After curating a robust collection of L’s before, during, and after the publication of my They Are Billions preview in its Early Access phase, I did eventually experience a breakthrough. I managed to survive the standard difficulty’s 100 days, only to be bulldozed by the endgame rush of infected. The periodic miniature “skillcheck” blitzes of zombies failed to train me for lategame Armageddon.
Because 100-day maps require a minimum of four real-life hours to play, after a loss, I would undergo the stages of grief, mourning my defeat and wondering what I could have done differently. Yet, I remained enamored with the game even if it did not reciprocate the love. Later, an epiphany struck me in the form of proper build orders, and I managed to smash through the four map variations available during Early Access before developer Numantian Games failed on their goal to release the campaign within a calendar year.
Though Numantian Games introduced a number of features in lieu of the full campaign, I waited patiently for the promised batch of scenarios that is customary for an RTS. They finally released the promised campaign in June 2019. After “asking my boss for an entire month off” like the developer claimed would be required to finish They Are Billions, I can now say that the developer has provided an avenue for the genre to overcome its stagnation.
Violence: At its heart, They Are Billions is a post-apocalyptic game that will require players to pacify tens of thousands of zombies on any given map. Ostensibly, already-decaying enemies fall to pieces upon enduring a final death by way of arrow piercings, gunshot, incineration, explosion, or electrocution. When player-controlled units die, they fall to the ground in a small puddle of blood that, during a horde rush, can turn into a sanguine sea. Player-controlled units can die too, though only the special acid-spewing enemy type triggers a special death animation by chemically melting its victims into goo. Overall, I would rate this game T for Teen.
Language: One unit says “d**n it” as a death cry.
Sexuality: I may not be an expert on post-apocalypse fashion trends, but I am certain that the cleavage featured in the portrait for the Ranger unit is more effective as fanservice than as protective armor against oceans of zombies. Providing lines such as “I’m so tired; last night was AMAZING!” and “Whatever you say, as long as you pay me,” I at times wonder if I should recruit Rangers for the defense of my colony or for a good time around town.
The cigar-chiefing, super-macho Thanatos volunteers the line “I smashed it last night!” In the candor of this double-entendre, he discloses that he has beaten all other hopefuls to the punch. “Stop staring at my muscles,” he warns.
Drug/Alcohol Use: It is possible to construct an inn/tavern. There, it is implied that drinking takes place. Again, puffing cigars is a fundamental characteristic of the Thanatos unit. A unit reminiscent of Batman’s Bane is designed to be dependent on an unidentified substance like Venom.
Spirituality: The UI narrator will say “Oh my God! They are BILLIONS!” before the final rush. Besides that, there is hardly any religious reference beyond sheer despair.
Other: Perhaps I just suffer from an extraordinary case of poor RNG rolls, but the overwhelming majority of female mayors that I can recruit offer perks that pale in comparison to their male counterparts. My wife enjoys spectating when I play, and I joked with her that the game is sexist. She agrees that this is (un?)intentionally subliminal.
The big question for RTS fans is, did Numantian Games justify the long wait for version 1.0 with a stellar campaign? Not really.
The premise of the campaign is that the Imperial City is the last bastion of civilization known as the New Empire, and Emperor Quintus Crane tasks the player-general with founding colonies beyond the crater. Beyond the poorly-voice acted Emperor Crane, there are no other NPCs; beyond the command to go forth and conquer, there is no plot; beyond a scaling difficulty and the fact that the campaign maps are uniquely fabricated rather than randomly generated, nothing substantial ties them together to reinforce why they must be played in specific sequences. In other words, the campaign is merely a series of custom maps strewn together.
This is not to say that They Are Billions lacks evidence demonstrating that Numantian Games tried to create a memorable campaign—it is simply memorable for unflattering reasons. For example, at the start of the campaign, players must choose between a lumbering powerhouse and a lithe speedster unit for solo missions. Finishing these tasks unlocks newspaper-like texts on the campaign map that detail the backstory concerning how the outbreak began, dooming human civilization.
However, completing hero missions is tedious. I was expecting the hero units to function like their Command & Conquer commando inspirations—a one (wo)man army who would one-shot infantry and vehicles alike, while executing a tightly-scripted mission full of fun setpieces that showcased developer (Westwood Studios/EA Los Angeles) comprehension of unit balance. They Are Billions instead places the burden of responsibility upon players to properly allocate skill points, RPG-style, to gradually increase the strength of the chosen hero over the course of the entire campaign. In function, then, these so-called heroes begin as buffed units whose incremental stat increases are marginally noticeable due to the monotony of controlling a single unit infiltrating an abandoned factory full of hundreds of zombies and killing them one-by-one; Calliope kills in 2-3 rapid shots while Caelus can OHKO multiple zombies in a small AOE, but I can almost catch a nap between how slowly he reloads to acquire new targets. It also bothers me that despite zombies wanting to eat his face off, he moves like he is taking a casual stroll.
Expect these hero missions to last about an hour each, because players will need to search every nook and cranny thoroughly for artifacts that award two different types of points used for campaign progression—victory points and research points—with the former used for zombie horde missions on the map, indicated by the Empire’s zombie skull insignia, blocking paths to new maps; the latter points are for advancing through the tech tree. Though Numantian Games patched these artifacts so that they will flash every few seconds to increase their visibility on the map, they are still challenging to see even while fully zoomed in due to their small size, oftentimes blending in with useless debris and graphical assets that exist to create a sense of atmosphere.
Grinding through hero maps during the campaign is an exercise in tedium that players must tolerate because research points are as critical as they are finite. Though one can adjust the difficulty on the fly, failure to acquire enough points or spending them on the wrong tech tree upgrades can lead to a technical campaign failure. What I mean by this is, missions become nigh impossible because players might have purchased too many economic upgrades rather than units strong enough to fight the horde, or instead, players establish poor economies that cannot sustain the ever-increasing upkeep to support an army large enough to fight the horde.
Therefore, I pity newbs who jump right into the campaign of They Are Billions. I believe that this game is most efficiently learned through the randomized survival maps, where the technology tree is not locked and players can freely experiment to learn proper build orders, unit mechanics, and survival strategies. I get the impression Numantian Games designed this campaign while assuming that players will have pre-existing knowledge from the Early Access phase of the game. Unlike RTS campaigns of the past, where successive missions introduce new technologies by presenting players with imminently enjoyable and memorable ways to utilize the unlocked tech for teaching purposes, They Are Billions does no hand-holding; players will learn through failure, and failure is a cruel mistress.
So here are some hints: rush to soldiers, upgrade logistics up to iron, get farms and then the electric defense—you will thank me later.
Newbs will also feel the impact of the lack of guidance for victory point allocation through the horde missions. In these scenarios, every unit costs victory points to deploy, which are earned cumulatively throughout the campaign. The idea behind horde missions is to survive a massive zombie rush by pure moxy. There is hardly any strategy to these maps; they simply exist to gatekeep players who are loafing during the hero missions, or spending incorrectly on the tech tree, such as researching snipers instead of spike traps. First-time players will have no idea what they should be doing to survive and will get utterly crushed—repeatedly. Early Access players like me will find it silly to place troops into position and go AFK for 15 minutes as my troops lay the smackdown, not needing my intervention despite the horde numbers exceeding 30,000 zombies versus twelve flamethrowers, six snipers and two Thanatos.
Most of the campaign missions mimic the randomized survival missions during the game’s Early Access phase, with the exception of a key feature: a train arrives every 24 hours, bringing townspeople so that housing will come online, which in return provides the workers and gold income necessary for further economic or military pursuits. If players have upgraded the logistics tech stream (as I instructed, and once you unlock high advanced technology, take oil and gold ingots, too), the train will then bring supply dumps enabling rapid development.
Despite the contrived campaign and the arbitrary nature of its progression, They Are Billions is a fun game, as evident by my double-campaign playthrough, including an 800% Apocalypse run. In my eyes, the game was already not just a GOTY contender whenever Numantian Games decided to finalize version 1.0, but I would consider it to be one of the greatest RTS games of all time. There are several reasons for my praise, the most important being the simple addition of a mechanic that we have already seen in games like FTL: Faster Than Light—a pause button.
RTS purists may scoff, and the best They Are Billions (or “TAB” as they call it) players might aim for “no-pause” playthroughs. But there are no penalties for eschewing the game’s most important mechanic. In fact, shameless spam of the pause button for the average player can mean the difference between winning a map and a single zombie easing its way to the housing row and chain-infecting the colony. I consider myself a “hardcore” RTS fan, but I was never able to achieve the astronomical actions-per-minute to be competitive (which is why I spent the greater part of my twenties playing DotA/DotA2). The pause button evens the playing field for all skill levels.
Those TAB experts did not get where they are without using pause, though; this game is hard. Subtle mechanics like placing too many archers, who are stealthy zombie slayers, nearby on the zombie line risks attracting more zombies than their numbers can handle, let alone the more dangerous variety of zombies such as runners, executive zombies, or the special types. Of course, one can deploy more powerful units, such as tanky soldiers or snipers, but they make even more noise to attract even more zombies!
And thus the cycle is like this: one must field an army large enough to withstand the day-100 zombie horde, where days are measured in…well, nobody really knows how long a day lasts in TAB, but expect a map to last about ninety minutes, unpaused. But units cost money and worker count, so one must build houses for workers and tax revenue. But to build houses, one must harvest food; foraging and fishing only go so far, and farms will be necessary, which require heavy shipments of wood. Sawmills require gold, energy, and worker upkeep. Windmills for energy also require workers and gold upkeep. Soldier centers for units require workers, a gold upkeep, wood and stone production. A quarry, like a sawmill, requires workers, gold, and energy again, and so on.
All of this merely sounds like what one would expect in a simulation like Rimworld, but a key difference in TAB is that economic expansion to accommodate the growing need to support the standing army requires players to risk extending into territories hostile with zombies. The challenge is that one is under the pressure of time; with every second that ticks by, another house could have been built, or two snipers, or a new critical tech tree building. Also, occasional hordes come knocking from the four cardinal directions to provide skill-checks on player progress—that first rush is weaksauce, but not having researched stone walls by the third rush will be a painful lesson, indeed!
I could go on about the intricate details concerning the combination of RTS, simulation, survival, and tower defense concepts that encompass all They Are Billions has to offer. I would rather not, because the magic happens in the game, rather than this review. Fans of RTS games should not deny themselves; TAB is a game-changer in the genre.
Review copy generously provided by Numantian Games
The Bottom Line
They Are Billions resuscitates the RTS genre from its staleness by introducing the simple, yet radical idea of a pause button in a single-player game.