They are Billions is a real-time strategy game set in a world eviscerated by the zombie apocalypse. You are tasked with building and managing a colony containing the last remnants of human civilization. As the game is currently in early access it allows you to explore one particular gameplay mode: Survival.
In Survival Mode you fight intermittent waves of increasingly large hordes of zombies over the course of a 2-3 hour game. Other massive groups surround your colony but remain mostly dormant. This mode contains four different maps, each with its own theme. The landscape is then procedurally generated to vary the placement and abundance of natural obstructions and resources. These variations ensure that you can’t develop too specific of a strategy for a particular map.
To unlock each map you must complete the preceding maps at a minimum difficulty rate which derives from three elements: Map Type, Game Duration, and Infected Population. Despite the wide range of difficulty options, the game is not easy for beginners even on the lowest settings.
A survival game starts like any typical real-time strategy game. You scout the immediate area, gather resources, build structures, establish a perimeter and deploy military units. But the zombie premise diverts the look, feel and strategy. When you scout you don’t just look for resources or natural obstructions that can act like walls, but also where the crowds of zombies are and the best methods to thin them out ahead of time.
Gathering resources is not done by specifically directing worker units but by creating resource gathering buildings, and allowing them to direct themselves. Also, it’s not just the fog of war that restricts you but more importantly your build area, which only tesla towers extend.
The Pounding Heart
They Are Billions opens every game by immediately setting the tone. The atmosphere is established with a slow focus and zoom in on the previous colony accompanied by a soundtrack that implies a horrific feeling of a looming threat and paired with the steampunk aesthetic. I can’t think of an RTS – or strategy game more broadly – that commits this much to really lapping you in its atmosphere to build on the experience.
As the game starts, I feel both invigorated and tense thinking about all the quick moves I’ll need to make. How sharp I’ll have to be in watching my borders as a smattering of wandering zombies lurch into my camp. This feeling is most evident when you hear that ticking clock indicate the encroachment of a new wave of zombies. You frantically wonder whether your defenses are sufficient and if this will truly be the end.
Although these moments are incredible, the action isn’t always consistent. Now, of course a real-time strategy game has moments of resource gathering & base building. The majority of the game is a lead up to the action sequences. But I feel like there is more of an unexpected quality to other games.
In They Are Billions, you know there are a few hordes outside your walls, just waiting and occasionally straying into your vicinity, as well as a few waves that will appear after x number of days. This could simply be a consequence of the game mode. The upcoming Campaign promises considerable variety.
Regardless, aside from the few waves of zombies that pop up every once in a while, the danger feels uneven in progression. And there is a deceptive feeling that they are less threatening once you have the hang of it. The first few waves are often simple with a negligible increase in size. Then all of a sudden it’s too overwhelming.
From Bunches to Millions
They Are Billions often makes you feel like you are absolutely killing it and then you blink and never open your eyes again; annihilated out of nowhere by a horde of zombies much larger than you expect. This is particularly true once you reach the final wave. Nearing the last days away from potential success, a voice says they are approaching from all sides and They. Are. Billions.
There is a punishing learning curve you need to process. Not to say that it’s unenjoyable, it’s incredibly fun. But it takes a considerable amount of failure to learn how to approach the game and what to expect in any given survival run. You are constantly on alert, scanning your perimeter for threats. Even one single zombie can get into your buildings and infect your workers, converting them to a zombie horde, which continues to grow exponentially as the dominoes fall.
“I like hard games as much as the next person, and there is a fun challenge to found. But when it comes to the workers converting to zombies, it all happens too quickly and you have a frustrating time holding them off.” This is a sentiment I felt exclusively in the early days of playing They Are Billions.
Over time, any sort of negative feelings relating to difficulty sort of dissipated as I improved my strategy. To me this is a clear hallmark of a good game with meticulous consideration for the difficulty curve. It should seem impossible until it just isn’t. This leaves room for those that want enough of a challenge to keep it interesting and those that want to push the difficulty to its absolute limits.
Even when you manipulate the difficulty rate to the minimum or just the minimum level to unlock the next map, as a new player you will face a challenge that feels unexpected and unattainable, but with repeated tries and devising new strategies you eventually succeed.
Brains, Use your Brains
Right from your first game it’s evident that They Are Billions is all about establishing, strengthening, and monitoring that all important perimeter. That one single zombie can decimate your worker tents, causing an unstoppable chain reaction of infection throughout your population.
As you progress you’ll naturally create several different layers of walls. You can count the layers like rings inside a tree – marking chronological progression. And when a challenging wave finally hits, you’ll retreat behind several layers and frantically build walls on the fly to ensure they don’t reach the heart of your colony.
There are many other interesting strategies and consequences that develop from this zombie premise and primarily defensive style of gameplay. For instance, since the zombies come in mobs there are ways to lure and funnel them to some deadly tower defense-esque corridor you’ve established. Also, if they are about to break your defenses there is a real strategic value in destroying your own buildings. This recoups half the cost and keeps the number of zombies from increasing and getting out of hand. Something I had not seen or considered in another game.
As you’d expect from the genre, there is a challenging balancing act for resources. In this case they even have a cyclical connection – one leading to the next and then back again. For instance, you build houses for workers that then require food. Food sources require wood which at this point requires more energy. But you don’t have space for building so you need to extend the build area with a tesla tower.
The way the resource system works keeps you from having an abundance of resources early. You won’t have a substantial army for some time, since the games are time sensitive leading up to the “They Are Billions” final wave. You’ll mostly prioritize constructing higher tech buildings and researching new units, towers, and upgrades.
This for me was where the occasional lull occurred in gameplay. There are stretches of time where your few existing military units are guarding the perimeter. You’re waiting on resources to accumulate, but you can’t go out to thin the zombie herd and explore the map since you have no real force to contend with it. Even when you do have units to work with there isn’t much interesting to find.
The big wide open maps could potentially fill in the gaps of pacing between waves of enemies. They do have big groups of zombies just sitting there that you can pick off. But the most interesting aspect is abandoned cities full of zombies and tremendous resources to plunder. This is a great addition but sparingly present. You are meant to be mostly contained in your area on the defensive. But more to scavenge and discover to bring back in true post-apocalyptic fashion could fill the occasional lulls.
Should you buy?
At this point in the Early Access version of They Are Billions I absolutely recommend it. It is a well-executed RTS with a mostly familiar feel whose premise sends it in a new interesting direction that establishes its own novel rules and strategies. Despite being an Early Access title it is a polished product without any noticeable issues.
The challenge presented in They Are Billions can seem aggressively out of reach with its ever changing, procedurally generated map layouts and unfathomable hordes of zombies. But once you’ve established a routine and uncover some useful tactics you miraculously enter the shadow of the impossible; you stretch and strain your fingers eventually grazing that prize, revealing to yourself that you now have the skill and fortitude to one day grasp it. This journey from clueless pleb to expert zombie warfare tactician is a rewarding feeling of accomplishment.
They Are Billions’ Survival mode could exist on its own and I would have no problem with that. But of course it’s not done yet, as the extensive Campaign mode is still in the works. There is so much potential, and even if nothing more came of it, the product today is worth every penny.