Beta Impressions: Petroglyph’s Grey Goo

A little while before Christmas hit like the fist of an angry, to-do list-disrupting god, I took a look at an unfinished version of the new game from Petroglyph, a studio formed out of the ashes of Command & Conquer dev Westwood but who’ve had a bit of a spotty history since. In 2013 they cancelled a Kickstarter due to lack of interest, but they’ve struck back with a new RTS named Grey Goo, a fancy-lookin’ collaboration with Lord of the Rings design/SFX outfit Weta Workshop. It’s a big, glossy sci-fi strategy game, with singleplayer and multiplayer, landing somewhere between C&C and Starcraft. It’s out later this month – these impressions are based on a closed beta.

Grey Goo’s a looker, at least in the sense that it comes across as expensive rather than a budget affair. It’s got that chunky, slightly shiny Starcraft II look to it, only clad in semi-darkness. The little unit animations are intricate and lovely, and when it all kicks off it’s appropriately explosive. It’s also got some of the best CGI heads I’ve seen in a while, presumably thanks to Weta wizardry. These screen-high alien bonces drive the cutscenes and mission briefings, and while admittedly pre-rendered, they’re so good. Enough humanity to incite empathy, but alien enough to incite fascinated staring. Lots of small eye and mouth movements, this strong sense that these guys could have really emotions. Sadly everything they say is deadly-earnest exposition and no-one seems to have a personality beyond what’s shown by their eyes, but, uh, the South African accents were nice?

It’s a reasonably traditional RTS in the game proper, which is no bad thing given how few of those old dears we see these days. Three asymmetrical factions go at it while gathering resources and teching up: you know the score. It’s tried to trim some fat though – there are no player-controlled builder or harvester units. Refineries automatically gather, and structures get airlifted in once a timer expires. Grey Goo’s focused very much on the fighting, even to the point where it restricts how many structures you can build in order that you don’t get too bogged down in that stuff.

For instance, for the Beta, slightly Protoss-y alien faction you play as in the campaign (or at least its first few levels – I’ve not been all the way yet), building is dictated by hubs – in small, medium and large sizes- onto which you can attach only a couple of things. Even then, if you want a hub’s factory to make tanks you’ll need to add a tank attachment. If you want it to make planes, you’ll need to add an aircraft attachment. Same for stealth or artillery. A hub runs out of spots fast, and simply can’t be a jack of all trades. You can drop more hubs here and there, but space is an issue, cash is often an issue, and most of all you’re just creating a new point of vulnerability. When you get all the way up to being able to build a Large Hub – able to chuck out multiple units of any type simultaneously – it’s exciting, like you’ve been given the keys to the kingdom, but now the enemy has a priority target.

The other factions, Humans and the nanotech-inspired Goo, have their own twists on building rules, though the former cleaves a little closer to convention and the latter has a variation of Zergs’ morphing. (Oh and, confusingly, the aliens/Beta units look somewhat like Starcraft II’s Terrans and the Humans look slightly like Starcraft II’s aliens/Protoss). There’s enough going on that you’ll feel you’re getting to grips with something new, not repeating stuff you’ve done elsewhere.

I’ve had some experience of the other two factions in Skirmish mode, but mostly I was playing the campaign, with its impeccable alien-heads. It’s… alright, working hard to make each mission distinct from the last, but the combo of building restrictions and a plot that didn’t even try to make me care before showering me in technobabble meant I didn’t feel invested in proceedings beyond “I would like to win this fight please.” The flow feels a bit off, too. With singleplayer RTSes, I have a personal rating system – how long until you hit the Oh Fuck Off Mission. You know, the one where it asks you to juggle one too many balls and you find yourself in this gruelling war of attrition as the enemy repeatedly hits you on multiple fronts simultaneously, and you’re just praying for it to be over rather than feeling motivated to actually beat the thing.

In Grey Goo, that’s the third mission. It asks that I defend three disparate spots simultaneously against waves of enemies, severely limits how much I can build at each of them, and also drops structure-damaging earthquakes on me just in case I wasn’t already fighting enough fires. If I was a seasoned multiplayer hyper-clicker maybe I’d breeze past it, but I’m a solo schmoe who’s only just started playing. I tried it three times then dropped to Easy to scum my way through it, and that was not a good feeling.

Which is a shame, as otherwise I’ve been quietly impressed by Grey Goo. It’s classical RTS, extremely well-presented and not trying to go anywhere awkward. Its influences are perhaps not so much worn on the sleeve as made into a six-foot-high hat with “I Heart Starcraft” printed on it, but despite its appearance and its asymmetrical factions it feels more like the C&C side of things than the Blizzard one.

There are some inventive units in there too – the titular Goo definitely comes from the Zerg school of thinking, but look so more interesting. Their ‘base’ is made up huge, shimmery Nano-gunk blobs which gobble up enemy units as readily as they do resources, while the units are plasticine-legged things that look like a toddler’s drawings of sea creatures come to life. The Goo don’t get all the best toys, though. Right after the Oh Fuck Off Mission I got to play with a super-unit that involved building one of every military structure then fusing it all together into a floating death-fortress that looked like a mecha-woodlouse. Not entirely unlike the Protoss mothership, no, but it had personality and I dig the concept of building everything then semi-sacrificing it just to get one really big thing.

It’s solid and slick stuff, but other than in a few of the unit designs I guess I’m worried that Grey Goo is solid and slick at the expense of having a clear identity of its own. It’s done well at turning down the micro-management, and it’s certainly been careful not to be slavish to anything else, other than arguably in art style, but I’m not yet entirely sure how I’d conclude a sentence which began “Grey Goo is great because…” It is pretty Starcrafty in a way that’s either smart or suicidal, but it’s doing just enough of its own that it’ll probably recruit a few loyalists: there is a gap in the market for this, I think.

Grey Goo comes out on Jan 23.

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51 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    Ways to instantly grab my attention: Call your game “Grey Goo”.

    Ways to lose it again: Be an RTS. :( Only thing that could turn me off faster would be “free-to-play MMORPG”.

    I just can never get into RTS games. They always feel too micromanage-y and too much like “you could’ve won that game if only you clicked faster on stuff“. Feels more like RSI than RTS. Plus there’s always too much local tactics, not enough grand strategy.

    At least in singleplayer, you set a difficulty, and the AI fights up to a certain level. Exceed that, and you win. But laddered public multiplayer just sounds like a sort of hell where I’ll rise until I hit my cap and never have any hope of progressing because I’m not a young kid any more, not willing to sacrifice my hands, not willing to memorise a series of starting builds and learn to play them absolutely perfectly, etc.

    I’d be perfectly fine if they were “realtime with paused orders” like FTL or Door Kickers. Though of course, that would be hell for multiplayer. Ah well. Just sad because I love sci-fi, and love even more anything to do with AIs or nanotech.

    • Premium User Badge

      Godwhacker says:

      ‘Grey Goo’ has to be the worst game title of the decade

    • Hex says:

      Seriously. I would like to see an RTS for the old-fogey crowd in which the game plays out slowly enough that the player can really take a reasonable amount of time to do things. Dunno how slow that would need to be, but it’d be nice if somebody experimented.

      • PepperTitan says:

        Try looking at Ultimate General: Gettysburg. It’s Civil War and uses that theme really well. And since it is a pretty pulled back scale things take time to move and you have lots of time to react and plan.

        • Hex says:

          Ooh yeah that one is on my wishlist. I came pretty close to picking it up over the holidays, but the simple fact that it’s an RTS scared me off, as I have a tendency to reach that Oh Fuck Off moment pretty consistently.

          I’ll give it a shot. :)

      • LionsPhil says:

        The C&C series used to be like this. Seriously. Before Red Alert 2 they played much, much slower.

      • EisenKreutzer says:

        Thats exactly what Grey Goo is, actually.

      • Christo4 says:

        I think squads are pretty good. I mean, you can just pick a squad and tell it to do this or that, instead of picking each individual soldier.
        Otherwise, maybe a hands-off strategy game would be interesting, in which you are a general over several battlefields and you give orders to your sergeants to do this or that, wait for reinforcements, hold ground or retreat etc. Ofc, them having morale would also be interesting.

    • EisenKreutzer says:

      Actually, that is exactly what Grey Goo aims to be. Petroglyph have really downplayed micro management in favour of macro and strategy. There are no unit abilities like in Starcraft, and the pace of the game is much slower than other contemporary RTS games.

  2. Rao Dao Zao says:

    That header image is him puckering up for a kiss???

  3. Uglycat says:

    That soundwave travelled way too fast.

  4. Crafter says:

    I lost interest when I read RTS but regained it on ‘no builders’.
    This has been a big frustration for me for quite some time. I always thought that Dungeon Keeper had a great idea with its indirect control of the imps.
    Micromanaging engineers in supcom feels like a core, especially when some of the are killed and you have to replan their work.

    It could be a great way to focus on the actual strategy instead of the frantic busywork.

    • Tukuturi says:

      They tried the no builders thing in the failed RTS-MMO End of Nations. It was an endless, boring cycle of waiting for timers and clicking on objectives, completely devoid of any kind of strategy or meaningful decision making. It was basically the Farmville of RTS.

      • Premium User Badge

        SuddenSight says:

        No builders has been done (reasonably) well before. Battle for Middle Earth (the first one) didn’t have any builders. That was one of the design decisions I actually liked – unique locations fits with the idea of the books, and it forced players to engage in LoTR-style sieges.

        Also, another RTS I like is Nemesis of the Roman Empire (sequel to Celtic Kings). Great fun, though the veterancy/generalship mechanics were a little weird at times.

        And an RTS game I only just now bought after years of not having bought it is Praetorians (though it does have units that build siege weapons, but no real base-building).

        And lastly I keep meaning to go back and play more of Sacrifice – which not only eschews base-building, you also have a physical avatar and a 3rd-person camera!

        • Premium User Badge

          Oakreef says:

          No builders has been done? Well of course it has: The entire C&C series (bar Generals) has no builders.

        • Nurdell says:

          Also see: petroglyph’s star wars empire at war for the no managing drones business.

      • Crafter says:

        Anecdotal evidence and all that.
        As others have pointed out, Command and Conquer have showed how to make an interesting RTS without builders.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      So go play “RTT” games like the amazing World in Conflict (RIP old Massive), or if you can stomach an extremely minimal amount of builders, Company of Heroes, easily one of the best RTS games of all time. Dawn of War 2 cuts that down even further, but some balked at the reduced army sizes.

  5. aterriblesomething says:

    we’re gonna need a staring eyes tag on this one, Alec

  6. Jakkar says:

    Oh dear. Can’t we learn from Dawn of War, that diminishing base-building to focus on combat isn’t fun when you’re not playing a combat-oriented game?

    Drag-selecting and clicking things while micromanaging DPS does inexplicably seem to appeal to this huge MOBA crowd that sprung up after the WoW-Clone days, but doesn’t anyone else miss strategy games that involved strategy and creating elaborate bases? I still play Supreme Commander and Dawn of War: Dark Crusade with friends, depending upon our capacity for complexity in the moment.

    Sacrifice gave us active and involved strategy-combat with minimal base-building and made it wonderful because you were down there, with a third-person camera directly behind your wizard, summoning, ordering, directing your troops with a fantastic gesture based interface shortcutting a great radial menu system.

    Total Annihilation gave us elaborate construction of huge, varied bases coupled with long term strategy and rich tactical battles, while looking and sounding great for its era, with a powerful atmosphere and great music.

    Now… Strategy games are apparently about guiding small squads of units back and forth kiting, optimising DPS, and purchasing upgrades to counter the upgrades that counter the upgrades. And the blame can be placed squarely upon Blizzard. And the Koreans.

    *grump*

    • Premium User Badge

      SuddenSight says:

      This, this, a million times this. Looking back on old RTS games makes me sad to see how far they have moved away from real-time base building.

      When did base building get such a bad rap anyway? Rise of Nations was an excellent game, and it was mostly base building. The Anno series is kinda RTS-like, and it is all base-building. I would love to see a developer really go for the base-building angle again.

      The only exciting RTS on that front I can think of right now is that Offworld Mars game. Definitely #staringeyes at that one.

      • dangel says:

        Oh dear god yes from me too.. I love Base building and digging in but I fear the complexity of things like forged alliance will never be seen again. Perhaps, like space games, rts proper is due a resurgence?

        • Solrax says:

          Have any of you tried Planetary Annihilation? I still suck at it, but they are certainly trying to fill this void. Written by some guys who had also worked on Total Annihilation. AI by Sorian who did so many great AI mods for Supreme Commander. Lots of units (not as many as Forged Alliance). The AI totally spanks me, in a recent game that I determined to really really try to win, I was quite pleased to have nearly wiped the AI off the planet – only to realize that it had completely colonized two other planets and was raining units on me from orbit.

          Anyway, I suck too bad to be able to judge it’s flaws, but it may be worth a look if you loved TA and SC.

          • Jakkar says:

            Planetary Annihilation was my biggest crowdfunding contribution, and my greatest resultant disappointment. It feels to me like an unfinished mess, and the combat doesn’t feel satisfying in the slightest. Taking away the *weight*, the real explosions, the hefty projectile physics, the detailed graphics and replacing it with this light-hearted TF2 style 3d-cartoon… Why?

            It has been turned into a quickmatched, cheap and cheerful toy, albeit without a coherent style, a solid sense of humour or a finished graphics engine.

            I loved Total Annihilation, and unlike some I loved Supreme Commander even more. I’ve been saving Forged Alliance for when I find a close friend to play it with properly, starting together so neither have too much of an advantage in familiarity.

            PA just feels… Soulless, tacky, and un-fun. Particularly the space travel mechanics, which feel more like an animated transition than a functional gameplay element.

            What else was great for RTS? Men of War replaces base-building with incredibly rich management of troops, creating complex ambushes and defensive lines through the precise placement of units, minefields, sandbags, and the creative partial demolition of structures… Age of Empires was surprisingly entertaining, and felt like a historical equivalent to Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 in its balance of depth and silly-fun. C+C really deserve the medal though, for the fantastic presentation. Red Alert 2’s installer program? <3

            Base-building has never been given as much attention as it deserves, though. I'd love to see someone achieve something more… Organic with it. Free rotation, rich modular systems, upgrades, repairs and modifications, curved walls and roads, etc. I want to create the ultimate fortress and test it in battle…

            Ah!

            STRONGHOLD! <3 Such a pity about 3…

          • Chuckleluck says:

            I agree with you, Jakkar. To me it seems like the PA devs arbitrarily stamped a “it’s finished” sticker on the game, when it clearly still needs a lot of work.

        • Jakkar says:

          Dangel: Personally, I’m hoping to see the complexity return gradually, with the primary emphasis placed upon a respectful mimicry of what makes the Faces/Soldiers/Men of War games work – we need physics and deep simulation in place to make combat, construction and destruction as interesting as modern computers can make them.

          This is what bemuses me about games like this Grey Goo, about Starcraft II, and Dawn of War II: Modern, pretty, and utterly old-fashioned, in the most derivative, simplistic way, while the mad underfunded Russians push the envelope with NEW functions, exploiting the power of more than just your GPU.

          I want them to burn my CPU and make my RAM cry. Give me *depth*, give me complexity, give me scale. Epic scale, variety, and freedom.

      • Jakkar says:

        Offworld Trading Company looks… An interesting idea, but I have trouble trusting games made by people who paint their name all over it, and I’d miss the absence of combat.

        This is my major issue getting into Crusader Kings II: Requiring a legal argument to justify a declaration of war in order to perform a military act is simply infuriating. Once in a while, I want to make the world burn, punish the wicked, take what I want, hear the lamentation of their men/women/whatever they want to be, as long as they wail.

        I need a bit of excitement in my games, in short – Total War works wonder for me in this regard.

        A game solely about building and influencing share-prices doesn’t sound interesting. There has to be risk. This works nicely for Caesar/Pharaoh/Zeus and for Tropico as well, because of the risk of uprisings, riots, rebellions and military assaults, despite not being the focus of the game.

        • lordcooper says:

          Play as a character that isn’t a Catholic surrounded by Catholics some time and reap the benefit of justifications such as ‘they aren’t my religion’ and ‘they happen to be next to me’.

          • Jakkar says:

            So I’ve heard. Tempting, but still lacks thundering cavalry charges. At this point in my life I think I still need to see the cannon fire, the arrows fly…

    • Crafter says:

      I don’t see how micromanaging builders is strategy.
      To each his own, and it seems that people tend to like very different things in RTS
      Let’s see how this one goes, removing builders can help leaving more space from strategic choices.
      What I personally like in Supreme Commander are the possibilities, from building a fire/artillery base close to the enemy, drop units at the back of his base, focus on an early XP, … I think that you can design a game with this kind of strategic possibilities without direct controls over the builders.

    • deaiss says:

      Who said there is no emphasis on base-building? This game has plenty of it and its extremely important. Good wall placement and other building placement is extremely important, especially for humans where conduits are needed to be placed between buildings.

      Yea, there are no base-building units, which although I would prefer, is not what made base-building fun. Building buildings is what made base-building fun, and that’s in the game :)

  7. dsch says:

    Doesn’t seem innovative enough to be interesting. Looks like so many gimmicks on top of the a 20-year old RTS formula.

  8. melnificent says:

    That alien is downright disturbing… I’m really hoping the next few years of gaming aren’t uncanny valley.

  9. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    I have this idea at the back of my mind for a time-looping RTS, played in short, maybe 30 second, rounds. Each player plots the path and orders for a single small bunch of units, then the battle plays out. Then they get to plot another few units’ orders, which happen alongside the recorded orders from the previous loop. Repeat until there is a massive battle with feints, counter-feints, assaults, pushes, brawls…

  10. Jackablade says:

    Well, I can think of flimsier pretexts to play some Mr Bungle.

  11. Engonge says:

    I was instantly reminded of the handsome version of squidward from spongebob: link to th01.deviantart.net

  12. Thrippy says:

    Looks it was built on top of the End of Nations engine: automatic resourcing, huge map showing in the minimap, shiny units. See Trion/End of Nations/Petroglyph/cancelled. If Grey Goo also supports 56 player multiplayer, I’m lining up to buy it on launch day…. it doesn’t have it does it? … no massive multiplayer… sigh.

    I missed the beta sign up June. In return, GreyBox lost my log in created in March while still managing to email me ever since. Hopefully they will reset my account. I remain infatuated with the possibility of testing Dreadnaughts.

    I believe the future of genuine beer & pretzels enjoyment lies in introducing unprecedented features such as 56 player multiplayer, not ripping stuff out of RTS to make it more palatable for non-RTS players who will never convert to the cause anyway. This bitter truth must be swallowed before innovation may return to the RTS. Never mind that ripping stuff out is exactly what the MOBA genre did.