Radar is the first to detect them. A seething mass of angry red dots, swarming across the map towards the colony. Then, I have a visual: a sea of infected, from slow Shamblers and bullet-sponge Chubbies, to lethal Harpies and Infected Executives. The snipers I’ve positioned in the towers are the first to find their range. Their volleys take down some of the more dangerous foes, but do nothing to stem the tide now moving with terrifying speed towards my walls. Then the Executioner turrets open fire, shredding the front-lines of the infected. Still they advance. Now come the rockets, flying over the walls and tearing great rents in their ranks, which, within half-a-second, are filled with fresh monsters. They reach the walls, and start tearing away, trying to gain access to the defenceless civilians within. As destruction continues to rain down upon them from my defences, I frantically send soldiers to bolster failing sections of my walls, and position troopers armed with lethal flame throwers to hold back the infected where they’ve managed to create a breach. This scene is repeated on every side of my colony, as an endless swarm of thousands of infected launch their attack. I can only hope my preparations have been enough. Welcome to the end game of the survival mode of They Are Billions.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world where the majority of humanity has succumbed to a mysterious illness which has turned them essentially into zombies (the ‘infected’), They Are Billions is a unique take on the Real Time Strategy genre (‘RTS’ for newbies). Rather than building your armies and clobbering your enemies (traditional RTS gameplay), the survival mode of They Are Billions (the only mode released so far) tasks the player with establishing a colony, and surviving increasingly bigger waves of infected – culminating in the grand finale where thousands upon thousands of infected stream in from all sides of the map.
This is no small task, with players having to balance resource management, base expansion and upgrading, and defence, all against the clock. Send your scouts too close to an infected Village of Doom, and the resulting waves of infected can quickly overwhelm your early defences. Expanding too aggressively can also lead a stream of infected to your walls, as can stupidly using a soldier and his loud gun within earshot of a horde. And it only takes one infected getting past your defences to ruin your day.
Every building in your colony houses workers, and should an infected manage to damage any building enough, then all the workers inside get added to the swarm. Couple this with limited building space, and it means that a lone infected can quickly cause a situation where events snowball hopelessly out of control. Once the horde reaches your town hall, it’s game over.
This leads to all kinds of intense, tactical decisions. Do I risk building a sprawling low-tech colony in an attempt to get a large enough population early on that I can quickly tech-up? Sink my resources into mobile troopers or powerful static defences? Do I expand to where I can use the lay of the land to help with my defences, or head to that more exposed area with the resources? Or, should I temporarily halt resource production so I have a few spare workers I can turn into military? Oh yeah, and the levels are randomised, so each play-through is different.
This could all become quickly overwhelming for the player if not for a brilliant design choice: the ability to pause the game yet still issue all your commands (everything from building to troop movement). This makes it not only accessible to newcomers, but also takes the focus away from the Actions-Per-Minute (APM) obsession of recent RTS games, and puts it back squarely on tactics and strategy. If you, like me, enjoy the challenge of optimising your defences (and, honestly, who doesn’t enjoy a good siege battle?), this game will quickly have you hooked. And, should you find it too overwhelming, you can tinker with a number of difficulty settings – how many infected, how often waves of infected attack, and so on – to make it more forgiving.
With its cell-shaded, cartoon-like graphics, steampunk aesthetic, grand orchestral score and a full story-mode to follow, Numatian Games’ first foray into the world of RTS has all the makings of a classic. Even in the early access stage, it’s well worth the price of admission, and I can only see it improving as more content is released. ■