Not going to lie, usually when an RPG or strategy game doesn’t offer the ability to save or load at any point it annoys me. And frustrates. They Are Billions, which omits the save-anywhere feature in lieu of a single periodic autosave, avoids this reaction entirely. A clear design choice, not omission, and one that feels like a key part of the sometimes calm and measured but ultimately tense RTS experience presented. One centred around building up your defences and base to fend off the inevitable. An attack from a frighteningly large horde of zombies that is set to arrive in a certain amount of days.
In many ways They Are Billions is a traditional RTS, there’s wood to cut, farms and houses to build, and a barracks to throw up in order to train highly skilled archers and soldiers with guns. Walls, towers, spike traps, and a tech tree leading to the ability to construct new buildings and more defensive options. Set in a post-apocalyptic steampunk(ish) future, They Are Billions takes the concept of turtling, or a defensive approach to a traditional RTS match and runs with it.
Well, the hordes run. The zombies that simply mill around the map walk slowly.
Bringing things back to the no-save deal, and it being a key part to the design, it’s an element that drives progression, learning, and timing. Outside of being able to alter the difficulty in terms of how many in-game days until the inevitable, in addition to limiting the number of roaming zombies found on a map - the finality of where you’re at “right now” teaches you about survival. And the mechanics and tools at your disposal. Watching an infection spread rapidly through your small town because a stray zombie managed to wander in from an unguarded direction early on? A lesson in perception, readiness, and the seriousness of the threat.
“Set in a post-apocalyptic steampunk(ish) future, They Are Billions takes the concept of turtling, or a defensive approach to a traditional RTS match and runs with it.”
Failing to survive one of the preliminary before-the-main-event zombie attacks from a few dozen single minded undead walkers streaming from a single direction? Next time you’ll do better. Double walls, add a second or third watch tower, lay down some traps, research stone buildings a lot sooner. Don’t expand too quickly or spread out too thin. This is all communicated via experience, reinforcing the no-save policy as a design necessity to really sell the setting in which They Are Billions takes place. A harsh world where survival is not only extremely difficult but reserved to those who plan and understand the nature of their foe.
To assume that you could fire up the game and succeed at your first attempt would be presumptuous.
Or even the second, third, or in my case – the fourth. Although this failure-rate might sound like They Are Billions would be something for RTS connoisseurs only, that’s not the case. Even without a tutorial to set the scene, there’s a definite Blizzard original StarCraft-era quality to it all. From the UI to controls to the clear tech-progression trees, to even the visual and audio distinction between various units, zombie types, and buildings. And the map itself, where grass areas for farms, trees for wood, water for fishing, and ore for mining are all cleanly and clearly visible. The ability to pause at any moment and issue commands, or ponder the next two or three steps, means you don’t need the ability to perform at the level of a professional StarCraft player issuing umpteen commands-per-minute.
They Are Billions is at its core a take on the style of defensive RTS missions seen in titles like StarCraft or Command & Conquer, levels and missions that led to the popularity and rise of the tower defence genre. When viewed in the guise of a single mode, They Are Billions offers up a brilliant and thoughtful and tense strategic experience. One that stands out and feels almost timeless. Even if you ultimately fail to survive, the experience still feels, well, complete.
Also available on PC, where it now features a story-driven campaign mode, the console release of They Are Billions presents the single Skirmish mode that debuted with the original Early Access release. Albeit in its current, polished form. That said, unit pathfinding for workers and other weird animation glitches occur from time to time. Playable with a standard controller, They Are Billions for Xbox One is a game and genre for that matter better suited to a keyboard and mouse. Which thankfully, is supported
“They Are Billions offers up a brilliant and thoughtful and tense strategic experience. One that stands out and feels almost timeless.”
In the end there’s a reason They Are Billions has received a groundswell of support and appreciation over the past year, and that comes down to it excelling as a defensive RTS experience you’ll come back to time and again. That mission to build up a little town and hold a position on the back of incoming waves of attackers, where unpredictability plays a role and you’re somewhat in charge of the pacing. Because when the horde arrives – they’ll be running.