Set in the same alternate history as Scythe, King Art's ambitious new RTS looks suitably stunning.
For once, with Iron Harvest, we see a video game emerging from the shadow of a famous tabletop game, and not the other way around. The German developer King Art recently showed us their unit-based real-time strategy game, revealing steaming dieselpunk warfare in an alternative vision of the world as seen through the eyes of artist Jakub Rozalski, whose work also inspired tabletop sensation Scythe, which is set in the same universe (although not directly linked).
We were able to play the first five missions of the Polania campaign, which is quite a chunk of the game given there is only a total of 21 story-focused scenarios. There are faction campaigns in the final game but we started with the tutorial, where we got to know a young girl called Anna Kos, who is growing into the role of being a true hero of the war. We accompanied her on her first hunt and learned how the energetic redhead befriends a bear while her brother Janek goes to war. Many years later we have to defend our village and the homeland against the approaching Rusviet forces. It soon became clear that this scenario offers more than bored patriotism in another fancy fantasy world after we witnessed someone take out a huge mech with a single punch.
Huge robots dominate Iron Harvest's battlefields and they never stop feeling like an imposing presence. We conquered enemy positions near a train station with Anna and a few freedom fighters in the third mission and, while we were at it, we were allowed to control these vehicles by ourselves for the first time. If you zoom in on the action (which is easy thanks to the freely rotatable camera), the animations of these mechanical combat units convince thanks to their high level of detail. One of these giants is a fast sprinter with a railgun equipped that does massive damage from distance. This class can easily take out enemy positions from range and because it is so manoeuvrable, it's not easy for soldiers to move into flanking positions (the mechs take bonus damage from behind).
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The gameplay in Iron Harvest is based on a system similar to that of Company of Heroes as it gives us access to a few units that grow stronger as the game progresses. With increasing combat experience, fresh recruits become battle-hardened killing machines, and this is why we have to make sure that our units are not completely wiped out (that should be obvious, right?). Let's say a team of 'gunners' consists of five soldiers; as long as one of them survives, their accumulated experience can be passed on to fresh reinforcements and new recruits don't affect the unit's effectiveness in any way. However, since unit regeneration is only possible back at base, or by finding supplies on the battlefield, you have to be extremely careful so as not to lose your combat expertise.
That is also why it's so important that our troops seek out cover whenever possible. Fortified dugouts or abandoned houses are fantastic hiding spots, but unfortunately, they are easily taken down by enemy mechs (apparently, if they reach a certain size they can just run through walls...). In most cases, a stack of sandbags or some tree trunks will do the trick. Units should take cover automatically, although the AI needs to recognise those opportunities contextually and doesn't always manage it. Since your opponents are often positioned in fortified structures themselves, it's best to flank them, stabbing them in the back in order to get the upper hand during combat. There are also opportunities for ambushes on the battlefield, surprising enemy units from concealed positions.
We also thought that it was interesting that the equipment and therefore the class of our soldiers is not fixed and can be adapted. If you find other weapons in the world (for example, after killing some enemies) your troops can grab them. Using grenades that you've picked up along the way, for example, you can force entrenched enemies to move or destroy their defences entirely. How you deal with cover will play a big role in later battles when larger armies with mechanical support and cannons collide.
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Iron Harvest will also support basic base-building mechanics. The engineer class helps to repair your robots and they are also responsible for building defensive systems and unit production facilities. Your troops collect the necessary resources from supply boxes found around the area or by mending production-centric buildings. In addition, you can search for important raw materials in burned-out enemy mechs, which could end up making a difference, especially in the multiplayer and skirmish modes. Base racing will be a big part of the Iron Harvest experience, but in the end, that element seemed to take a back seat in the face of the highly tactical real-time combat situations we found ourselves fighting through.
While there were many positives, in the beta build we noted some big issues when setting up or upgrading our base of operations. For example, it is currently hard to build a row of sandbags at the edge of a slope in order to fully take advantage of an elevated position. More worryingly, the units seemed to like putting themselves in the line of fire after misunderstanding the basic principle of cover. Elsewhere, moving across the map with multiple units is difficult because of how the AI calculates the path units can take. Of course, that's how things often are early in development but King Art also has a history of having bugs in its games.
Still, the studio seems to have made the most out of the license. In one mission we had to hold our ground against an approaching enemy who sent three waves of attackers. The fight was not too difficult, but the encounter itself offered some fantastic scenes. The way the huge robots, which come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, stamp over the golden cornfields and join in battles with their allies looks absolutely fantastic. If you look closely (for example, during the cutscenes) the faces of the people could certainly do with a bit more polish, but the dieselpunk setting is such a great fit for a wargame of this kind.
If you enjoyed Scythe or the art of Jakub Rozalski, you can definitely look forward to Iron Harvest. We think there's a solid strategy game in the works here, and it looks absolutely stunning as you'd expect given the source material. If the developers can polish the core experience and rid it of the various blemishes that we encountered during our hands-on, then we think RTS fans have something to look forward to.