Early Access Preview: They Are Billions

By Charles Ellis 15 Jan 2018 0

Why do we play strategy games? I’m willing to bet for many a key reason that they do is to feel empowered. Empowered to direct their own state/army/empire toward a purpose in a manner that they have control over. Empowered to make decisions over whether they’ll focus upon their economy, their army or anything else that that game in particular has to offer. Empowerment is all about choice. The ability to do things your way. This is the core of my issue with They Are Billions. In it, I don’t feel like I have choice. I feel railroaded.

They Are Billions is an Early Access game that is a unique blend of city building and RTS gaming, played out in a post-apocalyptic planet where the majority of the population have been turned into rampaging zombies. The player’s objective is to hold out for a certain number of days, progressively building and improving their colony whilst keeping ever expanding hordes of zombies. Whilst I might question the game’s promise of “addicting” and “fast-paced” gameplay, everywhere else They Are Billions delivers a solid, at times intense gaming experience.

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And when things hit the fan, boy is it intense! The tension rises as you are given not quite enough warning to fully reinforce your defenses and marshal your few plucky defenders to fight off the approaching wave of extremely angry (or hungry?) zombies. Indeed, the zombies are for me the best part of the game – though not when you’re under attack by them. Billions doesn’t do things by halves and its promise of many thousands of units slugging it out is amply fulfilled. There’s an almost tidal wave effect of hundreds of zombies smashing into your defenses. The experience is amply supported by the music when a horde is approaching that is suitably epic, especially when you know that this could be the end for your precious colony.

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Meanwhile, city building in Billions is relatively straightforward. You have several basic resources, such as wood, stone, workers and energy. Each building takes up some of these resources as well as drawing on your supply of workers. Workers also are required when you recruit units. There is an interesting balance to be struck between supporting your city’s expansion and feeding the military-industrial complex of your soldiers who do no work but stave off disaster. For those with a modicum of experience in RTS games, city building in They Are Billions should come easily.

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But make no mistake, Billions is punishing. A wrong move or inefficient setup and your city joins the rest of world as a zombie infested hellscape. As things go wrong and zombies reach your city, your civilian population are turned into zombies as well, meaning ever more zombies are joining the horde you’re desperately trying to thin. It’s a nice mechanic, but the potential for a failure cascade where you are overwhelmed by your own city turning into zombies makes every mistake and failure all the more painful.

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Matters are not helped by the fact that infantry units take a long, long time to produce, meaning that, in order to stop a zombie advance, you have to have an adequate number of units ready to go already. Knowing the game becomes critical. Whilst this paradigm rewards thoughtful play and knowledge of the game – in concert with other features, meaningful learning experiences in the game become an exercise in frustration. To begin with, the lack of a save function means that one mistake will result in defeat and restarting from the beginning. This is, in itself, a good feature, ratcheting up the tension nicely. But for those of us who are still feeling their way into the game – especially given what passes for a tutorial runs to about 2 pages of extremely broad descriptions of the functions of resources and certain gameplay aspects – this is rather dissatisfying. Learning is a process of judging what went wrong and experimenting with new solutions to the problem. Spending an hour to make a mistake – and then be forced to spend an hour trying to find a solution to that mistake isn’t a very inspiring way to learn. With such features, one feels making it an optional hardcore setting is the better choice.

 

As we have seen, They Are Billions does precisely what it sets out to do. A city builder where literally thousands of zombies can descend upon you? Tick the box, They Are Billions passes with flying colours. But my biggest issue with the game is that it feels like it is more about mastering a process than making decisions on the fly. Let me explain. I’ve probably played the opening stages of the game seven times now. Each map is randomly generated – which is good – but my journey through each game is a linear one. At no point did I feel I needed to make a tough decision, balancing my options between having, say, an early XYZ unit or playing it safe with an ABC building (I use “XYZ” and “ABC” because, simply put, no such interesting options exist in Billions). With a depressing monotony, all I did was go through the motions, becoming faster and faster with each run through the game. Satisfying to some to be sure, but I play strategy games for the strategy and frankly, repeating tasks by rote to get faster isn’t my idea of strategy. The arrival of a zombie horde does not change my game plan, only delay it, whilst I divert resources to shore up defenses and pump out whatever units I can.

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Was I playing the game wrong? Possibly. But the game’s supporting materials (and non-existent tutorial) didn’t tell me I was doing it wrong. It was entirely possible for me to hoard large quantities of resources – which were impossible to spend due to the constraints of my colony or other factors – with little punishment for doing so.

Such linear gameplay also characterizes the units of They Are Billions. You start with being able to produce one type, a fast scouting unit, then proceed to another obviously better type that you desperately need when the zombie hordes become large enough. From there, specialized units like a sniper appear, but having been spoiled for choice in so very many other strategy games, one feels an acute lack of any real options in Billions. This is the Apocalypse! Anything and everything will used against the zombie menace! Time and again as the zombie hordes overrun my base I wish for units such as force multipliers, traps, units which might slow the zombie advance, in fact anything to break up the monotony of units that target one other unit that are available in the early and mid-game. True, there are some more exciting units in the late game, but those are a long way away and I’m long dead by the time they could arrive.

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None of these gameplay issues are helped by the more mechanical issues one finds in the game. Building placement, whilst straightforward, can easily lead to blocking up critical passage ways, even if that isn’t obvious at first. Some buildings prevent you from placing them to close to another – others don’t. Often you don’t quite realize the problem until your troops run out of your base into the zombie horde instead of shoring up your defenses elsewhere. The camera’s angle means that it is possible to not block up all of a chokepoint– allowing zombies to enter and despoil your base – at which point defeat is almost certain. These are small issues by themselves, but married to the issues outlined above, one’s patience becomes strained.

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I’ve been very critical of They Are Billions in this article. I must reiterate that the game does what it sets out to do. It is a city builder where you must hold out against hordes of zombies. That is what it says on the tin – that is what it does. Yet it is the deeper gameplay that I find to be problematic. It is at times intense. It is very challenging. The learning curve is there and if the game only supported the player a little bit more in that curve I’d have praised the game far more. Yet the linear nature of its gameplay in multiple aspects make the prospect of starting a new game a chore rather than a chance to make good on past failures. The light of They Are Billions’ potential shone through even as I was grinding my teeth at the monotony of another restarted game.

They Are Billions entered into Steam's Early Access Program on December 12th, 2017. At the time of writing, the initial estimate is that the game will hit 1.0 in Spring 2018, however the developer has said they wish to remain flexible on this.

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