I don’t need to wax lyrical (again) about how much I love console based real time strategy (RTS) games, so it will be no surprise to our regular readers to learn that I had to get my hands on They Are Billions as soon as I had the chance. Numantian Games critically acclaimed zombie survival simulator has been a huge success on PC, but with its ultra hard learning curve, how well does it translate to a traditional controller?
The honest answer is that there are some challenges. Mainly in the control system itself, but also in the balancing of the difficulty level for console players who, simply put, can’t respond to events as quickly as a PC gamer using a mouse and keyboard. It’s not all bad news though, because They Are Billions is still in the Microsoft Game Preview program and changes are being made on a regular basis.
The theme is post-apocalyptic cyberpunk, but in all honesty it doesn’t come through especially strongly. It’s clear that gunpowder, electricity and reasonably modern technologies are present in this world, but you won’t find any laser turrets or tanks at your behest. Instead, your rapidly expanding settlement will start out as a collection of tents and the occasional wooden palisade, with stone and even steel walls coming a fair bit later.
The Xbox version offers only one mode of play at the moment, which is a single player survival mode that can be configured in several ways to create a score multiplier. Players can choose one of four map skins (the actual map will be procedurally generated) but only one of these is available at the outset — the others must be unlocked by successfully completing games.
The other options include choosing the density of enemies on the map at the beginning of the game, the total time players have to build their settlement before the final huge onslaught begins and a couple of other, similar options. With everything set to its hardest (or even past what the game describes as “achievable”) then They Are Billions is nigh on impossible. At its hardest, I can’t see how anyone could win on the Xbox version, but then again maybe I’m just rubbish.
In any configuration, you’ll be up against a stiff challenge. Each game starts the player with just a command centre and a handful of basic soldiers. Depending on the starting location and how the map is built, you may have a more or less difficult time. Beginning next to a good range of resource locations (water, woodland, stone and iron) is highly advantageous as it allows the player to begin stockpiling for all eventualities.
With that said, the hardest early resource to come by is manpower, and building tents to increase your number of workers is essential. Then you need to feed them. Then you’ll need to upgrade their structures into wood ones, then to stone ones. For that you’ll need power, and to get power you’ll need to expand your base, which will need to be defended. It goes on like this, with the base becoming ever more expansive and harder to defend.
At some point, you’ll put walls up, with gates to allow your people through. This is because after just a few in game days, lone zombies will begin to turn up. If a zombie takes control of an outlying village like a fishing hut or a hunters lodge, then disease may spread to the next building. If one of your residential buildings is infected, the infection will usually spread uncontrollably and rapidly — resulting in a very likely game loss condition.
With all of this in mind, you’ll restart and try again, perhaps doing better the next time because of what you’ve learned. You’ll put an internal fence around your residential buildings and command centre, then further walls between natural barriers like forests and mountainous regions to secure certain approaches to your camp. You’ll invest more in towers and soldiers and if you live long enough, you’ll purchase automated defences like the ballista tower.
The best thing about They Are Billions is that if you’re the kind of RTS player who always asks your mates for a “ten minute amnesty” at the start of a multiplayer game so that you can “set up your defences” then this is the game for you. It’s a game about turtling up, expanding carefully and not overstretching your boundaries until you know it makes sense to do so.
There are some issues though. On Xbox specifically, there’s no guide to how the controls are used, which leads to a fiddle working out how to group units. The game doesn’t even explain that workers are completely automated (which is actually excellent) and it doesn’t familiarise you with the GUI in any way.
The fundamental principle is that use of the Y and X buttons can skip you rapidly from a free pointer to a specific menu, which is handy. Another key inclusion in the console version is the ability to give orders whilst paused. Neither of these things is enough to compensate for the insane difficulty that harder settings offer, but it certainly helps give the player a fighting chance.
Another problem is that the starting map design is so incredibly dark that it’s almost impossible to see, not to mention fairly unattractive. Turn the brightness up or play one of the later maps and you’ll find that They Are Billions is actually quite an attractive, detailed game, but only when you can actually see what’s happening. Most importantly, it can accommodate an insane amount of on screen action without the engine suffering in any way — there’s no slowdown or judder even in this very early version.
Despite some challenges and a lack of any world changing ideas (except the core concept itself) They Are Billions is a very interesting prospect for console fans of real time strategy games, especially those who like to play alone. The game needs more time and more investment — perhaps a few more modes, maps and a tutorial — but even based on what is here, it’s a challenging and exciting experience. Certainly one that I’ll be continuing to watch is at evolves towards final release.
You can find They Are Billions on PC and Xbox.