Relevant information before reading this early impressions article:
- I was not given a review copy.
- I have no affiliation with anyone at Petroglyph Games.
- Specifications of the system used for this first impressions article can be found here.
- At the time of writing this article, I had played the game for fifteen hours and have completed the single player campaign.
- I'm a fan of older RTS games, especially the Command and Conquer series (before 4, blegh) and Red Alert.
- I'm not a massive fan of the micro-heavy RTS, like Starcraft 2.
OLD SCHOOL RTS IS BACK
An RTS - with base building. Want to play one of those? Well you can either play Starcraft 2, or you can play.. Starcraft 2. Aside from dipping back into a game from yesteryear, there really hasn't been an alternative for several years.
Now there is. What's more, it's made by several former members of Westwood Studios (think, Command and Conquer!). But it has one of the least appealing names for any game I've ever seen - Grey Goo. Now, I understand why they used the title; it describes an end of the world scenario and revolves around the game's almost unique offering to the RTS genre - the Grey Goo faction. Still, it's not a great name. While that shouldn't really be enough to put people off, I'm sure it doesn't help.
However, as I've been waiting years for a new RTS with base building that isn't Starcraft 2, I ignored Petroglyph's choice of name and dived right in.
You can play as The Beta (Aliens with South African accents and the least alien-like tech you're likely to come across - "they still use bullets in their guns" as one of the human characters from the campaign says), Humans or the Grey Goo. This article will attempt to use the word 'Goo' wherever possible. You've been warned.
Each race plays very differently - I'd say the differences here are greater than those between Terran, Protoss and Zerg in Starcraft. As I hinted at earlier, the Beta are not that imaginative or inherently alien. They have commandos, shell-based artillery, pretty standard looking aircraft and buildings. Beta base building revolves around hubs; small, medium and large. You must place a hub in order to build production buildings, refineries and tech add-ons, and you must build where you have vision. They also have the ability to garrison units on top of walls and to build gates, allowing for a more solid defence.
The Human faction are much more advanced. Their base building is dependant upon the use of 'conduits', which you must build like train tracks from your core (headquarters). Any building must be connected either directly to the core or to a conduit. Conduits can only be built in a straight line and within vision, and this limits expansion quite severely, especially if you have a tight starting area. Getting used to this mechanic can take a few games, and it can be very frustrating at first, especially when it comes to building large factories with more than one tech add-on. The Humans can also teleport units with their unique structure, the Teleporter (naming not Petroglyph's strong point, is it?) to anywhere where they have vision on the map, and their base defences and buildings can also be teleported to any available conduit connection. They have turrets rather than relying on mounting units to walls, and it is possible to surround turrets with other buildings, making them hard to get at. The turrets do massive damage, too.
The Goo are the obvious selling point of this game and are the most unique of the three factions. The Goo start with one 'Mother Goo' at around one-quarter health. Placing a Mother Goo over a resource (called Catalyst) spigot will let it (her?) recover some health. As the health bar fills up, the Mother Goo can be split into other units - a small Protean, which can then split into a choice of four light units (four infantry, two light anti-armour, two scouts or two anti-air), a large protean (again, can split into four units - two burrowing stealth mines, two heavy tanks, two artillery, two 'wall' units with taunt), another Mother Goo (this is how the Goo expand) or a tech upgrade.
The Goo are very mobile - there is no fixed building, and the Mother Goos require some micro-management in order to efficiently grow and produce units. The Goo are also really, really flexible. You can just morph proteans and have them attack (they will slow units and consume them, and they can also travel over mountainous terrain, which land units of the other factions can't do) - or wait until you see what you're fighting against before deciding which units you want.
So far I'm sure it all sounds quite new and innovative. This isn't the case for the entire game, though. All of the races have a really similar list of units and structures, The Beta and Humans have a fighter and a bomber, everyone has a scout, infantry, light anti-armour and anti-air unit. Everyone has an artillery unit (although the Goo's is slightly different) and everyone has an 'epic' unit. The Humans and the Betas have the same tech-add ons, while tech upgrades are again not massively different between the three races. This is probably a good thing for the multiplayer, but it hurts the longevity in my eyes. Once you know how to build your army with the Beta, you pretty much know how to build an efficient one with the Humans and for the most part the Goo, too.
The 'Epic' units deserve a special mention. They are units that require a great deal of resources and time to complete. The Humans have a giant death-ray robot, the Beta have an air-based advanced factory complete with six turret points and a nuke cannon which can produce two units at a time while on the move, and the Goo have a massive blob that could have come out of a 1930s movie with an area of effect earthquake attack.
It's not a case of 'first player to build an Epic wins', though. All of the units are so slow to move across the battlefield and are not at all immune from cleverly micro-managed attacks. A Hand of Ruk (the Beta's mobile war factory), if left with just the turret points occupied will not last long to a well organised attack.
All races also have access to stealth units, but at least these are somewhat difference between the factions, especially with tech upgrades - and all races can take advantage of forest regions on the maps which will give your units to stealth against units outside of a wooded area. The correct use of stealth units and the relating upgrades can drastically alter the course of a skirmish and are by far the most tactical aspect of the game.
I'm making a special point of this, because I feel that as an entry game in a new franchise (please), the production value of Grey Goo is ridiculously high. The single player cutscenes are so beautifully rendered that they rival Blizzard's efforts. The voice acting is believable (once you get over aliens with South African accents. A nod to District 9, perhaps?) and the overall game design has a fantastic attention to detail. The maps are incredibly detailed and lovingly crafted, the aesthetic of each race is clear and unique to themselves - even if the unit types aren't. The UI changes depending on which faction you're playing with - and the hotkey system for production is something that should become an RTS standard going forward, it's that goo. I mean good.
The structures sub menu is bound to Q, light units to W, heavy and air units to E, tech upgrades to R. Pressing one of these hotkeys puts you into the submenu, where pressing one of QWERT will issue a command to build the designated units. Simply tapping WW will queue up heavy tanks. You don't need to go back to your base, and you don't need to have the relevant building selected. It's brilliant.
The single player campaign is far, far from an afterthought. Again, it feels like they looked at Starcraft 2 and thought "There's no point making this game if we don't aim for that standard." The campaign lets you play as all three races in order - Betas, Humans and then Goo, but it all revolves around the same story - so you end up seeing each faction's side of events. There are 5 missions for each, the missions take between 20-40 minutes and there's a good variety in objectives - so you won't be following the exact same plan for every mission, and you won't get by with relying on a single type of unit throughout the entire campaign, either.
For those of us that like to play on 21:9 monitors, this game actually supports it natively in full screen and borderless windowed - something that Blizzard could learn from.
The music of Grey Goo is created by former Westwood affiliate Frank Klepacki, responsible for some of the greatest game soundtracks in history. His work in Grey Goo is brilliant. I highly recommend going into the options and putting the music on "jukebox" mode, so that you get to experience all of it rather than getting the same tracks in the same situations all the time. There is not a track here that feels generic. It's worth noting that if you bought the game within the first week of release you will have received the soundtrack, albeit hidden away in Steam.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
There are certainly some things that Petroglyph could improve on. All three of the interfaces take up a heck of a lot of screenspace. The Human UI is the cleanest of the three, but even that is on the large side. The Goo interface has so much wasted space that it takes up nearly one-third of your screen.
There are currently some pretty severe performance issues that seem to have no remedy - on my system (linked above, as usual) the game will bog down into the fourties and thirties with a lot of units on the screen - regardless of settings. But don't change the settings during a mission, because this will eat around 20-25 FPS until you start a new one. The cutscenes also wallow in the mid 20s for no apparent reason.
If you get a bad starting point with the Humans, your base expansion is going to become a very messy affair. It is possible to build your way out of a confined space, but it takes quite a lot of fiddling with conduits and it's not something you want to be spending time on in a multiplayer game. It is worth noting though, that sometimes with Humans the hardest base to attack are those that are very compact with obscured turrets.
As the Mother Goo, proteans, anti-air and artillery units can all climb impassable terrain, it is quite possible to bore your opponent to death. Hide a mother goo somewhere high, put some artillery and anti-air units around it (and the Goo anti-air units are very, very strong) and it becomes practically impossible to defeat. The standard maps have been designed to allieviate this somewhat, but custom made maps may not be so considerate.
Game speed is another issue that some people are going to have with this game. Unit movement is on the slow side, especially for the larger ones. There's no option to increase game speed, either. People who are very entrenched in faster RTS games are going to be very aware of how slow the movement speed is.
The air units in the game are pretty disappointing. Not only do they require a lot of resources and time to build, but they're not going to be the key to destroying someone's base, either. Anti-air units will tear them to shreds very quickly, and if they do manage to attack a building, they're barely going to scratch it. They don't even do that well against heavily armoured units. So far I've found thier best use to be scouting and patrolling key areas.
If you're not a fan of micro-management, you're probably not going to get a great deal of enjoyment out of the Goo faction - especially in the way that one has to micro the Mother Goo's around at the beginning of a game to get the first expansion within a reasonable window of time. Sure, you can just leave one sat on top of a spigot and wait for it to recharge, but that's going to slow you down - and doing that against one of the other two factions will lose you the game quite quickly.
I wish they would have pushed the aesthetic and mechanics of different factions more in the unit design. I would not have been unhappy with an asymmetry similar to the one that exists in in Command and Conquer between NOD and the Allied forces. The only real variation between the three are the Goo's proteans and burrowing mines. I feel there could have been more unit types for each faction, and a greater difference between units of the same type between factions, too.
THOUGHTS ON MULTIPLAYER
So far, PvP in Grey Goo has been fun. It often is at the launch of a game like this, as people struggle to find the right build orders and try out some wacky and surprising tactics. A couple of weeks into the game's life, and it's still enjoyable, although certain build orders are becoming the standard.
This is not a game that will join Starcraft 2 as a popular competitive eSport. I just don't think there's enough of a skill cap with two of the three factions, and I don't think the game is quick enough or has enough unit types. Resource 'streaming' rather than depositing (you can start building even if you have no resources, it will pause and continue as Catalyst becomes available) make the game quicker than it would otherwise be, however I don't think it's enough to compensate for the lack of game speed options.
Does that mean that the multiplayer isn't fun? No. By far the most fun I've had so far is with the Goo - I managed to expand 5 or 6 times, grew an army of proteans of mixed sizes, and attacked. When I came up against the first small force, I simply enveloped them as I was able to ambush them out of a forest. Then, it was onto the base. Once I had avoided the poor guy's lovingly crafted series of walls and turrets by going over the mountains behind his base, he was utterly unable to answer my sudden morphing into an army of heavily armoured units with his massive infantry army.
It's also great fun in multiplayer if someone is able to construct an Epic unit. Exploring the map only to find a Purger slowly ambling towards your base is an experience that no other RTS can really offer - nor is the feeling of dismantling someone's base with it.
Grey Goo is a solid RTS that has thankfully embraced base building and actually tried to do something a little different with expansion, all the while making use of three races that have different core mechanics. It's great fun. The multiplayer, at the time of writing, was a blast. If there's one major complaint I have with the game, it's that there isn't enough unit variety between the three races. The size of the UI and game speed is going to be subjective. I have no problem with a slow RTS, but the UI, especially for the Goo and the Beta, needs to be scaled down. The performance issues on mid-range machines could hamper enjoyment though, and there's still no word of a patch to fix them.
The price is going to be a stumbling block for some - currently selling for €45.99, Grey Goo isn't cheap. If you're on the fence about old-school RTS, then I'd give say you should either wait for a sale or wait for more content. If, like me, you're desperate for a good old base-building RTS, then I'd say it's definitely worth a buy. You'll not be let down the production value, attention to detail and innovate race mechanics.