Real time strategy video games gave birth to the hyper-popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre, then quietly faded from popularity. There would be no League of Legends without Warcraft III. There would be no DOTA 2 without StarCraft.
The genre never went away. Starcraft II still has a following and publishers still put out RTS games every year, but none have risen to the heights of popularity achieved by Starcraft, Warcraft and Command & Conquer in the 1990s.
They Are Billions proves that there’s an untapped hunger for the old-school RTS though. The early access release from Numantian Games drops players onto a randomly generated map populated by tens of thousands of zombies and asks them to survive. Right now, that’s the players only goal—survival. It’s really hard. It’s Zerg rush, the game.
Zerg rush is a strategy from 1998’s StarCraft, in which the bug-like alien race would spawn dozens of low-level creatures and rush them into the opposing team’s base. The attack often took place so early in the game that the Zerg’s opponent could do nothing but sit back and watch as little bugs ravaged their base. They Are Billions is that moment distilled to its essence and turned into an entire game.
They Are Billions looks and feels like a StarCraft mod where players build a base and fight off waves of Zerg, but here zombies stand in for the bugs. In the old days of StarCraft, players who feared a Zerg rush would rush base defenses and withdraw inwards—a strategy called turtling.
My instinct in They Are Billions was to immediately turtle. I built walls, ramped up military production, and just decided to sit and hold off the hordes. It didn’t work. The game’s resource management system forced me to explore and expand to keep producing units and keep everyone safe. There’s a cap on resources gathered, you can’t just sit on a mountain of gold and wood like you could in StarCraft or Warcraft. There’s a constant push and pull here not present in old RTS games.
The other problem is that the waves of infected are not small. They aren’t quite billions, but they are tens of thousands and they will come. As the game continues, the difficulty ramps up and things go from fine to fucked in seconds. One, just one infected, breaking through my defenses often ended the game.
All that zombie needs to do is hit one house--a building that houses my workers and generates gold—and everyone in the house goes zombie. Then those bust into the next home and on an on in a geometric wave of undead destruction.
That’s something that never happened in StarCraft, it was possible to fend off a broken line during a Zerg rush. Small mistakes feel impossible to recover from but each horrendous death taught me something about the game and losing never felt frustrating. It always felt fun.