout’s aesthetic but actually using it on PC is an exercise in frustration. The city building, whilst brilliant in almost all other regards, lacks an overarching interface to manage many of the banal tasks like assigning resources to task or identifying new settlers. These are all things that aren’t above being fixed but it’s obvious that Bethesda’s priorities were elsewhere and a lot of the clean up is going to have to be done by the modding community.
The main storyline is pretty average with the clichéd opening cinematic giving you a pretty good indication of what to expect. When I was discussing it with some of my Smoothskins we came to the conclusion that if you’re looking for a solid, directed narrative in a Bethesda game you’re likely to be disappointed. Instead the real story comes from your experiences in the game, how you influenced events and what decisions you decided to make. Indeed after finishing the main questline I felt like nothing had really happened apart from being made to eradicate the opposing factions with extreme prejudice, no choice of saving them or bringing them under my wing. With that in mind I think Fallout 4’s story is best left alone and the tales of your wasteland journey take over instead.
Fallout 4 is exactly the kind of game we’ve come to expect from Bethesda: a grand sweeping world upon which you can build your own story (whilst enduring the trademark jankiness). The incredible girth of the game cannot be understated as it can be easily described as a FPS, an RPG and even a fully fledged city builder and simulator. The numerous ancillary mechanics are all well done, allowing you to really craft a character the way you want. However it’s irreversibly tainted by the numerous issues that are guaranteed to plague anyone who wants to brave the wastelands of The Commonwealth, something which can only be solved by mad quicksaving. Overall Fallout 4 is one of this years must play games but it might be best served after a patch or two with maybe a mod on the side.
Fallout 4 is available on PC, PlayStation4 and XboxOne right now for $59.99, $59 and $59 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 31 hours of total play time with 52% of the achievements unlocked.
You don’t have to look far to know what the greater gaming community thinks of the latest installment in the SimCity series. The first couple weeks were plagued with issues with many people being simply unable to play while the lucky few who got in experienced multiple, game breaking bugs. Accusations flew left and right with Maxis eventually stating it was all their fault although it was hard to deny that EA had a hand in it as well. It was so bad that EA even offered all purchasers another free game in order to compensate for it (even if you bought after they announced this offer, which I did). Still with all that in mind I tried to approach SimCity with an open mind as possible, hoping to see the game outside of all the teething issues that have plagued it relentlessly.
SimCity is, just like all its predecessors, a game that revolves around building and improving your very own city. You’re given a small amount of cash and your choice of various plots of land to begin with and after that its up to you to make it on your own. There are numerous factors that influence how your city develops, from your layout to natural resources and even how well developed the greater region is. There’s no in built narrative to speak of but the story of each individual city will be different which leads to some great conversations about how you overcame the various adversities sent your way.
Graphically SimCity is very reminiscent of other Maxis games in that they’re not exactly cutting edge but that has the advantage of running on pretty much everything. The use of tilt-shift perspective for when you’re zoomed in quite far is a nice touch although it doesn’t help hide some of the extremely low poly models used. A quick bit of searching reveals this isn’t the first 3D SimCity and its predecessor, SimCity Societies, looks pretty similar. Considering that game was released over 5 years ago now I would’ve expected a much bigger jump up, especially considering neither of those titles were available on consoles (and before you ask why they’d release it on consoles they did exactly that with SimCity2000).
You begin by either joining someone else’s region or creating one of your own. Joining someone else s has the advantage of potentially giving you a lot of benefits if they’ve got some big cities set up already, like access to upgraded buildings before you’d have the capability to build them, but like most people I chose to start out on my own. After creating your region you’re then sent to select a section of it to begin building your town in, and thus your journey begins to becoming the world’s best mayor.
From a core game play perspective there’s not a whole lot that’s changed over the years. You build roads, which now come with handy guide lines so you don’t make odd sized sections, zone them up for Residential/Commercial/Industrial and then wait for people to arrive. As more people come into your town their requirements for various bits of infrastructure increase so you’ll quickly be adding things like water towers, power stations, sewage outlet pipes and so on. Unlike previous SimCity games you don’t have to lay each bit of connecting infrastructure separately as everything follows the road which makes things a heck of a lot easier. Eventually you’ll reach a point where you want to start attracting higher wealth individuals to your town and that requires some rather careful planning.
It’s all well and good to lay everything out in order to maximize the amount of space available for people to build on, and indeed that’s what will drive your population forward in the beginning, however you’ll eventually need to add additional services on which have circular areas of influence. This is somewhat at odds with the regular way of doing things, especially if you’re using the guide lines which can lead to some hard decisions. Early on its not too bad but later on when you’re dealing with giant skyscrapers the decision to knock one down in an attempt to make the rest of the region more desirable can back you into some painful corners. This is all part of the challenge however as your progression from a low density, low wealth town to a high density. high wealth one is predicated on how well you can make decisions like that.
Like I mentioned previously one city’s progress benefits the whole region and thus there’s really no shame in starting another town should you tire of your current one. Indeed I found my stride somewhere in the middle of my third city, one that was able to leverage off all the other upgrades my previous towns had. It’s also very clear that some locations are far more ideal than others as any place with hills in them is pretty much guaranteed to be unusable, so whilst choosing a lake frontage with mountaintop views sounds like a good idea initially you’ll likely hit its limit far faster than you would a boring, flat patch of dirt in the middle of nowhere.
Now I deliberately avoided playing Sim City until things had calmed down in the hopes that I could avoid some of the issues that causes such an uproar. I did have a few teething issues stemming from my Origin not being installed properly (although all other Origin games work fine, strangely) and the installer simply refusing to run but I was past that I was always able to login. Unfortunately I was unable to play with one of my friends due to him starting on region 2 and I on region 1, something which I thought wouldn’t be a problem but EA has locked those regions down to only those who’ve played on them before. Sure we could start over again but that’s not what we wanted to do, which was a little annoying.
Whilst that was irritating it was nothing compared to the dumb as a rock AI that SimCity uses. Now there’s been quite a bit of investigation into why this is but it all boils down to the pathfinding algorithm which is used for pretty much everything in the game. Sims, cars, electricity, etc. all use the absolute shortest path to get to a destination. Because of this you get a whole lot of really illogical, emergent behavior from various systems. The best (or worst, really) example I can come up with is in one of my towns there’s 2 garbage dumps, each with numerous trucks. However upon picking up rubbish they will all go back to the same garbage dump, even though it’s full and the other one is not much further away. The only way to get around this is to make them almost identical in length (I.E. right next to each other) which is a right pain in the ass. You’ll also find that this will affect things like buildings in certain areas (some commercial/industrial places will never get workers and be routinely abandoned). You can work around this with careful city planning but realistically you shouldn’t have to as the AI should be smart enough to apply costings to paths that would avoid those situations completely.
There also comes a time when your city has reached a certain point and there’s not much more you can do to it until you get more money or your population increases. When this happens you’re pretty much relegated to waiting out the clock which can get rather boring. Indeed I found that once I was getting around the 75,000 population mark there was little I could do to speed up the population growth as anything I did either did nothing or caused a dip before it recovered again. Now I just might not be getting it or reached the limitations of my current city design but since all my advisors weren’t saying anything productive and my approval rating was 85% I struggled to see what else I could do. Searching for some guides also didn’t really help out either, which just led to me giving up on the city and trying again.
I found it pretty easy to lose a lot of time on SimCity as the initial stages are always a fun little balancing act that drew me in much like Anno 2070 did. Still there was always a timer ticking in the background, counting down to the point where I’d be unable to see a way to grow my city further and would simply go again. I’m glad to say that the majority of the issues that plagued its launch are gone now but there are still some teething issues with the initial game process and the dumb as bricks AI can’t be updated quick enough. Overall it’s an average game which unfortunately falls short of many of the expectations placed on it, but none of them are beyond fixing. Well, apart from Maxis/EA’s reputation however.
Sim City is available on PC right now for $99.99. Total play time was 9 hours.