They Are Billions is the cherry on top of an already busy year for real-time strategy fans and, like many of the other RTS releases seen in 2017, it tries something different with the genre. This may sound disheartening to those disappointed by some other real-time strategy games released this year, but in this instance, those differences are for the better rather than worse – at least for now, as the current Early Access build only hosts survival mode.
I don’t know who over at Numantian Games decided to pop They Are Billions up on Steam Early Access at the end of the year, but I’ve got to thank them for giving me a solid challenge over the holiday season. There’s nothing like a good RTS to whittle the hours away.
There has been a lot of lamenting over the “death” of the RTS, but it’s been pretty bustling this year, with releases like Northgard, Dawn of War 3, Tooth and Tail, SpellForce 3, and a number of of other full or pseudo-entries to the RTS genre.
Changing up RTS… again
So what exactly about They Are Billions is different from the classic RTS formula?
For starters, there are no different factions or races. Instead, the player controls a human colony that must persevere in the face of literally billions of zombies. And boy, they are tenacious.
Survival mode gives players a set amount of days to set up their defenses to be able to withstand the final zombie wave. The amount of days you have to work up your colony and defenses can be set before the round, as well as the amount of zombies on the map by default.
Maintaining, expanding, and protecting the colony is as complicated as it sounds. You must juggle a number of resources to ensure you always have the energy, workers, and materials to continue to function. Some resources, such as colonists and workers, are only gained one time, after you’ve built their homes. Other resources, such as wood and stone, are gained continually over time via their gathering buildings and have a cap to how much you can stockpile at a time.
You use your resources to pump out units, construct buildings, and build walls to protect yourself. All the while you must clear out the zombies on the map by default, including their villages, which are at a finite amount and will join the final wave should you not clear them out before the time comes.
The second difference from the standard formula is the pause function, which can be used at any point during gameplay so you can set several actions in motion at once. The pause feature sounded a bit iffy to me before I dove into They Are Billions, but it molds perfectly with the flow of the game.
Zombies swarm upon your colony in droves, and pausing allows you to assess the situation and take action accordingly rather than act brashly and make mistakes. Zombies don’t just destroy buildings; they also infect the workers or colonists within. This makes even small defense breaches potentially devastating or game-ending, which further emphasizes the strategic importance of pausing.
Survival mode and beyond
As stated, the only mode currently available in They Are Billions is survival mode. Naturally, you’ll probably want to know how much time value you can get out of a single-mode Early Access game.
A single survival mode game can last up to five or six hours, depending on the amount of days you set the game to go for. The fewer days you set the game for, the shorter it will be – but also the more difficult. The time the final wave comes can be altered, but the size of it will always be the same.
Your game can be cut short, however. An inconveniently spawned wave or odd-off attacking zombie group can penetrate your lesser defenses and quickly wrap a game up. How much time you get out of a single game is ultimately up to your setting choices before you start and how well you manage and protect your colony.
Your reward for surviving at least 75% of the final wave is a new map type. Though maps are randomly generated, you do get to choose the type of map you can play on. There are four map types at the time of writing, each with its own type of terrain and advantages.
To “complete” the game in its current state, you will have to survive the final wave on all four maps. But if you’re a strategy junkie like me, you may just find yourself choosing your preferred map type and testing out strategies and reducing the time you have to build your defenses. Because, you know, why not.
Though They Are Billions is currently lacking a campaign mode, its survival mode is amply entertaining if you have a soft spot for real-time strategy games. Though to say it’s hard is an understatement.
While I’m not particularly fond of the unit voice acting (the Ranger in particular is a bit too steamy for this type of game and setting), nearly everything else in They Are Billions is an enjoyable and addictive experience.
The above isn’t to say the game is perfect – it is in Early Access, and there are some noticeable bugs, as developer Numatian Games has built its engine themselves. The most notable two are that selected units sometimes don’t respond to your actions or run directly into terrain instead of going around. If not for the pause function, these problems would severely diminish just about anyone’s enjoyment of the game.
It’s understandable to be wary of Steam Early Access games, but I’ve found it incredibly difficult not to recommend They Are Billions to friends even as it stands. Though the real meat may lie in its campaign mode, as it stands, its survival mode is loads of fun and more than scratches the RTS itch. Survival mode is fun and positively addictive, but the spring 2018 release of campaign mode can’t come soon enough.