“Faces sweaty, arms and legs, what a glorious set of stairs we make.”
Jump back a couple of years and zombies are tiresome, boring to fight, and lacking the irony-tinged bite they once had. Even something objectively tantalizing like Dying Light was met with a collective shrug, but now? With Resident Evil 2 Remake blowing up, the remake of the third title on the way, and another Zombie Army game on the way? It makes sense to see stuff like They Are Billions get an unprecedented amount of attention.
This is the sophomore release from Spanish developers Numantian Games, a small studio that made a name in 2014, with the release of Lords of Xulima. A self-described tribute to the works of Lord British and the Ultima series, Xulima sold well enough to warrant further pursuing into the RTS genre, with today’s offering.
You play as a being stranded on a post-apocalyptic planet swarming with the undead—billions of them. Through dusty steampunk goggles, you must command a colony that can survive the endless onslaught of these flesh-eating creatures, with a recent patch adding a MAHOOSIVE 50+ hour campaign, filled with all sorts of different challenges.
It’s a Real-Time Strategy game, first and foremost, with vague Tower Defense elements popping in now and then to give the game a mildly impacting sense of linearity. Your goal in either the campaign or the formerly-main Survival Mode is to build a colony teeming with different types of zombies: Laboring workers. From there, you slowly amass an army, expand your base of operations, clean the surrounding area of the undead, and finally prepare to face off against the armies that need no leader.
Everything starts off small, however. With Survival, you’re granted a randomly-generated map that you must transform and stamp as your own land, whereas the Campaign houses missions with set maps that provide a forgiving pace. The Campaign will be the main focus here since that’s what was most recently added and because I believe it showcases They Are Billions’ problems the most.
First off, however, I will concede that …Billions can be a satisfying game, should you give it the time. It demands quite a lot from you, more so than the average game, but should you give it the patience it gives you, it rewards you with a victory that is hard-earned, no matter the handicap. It respects that you put the time in, and that’s really the important thing here: time.
Nothing in …Billions is instant. It’s all lethargic, it’s all demanding, yet it never gives a chance to relax. Hordes are constantly a threat that are never given a warning, and it wouldn’t be so bad if the build-up to a respectfully boastful colony wasn’t so bloody slow. Let me give you the average First Hour of an average …Billions run.
So, you have your colony in a procedurally-generated map, that much is given, but the colony needs colonists, which are housed in tents. You also need food for the colonists, and wood for the buildings. These are materials that are, quite frankly, a piece of piss to obtain. One Sawmill there, a Hunter’s Cottage by some trees, and you have passive income of basic necessities, but what about defenses? Well, wooden walls could help in some cases, but eventually, you need something that bites back.
Enter the necessities of stone. Stone can only be acquired by quarries, and honestly, no matter where you place a promising quarry for an income of stones, said income is always going to be piss-poor. I’m talking four to six pieces of stone a day, and in order to obtain better defenses and more soldiers, that pathetic income of stone will not help in later levels. Hell, it doesn’t even help at the beginning, due to the aforementioned constant threat of small hordes.
This is a problem that could be easily tweaked with the addition of more modifiers. The only modifiers present in the Survival Mode are the choice of biomes, the difficulty of the hordes, the time limit of how long you have before the big boys knock at your door, and the density of outlying zombie threats lying idle around the map. The modifiers affect your score on a leaderboard, and while that seems pointless, the handicap and percentage guillotined off the score is insane. If you decide to play on anything lower than Medium, you’re looking a score percentage of 7% which, despite a hard-earned victory, is a bittersweet pill to swallow.
Oh bugger, this was meant to be about the Campaign wasn’t it? In that case, none of this matters, as the levels in the Campaign house no random elements whatsoever. Everything is dead-set here, the loot drops hidden around the maps, the time limits, the resources available. Nothing is left to chance, which is disappointing because when Numantian put their backs into it like this, it’s unbalanced and unforgiving.
Going back to the quarry drops, It’s difficult to keep a thumb on proceeding events, along with the inclusion of a train track which brings in colonists and materials. A lot of things aren’t explained in the Campaign, with a lot of it given vague explanations, like the controlling of units and the necessities of energy towers to have further building space.
To put it bluntly, the campaign of …Billions is a bit of a flop, explaining as little as possible when it should be the first thing players experience. If you simply stick to the Survival Mode, you get the full brunt of every mechanic at once, whereas the Campaign drip-feeds said mechanics yet fails to explain their context, purpose, or roles. I’d dare say that the Campaign is more lethal to a first-time player of the RTS genre as a whole, considering how uncaring it is to a malevolent degree.
A disclaimer should be made before the end of this that I am actually playing this on an Xbox One, with a bog-standard Xbox One controller, which does put me at a disadvantage. Playing this with a mouse and keyboard is borderline-guaranteed to be more gratifying, as, on a controller, there’s a lot of shortcuts that would’ve definitely made the turn of events more predictable and easier to contain. M&K support is supposedly available on the Xbox One, but those things aren’t available to me at this point in time.
The silver lining to this complaint is that the main Survival Mode can still be considered objectively great. Truth be told, the Campaign attempts to add a story, which sounds like weak Warhammer fan-fic, none of which is interesting. Rick Priestly is the only human on this accursed planet who can make gruff macho marines shooting brainless beings interesting narratively. They Are Billions’ weak narrative and disgusting aesthetic only drive this point home further.
This is a horrendous game to look at, I have to admit. These washed-out colors would usually bless a Steampunk-based title rich in world-building like Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic or the Syberia series, but here? Since the campaign lacks an edge despite its defying body count on-screen, these dirty browns only add to the tedium the beginning of new games bring.
This complaint can also be tied into issues with gameplay. Due to everything looking it’s being viewed with the most sand-blasted goggles on the planet, it’s hard to get a grasp on what everything looks like at first. Later on, you do get more varied color palettes, but nothing ever reaches an aesthetic that can be described as “vibrant,” or “warm.”
They Are Billions can be great fun, filled with all sorts of tricks and ideas that can make the average gamer feel good about the decisions they’re making, but it’s ham-fisted and missing in all the areas it shouldn’t. If it were the other way around, with the Campaign released first, with a Challenge of The Week mode and a procedurally-generated Survival game added later? It would suffer heavily from an even further snail’s crawl of a pace.
In the end, if you’ve ever been eyeing this promising title, I beg of you to play the Survival game mode first. The Campaign houses challenges that put off potential buyers and the Survival Mode is just enough of a basic and exciting meal that both eases you in and gives you a challenge.
Just make sure you have a clear schedule. You try and finish a Survival game in one sitting without a clear warning and you’ll be on a Missing Person’s list by the time you find your first Gold resource.
This Review of They Are Billions was based on the Xbox One version of the game. A review code was provided for this purpose.
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