Games in Steam Early Access always have to be considered previews because Early Access on Steam is a term that just means the game is not in a beta/soft-launch state. It’s sort if vague and I have played games where early access meant playing two weeks before the final release and I have played others that have been in that category for years. There are some games I previewed three years ago that are sill in Early Access. Luckily, Numantian Games’ They Are Billions they have set a target window of Spring to launch, and they look to keep it!
The game has three parts to it, Survival, Community and Campaign modes. Survival mode is good to go, all polished up and ready to punish players. You have a base very similar to StarCraft where you start with the Command Center and build new buildings and unlocking more so that you can create a large town that you then can defend against an outbreak of zombies. You build walls, hire mercenaries and unlock and build tower defense style buildings that help keep the undead horde at bay. The whole game is based off of steampunk both in visuals and in gameplay so the play often feels very Protoss in style. You have to put out energy towers that act just like the pylons do in StarCraft giving power to an area around it allowing you to build. Every tower needs to be built in the area of a previous tower and if the previous tower loses power so does any that are daisy chained from it. As a result, if zombies make it through to pylons near the town all your out stretched connections lose power suddenly leaving you with less power, less active buildings including resource gathering ones and defensive towers. This can lead to a “Game Over Man, Game Over!” situation quickly.
The most dangerous though is if they get to your tents which each tent holding four workers suddenly they turn the workers into zombies so not only do you lose your workers but you now have four more zombies to worry about. Pretty soon they take out all your tents, have an extra horde and have completely cut off your ability to build, collect resources or make more troops. As a result one of the first things I get going it a saw mill to get wood and start building a wooden wall around the tents, because if they fall, unlike any other building, it is really hard to recover.
Since Survival is a single player mode right now (things can change during Early Access) players are able to pause the game and take a look at the map, decide and start what buildings you want to build and figure out a strategy and implement it depending on how the map looks. This is really helpful in case a player isn’t a professional level player but still enjoys strategy games. If there were the option to slow down and speed up gameplay I think it would make the game more accessible to wider group of players so that those who are really good can speed it up or those who aren’t as good but still like playing these kind of games can have a chance to survive. Also players are sometimes just waiting for an action or build to happen before they move forward and speeding up play can help that. Pausing the game helps a lot but when you consider you are dealing with thousands of zombies who will eventually swarm over your town every little bit of extra help can be satisfying.
The other way this game could be a little more user friendly would being able to save. The game saves itself when certain situations in it’s programming happen (it just seems to randomly pop up a message that it is saving) but the player doesn’t have the same option. Having a couple of save files, even if it is only two, would be handy so that if you realize you made a bit of a mistake and the town gets overrun because of it it would be nice to not lose hours of gameplay because you weren’t able to save. I understand why they have it this way just like I can understand why they wouldn’t want to make it so you can change the speed of the game, they aren’t trying to make this game accessible to lots of people by making it easy, they are trying to challenge players by making it hard. The idea being that once you lose you have lost and need to start from scratch with the game putting you on a new random spot on the map so you can figure out how to survive in a different setup. There is a way to save but it is kinda sly and I wouldn’t be surprised if they change it. If you leave the game you can save and exit to the main screen. This creates a single save point. If the game decides to save sometime when you come back it will save over the spot you did but otherwise you have a spot of saved progression that will be there even after you lose under “Continue”. If you or the game save too close to when you got overrun it becomes a pretty useless save but otherwise it might give you a second chance at the game.
Community mode is interesting and nice for players who like a competitive challenge. All players are placed on the same map and in the same place to see how well they do at surviving. Players only get one shot at it and they are scored and ranked against all other players who take the challenge. The plan is to have new Community maps over time so players can get a bit of a PvP feel from it.
A fun way to make each game an unique twist is the addition of a mayor where you pick between candidates for the additional aspect that you feel will best help your community. One mayor might give you the ability to make snipers (a HUGE game changer) but his competitor might be able to upgrade all your tents greatly increasing the number of workers you have without having to build anything (sometimes not enough workers means no more mercs to help your defenses). The choice is difficult because one gives you better quality of mercs the other gives you more. Decisions, decisions…
There is supposed to be a Campaign mode as well and players haven’t yet been given access to it. Personally that is my favorite aspect of a game so I can’t wait to give it a try. Usually playing through a campaign helps players become better for Survival mode but it is usually the most time consuming to create so it makes sense it would take a longer amount of time to prepare. Since it is Early Access I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on it even if it was only a few levels or likely to change.
The game has difficulty levels but they are done in a different setup than most games. No matter how hard the difficulty the zombies don’t change. The difficulty levels consist how many days of gameplay and how high the population is. So you can set the population to be at it’s easiest and that would be “Just A Few Infested (Easiest)” and the hardest is “High Population (Brutal)”. The other part is how long before the zombie horde collapse onto you, the hardest being 80 days and the easiest 150. So at it’s easiest it is Just A Few Infested and 150 days of play. It seems odd that that the shortest games is the hardest but if you are building and not a StarCraft ranked level of player you want all the time you can get to build up all the defenses you can.
When the horde comes it is crazy brutal, not just on your town but on your computer. Even gaming rigs have a hard time handling the thousands of zombies piling up on your defenses. I don’t think there are billions, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were when they started but now there are plenty enough to give lag spikes to even hardcore gamers.
They Are Billions is a really fun game already as is, the addition of Campaign mode will make it that much better. There are a few changes that would be cool to see but if they weren’t made the game is still a blast to play. Just don’t be surprised if the first few, or several, times you play you get mowed down. It is Survival or Community mode and both are designed to be hard as heck by their nature. Once the Campaign mode comes along it should be a little more playable by a wider audience and I know I will be among them.