Review: They Are Billions – a zombie RTS that’s dead on arrival on console
You’re going to want to skip this console release.
My first real-time strategy game was actually on a console, with Command & Conquer: Red Alert on the original PlayStation. It felt revolutionary at the time, building tesla coils and blowing up enemy buildings, and I didn’t know any better about a mouse and keyboard being much, much easier to use.
When I found out zombie RTS They Are Billions, by developer Numantian Games, was coming to consoles, I was hoping that the last 20+ years would make the console RTS experience even better. I was severely disappointed.
They Are Billions markets itself as an RTS, with zombie hordes and steampunk technology, but in actuality, it has more in common with tower defense
For starters, there’s no multiplayer in They Are Billions. In fact, the only game mode available to you is survival, wherein a map is randomly generated, your base starts in the middle, and you’re tasked with surviving for a certain number of days (default 100).
There’s a “weekly challenge” mode, too, which is the same survival mode but there’s a leaderboard for score and everyone who participates that week gets the same map and only one chance. That’s the game.
- A tutorial
- A campaign
Why is a campaign conspicuously absent? Surely games can exist that are entirely procedurally generated plays, right? Yes, absolutely, and I’ve played and loved plenty. That said, there is a campaign mode for They Are Billions but it’s completely cut from the console versions of the game. It’s just…gone.
That’s a slap in the face, but along with losing the campaign, the console versions also lose any opportunity to learn the game’s systems. My first game, I got wrecked in minutes because I couldn’t even figure out the game’s controls. Yikes.
Also, to put things in perspective here: Survival-only was literally the Early Access version on Steam. Console players are getting an unfinished version of They Are Billions, plain and simple.
After getting my ass handed to me, I looked up the controls and had to study them for several minutes before trying to jump back in
I debated just giving up on them and using a mouse and keyboard, but frankly, this is a console game, I’ve never used a mouse and keyboard on a console in about 29 years of playing console games, and I’m not going to jump through those hoops for this one game. If your game isn’t playable with a controller, the controls are bad.
And boy oh boy, the controls are bad. There is no special controller support that’s tailor-made for consoles: You just control the mouse cursor with the left stick. It’s extremely fidgety, there is no magically good sensitivity setting that gives you both precision and responsiveness all in one, and even after hours of play, I still find myself fighting the controls constantly.
There are some shortcuts, like going back to the main building that constructs all other buildings in two buttons, but they only do so much to alleviate the problem, which is that this game is not designed for consoles, but it’s on consoles anyway.
That last point is driven home even further when you start looking at the game’s microscopic user interface
I play on a 32″ HD TV that I sit about three feet away from and I was somehow still squinting any time I wanted to read something. God of War came out and had infamously small text that was later patched and this is even smaller than that. There’s really no point in trying to read most of this game’s text, because it’s clearly designed for a monitor and not for a TV. I don’t even have bad eyesight!
All of this feels extremely surprising to me because BlitWorks is an outstanding porting studio. They’re responsible for tons and tons of great game ports like Spelunky, Salt & Sanctuary, Axiom Verge, and more.
If that’s the case, why is this port so bad? Why isn’t there a campaign? Why is there no tutorial (something that was likely baked into the campaign)? Why are the controls so bad? Why is the text unreadably small? What the hell happened, here? Whose responsibility was it to make these things happen and who dropped the ball?
But let’s set all of that aside for a minute and assume none of that bothers you. You’re a master of these controls, you have eagle eyesight, and all you want is the equivalent of Command & Conquer’s skirmish mode vs AI. What are you getting out of this game?
They Are Billions is mostly about building
You start off with a central headquarters building that can’t be moved and you use that to build everything else.
From there, the game has several different resources: Food, Workers, Energy, Gold, Wood, Stone, Iron, and Oil. You build houses to get more workers, but houses require gold, wood, food, and energy. You can build a sawmill near forests to get wood. You can build a hunter’s cabin near the woods to get food. You can build fishing shacks near water to get food. Quarries have to be built near mineral deposits to get stone/iron/bonus gold.
All of these resource generators passively generate that resource infinitely, so it’s not like most RTS games where you’ll be strip-mining an area before building a new base elsewhere. Oh, and all of this has to be done within your wireless Tesla energy network, so you have to keep building pylon-like structures to expand your area of influence.
If this sounds like mostly a resource management game, that’s because it is
For combat, there isn’t a ton of variety. You start out with a few starter units and can make more when you make a building for that, unlocked after a few “days” of gameplay and resource hoarding. From there, you get two units: Rangers, who are fast and weak, and Soldiers, who are slower and stronger. Later you can unlock Snipers, who are extremely slow but have incredible range and do tons of damage. These are the only things that can move around the map for you, with everything else being a structure.
The AI will rarely attack you randomly, but occasionally some zombies will wander in and you have to have a bare minimum baseline defense to prevent that. This can be accomplished with the aforementioned infantry, but you also gain the ability to construct walls, defensive towers that can hold four infantry units each, and later automated defense systems like wooden spikes, ballistae, and a giant lightning generator that kills approximately fifty zombies at a time (vs the Ranger, who shoots a single zombie with four arrows before it dies).
Those latter, stationary defenses are where the rubber meets the road, because the game will throw hordes at you at fixed intervals. You’ll get a notification that says a horde is approaching from the north/south/east/west and you have about a minute to prepare, moving troops into place and making sure your defenses are fortified. This is where things will go wrong because those directions are extremely vague and it’s difficult to know exactly where enemies are going to strike. You just have to be ready, whatever that means, and it’s going to be rough.
It’s in these stressful moments that They Are Billions shines brightest. You really get to find out how well you’ve prepared and most of that will have taken place in meticulous, careful planning and resource management.
There’s very, very little to be said of micro-control here because you’re literally going to be swarmed with dozens to hundreds of enemy zombies and you’re either going to be able to handle it or you won’t. Should your stone walls be two layers thick or three? How many rows of spikes do you need? Do you have enough snipers? Have you advanced your tech trees enough to get the right defensive structures to save your bacon? At its best, these systems work well: It feels really good to survive an onslaught that looked like it was a guarantee of total annihilation.
My favorite of all of this is actually the structural damage system, which I think is extremely clever
There are essentially three tiers of damage: Damaged, infected, and destroyed. When a building first gets attacked, it starts losing health. After it’s received enough damage, the building becomes unusable, infected by the zombie plague. If enough buildings are infected, the infection will start to spread to other, undamaged buildings, rendering them unusable. Infected buildings are also still targeted by zombies, so they can ultimately be destroyed.
The catch to all of this is that so long as you can survive combat, you can actually repair a building all the way back up from the brink, first curing it of infection and then repairing the physical damage to it. This really sells the zombie theme and I think it’s one of They Are Billions’ best systems.
Then again, those systems don’t always work well. Nothing is explained, so I would run into problems like this one: I need workers to make more units, but I need energy to build cottages for workers, but I need more workers to build mills for energy. The answer here was to sell off old, redundant defenses that had workers tied up, but that’s never actually taught. You just have to fumble through the game until you figure out this critical information, the absence of which is quite literally game-breaking. These deficits often completely undermine the game’s better moments.
All in all, I don’t think They Are Billions is worth it, at least not on consoles. The good moments are constantly outweighed by horrible controls, painfully unreadable UI, and unexplained systems. In order to experience the game at an acceptable level of control, you have to constantly be pausing to issue commands and squint at descriptions, hoping to get the game to do what you want it to do. Beyond that, despite having the same name and branding as the PC version, the console port is missing the entire story mode, which feels egregiously offensive.
My recommendation is this: Avoid the console port of They Are Billions. It seems like there’s maybe a decent, cerebral hybrid RTS/tower defense/resource management game here, but the intended experience is unambiguously had on desktops.
Jake reviewed They Are Billions on PlayStation 4 with a code from the developer. The game is available now on Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, though the game’s campaign is only in the Windows version. If you like the idea of zombies and steampunk, you should consider reading Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, the first title in her Clockwork Century series. You could probably finish it in less time than it would take to get through one game of They Are Billions on the longest time setting.
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