The Endlessly Random Apocalypse
HIGH Putting down a horde of 500+ zombies.
LOW Losing over four hours of work because players can’t save.
WTF Flamethrowers are necessary, but you might be too into fire, dude.
The simple premise of They Are Billions amazed me — it’s a classic Real-Time Strategy (RTS) but instead of a rival army with comparable forces, the threats are waves of zombies that show up every few in-game days. It seems like such an obvious idea that I assumed it must be the latest in a long line of zombie-focused RTS projects, so I looked it up, and discovered that no, this was essentially it.
There are countless zombie games and a huge number of RTS titles on the market, but only They Are Billions has managed to put the two together. The question is, beyond fulfilling one of the most obvious niches in the history of games, does TAB do anything to distinguish itself?
An experience so threadbare that it’s almost insulting, TAB feels like an early access title that should be sold at a deep discount, not as a full-priced indie. It’s strangely hostile to new players, featuring no tutorial or story mode of any kind, and nothing is done to help ease players in. While there are instructions and hints that the player can flip though in a menu, the pace of play is so quick that it can be difficult to figure out how to apply the info.
Each session begins with a random map being generated with the player’s headquarters at the middle of it. They’re given a handful of combat troops, and told to start securing land and gathering the resources necessary to build a fortified base to withstand the zombie onslaught that’s always coming. Without proper tutorials, it took me at least a good hour to get the hang of how and where to set up my resource-gathering operations.
In an interesting twist on the genre, enemies have the ability to make more of themselves by destroying the players’ structures. Every building in the game, from a tent to an advanced research facility, has a certain number of troops within. If a zombie destroys that building, everyone inside becomes a zombie as well. So, if a single zombie manages to infiltrate a base, a massive horde can spawn behind the player’s defenses in just a matter of moments.
Now, let’s pause a moment here. While I’d normally relegate control issues to the accessibility section at the bottom of the review, it’s important to note that TAB is basically unplayable with a PS4 controller because the fine work necessary to select and maneuver individual units is nigh-impossible with a thumbstick. After two hours of frustration I gave in and plugged a mouse and keyboard into my PS4. Everything worked perfectly after that, other than the developers’ choice to bind camera controls to the arrow keys instead of WASD.
Once I was able to control it, I found the gameplay to be incredibly tense – expanding the base to build faster is a necessity, but every expansion also opens new areas that must be vigilantly defended, forcing the player to constantly grab even more resources.
There are a large number of combat units and defensive structures that can be constructed, but the resource system is so complex that it took me hours to grasp basic fortifications and defense strategies. Useful buildings and units require workers that are spawned when residences are built. These in turn require food gathering structures, and all of it takes power to run.
With this system, the player will have to keep an eye on eight different resources at any given moment on top of the zombies that are always breathing down their necks — this makes for a high-tension experience, but it also creates a huge amount of frustration.
Between the complexity of systems and the enemies’ ability to rapidly multiply, They Are Billions would benefit greatly from letting players experiment with strategies and then reloading when everything goes to hell. However, players can only suspend — it’s a temporary save that records data if they want to stop playing, then deletes the save when they pick it back up.
I understand this in the ‘weekly challenge’ mode since it ranks performance on a leaderboard, but why not let players save in the survival mode? By excluding this basic feature, the devs have ensured that even a slight mistake can destroy hours of work, and force a restart from scratch. Players won’t even be able to consistently apply the lessons learned because the map is randomized each time, so each new layout requires a significantly different strategy.
It’s this disrespect for a player’s time and effort that drove me away from They Are Billions. I’d spent over four hours on a single map, gradually exploring every nook and cranny while building up arms and defenses. Then I was attacked by a force of zombies exponentially larger than any I’d seen before. One poor wall placement made hours earlier left me defenseless, and my entire camp was overrun in a matter of minutes.
Faced with the prospect of having to start completely over only to risk wasting another four hours if a single unexpected thing happened, I instead deleted TAB from my console. I’d seen almost all of what it could offer, and even if I’d managed to defeat that final wave of zombies, what would be left to do other than start over at a higher difficulty level? I later learned that the reason that the reason Billions seemed so feature-light is because… it is.
The PS4 version of They Are Billions contains only the ‘survival challenge’ mode of the complete game — on PC, it also comes with a campaign made up of dozens of missions and costs the same as the PS4 version, meaning that console owners are being asked to pay full price for a fraction of the actual content.
It’s possible that the PC’s campaign will be added to the PS4 at some point in the future, but no plans have been announced. As it stands, They Are Billions on PS4 is a title whose strong RTS fundamentals and brilliant premise are undercut by the complete failure to respect someone’s time or offer any reason to keep coming back once the novelty of the first few hours has worn off.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Numantian Games and published by BlitWorks. It is currently available on PS4 and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood, Violence, and Use of Tobacco. For a game about slaughtering tens of thousands of zombies it’s relatively tame, and the camera being far removed from the action is responsible for most of that. While it’s an inherently traumatizing premise – survivors clinging to the wreckage of civilization as zombies swarm everywhere – even younger teens should be okay with this one, despite the M rating. NPCs do smoke, but it’s a background thing, and you shouldn’t be too concerned.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played most of the game without sound, and had no significant issues. There’s an audio cue that helps players know when their offscreen units are being attacked, but it has accompanying text and a marker on the minimap, so you shouldn’t be too inconvenienced.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. As mentioned above, the PS4 dualshock should not be used for this game. A mouse is used to select units and buildings, with the keyboard handling camera controls, and hotkeys for simplifying building and managing groups of units.