Iron Harvest Review
A different kind of company
There's certainly been a shortage of real time strategy games over the past decade. What was once a thriving genre has seen its output rapidly reduced, and it's been years since actual new titles, such as StarCraft 2 and Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. Most recently, fans have had to settle for remakes, like Command & Conquer Remastered Collection and the Age of Empires Definitive Editions. Developer King Art Games is looking to change that, with their new release, Iron Harvest.
Iron Harvest's most memorable feature is perhaps the unique setting. This RTS takes players into the alternative history of 1920's, where the military also has access to great machines of war, capable of delivering some powerful ordinance to any battlefield. The game tries to use this setting to the fullest by including a fairly lengthy single player campaign. Following the Great War, the nations of Rusviet, Polania, and Saxony are trying to negotiate a peace treaty. As the names might imply, the factions are based on Russia, Poland, and Germany. The Polania campaign follows a resistance group, led by Anna Kos, who refuses to be a pawn in the negotiations, as the Rusviets occupy her homeland. The Rusviet campaign, meanwhile, sees Olga Romanova try to uncover a secret plot to not only overthrow her own government, but also break down the peace talks. Lastly, the Saxony story follows Gunter von Duisburg who initially fights in the Great War, but eventually clashes heads with his leaders and finds himself an outsider.
To the game's credit, it tries to tell a fairly engaging story for an RTS, with a variety of cutscenes and lots of dialog. However, the story suffers due to the very basic writing and voice acting. The dialog is rather terribly voiced in English, as it uses authentic speakers for each language, so it's actually best to use the option of native audio. Even on maximum settings, the game doesn’t look particularly good, with basic lighting, combat effects, and audio design. There are in-engine cutscenes that look downright poor, and some pre-rendered ones that look marginally better. While the desire to tell a decent story in an RTS is admirable, Iron Harvest really doesn't have the writing or presentation quality to deliver it.
The design of the campaign missions themselves also leaves much to be desired. The Polania campaign starts you off with just a few units, getting to know the basics, and it's a while until you get a mission where you can build your base and start making units. The other campaigns get to this stage quicker, but such missions all boil down to fighting your way from one end of the map to the other. On medium difficulty, they all become boring grind fests, as you must fight across the map, while your own base also constantly needs defending, and the opponents continuously re-capture the rest of the map as you retreat. This design makes the scenarios go for far too long. Some of the outlier missions have their own problems - like ones where your resources are finite, or you're forced to maintain stealth. There are a lot of maps and missions to play in the campaign, each featuring optional objectives and so on, but their design often makes them annoyingly overdrawn or needlessly strict.
In any mission or match, you begin as any RTS, with an engineer unit, and a home Headquarters structure. The engineers can then build just two more base structures, Barracks and Workshop, which unlock additional units that can be summoned to the field. These new structures can also be upgraded once to unlock the highest tier units. Engineers can also build barbed wire, sandbags for cover, and bunkers to place units into (or upgraded with automatic turrets). It's a rather simplistic design for your base, and it's also identical between all three factions.
In order to afford these buildings and units, you'll need to run around the map and capture resource nodes, in the form of Oil and Iron wells. The game also spawns one-time use resource pallets. With enough materials, you can produce more units, but only up to the population cap, which expands with each base structure. On some maps, and in multiplayer, your focus will also be on controlling three flags spread across the map, and you can win the game by either destroying the opponent’s base or holding these flags for long enough. The map design is varied in the campaign, but the multiplayer launches with a shockingly low six maps.
The rest of your units are focused on combat. All units feature an armor classification - unarmored, light, medium, and heavy - as well as the type of target they deal the most damage to, again based on the same classifications. Riflemen are a basic combat unit that have no armor, and are most effective against other unarmored units. Gunners are anti-mech units with rocket launchers. The rest of the infantry units are unique to their faction (in multiplayer); for example flamethrower units are super deadly up close, and only available to Rusviet. Saxony can build medics, who help keep the squads healed; Polania get Machine Gunners that are good for suppressing infantry. These few exclusive units don't really turn the tide of battle or add any unique gameplay mechanics into the mix though.
Infantry combat plays out fairly slowly, with a squad unit system where you can lose individual members of the squad and make them less effective. Cover is important, and as you hover over the battlefield, indicators point to where your units will take cover. The system is quite rigid however, and cover is extremely limited - there are just too few places that count as cover by the game, despite there being plenty of geometry. It's either full cover or no cover - and you can only take cover where the game allows it. Once that wall or object is destroyed, it's gone. There's nothing advanced here - like cover being created by defeated mechs or explosion craters. It's also awkward to select the cover you need - getting from one side of the sandbags to another is painfully difficult, for example. Moving units in groups proves to be a logistical nightmare with too much micromanagement if you want to utilize cover effectively.
To help diversify things just a bit, each unit does come with a special ability of some kind, usually unlocked after they gain veterancy. Such abilities include additional bunkers for engineers, shouts to increase rate of fire for gunners, and so on. Earning veterancy happens in combat, and so it's critical for units to survive - hence there is a retreat command. Back at the base, the hurt units can be reinforced to full strength. Veteran units get the benefit of a special skill, as well as increased damage and health.
Engaging the enemy just feels clunky. The units take their sweet time getting into cover, positioning, and shooting. There is an element of RNG, where not every shot hits, and that's fine in theory but in Iron Harvest the infantry always seem to be all over the place. As you try to position units, the UI demonstrates via dots where your units will take cover; but the dots constantly move and shift even if you hold the mouse in place, which is just strange. Retreating is barely any faster than regular movement, and units take some bad paths back to home base. If you want things to get really messy and awkward, you can order troops to attack in melee, which results in a bunch of strange and chaotic animations.
When infantry needs support, each faction also shares the same stationary weapon capabilities. You can build heavy machine guns and anti-mech guns, which need to be setup and facing the right way before firing. You can also have mortars to rain some damage from above. These units are effective at defending key locations, but are too bulky to be engaged in front line assault.
You'd hope that once you've progressed into mech combat, things will get explosively better. Alas, the design here continues to be simplistic. Mech units again fill very similar roles for all three factions, even if they look different. They are all big hunks of metal with a big health bar, and an armor rating. Apart from the gunners, infantry won't do much against them, while they dominate the ground troops. Some are faster than others, and their designs are pretty imaginative in the Steampunk/Tesla style. But they also only have one attack, and one or two special abilities. Some mechs are melee-based and can perform a leap, others are fast and use single-shot fire. The largest ones are able to imposingly crush their way through buildings. There's variety to be sure, but not much depth. The only interesting aspect is that they all have weaker armor on the back, so positioning is important, and retreating backwards is key.
As some RTS fans have undoubtedly noticed, in its gameplay Iron Harvest pretty unabashedly takes inspiration from the Company of Heroes series. It's certainly not a bad choice - that franchise has seen great success thanks to its original mechanics. But in having done so, Iron Harvest draws direct comparisons to itself, and almost all of them are a step back. The simplistic build structure, clunky combat, the one-note mechs, similar units, awkward cover system, the two resources with population cap - it's all very familiar, and not as good. The mechanics are just much simpler, with just one state of cover, no infantry or mech "conditions" to deal with, and so on. Further, the unit voice lines seem to have a ton of similarities with that you'll hear from COH units; some are just too specific and identical to be an accident.
The game does have one very unique element. Whenever you eliminate an enemy squad, they drop their weapon as an icon. You can then pick it up (which takes time, of course, in this sluggish game), and your unit swaps to that role. Have engineers going into a firefight? Grab one of the many rifles laying around, and your squad is switched out. They retain their current health so it's not a healing avenue, but it makes for some interesting choices. You could, towards the second half of the battle, simply spam the engineer as the cheapest unit, and then run them out to get what you need in the post-battle wasteland.
After you've got the basics down in the campaign, you can try your hand at one of just 3 custom scenarios, which are variations on a defending your base from constant assault. It's not a lot of content, but it offers something different. Beyond that, there's the multiplayer, where you can matchmake or create custom lobbies.
The multiplayer offers 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3 scenarios. As mentioned, there are just six maps, with 3 for 1v1, 2 for 2v2, and just 1 for 3v3 battles. The maps are strangely designed; one of the 2v2 maps has you play crisscross to your teammate, and the 3v3 map has two players far away in relative isolation. It's a pretty weak start for a game hoping to attract an RTS community that's spoiled for content from other games that have been around for a while.
The multiplayer has some unique ideas as well, to try and diversify the factions who are so similar to play. Each player gets to pick a Reserve. First you pick which two hero units you'd like - these are strong characters from the campaign, who have a lot of health and a special ability or two. Then, you get a certain number of points, and select what units you'd like to get with Reserve 1 and 2. The limited amount of points means you can't just select the best units - you have to find a balance. When the match is in progress, you can pay to call-in that squad of Reserves, once your base is upgraded and you have the resources.
Iron Harvest is surprisingly a base-rushing game, and really not the same type of contest you'd expect from a Company of Heroes style design. Matches are quick, and mechs enter the combat early. In fact, in many matches, players have already demonstrated a mech-rush strategy that's hard to stop unless you know it's coming and can pre-build plenty of anti-armor. You could push your opponent into their half of the map, but 5 minutes later you realize they simply saved up their resources and pushed out heavy mechs. While you were fighting and trying to diversify and grab map control, they sat back and waited to rush directly into your base. Your bases have zero defenses by default (which harks back to how annoying single player missions are), so you're pretty much done. Some don't even wait that long - they put a big mech hero unit in their Reserve 2, and build nothing to save resources and just call that unit it, who can also punch through your infantry.
That isn't to say some multiplayer fun can't be had. The best ones are those that don't have teams base rushing each other. One of the issues with this game's design is the lack of mid-game, as you tech up to mechs very quickly, so having games that last beyond the initial rush of mechs is satisfying. Still, even the drawn-out games only last about 30 minutes, which is pretty short. Balance is, as mentioned, still a bit questionable, but it should be more easily fine-tuned because the factions play so similarly - a bit of a double edged sword.
Iron Harvest has a unique setting and even tries to tell an interesting story, but it's a bit let down by trying to copy what another RTS franchise has done long before it, and not clearing that bar. Much of the gameplay is borrowed from COH, and yet streamlined and oversimplified, while also feeling sluggish and unsatisfying. The narrative of the campaign suffers from average writing and terrible English voice acting, and the quality of presentation leaves a poor impression for a modern game. Although there are many campaign missions, they are long because it's a grind, not because there's much to do. The custom scenarios are one-note and the multiplayer comes up rather short with its six maps. As a full priced game, Iron Harvest is going to have a tough time justifying its place in the RTS arena, until it adds a lot more content and polishes up the gameplay.