When Relic released Company of Heroes
back in 2006, it felt like a breath of fresh air for the RTS genre. By adding elements like true line-of-sight fire, defensive cover mechanics, environmental destruction, and strategic capture, it added intimate scale and battlefield momentum. To a genre whose zoomed-out perspective was more often than not in line with the broader, bigger picture. The cannon fodder and chaos of war.
Fast-forward to 2020 and although the traditional RTS has become somewhat of a rare breed (that said, Relic is currently working on the long-awaited Age of Empires 4
), there’s certainly room for the genre to flourish. And potentially thrive.
, from indie studio King Art Games
, presents a new RTS that aims to do exactly that – thanks in part to its wonderful alternate early 20th century setting. A not quite of this plane time and place where figures like Rasputin, Tesla, and others exist amid the fictional European nations of Polania, Rusviet, and Saxony. Who just so happen to be at war and command their own armies of mechanised mechs. The, err, double usage of mechs there is to highlight how cool the lumbering walking bits of iron and spinning gears are in Iron Harvest.
The merging of the squad-based cover-to-cover style popularised by Company of Heroes with the diesel-punk aesthetic is what makes Iron Harvest so appealing.
And when you eventually get to see Tesla’s own electrical fortress and defences during the impressively cinematic campaign, the wonderful setting and interesting lore (based on the 1920+ works of Polish artist Jakub Różalski) are brought to the fore.
It’s this combination, the merging of the squad-based cover-to-cover style popularised by Company of Heroes with the diesel-punk aesthetic that makes Iron Harvest so appealing. On paper at least. More on that a bit later.
This synergised merger of two things that were always meant to be fused together also made Iron Harvest an instant crowdfunding success story a couple of years back. At AusGamers we first reported on the game back in March of 2018
and have since been checking up on its progress at conventions, through beta access, and by simply gawking over the impressive art direction and unit design whenever we got to see some early footage.
With the full release now out in the wild, Iron Harvest offers up a lengthy campaign, a well-realised and fun skirmish mode (that is great to play in co-op), and some old-fashioned competitive multiplayer. Although the map counts aren’t astronomical – Iron Harvest offers a full suite on par with what you might expect back when the RTS genre was right up there in terms of annual PC game releases.
The multiplayer and skirmish side represent the long-term appeal, with the campaign there to endear you to the world and its character should you choose to dive in. What King Art has managed to create with the campaign is impressive even if it is a little uneven. By switching up the perspective and telling a character-driven story, Iron Harvest has a Blizzard-like Warcraft 3 approach to both mission design and narrative flow. An approach that allows you to not only become familiar with each of the three playable factions as is customary in an RTS campaign but, as mentioned above, invested in the motivation and history of the Polanian freedom fighters, the aggressive Rusviets, and the old-fashioned Saxony.
Iron Harvest offers up a lengthy campaign, a well-realised and fun skirmish mode (that is great to play in co-op), and some old-fashioned competitive multiplayer.
That unevenness though, begins with the presentation. Scope-wise it’s fantastic, with a sprawling story that again evokes Blizzard’s epic Warcraft 3. Writing for the most part is good (playing with native languages turned on is far more enjoyable than the heavy accented English version) and the music and sound design is excellent across the board. But, character detail and animation in the between-mission pre-rendered cinematics isn’t that great. More serviceable than impressive, and at times downright clunky. Or, aged in a way that an RTS like this should feel timeless.
Unfortunately, this clunky-ness extends to the mission design and the overall pacing of Iron Harvest’s campaign, at least when playing on the Medium difficulty setting. As the first campaign off the rack, the earliest Polania missions don’t really sell the combat flow of Iron Harvest -- so there’s some confusion. Because that flow is, hero and squad micromanagement with near-constant action. A style of play where a blend of artillery and firepower must be used to shore up resources if you need them, and defenses when holding a line.
The more hectic campaign missions kind of force you into this single strategy, where a low unit cap and overwhelming enemy army sizes means relentless action. The need for resources mid to late game in Iron Harvest is optional. If you can keep your forces alive, repaired, and healed that is. And sure, that stuff costs some but not a lot of Iron and Oil but it points to protracted and specific battles as opposed to positioning being key.
The transition from resource management and working out supply lines to outright intense warfare works really well but feels a tad overdone. The challenge and constant tug of war in some missions feels forced. That said, the hero unit and squad veteran system being tied to battlefield experience actively makes you want to keep them alive and endears you to your forces in a way that is often lost in other RTS titles. There’s a sense that their own skills advance alongside your own as commander. But, having all of that reset between campaign missions points to a flow better suited to skirmish and multiplayer rather than a cinematic story.
Unfortunately, this clunky-ness extends to the mission design and the overall pacing of Iron Harvest’s campaign, at least when playing on the Medium difficulty setting.
This relentless pacing isn’t a bad thing, and getting to see mechs do their thing – like use a flamethrower to burn up infantry squads, or shoot rail guns at artillery, is pure visual spectacle. Bolstered by great particle effects and distinct and bombastic sound design. King Art is aware of that RTS thing where you should know what unit is coming or moving based purely on sound.
Plus, being hectic alongside cutting down base building to three buildings – a HQ, a barracks, and a workshop – means Iron Harvest is focused more on immediate action than it is the shoring up of defences and amassing a large army for an operatic crescendo.
Throughout the campaign there are several moments where you can see the seams, where the AI is simply cheating and has squads and mechs seemingly spawn in out of nowhere. Where capping resources and taking out bases offers little if any respite on the sheer volume of attackers and forces you’ll see all over a map. Huge battles reduced to getting a unit into position to trigger a cut-scene or getting them in the right spot to raise a flag. The campaign is challenging, but sometimes in the wrong way.
This inconsistency highlights some of the micromanagement issues found in Iron Harvest, from squads not getting into cover or the right position, general pathfinding issues, standing there not firing, or simply not responding to commands.
The fact that giant mechs can’t crush units with their mechanised legs, if only to relieve some of the frustration -- is a missed opportunity.
There are performance issues too, especially when running the game on high at 1440p or above. In our own playthrough turning the visual settings down on an RTX 2080 Ti to the lowest setting mid-mission saw no increase in frame-rate. Weird.
Developer King Art are pushing out updates at a regular clip and since the game’s crowdfunding success the studio has been using community feedback to help shape the overall experience. Odds are the Iron Harvest six months from now will be a far smoother experience. And in the end, it is engaging and rewarding to play, the 1920+ setting is both fascinating and ripe for the style of RTS it aims to capture. In skirmish match-ups, where everything is more even Iron Harvest borders on great.
In skirmish match-ups where everything is more even, Iron Harvest borders on great.
What we’re presented with throughout the campaign and as a whole though is as they say, rough around the edges. A scrappy mech with inconsistent and sometimes unpredictable movement. Perhaps the machine of choice for a squad of Polanian fighters looking to take back a village or two from the overwhelming size of the Rusviet army but not something you’d want for a full-scale invasion.