Premature Evaluation is the weekly column in which we explore the wilds of early access. For the first foray of 2018, Fraser’s been trying to save humanity from hordes of peckish zombies and other undead beasties in survival RTS They Are Billions. It’s a classic New Year tradition from a simpler time.
They Are Billions, at first glance, looks like it might have been the result of a night of video game Mad Libs. It’s a survival strategy game with hints of tower defence, a steampunk aesthetic and waves of zombie enemies. It's a grab bag of video game tropes and genres slammed together that suggest there might be clumsiness in the way the whole thing hangs together. Thankfully, once the undead hordes start pounding at the gates, that suggestion is eradicated. And so, quite often, is humanity.
Numantian Games have draped a suit of rotten flesh over the skeletons of Age of Empires and Settlers, and that might lull you into a false sense of security. Like them, They Are Billions starts off by letting you expand briskly and kill plenty of things without breaking a sweat, but then it starts putting pressure on you. Resource scarcity, increasingly aggressive enemies, gargantuan 1000-strong hordes of ravenous corpses - the breezy early game is quickly forgotten.
In what is currently the sole mode, Survival, the goal is simply to outlast the clock. Depending on the difficulty settings you pick at the start, you’ll need to survive for between 80 and 150 days (it’s actually easier on the longer settings, as the big undead attacks are spread out allowing time for recovery), and even with the lowest density of zombies, that’s no mean feat. Indeed, the undead have consistently kicked my arse.
Making it until the end requires turning a single HQ and a handful of mercenaries into a sprawling colony protected by thick walls, fancy steampunk turrets and a big army. That’s easier said than done when the resources needed to construct this massive citadel are spread out across a map filled with the undead. And expansion has to be properly planned out, as the settlement can only be built inside the energy grid. You have to actively expand the grid by plonking down pylons known as Tesla Towers before you can start building quarries or homes in a new area.
Expansion has to be done thoughtfully, then, but They Are Billions is ultimately a race. Not only do regular zombies slowly start shuffling towards you, attracted by all the noise and delicious survivors, scripted attacks pit you against ridiculously huge hordes that engulf the screen and lay siege to the colony. Wasting even a minute could mean the difference between getting a shock turret operational and losing the colony entirely.
As it clips along, Billions also manages to cut out a lot of the boring lulls where you’re just waiting for another 100 food or a new batch of iron. I’m especially reminded of tower defence games when I’m frantically laying down traps or repairing wall damage as I get ready for the next zombie onslaught. Another big fight is always just around the corner, another disaster waiting for the colony overseer’s intervention. I confess that I’ve been finding it hard to stop mid-game, and yes, I did forget all about both lunch and dinner more than once. And then with every failure I signed up for more punishment, sure that this would be the time humanity survived. It’s moreish, like a giant bag of Twiglets salvaged from Christmas.
Sometimes it can feel a bit like the road to victory requires finding the one correct build order. The time limit, scripted invasions and limited space - rocks, forests and water are all impassable and common - mean that efficiency is king, nudging you down the path to mechanically constructing the colony according to some perfect plan. The random maps and the speed at which everything can just fall apart, however, makes putting together fool-proof plans tricky. Often I find myself just reacting to another big mess, putting out figurative fires all over the place, but that’s also infinitely more engaging than just trying to solve a single build order conundrum.
Despite being the monster equivalent of beige, They Are Billions’ shambling cadavers have quite a bit of personality, or at least interesting behaviours that set them apart from your typical RTS soldier bloke. When not presented with a tasty human meal, they’re dumb and docile, so sneaky ranger mercenaries can take them out without being spotted. But when a zombie spots a snack or hears a loud noise, they’ll investigate, often bringing pals with them. It perfectly captures that scene you see in almost every undead-themed movie and TV show, where a survivor messes up and a zombie slowly turns and peels away from the group, its moans drawing other zombies until, in a matter of seconds, a whole legion of them are suddenly marching towards their fleshy human prey.
Most zombies are your slow, lumbering, decayed type, but fresh zombies can run almost as fast as humans, and then you’ve got your spitting zombies, your big, husky zombies and eventually flying harpies to contend with. And just like you’d expect, they’re all incredibly dumb. Like a flood, they don’t need to be smart. They just need to find a crack in the colony’s defences.
That really is all it takes. If a handful of zombies manage to make it inside the colony and get a few seconds to start spreading their virus, a whole new zombie army will be born right inside the walls. The infection spreads fast, and the only way to stop it is either kill the growing number of zombies spreading it, or destroy the buildings its heading towards. Most of my failures went from fine to bad to cataclysmic in about one minute.
It’s awful. Only when the zombies win, of course. When they try their nonsense and I manage to actually push them back - to hell with the odds - then I’m fine with playing with the deck stacked against me. It makes my few minor victories feel… less minor. But when hours and hours of work get tossed down the drain because one bloody zombie somehow slipped through my impenetrable wall of death, well it’s a bit rubbish, isn’t it?
Bitterness aside, Billions effectively recreates the paranoia that’s so integral to horror, and zombies in particular. How many zombie movies or TV shows delight in revealing just how unsafe a seemingly stalwart sanctuary really is? And while They Are Billions provides survivors with lots of fancy steampunk and retro sci-fi weapons, there are almost always going to be blind spots. If there aren’t, the undead will surely make them. All a zombie has to do is brainlessly take out a Tesla Tower for all the surrounding buildings (and defences) to stop working, allowing the rest of the horde to saunter in.
The steampunk stuff isn’t nearly as considered as the zombies. Sure, it gives the game a whimsical look that combats the oppressive tone of the undead apocalypse, and it also gives us mechanical mercenaries and turrets that can zap whole armies into nothing but gibs, but most of it is window dressing. They Are Billions has been built entirely around the undead, and there’s nothing in here, aside from the aesthetic, that’s inherently steampunk. A story campaign is in the works, so hopefully the steampunk conceit shines through a little better there, but right now it could have been picked out of a hat.
I’ve found myself wondering what are reasonable expectations for the types of rewards you get for failure. There’s no real consensus among roguelikes and survival romps, though there’s frequently some sense of progression even if you fail. You get nothing in They Are Billions. Victory means, if your score is high enough, gaining access to one of the other map types, but dying means starting again from scratch. It’s not even like you can console yourself with the intel gleaned in the previous game, as every map is random. That’s one thing I’d really like to see reconsidered. I can live with random maps, but not being able to replay seeds is frustrating. There are several that I’d like another crack at, so it’s a shame that they’ve all been consigned to the abyss.
Fending off waves of mindless monsters is a Sisyphean task, and if eight seasons of The Walking Dead have taught us anything, it’s that surviving in the zombie apocalypse gets a bit rote after a while. They Are Billions, like AMC’s cash cow, does become a bit predictable, and going through the motions of establishing fleeting colonies over and over again can sometimes be a bit of a slog. Then again, I just played for another two hours in the middle of writing this (all I wanted was a few more screenshots), so maybe I’m just mad for rolling boulders up hills. I mean, it’s a great workout.
I’m not done yet, either. Last night I had some new ideas for some wall designs that lean more into the tower defence side of things by funnelling zombies down into kill zones, but I’m still not sure how easy it’s going to be for me to draw them in. It will inevitably end in disaster, but I’m numb to failure now.