The RTS genre is one that seems to come in cycles, with only a few major flavours, thanks in part for it having been dominated for years by the WarCraft, StarCraft, Command & Conquer, and Age of Empires series. As a person who has loved these style of games, and enjoyed them in single-player mode, it was a dark day when multi-player focused RTS games came to the fore. Gone was the intricate base building and fun story, and in its place, cover systems, unit positioning and management of when to engage and retreat, exemplified by the Company of Heroes series. While a lot of people loved these games, it was something that I simply didn’t enjoy. In fact, the last truly decent single-player RTS I played was StarCraft II (back in 2010) and WarCraft III (2004) before that.
So imagine my shock at Iron Harvest 1920+. Not only is it an RTS in the vein of Company of Heroes (a style I’d never really taken to), it is also the best single-player RTS I have ever come across. No other RTS game comes close in terms of spectacular battles, top-notch animations, brilliant tactical gameplay and an excellent story backed-up by brilliant voice-acting. I found myself thoroughly enjoying my time in the three campaigns (five, if both DLC are included), and definitely wanting more.
Set in an alternate ‘diesel-punk’ reality, the game takes place during and immediately following the Great War. However, instead of tanks, the battlefield is dominated by mechs – huge walking machines, armed with everything from oversized rifles and machine guns, to cannons, rockets and beyond. These machines are absolute terrors, capable of both dishing out, and taking an inordinate amount of damage, and even the lightest mech will need the coordinate efforts of several squads of infantry to be brought down. That’s not to say that infantry are useless. They’re faster than mechs, can commandeer mobile weapons platforms, provide needed field repairs and swarm exposed enemy mechs, and are a vital component of any balanced force (not least because they prevent infantry from swarming your mechs). Mechs, however, are where the game shines.
These mechs come in light, medium and heavy flavours, and fulfil the roles of anti-infantry, anti-mech, and artillery. While each faction has mechs which fill roughly equivalent roles, how they do so varies dramatically. Saxonia’s light, anti-infantry mech, for example, comes armed with an oversized gatling gun, perfect for pinning infantry in place, but fairly useless against other mechs. Rusviet’s nearest equivalent is a squat, lumbering beast which sports a flame thrower that can quickly wipe out any infantry squad it gets close enough to. Each of these looks, handles and feels distinct, promoting different uses and counters. For example, while you may feel comfortable leaving your troops in the line of fire of Saxonia’s mech for a short while, Rusviet’s flame mech will invariably force you to focus everything you’ve got at it, or pull your infantry back until it’s been dealt with.
This is a game that also gives players a large defensive bonus, and while battles out in the open can be evenly matched, if you’re attacking an enemy base you’d better come with overwhelming force. This is because of several inspired choices. Firstly, units next to your HQ or their production building (barracks/mech workshop) can instantly repair or heal, provided you’ve enough resources and subject to a short cooldown timer to stop you ‘spamming’ it. Secondly, infantry-manned anti-mech guns and anti-infantry machine guns, though super slow to move (so you really wouldn’t want to use them for offence), pack a massive punch. Finally, deployed artillery can deal a massive amount of damage to mechs and disrupt groups of infantry. Throw in a few static defences, landmines, and a bit of tactical skill, and any entrenched position can become an extremely hard nut to crack. Battles are a compelling mix of both fast and fluid ‘to-and-fro’ affairs, with you deciding when and what to advance or retreat, but never so fast that you can’t read what’s going on, or pause to enjoy the visuals.
Visuals-wise, Iron Harvest 1920+ is without doubt the best looking RTS game around. This is not only due to top-notch animation, effects and lighting, but also to the cinematic logic employed by the game. Even the smallest of explosions will send infantry flying (unless they’re encased in a heavy exo-suit), and a blast from a cannon is more than capable of ripping the side off a building. Heavier mechs can ignore buildings entirely, and simply march straight through walls, all of which have distinct tactical implications and look spectacular. After a bout of heavy and sustained fighting, even the most pristine environment looks like a warzone, with lingering smoke, craters, rubble and the remains of destroyed mechs (which can also be recovered for extra resources).
Of course, none of this would mean much unless it was also accompanied by a fun and compelling single-player campaign, and Iron Harvest 1920+ delivers in spades. During the three main campaigns you follow the events both immediately after, and during the Great War, following various characters as they run up against the sinister organisation known as Fenris: a shadowy group looking to reignite the war for its own purposes. Without spoiling anything, the story is both compelling and satisfying, whilst setting the groundwork for a sequel (fingers crossed!). While there are the genre standards of escort, defence and assault missions, these all feel fresh, different and challenging. They are also quite substantial, so don’t expect to knock any of them over (with perhaps the exception of the very first mission) in ten minutes. While all these missions are fun, the high point in any of the campaigns are invariably the last two missions, which give you access to your faction’s complete arsenal, and will involve a non-stop fight to the end. You’ll often find yourself fighting on multiple fronts, quickly assessing those which are holding or advancing for the moment, and those which need your direct attention, or even find yourself pushed right back into your own base, barely holding off an attack before going on the offensive yourself. It’s thrilling and extremely satisfying.
While there is plenty in the standard game to keep players occupied, the two DLCs, The Rusviet Revolution, and Operation Eagle (both of which take place immediately following the end of the main campaigns) add plenty more. The Rusviet Revolution adds five new missions. Far from being repeats of what you’ve just played, it’s clearly aimed at those who have mastered the single-player campaign, and often pits you against overwhelming forces (literally, to stay and fight will just result in you being worn down and defeated). Even if you know what you’re doing, you will still be in for an extremely tough fight and unless you use everything you’ve learned to maximum effect, you will be beaten.
Operation Eagle, on the other hand, is more forgiving. A whole new major campaign, complete with 25 minutes of cutscenes, this follows the feel of the other main campaigns: a gradual build to a grand finale. It can be bought as a stand-alone game (though I believe to get the most out of it, you will want to have played the other campaigns). What keeps this fresh, though, is the introduction of a whole new faction: Usonia (the USA). Distinct from their European counterparts, Usonia is all about air power (though their ground mechs, particularly their walking fortress, the ‘Knox’ – sporting five cannons, four machine guns and multiple rocket launchers – aren’t to be sniffed at).
While there are the odd technical glitches (one frozen animation and a bit of stutter on one of the maps if the camera is zoomed in too far – nothing game breaking and nothing that I wouldn’t expect to be fixed in a patch or two), I found the Usonian campaign just as much fun as the rest of the game.
Whether you want to hop online and engage in a back-and-forth tussle with another player, or play by yourself through the brilliant single-player campaigns, I can absolutely, definitely, and with no hesitation, recommend this game. The RTS genre has a new king, and its name is Iron Harvest 1920+. ■