They Are Billions Preview
Real time strategy game They Are Billions is cruel to new players, very hard to win, flawed in some important ways, and – oh yeah – it’s pretty damn fun and I am enjoying it. Indie developer Numantian Games has hit upon an addictive formula that harks back to the best of 90s RTS classics like Warcraft and Starcraft, while offering a fresh new zombie-plague spin. Even in Early Access, this not-quite-polished Indie gem will feast upon your spare time like a hungry horde of the undead.
In some ways, we’ve played this game before, many times. They Are Billions is an isometric RTS that has you building a base, finding resources, and upgrading. Despite its Victorian, Steampunk flavour, it seems at first to have a lot in common with its many predecessors. But there’s an important difference: this time, you aren’t facing off against another civilization but masses and masses of mindless shuffling zombies.
And when I say masses, well, the name They Are Billions doesn’t feel too far off when you play. Remember the exhilaration you got when a huge Zergling swarm attacked your base in Starcraft, and your soldiers’ machine guns lit up en masse like a crackling thunderstorm? They Are Billions’ core experience is like that, but on zombie steroids. I never got far enough to witness truly breathtaking herds of unholy attackers (the devs promise caps of as many as 20,000), but the sheer size of those I did encounter had my adrenaline pumping like no RTS has for a long while.
“Even in Early Access, this not-quite-polished Indie gem will feast upon your spare time like a hungry horde of the undead.”
What’s also truly terrifying about these enemies is that you are never really safe – even a lone little walker, if they manage to amble past your defense perimeter, can cause utter mayhem, because they infect your own inhabitants like a malevolent virus. Thus, just when you think you’re safe, a single missed flesh-eater can quickly cause all your hard-won gains go up in a green fog of zombie stink. If you’re like me and like to “turtle,” or play defensively in RTS games, They Are Billions will definitely appeal to – and test – your play style.
As a work-in-progress, there are some issues that They Are Billions has to work out, which is incredible considering how fun it already is. First of all, there is not yet a Tutorial for newcomers, so your first play-through is going to be pretty confusing, especially if you haven’t played Starcraft since Bill Clinton was President. All you can really do is play the game again and again – maybe dozens of times – fail horribly, and learn a bit each time. They Are Billions, frustratingly, makes you completely start over each time too – there’s no reloading back to before you were killed for a do-over here. This game seemingly has no time for novice players and their learning process.
And I don’t know if it is technically a flaw, but it feels damn hard to win on the game’s Survival mode. Once I figured out basically what to do, in what order, I found that I always eventually got overrun by zombies before I was ready to fend them off – even on easier settings. I’m fine with a hard game, but They Are Billions feels unfairly tough right now, and I never felt the empowerment of fending off huge attacks since I was always hopelessly overmatched.
Maybe it’s just the luck-of-the-draw of the game’s randomized maps, because I didn’t have much access to iron, a crucial resource for upgrading troops, in the games I played through. Or maybe building troops just takes too long. Whatever the reason, the odds seem heavily stacked in the zombies’ favour in They Are Billions, and hopefully, this will be addressed at some point.
There was also a time when I got stuck in my upgrading; I needed more Energy to build structures, but to build an Energy Generator, I needed people, but to build Huts I had to have food, and building a Hunter required – you guessed it – Energy. I got around the problem by deactivating an already-built structure, but I can’t believe that this was the intended way to do it.
“As an Early Access game, it can only get better – and that might just be the scariest thing about it.”
Even the murky visuals add to the difficulty. The game seems very dark, and the colour scheme leans towards a muted, sepia palette. That sometimes makes it hard to distinguish the zombies from your own people, or even the background objects. You can easily find yourself screwed out of nowhere because you didn’t notice one or two measly little undead bastards chipping away at your walls.
But playing the game, and liking it even despite its frustrations, I am tempted to think that maybe none of these are really problems at all – maybe I just need to get better and accept that this is a game that requires some time to learn and adapt to. Because when you sink hours into a game and enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed They Are Billions, who’s to say it isn’t already pretty good just the way it is? As an Early Access game, it can only get better – and that might just be the scariest thing about it.
** A PC game code was provided by the publisher **