Developer KING Art has been hard at work building a new real-time strategy (RTS) game, and I was lucky enough to give a limited beta build a try to see what it's all about. At first glance, it's a sort of mix of dynamics that we've seen in other games, but after playing through the first few campaign missions, it's clearly its own game with a strong identity. If you're interested in an alternate universe, steaming dieselpunk mechs, and a story-driven campaign, it's likely going to make your shortlist with an expected release in September 2020.
Nailing the basics
I love the RTS genre. These days I mostly play Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition, but I played a lot of Company of Heroes years ago. The fact that Iron Harvest can pull me away from my usual rotation says a lot. It's quite similar to the latter game when it comes to mechanics, and that's a good thing. An RTS is only as good as the foundation on which it's built.
You command squads of organic soldiers — from lowly riflemen to specialized units depending on the weapons and gear they possess — that receive experience and level up over the course of a game. Instead of selecting all units and sending them into battle, this feature gives players options when it's time to fight. For example, I found myself saving my high-ranking and more powerful squads to mop up while the greenhorn troops took the lead and the brunt of the fight.
Iron Harvest has the right ingredients to become a celebrated RTS.
All squads can commandeer weapons (small firearms and large guns) and equipment dropped or abandoned by enemy troops. You might have a squad of riflemen to start out with, but finding engineer, flamethrower, or grenadier equipment will give them specialized abilities. Like Company of Heroes, soldiers can set up firebases in buildings and can take cover behind environmental setpieces like fences and boulders. When clicking to move a squad, dots appear near cover that shows how the troops will deploy.
So how do you remove enemies who are dug in, especially behind powerful weapons? Instead of the usual military armor like tanks and troop transports, Iron Harvest enters its own timeline with giant, rattling mechs that spew black smoke and smash up everything within reach. Want to attack some enemies, but they're holed up in a warehouse? Pull the warehouse down around them and expose them to gunfire. Just like organic soldiers, there are multiple different types of the mechs to keep the game fresh and strategy open.
Unplanned firefights are hectic. There's no way around it. Upon spotting the enemy, you must quickly move into position behind cover or, if there is none, retreat and plan a new route of attack. Contact is always quickly followed by flying lead, and the game's campaign mission pacing does an excellent job of offering the illusion of safety before quickly ripping it away. Thankfully most actions are assigned a hotkey that makes the game a lot easier to master.
And, of course, what would an RTS be without some resource gathering? The campaign missions I played were more about moving through a storyline, but multiplayer and AI skirmishes are all about capturing oil pumps, iron mines, and flags to grow your resource pool and area of control. The more flags you hold, the more victory points you receive, and the first player to reach a limit wins the game. On top of preset pumps and mines, there are small caches that give a small but immediate boost to your economy. Engineers build new buildings in your base from which you can produce new units. If you've played Company of Heroes, you'll feel right at home here.
Heroes play a role in the gameplay, bringing powerful special abilities to the game. In the first campaign, you play as Anna Kos, a Polanian whose family is torn apart by the war and further distanced due to the post-war fight between three fictional countries — Polania, Rusviet, and Saxony — in the Eastern European region.
Currently, only the Polanian campaign is playable, but you can see in the menu where campaigns for the other two countries will reside. These campaigns will assumedly have their own set of heroes and a storyline to enjoy. Cutscenes are still a work-in-progress, but they're already an alluring blend of actual wartime footage and CGI to break up the action.
Playing through the initial few missions of the first campaign as Anna, it's clear the story wasn't an afterthought. KING Art has done an excellent job of creating characters I care about, including a bear named Wojtek. When Wojtek was killed in battle, I immediately had to figure out how to revive. Don't worry; Anna has the ability.
After a bit of digging, I discovered that Iron Harvest lives in a world created by a Polish artist named Jakub Różalski who also contributed illustrations to the boardgame "Scythe." It's beautiful work. It's all a part of the 1920+ universe he created. I'm excited to see where the game takes players and how it explores this alternate timeline.
The road ahead
Iron Harvest still has a way to go before a full release, but it's already a game I can see appealing to a ton of people.
Iron Harvest is already a strong RTS game with its own distinct personality. The blend of pretty graphics, soundtrack and effects, storytelling, and varied units totals a lot of fun. A release isn't expected until September 1, 2020, and, though I'd like to have it all now, the development time is a good thing. There are some features to work.
Perhaps most notably, pathfinding is often clunky. Units grouped up and got caught on a fence a few times, leaving them exposed to gunfire. A bit of balance will no doubt also go a long way, as I found some early battles devolved into a slow game of potshotting. But these aren't huge issues, and there's plenty of time to smooth out the finer details.
The game runs without issue on a Ryzen 5 2600 processor and NVIDIA RTX 2060 graphics card, with smooth framerates and no stuttering or graphical bugs. There aren't yet any recommended specs, but I can see a PC with less hardware than I'm running handling the game without much trouble.
As a whole, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Iron Harvest, and if you're an RTS fan, it's no doubt going to make waves in the community when it's released. It's pretty to look at, it has nailed the basics, and the alternate universe in which it's based already has a strong following. I can't wait to see the finished product.
A New RTS in the 1920+ Universe
Alternate history lesson incoming
Iron Harvest is still months away from an expected release, but it's already an enticing RTS that should satisfy gamers who love a strong story and competitive, strategic play.
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