Games review: They Are Billions is the Dark Souls of real-time strategy
The last thing the world needs is more zombie games, but this PC port offers a new take on both the walking dead and real-time strategies.
Oh great, more zombies. Or in this case ‘The Infected’, the fallback naming convention used in games and films when their creators realise the Z-word has been overused to the point of total exhaustion. That’s what they mean though, although in this case the usual schlock surrounding outbreaks of corpse revival has been replaced by an exceptionally taught and unforgiving real-time strategy rule-set.
In They Are Billions you manage and defend a colony of steampunk survivors; if your command centre gets either infected or destroyed it’s game over. To achieve your survival aims you’ll need to farm resources, build defences, train soldiers, and juggle research as you gradually expand your settlement to encompass new mineral deposits and defensible chokepoints in the terrain.
The balancing act you need to refine from the first moment of each game is carving out the right ratio of workers, food, and resources. From those three branches you can add buildings, investigate fresh technology, and turn workers into soldiers to man defences or act as scouts that extend your view of the landscape by clearing away the fog of war, Command & Conquer-style. The last ingredient is electrical power, which in this case has to be extended in a power grid to supply outlying structures.
You soon discover that more advanced buildings have advantages and disadvantages, namely that their ongoing running costs are astronomically higher than their more basic counterparts. That means your relentless expansion is tempered by the need to defend your territory, so adding dozens of low cost, low value buildings produces cheap labour, energy, and materials, but also gives you a lot more to protect.
And then there’s the zombie horde. Depending on the difficulty level you choose at the beginning of each round, you’ll first start by encountering pockets of the infected, comprising a mix of fast and shambling. Every few in-game days you’ll also face a wave of them coming from a single compass direction. The game does give you a small amount of notice, so that you can move defenders to that sector, and early on they’ll be fighting infected hand-to-hand. As you progress you can start to add walls, traps, towers, and finally weapons of mass destruction.
Right at the end of each survival game, you’ll find out why the game’s called They Are Billions. At that point you get hit by an all-out zombie assault that arrives simultaneously from all sides. Failure to be absolutely prepared for that will result in total annihilation. And it’s not a case of building those defences from day one, because they not only limit expansion, but also cost a phenomenal amount to maintain. That means you have to build according to immediate need and only tool up for the final blitz just before it happens.
If that sounds extremely stressful, it’s only the start of your worries. Even much earlier in the game, a stray zombie or two can infect a dwelling or factory, its inhabitants instantly joining the horde to infect more buildings. If left unchecked, this swiftly forms an unstoppable infection chain reaction that’s impossible to control once it gains momentum. It makes the process of playing a knife-edge of tension that never really lets up.
This isn’t a standard real-time strategy though, and along with spinning in elements of Tower Defense, its biggest departure is that you can pause at any time and continue to command your units while the game is suspended. In the console versions that’s absolutely vital, because although BlitWorks has done an excellent job with the port, which is rock solid and bug-free, using a controller is just not as convenient as mouse and keyboard, which is still an option on console if you happen to have compatible ones to hand.
To balance that small concession, you can only save and quit, with no option to quick save. That means no save scumming, which is good from the perspective of forcing those who normally like to cheese their way through challenges to do it honestly, but not so good when you lose several hours of meticulous construction to a couple of undetected undead that slipped into camp without being noticed by your guard patrols.
And that will happen a lot, because They Are Billions is extremely difficult, and comes with no tutorial whatsoever. There’s a help menu that explains what everything does, but in terms of hinting at what your priorities ought to be, and what actions to take first in your attempt at regional zombie defence, you’re left well and truly on your own. Or more likely in the feckless embrace of YouTube Let’s Plays.
The newly released single-player campaign mode hasn’t made it to the console version yet, although early reports suggest that this may not be a particularly glaring omission. Which leaves the robust challenge of survival mode and its procedurally-generated maps, each of which presents its own set of opportunities and nightmares.
Once you get past They Are Billions’ multiple barriers to entry, and start to dig into its complexities for yourself, you’ll discover a fabulously complex and challenging game that’s not afraid to test you. For the right sort of masochist, it’ll be the start of dozens of hours of joyous yet cautious experimentation.
They Are Billions
In Short: Complex, fascinating and utterly brutal RTS-meets-Tower Defense in a steampunk world of darkness and zombies.
Pros: A nuanced and original take on the real-time strategy genre that even manages to make zombies interesting again. Unforgiving difficulty is balanced by the ability to pause the action.
Cons: Campaign mode hasn’t made it to the console versions yet, and players who like an easy ride should run for the hills. Also, haven’t we all slaughtered enough zombies at this point?
Formats: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Numantian Games
Release Date: 5th July 2019
Age Rating: 16
By Nick Gillett
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