8-Bit Armies PC Review
After developing a few interesting and mechanically varied real-time strategy (RTS) games, such as Grey Goo and Universe at War, 8-Bit Armies is a back to basic approach for the RTS studio Petroglyph. It’s a throwback to the history of some of the studio’s workforce that have roots in the good old days of Command & Conquer, stripping away the complexity of planetary warfare and returning it to the straightforward approach of refining a resource and building a military base. 8-Bit Armies could very well be a poster child for a RTS For Dummies book, a beginning entry point for newcomers to get their feet wet into playing RTS games, but I can’t help but feel that it might be a little too simple for its own good.
There is no real story in 8-Bit Armies, no fancy video clips or computer generated videos that RTS games often include. This is barebones, a 25 mission campaign that makes the player take the only faction featured in the game through them all – another faction came out recently as DLC, but isn’t accessible in the campaign just yet. Sadly, the 25 missions does not translate into maps, as with 10 maps available, the campaign has to reuse them to reach its total count. The developers don’t change these maps, but they do switch up the objectives, usually by adding another one or two computer opponents to face off to make them less repetitive. The lack of a plot does diminish the attachment I had with the game. With no world building, alien planet to set up a unique environment or eccentric cast of characters to absorb, something Command & Conquer or StarCraft II does exceptionally well, especially with their cutscenes, meant that 8-Bit Armies lacked any personality that I could latch onto. This game’s world is bright, colourful and simple, but the lack of character makes everything feel so grounded in regards to its mission structure. Everything revolves around killing a key building or surviving for 15 minutes – the game never goes out of its way to throw unexpected objectives at you, which is a shame, and with only 10 maps, this mixture hurts the campaign’s variety.
A positive about the campaign is I do like how it handles progression, and is 8-Bit Armies most unique mechanic. Most RTS games will force each mission to begin with a predetermined amount of resources, units and buildings. 8-Bit Armies goes a different route with a persistent load-out of buildings and units that is used at the start of every mission. Unlocking more is done through the game’s mission objective system, a tier list of challenges, bronze, silver and gold, that will unlock additional starting cash, units or buildings. The game requires the bronze mission be achieved, as this unlocks the next mission and the new units to use, which consists of military might growth through nukes, rocket helicopters and tanks.
Passing the more challenging silver and gold is where load-out advantages are gained. One objective might add five machine gun units, another might plot two rocket turrets outside your base for protection. Beating these challenges are not required, but they help with having the edge over the computer in later missions. The harder objectives can be returned to after finishing later missions, making targets like killing 3 HQ buildings in 10 minutes easier to do, since the extra starting units and more powerful tanks gained from later missions can be built here, making the campaign have an appeal to replay it for anyone who wants to achieve 100 percent and defeat each tier objective.
The gameplay and UI will be a trip down memory lane for fans of the older Command & Conquer titles. The right side of the screen contains the building and unit creation buttons. Buildings can be placed with a range close to the HQ, and units will pop out after the resources have been spent to create them. Building a base revolves around building refineries to get cash, erecting power plants, then barracks, motorpools and eventually air control to make a solid land and air army. Building duplicates of any structure that creates units doubles the production speed, making it worthwhile to place a few down to gain the speed rewards. Building and unit selection is limited, so the game becomes more about balancing the fast production with a steady flow of income. I learnt that from my time with 8-Bit Armies – its construction for simplicity and easy to pick up gameplay transforms the game to be all about speed. Matches don’t typically last long, and with minimal micromanagement (I only managed grouping my units into squads), no upgradable units or research structures, the game makes its focus about pumping out as many units as possible, while reinforcing defence for any attacks coming in.
Each map starts a player within a piece of land surrounded often by walls with only one way into the base. This limits attack options, as the design encourages people to hold up within their safety shell, and unless you seriously outnumber their army enough to take down turrets, it’s often best to send in the air force to blow power plants to take down defence threats, then roll in with the ground force to finish up. With no specialised units, like the parachuting bears or jet-pack equipped men that people might know from another RTS game, the attack choppers become your main opener of attack to gain entry to the enemy base. Current maps don’t offer that sense of insecurity that comes with building bases in the open, where danger can come from 360 degrees. Thankfully, the map editor that was just included in the last patch should open the freedom of more threatening and less secure maps, adding more strategy to the game than simply boiling down into tank rushing, but with limited unit options, this might still remain a problem.
But it does look like Petroglyph are building to resolve some of the issues, almost if the game was released with the idea of Early Access behind it but without calling it that, rather, building on the game through free and purchasable downloadable content. 8-Bit Armies will probably remain fast-paced and simple, but with the Guardian faction that was added, it’s already opening up different unit types and play styles, such as the Scorch Tank and Stealth Tanks. With the fantasy faction teased for the future, things could get very interesting and bizarre, as it looks like no rules are in place for what can be a faction – time to bring on the faction of monsters! A campaign for the Guardian faction is in the pipeline, supposedly this content is free, but plans for future factions and campaigns will come with a price tag. As it stands, the £10.99 asking price is a great price for the game. Despite the issues I have, the game offers the campaign, 12 map cooperative mode, online play (although it’s so hard to find matches, as it looks like hardly anyone is playing) and the map editor with Steam workshop to share them with the world. Not bad for the price of seeing a blockbuster cinema experience at the weekend.
While it’s not quite 8bit, the voxel art style used allows for some very colourful and sharp graphics. It’s a simple style that works well and looks wonderful at high resolutions, and is in fact the only personality the game has going for it, because everything else seems to not want us to care for the parties involved in this warfare. None of the units make remarks when controlling them, leaving just sound effects. The soundtrack is fairly good, composed by Frank Klepacki, but doesn’t leave a lasting impression like some of his earlier work. The whole feeling evoked from 8-Bit Armies is one that comes across as if the developers took the concept of retro RTS just a little too far and removed aspects that add soul to games in the real-time strategy genre.
8-Bit Armies minimalistic approach to real-time strategy makes it a good gateway for people wanting to sample the genre, enabling those to get in and instantly pick up the game without worrying about complexity. That said, I can’t see fans of the genre staying around for this one. The developers have stripped so much out when designing what is a simple RTS game that all the personality has gone with it, leaving a lightweight game that is incredibly fast and occasionally fun, but lacks an engaging and interesting campaign, and removes the deep strategy that comes with having unit variety. 8-Bit Armies is a budget priced, nostalgic teaser throwback, but not one that does it full justice, and it’s a game that I don’t think I’ll see myself constantly playing in huge amounts in the future until the game grows.