One of the major problems with the real time strategy genre is the relatively high barrier to entry. Despite single-player campaigns generally working like protracted tutorials, they tend to focus on a particular game’s gimmicks and are woefully inadequate in preparing the newcomer for multiplayer. After years of iteration on this we’ve wound up with a niche field of very good games that not very many people actually play.
Enter Petroglyph’s 8-Bit Armies, here to rush into the breach with gameplay that’s been rolled back to the glory days of RTS, while maintaining some of the modern conveniences we’ve picked up along the way since then. It’s fast-paced, lightweight, and simple to learn. With a voxel-style look reminiscent of Hipster Whale’s mobile hit Crossy Road (it’s not really 8-Bit), it feels like a perkier version of Command & Conquer, which several key staff at Petroglyph worked on at the now-defunct Westwood Studios.
Back to basics
Like Command & Conquer, your unit and building creation buttons are arrayed on the right side of the screen. Building additional motor pools and barracks will allow you to speed up production of units, and harvesters collect the game’s single currency from oil derricks, delivering it to refineries. You’ll build power plants to keep the lights on in your buildings, and defensive turrets can be set up to guard against enemy infantry or air units.
The 25-mission campaign introduces new units and mechanics as you progress, but adds a rather brilliant wrinkle – there are three tiers of mission objectives (each represented with a star) to attempt on each mission, and each star adds to the unlock rewards. While the first star, bronze, usually unlocks a new unit necessary to move on to the next mission, fulfilling the rewards of the silver and gold stars will add to your starting loadout of units and resources, which persists through the campaign. The more stars you’ve unlocked, the more stuff you’ll have at the beginning of each mission. You can also go back and attempt silver and gold star objectives after you’ve unlocked more advanced units later in the campaign — perhaps destroying all the enemy headquarters in under 10 minutes might be easier with a squadron of attack helicopters?
While I quite enjoyed Petroglyph’s Grey Goo last year, the game suffered from poor readability – it was difficult to tell at a glance what a particular unit did, or the effects of certain kinds of terrain. 8-Bit Armies is usually very clear about what each unit does: tanks behave as expected (and can drive over/through neutral buildings and infantry) and turrets shoot at things logically. I did have trouble sometimes picking out special units like engineers and commandos in large infantry blobs, however, and unit pathing could be troublesome, with large formations splitting up to go around terrain obstacles.
Learning RTS – but possibly bad habits as well
Anyone who spent time with the Westwood classic Command & Conquer: Red Alert knows about the cheesetastic tank rush, where a player (usually as Soviets, but it worked for Allies, too) pumped out six tanks as quickly as possible and made a beeline for the enemy construction yard. Since 8-Bit Armies’ factions are identical in everything except color, it’s not as big a problem here, but the game does reward this no-brainer strategy, particularly in the campaign. I’ll admit, though, that there’s still a manic joy in sending a deathball of 30 tanks into a hapless enemy’s base and watching the devastation ensue.
There are also very few “builds” to use given the limited (albeit diverse) set of units. Players expecting build orders centered around a particular tactic – air or mechanized, for instance – won’t find a lot of meat on these 8-bit bones. Instead, the game is about pumping out a lot of units quickly, or pulling off a devastating nuke attack.
But the speed and stripped-down style do push players into early skirmishes and favor constant enemy harassment, which are good habits to get into if multiplayer RTS is something you’ve been interested in trying. And 8-Bit Armies does allow for the creation of control groups for easier micromanagement of units – which is absolutely essential for online play in other games.
Lightweight game, budget price
The 25-mission campaign takes place on 10 maps, which double as skirmish maps for up to eight players. There are also 10 co-op missions to play alongside a friend. The AI ranges from a pushover “Beginner” level to the surprisingly ruthless “Insane,” which should challenge even players who are at home with RTS.
Add in a terrific soundtrack by Command & Conquer composer Frank Klepacki, and that’s 8-Bit Armies – it’s a small, tightly-designed RTS geared toward genre newcomers that doesn’t offer much in the way of gimmicky flash or weird new asymmetric factions, but counters with an easy-to-use design with just enough moving pieces to make it a great first step for players who are RTS-curious but intimidated by the likes of StarCraft 2 or Total War.
8-Bit Armies was developed by Petroglyph and released April 22 on Steam for an MSRP of $14.99. A review copy was provided by the publisher.