85 Hours In: They Are Billions

I started writing this at 39 hours. Then I started writing it again at 62 hours. Finally, here I am at 85 hours. Infection has set in. My flesh has rotted and flaked from my bones, and I’ve managed to get the game’s teeth out of me.

Platform: PC

Copy purchased

NB: It’s still in Early Access. I’ve been playing V 0.6.0

This was originally posted at r/PCGaming

What Is It?

An isometric hybrid RTS and tower defence game. You build, expand and defend a colony from literally thousands of zombies. Every few ingame days, a horde of them spawns off map and rushes your base from one of the four sides of the map. You’d best hope you’ve built up your defences on that side of yer base. If your Command Centre is destroyed or infected. It’s game over. If you survive all ten waves. You’re a winner! We’re all very proud of you. You’re so clever.

Once it’s out of Early Access in Spring 2018, there’ll be a campaign mode. For now, there’s Survival Mode and that’s it. This isn’t a problem. There’s lots to do.

Why Did You Play It?

I was initially attracted to it because it’s a novel take on zombies and I really like killing zombies.

I’ve been itching for a new base building RTS to play for a while. As far as I’m concerned, the pinnacle of RTS gaming was achieved back in 2000 with the release of Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2. I know some people agree with me. Some will call me a philistine or troglodyte. Whatever. Opinion! Sure, RA2 was fun to play. But what makes it stick in my mind to this day are: it’s ridiculous story and campy cutscenes, the delightful and easily identifiable units, and the cracking techno-metal soundtrack. It’s a game packed with joy. With a name like They Are Billions plus the isometric graphics. I was hoping for a nostalgia trip of sorts.

Also, I’ve never played a tower defence game before. As I’ve been told, they gained popularity via browser-based Flash games and on mobile. That’s not a claim I care to research and verify, because it’s beside the point. But I know the gist of the genre. Ze clue’s in the name. Anyway. I’m almost always down for mowing down hordes of bads. I probably ought to have had a look at tower defence by now. Come 2040 and perhaps I’ll have tried one of these new-fangled online shooter-em-ups.

Why Did You Play It For 85 Hours?

I want to live. It’s a game about finding a way to survive against the clock. You never stop. You must keep expanding to survive the increasingly larger hordes. You have to fight the infection by infecting the mini-map. Clearing it of the zombie’s red dots and replacing it with your green dots. It tries to infect you. So, you have to infect it right back. The irony being that even if you win, it infects your brain and compels you to keep playing. You’ll want one more go. To get better. To keep on surviving. And one more go can’t be measured in turns in the way something like Civilisation can. One more go can mean another full game. It can last hours. 85 hours. Probably more. Gamez. Gaaamez. GAAMEEZ.

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Taste my green, map!

What Do You Actually Do?

Survive. Duh. Well, yeah. How hard survival will be depends on two parameters you set before the game starts. These both affect a score multiplier. Firstly, the zombie population. More zombies, the harder the game. Gee. Y’think. It affects both the number of zombies wandering the map when the game start. And the number of zombies in the hordes that charge your base.

Secondly, how many ingame days you must survive. There are four settings. Between 150 and 80. The more days, the easier. Bear with me. It’s because the number of hordes that charge your base is the same regardless of the game length. So, the longer the game, the more time you have to gather resources and build your colony’s defences between attacks.

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I’m too cowardly for ‘Brutal’.

On this same screen, you can select the map type you want to play on too. Every map is randomly generated, so you’ll never play the same one twice. Ever. There are four varieties: Cliffy, plainsy, snowy and wastelandy. This choice doesn’t affect the score multiplier, but slightly impacts the difficulty in its own way. The cliffy maps have more choke points, so it’s easier to funnel the zombies into a kickass kill box. Whereas structures built on the snowy maps have a higher energy requirement, because you’ve gotta keep your colonists warm. Little differences.

Despite what you might have heard, They Are Billions is only as punishing as you want it to be. At this stage there’s no tutorial. But it doesn’t take very long to figure out how to play. Especially if you start on one of the lower difficulty settings. And gradually increasing the difficulty each time you start a new game. You probably won’t even notice it getting harder.

EXPLORE. COLLECT. BUILD. REPEAT.

You start with five soldier-types and a big ol’ command centre made of stone. Which has somehow appeared in the middle of a massively zombie infested region. Ah, videogame logic!

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Your starting lineup.

From then on, surviving consists of gathering resources to build and expand your colony. Original! Nah, to be fair, a significant part of the game is balancing your supply of resources. You need buildings to collect resources. You need resources to build houses for your workers. You need workers to man your buildings. And so on. There are lots of resource loops that depend on one to collect another. Over and over and over again. Part of the fun is working out how to do this efficiently. Which, is pretty good if you’re into that kinda thing. It’s nothing like as complex as something like Anno 2205. But much more so than collecting ore in Red Alert 2.

The world is populated by fog of war and zombies. You have to scout and secure areas before you can start building on and harvesting them. Although, until you’ve got a sizeable army together, your troops won’t survive if they’re significantly outnumbered. Regardless, exploring is fun. Every map is unique, well, randomly generated. After a while, it can get a bit repetitive waiting for your troops to clear an area of the same zombies you’ve seen a hundred times before. However, you never know exactly how the landscape will be formed. So, there’s always a sense of discovery to each new game you play.

Fighting to claim land adds value to it. It’s as precious as any other resource. There’s a thrill to trying to get up some walls and defences before the next horde comes a’runnin’. Especially because there’s the possibility that they might come from the direction that you’re expanding in and are yet to wall off. Ulp.

The landscape impacts what shape your colony takes. Strategy that worked on previous maps won’t work on every map. You must adapt. And here, problems with randomly generated maps start to show. Most of the problems are niggles, not game breakers. Perhaps they’ll be improved once it’s finished. But they can be face-smushingly frustrating nonetheless.

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The time my colony started right next to some zombie spewing buildings. Crap.

The most common niggle by far, is the randomly placed resources that you can mine – stone, iron, gold – your usual videogame mineables. You can’t build anything on the squares that they occupy. So, there’s every possibility their placement can make a choke point useless. Or prevent your new expansion having any kind of ordered layout. Often, due to the random shape of the landscape, or random placement of resources you’re forced to build a cluttered, cramped colony. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t for the steampunk aesthetic. Which is often more of a hindrance than visually interesting.

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I wanted to put a wall between the far-side of this cliff and trees. But you can’t build on minerals. Curse the Gods of Random Generation! Curse them!

Once you’ve got a mid-sized colony, buildings start getting taller and more intricate. The random bits and bobs hanging off each one creates a soup of hard to identify chimneys and gears. It can be a real battle to find the few buildings that allow you to research upgrades or build new units. And when those units are built? Good luck finding them when they’re hidden behind something else. Admittedly, this becomes less of a problem once you’ve got a dependable build order figured out. But there’s always the chance that the randomly generated map you end up on has few large, open areas.

Second biggest niggle, and it’s a rare occurrence, but it’s easily the worst one when it happens. Invisible gaps. Lots of the environment can be used as a natural defence. Which is great. Cliffs, lakes and forests are impassable. So, the obvious thing to do is stick some walls between them and create a choke point. But due to the isometric viewpoint, cliffs often hide the edge of another piece of scenery. You can’t see that a forest doesn’t actually end against said cliff. It ends a square away from it. Which means there’s a gap. Which means a wayward zombie or ten can wander on into your base and start infecting things. I’ve lost a couple of colonies due to this. It feels massively unfair when it happens. And then, there are things that look like gaps that aren’t gaps. Argh!

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A gap.
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Not a gap.

ZOMBIES APPROACHING! MUMMY!

And so! Onto the zombies! Or “they” as They Are Billions insists on calling them. It’s a bit weird. There are a couple of instances where they’re referred to as “the infected”. But for the most part zombies are “they”. Whatever.

The middle of the map, where you start, is surrounded with yer bog standard slow and fast moving “they”. But as you move further out towards the edges, the special ones start to show up. Big fatties with loads of HP. Acid spitters. And fast, wall jumping, one hit kill ones that are total dicks. And if they weren’t dead already, I’d wish a pox upon them.

Then, of course. There are the hordes. The first few of the ten hordes that charge you through each game are pretty tame. There aren’t many zombies. They only come from one direction. They’re easily dealt with. A wall and some soldiers or a ballista will keep them out. But as the game progresses, their numbers up substantially.

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“Oh, Wave One. You sweet fools.”

Then the final wave arrives. “They Are Billions!” the announcer drones. Then “they” come from every direction in huuuge numbers. The game claims to support up to 20,000 zombies on screen. Which, by my calculations, is 1,999,980,000 fewer than “billions”. But, it’s okay. There’s rarely a shortage of zombies.

If they do manage to break into your colony. Well, you better hope you sectioned it all up with walls, walls and more walls. The infection spreads quickly. Just a few zombies can infect most buildings in a very short time. And once they’re in a building. All the workers and colonists inside immediately become infected and come rushing out to join the horde. It can be a real struggle to contain the infection, especially if the initial horde has crushed your defence and you’ve no other soldiers to help. Hours spent building a colony can be undone in just a few minutes.

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Ve got ze lurgy!

AND PAUSE!

Thankfully, you can pause the game at any time by whacking the space bar. While the game’s paused you can look around the parts of the map you’ve revealed. Issue orders to troops. Plan and place new buildings. Have a nice sit down and a think. Mind you, resource production is paused too. So, you can’t just build to your little heart’s content.

Still, it prevents the game becoming overwhelming. There are so many pies you must finger at any given moment – building, exploring, clearing, upgrading, fighting. Pause is essential. Though I’m sure there are some masochists out there who’ll sneer at using such a thing. I am, however, a slow-witted coward.

Can You Save Scum to Victory?

Ha. No. The game autosaves periodically. And it saves if you quit. You’re limited to one save file per game of Survival. And once you’ve won or lost a game, it gets deleted. There’s no reliving past victories. Or going back 20 days in time and doing something differently in the hope of preventing a loss. You’re stuck in the now, maan.

I’m in two minds about this. Though mostly I like it. On one hand, it keeps the game flowing. You do something. You’ve gotta live with it. You can’t change your mind and reload your save. But then, I’d also like to go back to a few days before a defeat and see if I can turn things around. Or revisit a colony I’d been particularly proud of. Ah well. We all die eventually.

Buildings and Units

There’s nothing particularly original here. Quarries. Houses. Farms. Turrets. Workshops. You’ve seen them all before. As I said earlier, they’re a bit too steampunk for their own good. In general, it’s not a style I feel any strong feelings for either way. But I feel it does the game a disservice. It frequently makes the world harder to see. And if you’re forced into a cramped or cluttered colony, several of the buildings don’t really fit stylistically with the rest of them. They stick out for the wrong reasons.

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Somehow, a bit off.

There are surprisingly few units. Six in all. They have their own names in the game, but I’ve given them generic names here for simplicity. Archer, soldier, sniper, flamethrower, rocket launcher and a mech. And they… they… do as you’d expect them to. Though some can serve multiple functions. The first two are available at the start. The sniper comes early on. And then the final three come later, almost at the same time. The rate at which they unlock seems unbalanced. There aren’t any mid-game units.

Archers are good for exploring. They move fast and make no noise but have little health and do limited damage. Soldiers do slightly more damage but move more slowly and are louder, so aren’t really worth the cost. Snipers move slowly but can one-shot most things. A big group of them makes for an excellent map clearing team. Flamethrowers are good for defence. But are the only unit that can’t shoot over walls. So, you have to put them in harm’s way. Which means they die frequently and can be tricky to reposition. Rocket launchers are great for defence. They have a long range and do a lot of splash damage. And the mechs are good for shooting everything.

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Half-arsed unit parade.

I really hope there’s more unit variety when the full game is released. It seems like steampunk should afford the designers more creativity in unit design and ability. But so far, it hasn’t. The units look more nineties-future-soldier than steampunk. Their abilities aren’t particularly interesting either. I’d love to see some kinda cog-flinging tank or something that melts zombies with steam.

The tactic side of strategy is a little lacking. Combat-wise, at least. The most effective attack is roaming the map with loads and loads and loads of units. The most effective defence is building loads of walls and loads of turrets. This is easier said than done. The challenge and, eventually, skill comes from being able to successfully expand by securing resources and land to implement those strategies. And surprise! These are both harder when there are more zombies and you have less time. Overall, I don’t think this is to its detriment, mind. It’s not Total War. Individually placing 30 snipers in formation isn’t really a concern when 500 zombies are charging through a wall at your farms.

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Sniper/tank-rush!

Anything Else?

The game is missing is a notification log. While you’re dealing with one thing, a notification can pop up informing you that a building is complete. A building you need to build another building. Or there are zombies attacking walls on either side of your base. But after a few seconds it vanishes and there’s no way to get it back. Which is super annoying. Because you’ll probably want to finish doing whatever it is you were doing before the interruption appeared.

It’s a little too easy to lose track of everything that you were doing. Because you’ll be doing a lot. All the time. There are very few moments of calm. Pies will be fingered. So, so many pies. I’m sorry.

Humour is an apparent selling point. And you may remember the game initially reminded me of Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2. But it consistently falls well short of being amusing. Here’s an example: Every time your colony reaches a certain number of colonists, you get to choose a new mayor who grants you a random bonus. One of the lines delivered when this choice appears is;

“Knock knock. Who’s there?
A colony.
A colony who?
A colony who needs a mayor, that’s who.”

Deary me. Though I realise humour is subjective. I’m confident that’s not funny to anyone. The rest of the game is only slightly better. The units have a bit more personality. In fact, the Steam Store page highlights their wackiness as a key feature. Sure, one or two of their lines raise a smile. But their barks quickly become tiresome. The archers are total dicks. I hold out hope that the coming campaign will explain or contextualise each unit’s personality. But for now, I’ve turned off unit voices in the audio settings. Oh! And the announcer who notifies you that buildings are complete or a horde is approaching sounds so, so, so bored.

Speaking of the campaign. Past adding some cutscenes or objectives, I wonder how much it will differ, gameplay-wise, from the current survival mode. I struggle to see what more it can do. Build a colony. Defend a colony. Wander around killing zombies and clearing out infected buildings. I’m keen to be proved wrong, mind. It’s not as if all those things aren’t a bloody good time. And I’ll certainly be giving it a go when it’s released later this year.

Performance

PC Specs: Intel i7 5930k @4.2GHz | G.Skill Ripjaws Series 4 DDR4 16GB 2400MHz | Geforce GTX 1080 Ti FE SLI | Crucial MX300 2TB |  Samsung KS7000 4K HDR TV

I’ve been playing at either 1440p or 4K with the few graphics settings maxed out. 60FPS hasn’t been a problem at either resolution. According to MSI Afterburner, 4K uses ~15% of one of my 1080 Tis. It’s not a demanding game. But, there’s one thing that seems to always cause huge FPS drops. You can set your units to patrol along a path. When you reselect these units, the path they’re following is displayed. These lines make my FPS drop down to around 15. Other than that, even the silly number of zombies on screen cause no problems. Of course, it’s still in beta. So we must hope that bugs are squished come release.

And?

Even though it’s still in Early Access, it’s absolutely worth picking up if you’re into resource management and zombie smashing. There’s a lot of fully functioning game there. The hybrid RTS and tower defence mechanics are well balanced. You’re constantly attacking and defending. However, despite its whimsical name, it’s almost devoid of charm and personality. Regardless, It’s an infectious one more go kinda game. Gameeez. Gaaaaaaameez. GAAAMMEEEZ!

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