Days Of Futures Past

HIGH Brilliant illustrations, solid writing, great music.

LOW Poor AI/pathfinding, uneven balance, large armies are awkward to control.

WTF It’s 2020 – why are we still putting stealth missions into RTS games?

The lens of an alternate history can provide many storytelling opportunities, from the stark contemplation of terrifying outcomes narrowly avoided to the realization of a utopian dream just out of reach.

It can also provide an opportunity to blow shit up with giant robots.

The post-WW1 Europe described in the alternate history of KING Art’s Iron Harvest is very willing to indulge in that explosive pursuit by exploring a titanic struggle between giant diesel-fueled mechs and its effects on the nations caught in their wake.

As part of the 1920+ universe (along with popular board game Scythe) Iron Harvest puts these mechs front and center and asks whether the destructive fantasies of dieselpunk warfare can co-exist with more grounded, squad-based tactical play.

The best case for the 1920+ universe comes before the player makes it on the battlefield. Illustrator Jakub Różalski’s artwork on the title card and loading screens strike a fascinating contrast — farmers tend their fields as terrifying, building-sized mechs lord over the horizon.

In Iron Harvest‘s pastoral nightmare there are three nations with real-life European counterparts — Polania (Poland), Saxony (German), and Rusviet (western front of the Soviet Union) – who are brought into conflict over the pursuit of destructive, world-threatening technology.

On the battlefield, Iron Harvest is a modern squad-based RTS. Players issue commands from an overhead view, guiding them to capture or defend strategic points from the opposition. These points, such as iron mines or oil pumps, can provide resources for constructing more units or other facilities at the faction’s base, all in service of building a better army for further conquest.

Iron Harvest offers just enough of a technology tree to position the giant mechs and other upper-tier units as short-term rewards for economic growth, but there’s little beyond that for long-term fortification. This simplistic approach to the strategic layer, along with a population cap that limits the amount of units a faction can manage on the field, ensures that there is little-to-no reason for players to defensively “turtle” up in Iron Harvest. Here, success comes through aggression.

The missions in Iron Harvest‘s surprisingly traditional singleplayer campaign follow this philosophy, as enemy behaviors and mission structures are tightly scripted to encourage the player to keep pressing onward. It’s an approach that pairs well with the surprisingly potent writing and cutscene direction, giving the story a cinematic feel that I haven’t seen in the RTS genre for years.

The mechs of Iron Harvest also make a strong visual impression, frequently towering over the infantry and making a glorious mess of things as they barrel through small buildings and other bits of scenery. These smoking, hulking monstrosities are as imposing on the battlefield as they are in Różalski’s artwork, and the tenor of battle changes so dramatically once they enter the battlefield that the first faction to tech up to them tends to run away with an insurmountable advantage.

It’s in moments of imbalance like these when Iron Harvest begins to struggle.

Theoretically, the different classes of units form a rock-paper-scissors dynamic that should keep things in balance through careful asymmetric tuning, but it doesn’t hold up in practice. Flamethrower units are too effective at shutting down infantry and defensive placements, anti-armor units are too slow and too easily overwhelmed to effectively check a mechanized opposition, and defensive placements aren’t strong enough against specialized units to counterbalance their lack of mobility.

The actual on-field behaviors of the units themselves don’t help matters, as shaky pathfinding and strange scripting unite to form a frustrating combination. I found myself having to constantly babysit units through movements and special attacks since unattended squads would occasionally dive into cover right next to enemy units, fail to scatter from an incoming grenade or nervously shift around in open fire. Micromanagement is almost always a core pillar of skillful play in an RTS, but too much here is busywork instead of clever optimization.

Though I could not successfully find a multiplayer match through my review period, the skirmish modes demonstrate that the strategic AI in Iron Harvest has its own struggles in managing the battlefield.

The map designs for these skirmishes echo some of the more memorable environments of the campaign, but without the clever scripting of the campaign to guide enemy units into interesting moments on the battlefield, the AI often struggles to mount a compelling offensive on the default (Medium) difficulty level. Thankfully, the strengths of the campaign come back into play for the Challenge levels, where the player faces wave after wave of an enemy horde.

With one foot in classical RTS storytelling and the other in squad-based tactical strategy, Iron Harvest offers a take on the genre that doesn’t quite live up to Jakub Różalski’s evocative artwork. While the developers have already laid out a roadmap of updates that could potentially tighten up many issues with unit behavior and balance, the opportunity for a better future may already have passed.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by KING Art and published by Deep Silver. It is currently only available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 35 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. During the review period, only ‘quick match’ multiplayer was available and no matches were available to be played for evaluation.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M with no descriptors. Blood sprays from wounded characters during tactical combat and rag-doll physics are used to embellish the violence of specific attack types, such as showing an arm being severed for an attack targeting that arm or awkwardly contorting a dead body after an explosive or concussive blast.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no required sound cues for gameplay and all voice acted text is accompanied by subtitles. There are no options to recolor text. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Controls are primarily mouse-driven, but all keyboard hotkeys are fully remappable.

Steve Gillham
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