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.