Base building is the foundation upon which many an RTS is built. You could easily argue that while it's the genre's greatest strength, it's simultaneously its greatest weakness too. This is because it gives developers a familiar platform on which they can build (pardon the pun), a comfortable set of mechanics that allow creative ideas to appear elsewhere, enriching the experience in a whole host of interesting ways. However, if these mechanics are implemented without much thought or care, base building and resource management can also be a burden that gets in the way of the player having a good time.
Over the years there have been plenty of games that have managed to subvert or refocus this aspect, turning the familiar into something different or exciting, and They Are Billions is one such title. Whereas some games are weighed down by playing defensively, "turtling up" if you will, here it's an essential component that requires the player's complete attention, not because some fleetfooted enemy might rush in and set back your early gameplan, but because your base is the game. In They Are Billions, in the middle of your growing camp sits an operations centre that, if overrun, ends your run and dooms your citizens to oblivion.
It's not opposing players that'll be coming after you, though. The billions referenced in the title refers to the undead shufflers that exist on the map and come at you in waves throughout. Before each new attempt you can adjust various aspects to suit your skill level and the experience you want to have, and there are also different environments to unlock too. According to the devs the same number of zombies will come at you, so the longer your game in terms of days, the easier it will be to manage the undead attacks as you'll have more time to deal with them. It's a neat way of balancing the difficulty.
When you get into the game it quickly becomes clear that there is a challenge ahead of you. It took a couple of failed attempts to really get to grips with the basic mechanics. Like with most base-focused RTS games, you've got to get those build orders right to improve your early game efficiency, otherwise, you won't have the units you require to repel the inevitable first wave of zombies. It quickly becomes a race to getting military units ready and then stationing them around the perimeter of your encampment, mixing up speedy rangers and slower, more powerful soldiers.
Upgrading your base isn't the simplest thing, however, and if there's one area that we feel They Are Billions needs to be tinkered with significantly, it's the way that the buildings link together. In our opinion, the numbers don't quite add up, and balancing the construction of your base with the defensive needs of your community can be a bit frustrating. For example, to create enough soldiers you have to build a ridiculous number of tents to create the workers required, which leaves your base feeling bloated with small buildings that can get in the way of other buildings later on. The sprawling setup makes it harder to defend properly and means your focus is often split, which can prove deadly.
As with many other similar games, there are a number of interlocking systems, and so you need to have a certain type of resource to construct a certain type of building, but the setup here just didn't sit quite right at times, and too often we felt we had to spend too much time on needless busywork. Can this be fixed? We hope so, because other than some fiddly base building, where the experience gets bogged down with micromanagement, we really like what They Are Billions is trying to do.
For starters, the art style is pretty solid. If you're scrolled out too far away it can be hard to distinguish friendly units from zombies, but the buildings and units themselves look great, even if it's not always easy to judge their functionality from the way they look. at least at first. The game has plenty of style, though, and the dingy, oppressive atmosphere certainly makes the whole thing feel tense and intimidating, which is exactly what you want from a game like this. On the bright side, though, you can tap Space to pause the game and consider your actions, which is a great little feature and one of which we thoroughly approve.
When you've got past the early game and you're defending your base from incoming zombies, things start getting really exciting. We're still playing on a relatively easy difficulty setting, but even that can throw up some interesting moments, with zombies attacking from all angles. We've just about got the hang of the basics now, but when things get chaotic it can feel like you're constantly trying to put out fires. If the undead can muscle past your defences and attack your central base, the end is almost certainly nigh, but we enjoyed some intense moments while we tried to keep them at bay. In this respect, They Are Billions feels like a zombie horror game, and the fusion of survival gameplay and RTS mechanics proves unexpectedly enticing.
It's not perfect, then, but we'd also argue that it's in exactly the right place, and a few months spent polishing and balancing in Early Access could result in They Are Billions turning into an excellent real-time strategy game. It needs a bit of work, granted, but there's huge potential here for a genre mashup that's both tense and involving. We look forward to seeing how this one develops in the months ahead.