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 survival genre and I have never really gotten along. I can appreciate the challenge you can create out of just existing but for me these kinds of games just never satisfied me. The act of survival is typically one of repetitive tasks and if I wanted to do that I’d go back to playing MMORPGs. Still enough people in my gaming circle had said that The Long Dark’s story mode, Wintermute, was worth the look in, with many comparing it to Firewatch. I’ll have to strongly disagree that the experiences are comparable but, at the very least, it’s reaffirmed my aversion to this genre.
Set in the present day The Long Dark takes place after a great “geomagnetic disaster” which wiped out the power grid for many. You play as Will Mackenzie, a pilot who services many of the remote towns in the Canadian wilderness. After a brief reunion with Astrid, his ex-wife, you agree to take her to where she needs to go without asking too many questions. On the way there however you hit rough whether and your plane comes crashing down long before reaching its destination. Stranded in the isolated wilderness you have to survive and, if you can, try to find Astrid before its too late.
Aesthetically The Long Dark opts for stylized/cartoony visuals much like that of Firewatch and games from Telltale. This does mean that the visuals are relatively simple and uncluttered, something which is a blessing when you’re scrounging around for things to help you survive. Interior buildings are a bit more detailed but then it’s more clutter than anything, which can make scavenging buildings a little more challenging. Fitting in with the simple visual theme is the lack of in-game physics on a lot of things, something which I think many of us have simply grown accustomed to seeing everywhere. Back when The Long Dark was first released I’m sure this visual style would have been quite impressive however, this being 2017, they do seem a little dated. I don’t expect that to change though.
Given The Long Dark’s 3 or so years in Early Access the survival game play is quite well developed. You’ve got a number of attributes that you need to keep up including food, water, heat and sleep. At any time you could be affected by any number of conditions ranging from things like food poisoning to wolf bites to good old fashioned hypothermia. Should you not manage your attributes properly your “condition” will start to deteriorate and, should it reach zero, you will pass into the long dark. Everything you need is available in the wilderness but it won’t be easy and you’ll have to make sure that you can survive long enough so you can…keep on surviving. This is all happening whilst you’re following the story line which, for the first hour or so, serves as an extended tutorial of sorts. Past there it becomes somewhat optional, although following it does have its benefits.
Just like in real life the business of just plain surviving in The Long Dark isn’t exactly a pleasant one. You’ll find yourself doing the same basic tasks time after time just to make sure you have a fire that will last, enough food to not starve and a small stash of emergency supplies should you fall down or get attacked by wolves (or worse). It’s these kinds of activities that turn me off these kinds of survival/sandbox simulators as I’m really not interested in having to gather firewood for the hundredth time or trying haphazardly to hit a rabbit with a rock so I won’t starve. Additionally, and I’m not sure if this was a limitation of the story mode, it seemed like I didn’t have a lot of options to improve my ability to survive beyond scavenging. Certainly the crafting menu was never populated with any beyond some simple things, despite me finding all sorts of materials.
Credit where it’s due though as the game really does a great job of simulating all the various things that drastically alter your chances of surviving. It didn’t take me too long to realise that venturing out at night was a fools errand, especially if I didn’t have a torch in my hand. I learnt this after following what I thought was a road for some time, only to find out it was a path to literally no where. Trudging along the same path during the day I could see where I went wrong and it became all too clear how easy it would be to get lost in the dark in bad weather. From there on I’d often spend just as much time indoors waiting out the time so I didn’t have to expend a ton of resources just to stay alive out in the night.
The Long Dark’s story starts off well however as the time between major events starts to draw out I started to become disinterested in it. The longest part of the story arc that I played (which is Episode 1, I gather) consisted mostly of fetch quests for a NPC, something which I’m not the biggest fan of even in the MMORPG genre. This means that the main story kind of stalls at this point and the ultimate conclusion to it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying at all. Firewatch by comparison had great pacing for both the main arc and the sub-plots ensuring that you always felt like whatever you were doing was leading somewhere. The Long Dark, at least in its first 4 hours, doesn’t have that and I’m not enough of a fan of the survival genre to forget that.
The Long Dark’s time in Early Access has resulted in a well crafted game but it’s unfortunately just not for me. I can appreciate the simplistic aesthetic it’s going for, especially when it produces something as gorgeous as the screenshot above, but it is erring on the dated side now. The survival mechanics are deep, requiring a lot of effort on the part of the player to make sure your character doesn’t simply freeze to death on the first day. The story’s strong opening fades relatively quickly and, should you not enjoy survival games as a rule, there won’t be much else to carry it on past the first few hours. Overall I can appreciate the craftsmanship of The Long Dark but it’s simply not a game for the likes of me, but it could very well be for you.
The Long Dark is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $34.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 4 hours playtime and 10% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s almost no need to introduce No Man’s Sky, the game that was catapulted to stardom the second its concept trailers hit the Internet. The fervour surrounding it is easy to understand as it taps into that oh-so-popular survival genre that Early Access games are known for whilst upping the stakes significantly, giving you an entire universe to explore and play in. I had long been wanting a game that did full, proper space exploration for some time and so was sold on the concept early on. Then I do what I usually do, ignore any news of the game until it finally gets released and then play it with no expectations.
It seems that I might be the only person on the Internet who’s done that.
The game that No Man’s Sky teases you with is one of infinite adventure. There are quintillions (literally) of worlds to explore, each with their own unique flora and fauna. You are The Traveller, an explorer who finds themselves wrecked on a planet far from the galactic core. For some reason you’re drawn there, wanting to make your way to the centre to see what awaits you there. However it doesn’t take long for that plan to go off the rails with various threats, distractions and curiosities getting in your way. How you journey through the galaxy is up to you though and the stories you create will be yours and yours alone.
No Man’s Sky isn’t exactly the most high fidelity game out there but that’s likely due to its procedural origins. Initially my system appeared to struggle with it, the not-so-great graphics seemingly able to bring my beast to its knees. As it turns out No Man’s Sky, for some inexplicable reason, caps your FPS at 30 on PC by default. Changing that and maxing out the settings made for a much better looking and running game. The visuals themselves are passable, better than what I’ve come to expect from most games in the genre but falling short of some of the stunning masterpieces I’ve played of late. No Man’s Sky does manage to produce some screenshot worthy moments but most of the time you’ll be in an endless expanse of more of the same. This is par for the course with procedural generation as sure, you get a lot of variations, but those variations are often not that far away from each other.
No Man’s Sky is a survival exploration game on a galactic scale. Initially you’ll travel around your spaceship, looking for the parts you need to fix it. Then you’ll travel between planets, searching out different kinds of wildlife, plants and resources. Finally you’ll be able to travel between systems, each of which has its own set of unique features. When you’re planet side you’ll spend most of your time exploring the landscape, mining for minerals and cataloguing the various plants and animals you come across. When you launch into space you can trade with alien races, mine asteroids and engage in space based combat. You’ll also be presented with a few story related choices along the way: either you journey to the centre of the galaxy or you’ll follow the Atlas path. I couldn’t tell you how either of them pan out however as I gave up long before I reached the end but if you’re a die hard survival exploration fan there’s more than enough to keep you going here for quite some time.
Exploration typically takes the form of landing somewhere on a planet, checking out what minerals are common and then cataloguing the various bits of wildlife if you’re so inclined. Initially it’s amazing to see the variety in this game, from the different wildlife, planets and alien races that you come across. However it quickly starts to become repetitive after you’ve visited a dozen planets or so as many of the basic things are the same (like the habitats the aliens use) and the procedural components start to become obvious. Still for a long time I was still motivated to follow the Atlas path as that seemed genuinely interesting. However there are, of course, barriers to your progression and that’s when you’ll start looking around for upgrades.
Like many I began farming resources in order to earn the cash required to upgrade my ship, something that takes quite a bit of time if you do it the “legit” way. After getting frustrated with my progress I took to the Internet and found there was numerous ways to get ship upgrades without paying for them. Indeed this way was also one of the best ways to get rare materials for crafting so I spent a couple hours churning through ships. I tried to do the same with my multitool but, for one reason or another, RNGjesus simply didn’t smile on me and I maxed out at a 10 slot tool after numerous hours. This is eventually what ended up killing No Man’s Sky for me as I just couldn’t be bothered trying to farm the required upgrades to get to the next point. At least with the ships I felt like I was making some slow progress.
The combat, both ground and space based, is barely worth talking about. Your multi-tool is more than capable of taking out most foes with just the mining laser with the combat upgrades just making the process slightly faster. Space combat is janky at best as the flight model just doesn’t feel right. Even with a bunch of upgrades my weaponry didn’t feel anymore effective, probably because I seemed to get matched up against more foes to compensate for it. Since there’s really no penalty for death (if you can get your grave back, which you always can) it’s usually better to just die instead of trying to fight anymore than a couple foes. It’s a shame really as that would’ve been a great progression mechanic, one that I might’ve stuck around for if it was any good.
No Man’s Sky is riddled with the issues that comes with procedural generation, namely all the edge cases which you simply can’t account for until people start encountering them. I’ve come across buildings that were embedded in mountains, inaccessible unless you had a good supply of grenades handy to blast your way in. Falling through the world is quite possible and easily doable if you land in a semi-awkward position. Similarly the physics engine sometimes freaks out if you clip terrain in a certain way, flinging you away with enough speed for the game to think you’ve engaged the pulse engines. There was also a couple times my frame rate dropped to slideshow levels which I could only attribute to some poorly optimised particle effects which were thankfully gone when I reloaded my last save. I’m sure some of the more egregious issues have been fixed in the weeks since I finished playing No Man’s Sky but they certainly did nothing to endear it to me.
No Man’s Sky strives to inspire a feeling of awe in you through the act of exploration. The base game does a good job of that however the ancillary plot, where The Traveller tells you that its feeling awe, is less convincing. Since there’s not a lot of build up as to why you’re trying to get to the centre (or follow the Atlas path) it’s hard to empathise with The Traveller’s varying emotions. I honestly wasn’t expecting much though, this is a procedurally generated game after all, but the disjoint between the potential of the emergent stories versus the curated plot was somewhat jarring.
Now whilst I may have avoided the hype I’m not ignorant to the controversy that’s surrounded the release of No Man’s Sky and I do believe it merits addressing. As a standalone game No Man’s Sky is a good, but not great, title that I’m sure would appeal to certain niche. Not knowing of potential features I felt no loss at them not being there and so harbour no ill will for Hello Games. Indeed I feel like we, the gaming community, need to temper our expectations for any game lest we set ourselves up for Molyneux levels of disappointment. Sure Sony and Hello Games are partly to blame for this, whipping the community into a frenzy with teasers and interviews and whatnot, but we gamers are better than that. We’ve all been here before, with promises of games that would redefine genres or push them to new heights, only to be disappointed when the reality did not meet our expectations. If No Man’s Sky was released on Steam Greenlight for $30 and spent the next 2 years in Early Access no one would be shouting “BROKEN PROMISES” as loudly, yet because it had a full release it seems everyone feels entitled to voicing just how angry they are.
TL:DR, stop getting so hyped. It never works out how you’d expect it to.
Good but not great is the tagline I’d go with to sum up my experience with No Man’s Sky. I know of a few friends who’d love it as they’ve sunk many hours into similar games like Terraria or The Forest. For others, like me, it was an interesting aside but quickly became repetitive and so I left it behind. This isn’t unusual, indeed there have been many higher budget games which I’ve done the same with, and shouldn’t count against it if the concept interests you. Even looking back, after getting burned by the grind/upgrade cycle, I still think it’s worth playing, even if it’s just to see a few different planets and systems before it gets shelved. That might not be worth the asking price for you but that’s not a judgement I’ll make for everyone. For me, someone who got 15 hours of game time out of it, No Man’s Sky was worth it, even if I may never go back to it again.
No Man’s Sky is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 15 hours of total play time and 45% of the achievements unlocked.
For some reason the gaming community has thrived on titles that are, for want of a better word, incredibly brutal. The trend started to take root after the first Dark Souls game which prided itself on not holding the players hand, nor caring if it proved too difficult to be enjoyable. On first look such games were the antithesis to the base ethos of games: that they be fun above all else. However such games, when played well, provide a sense of satisfaction beyond those who are perhaps a little more forgiving. Planetbase is a city building game in this vein, putting you in control of an offworld colony which, if managed incorrectly, will have dire consequences.
You are the invisible hand that will guide these colonists to establishing a viable colony. Upon landing on your planet of choice, with your colony ship full of resources and a handful of aspiring colonists, it’s up to you to give them everything they’ll need to survive. In the beginning their needs are simple, oxygen and water being all you’ll need to make it through the first night, but after that you must find a way to provide them everything they need. Like all closed ecosystems though these things need to be created in balance and should that not be done you will quickly find yourself facing catastrophe. Will you be the leader that leads your colony to success? Or will you become the agent of their destruction?
Planetbase has that Unity-esque feeling that most games developed on the engine have. It’s hard to quantify exactly what it is but like Flash games before them they all seem to share a similar visual style that became something of a trademark. This is especially true for Planetbase which feels like the colonist version of Kerbal Space Program. The simple visual style is partly due to performance reasons, something which could become a concern with larger bases. The visual simplicity also helps a lot with making sure you can keep track of your base layout, something which becomes increasingly difficult as your base grows. Overall, whilst Planetbase won’t win any awards for its graphics, they are far more than sufficient and are perfectly suited to the type of game that it is.
Your goal in Planetbase is simple: you have to build a self-sustaining colony on a new world. As you click your way through the tutorial this seems rather easy, there’s a logical progression to the structures you need to build in order to satisfy the growing needs of your colonists. However once you’re in the real game it’s easy to forget a critical step which leads to the untimely demise of your entire colony (like the above screenshot, taken not 5 minutes into my first game, can attest to). Like all city building games there’s numerous resources that you need to collect, create and manage in order to ensure that everyone in the colony has everything they need. A lack of resources in one place ultimately leads to issues in other areas of your colony and, without proper treatment, life ending consequences. The game may warn you of your impending doom every so often but that can often come too late, the alarm bell serving only to inform you of the inevitable.
Getting through your first night sounds like an easy enough challenge but it’s one that’s incredibly easy to get wrong. Should you fail to build your power array and storage too late you won’t have enough to make it through the night. If you forget to build your water extractor you won’t be able to generate enough oxygen, asphyxiating everyone before they have a chance to build the life saving solution. Thankfully once you’ve figured out these challenges (which are all addressed well enough in the tutorial) surviving the first night becomes child’s play, but the game past that point still provides a significant challenge.
Past the first night your goals turn towards building all the components you’ll need for self sufficiency and that means generating many of the required resources yourself. The first two major ones you’ll need to create are metal and bioplastic which allow you to create all the structures you’ll need. For most players metal is the first roadblock that they’ll encounter as it’s the first thing you run out of and one of the harder ones to produce. There are several strategies to deal with this (and I’ll talk about my approach a bit later) however it’s likely to be the main resource which keeps you back for a long time. Once you’ve got a production line of these two resources going the pace of the game slows down significantly as you look towards planning your future expansions.
Typically the next issue most people run into is food as your colony gains more and more people. What was interesting about this though is how many factors can influence the simple problem of not having enough food for everyone and every single one can mean people start going hungry. Not enough biologists to tend to the plants? They won’t make enough food. Not enough mealmakers in the canteen? People will have to wait for meals and there might not be enough to go around. Didn’t monitor the number of colonists you have? Keeping the landing pad open to colonists constantly might not be the greatest idea as your food production might simply be unable to cope. It took me a good 3 hours to get food working sustainably and even then it wasn’t the most efficient process.
Indeed if you really want to succeed at building a colony then you have to start thinking in much broader terms from the very get go. Whilst the smaller structures are far cheaper and quicker to construct they are by and large incredibly inefficient. The greatest example of this is the biodome with the smallest one only allowing you a third of the number of plants of the largest but costing far more in relative terms. This means that, if building a big colony is your goal, you’ll have judge which buildings to build big right off the bat and which to hold off on. For me it took a good 6 hours of play time before I reached this point and that’s when I was able to finally build a colony that wasn’t always at the brink of disaster.
Once you’ve got that all sorted then the final challenge you’ll face is getting the layout of your base right. Whilst this isn’t as impactful as the other resource challenges I’ve mentioned before it is something you’ll need to consider as your base grows in size. Placement of things like oxygen generators, processing plants and high traffic areas like bunks and canteens can radically impact the efficiency of a single colonist. If you get the layout wrong most of the time it just means progress is a lot slower than it can be but can sometimes lead to base destroying issues. One of the best examples I had of this was having one of my bunkers too far away from an oxygen generator which, when it got full at night when people went to sleep, meant that it ran out of oxygen.
Despite all these challenges though Planetbase managed to grip me in a way that few games have, tapping into that part of my brain that needs to know how this complicated system works so I can exploit it. Indeed whilst it took me 8 hours to reach 100 colonists I barely realised I had spent that much time in it, forgetting myself for hours at a time whilst I watched my little puppets go about their daily lives. There were some frustrating moments of course but they are the kinds of stories these games thrive on, those moments where a lapse in concentration or missing component ends up having unintended consequences. It may not be for everyone (unless a brutal version of Sim City is your cup of tea) but for those of us that thrive on challenges like this it’s definitely worth playing.
Planetbase is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 25% of the achievements unlocked.