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In 2003, when EA destroyed Westwood studios, the creators of Command & Conquer, one final group of original Westwood employees resigned and formed Petroglyph Games. Later, EA also destroyed the Command & Conquer series by releasing Command & Conquer 4. Yet with the recent announcement of 8-Bit Armies, there seemed to be some hope for people looking for a modern game with that classic Command & Conquer flavour. 8-Bit Armies seemed to have all the right elements in place to be every bit as good as it should be. It’s an isometric, base building real time strategy with a voxel art style. It uses one global resource gained by sending harvesters out to various points on the map. Also, perhaps most importantly, Frank Klepacki is the composer.
So what does 8-Bit Armies do differently? First off, there are the 3 unit producing buildings: barracks, motorpool and air control. Creating multiples of these buildings will steadily decrease the production time for your chosen primary building in that set. Which is the only building able to produce those units, one at a time. This is the dominant factor which sets the stage for the tactical decisions needed to win. You want to be producing units just fast enough to drain your resources, but not too fast that they come to zero. You need to drip feed your economy with more harvesters and refineries over time to accommodate a quicker and quicker build queue.This brings me immediately to the worst element of the game by far! The harvester AI. It’s absolutely abysmal. Only one harvester can enter a resource point or refinery at one time and the harvesters will always default to the closest of each. This means that every time you build a harvester or refinery you will have to micromanage their pick-up and drop-off points or else you will get a massive queue of harvesters at both ends of the production chain with empty refineries ready to be used literally 2 squares away. You’re gonna want a lot of harvesters…but babysitting every single one of them is time that could be better spent elsewhere and is just plain tedious. This could so easily be solved by putting a limit on harvesters-per-refinery and this should have been done before launch.
Why not build refineries near to the resource points you ask? Well, expanding your base is not really a viable option in 8-Bit Armies. On certain maps you can base creep out of your initial area, but most of the time this is not viable and certainly not encouraged. Every map starts the players off on a raised area with one entrance, building outside of that area becomes an annoyance due to buildings having to be placed near each other. But this also leads to a lack of environmental tactics that a lot of modern RTS games have developed (Such as Tiberium Wars’ rocket jump soldiers.)
8-Bit Armies prides itself on being easy to pick up, even for RTS beginners. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I feel they may have gone too far in this instance. Infantry, vehicles, air units and base defenses each have a machine gun and rocket variation which are good against infantry and vehicles respectively. There is also an artillery tank and a transport helicopter. With only one faction in the game, this boils the entire unit composition tactics down to one sure-fire strategy: Use rockets for vehicles and machine guns for infantry. Map one key to a group of infantry and one key to a group of vehicles and avoid their respective weaknesses and you can pretty much blast through the single player campaign with no problems whatsoever.
The only way you’re able to flank the enemy base is by air units, encouraging you to turtle up and surround yourself with base defenses when playing against human opponents. But cheesing with the air units is incredibly easy, especially against AI opponents. When there are no ground units manoeuvrable enough for a quick defensive retreat once 30 or more helicopters enter their base. Power plants are screwed, which means base defenses are screwed, which means the base is screwed. Again, this is mainly because of the bases being completely walled in. This is another sure fire way to beat the majority of the campaign missions.
The campaign does have some interesting elements though. There are 25 single player missions and 10 co-op missions in total, each with a main objective, side objective and timed objective. As you complete objectives you unlock new tech but also add to your loadout given at the start of a mission. These rewards could be an extra building, some units, or more money. This applies even when re-playing missions, making it more fun and a bit easier to hit that timed objective even on the harder difficulty. What’s severely lacking though is any kind of story. Each mission is introduced with a paragraph of text but it might as well not even be there because it’s not interesting and we’re not invested. The story of the Command & Conquer games were a massive part of what gave them so much character, without this element, 8-Bit Armies feels a bit lifeless. There isn’t even any voice acting for ordering units around. You are given the same, awful sound regardless of what you click on. It sounds like Maggie’s dummy from The Simpsons.
The UI, while getting some things right, like the nostalgic sidebar with all your build options and map, just doesn’t give you enough useful information. Units or structures under attack do not appear on the map. Actions like attack move, patrol and hold ground stance have vague cursors which can’t be distinguished from each other. It’s also really unclear as to which units are selected and indeed even if they are at all. The lack of voices for each unit type is simply one more element preventing relevant information being given to the player.
Going back to AI, units of different speeds will not conform to the slowest of the group, which is infuriating. And if you’re not on that hold ground stance (which you wouldn’t know either way) prepare to have your units pointlessly give chase to enemies, eventually coming to a stop on top of some HP draining lava. It’s a nice touch on a couple of the maps to have these environmental hazards, but it’s not utilised in a particularly unique or interesting way. There are also no formations which as far as I’m concerned is and essential feature for RTS games and has been since Command & Conquer 3.
Even the way the units move is quite strange. They seem to slide along the ground as if they are slipping on soap. This removes the micro elements which made Command & Conquer 3 so good. You had to take in to account the speed and acceleration of units as well as which way they were facing. It may seem unfair to compare this game so much to Command & Conquer, but the developers have brought this upon themselves by their overt focus on marketing to a nostalgic fanbase. If I was being really harsh, I could also say that 8-Bit Armies also relies too heavily on it’s art style as a feature. The voxel art style is nice, but it doesn’t immediately make a game worth buying as a lot of steam greenlight games seem to believe nowadays.
Frank Klepacki‘s phenomenal soundrack for 8-Bit Armies at least gets me pumped up every time I start the game. He has gone for a mix of chiptune and his signature heavy riff based rock and it could not fit the aesthetic more. It would be impossible to pick a favourite from the soundtrack and it’s far more consistent than Klepacki’s previous work on Grey Goo, which had a couple of generic orchestral tracks thrown in the mix for no good reason.
Despite the overwhelming amount of negatives in this review, it’s certainly not all bad. I would recommend real time strategy fans keep a keen eye on this game for 3 reasons. Firstly, Petroglyph have promised frequent updates which could be just around the corner. These updates will include the planned six or more extra factions and (hopefully) more unit variety and some AI fixes. Secondly, if Petroglyph encourage and support modding for 8-Bit Armies (and they’d be stupid not to) the simplistic nature of the game would be a perfect canvas for all sorts of interesting mods. Making maps for the game would also be something I’m sure many people would invest their time in.
Lastly, I feel like the price of £10 for this game, is incredibly good value. Assuming that future updates are either free or at the most a couple of quid. It is rather fun as a more casual RTS that you can jump in and out of easily. It’s hard to see why Petroglyph decided to release this game in its current state. There isn’t even an option to watch match replays and Petroglyph should know full well people wouldn’t be happy about that. By the time their updates come, most people will have probably moved on. One thing is for sure though, if they don’t deliver on the promises they’ve made with 8-Bit Armies…they are gonna have to stop using their Westwood veterancy to tempt nostalgic fans in to buying their products.