They Are Billions is a game that I have looked on fondly from afar. Along with the soon to be released Frostpunk, Bad North and Conan Unconquered they have taken the age-old tactic of Turtling in RTS games like Command and Conquer and Starcraft to its final form. Now it has sneaked out on PS4 and before the rush of fall games hit, it is a brilliant distraction.
There’s nothing complicated about They are Billions. You start with a command centre a few soldiers and no tutorial. You have to self-teach your way through your inevitable first failure. Build structures to take advantage of the surrounding resources and then get to work on your defences because without any evidence of them you know from the game description that the zombie hordes are coming.
Be under no illusions, this game is tough. You are constantly having to balance the need for resources with the strengthening and evolution of your defences. My first failed attempt was spectacular. I expanded and built a massive wooden wall, with towers at each corner, I had scoped out the chokepoints and like tower defence games presumed I was ready for the first few easy waves. As you may have guessed I was wrong. I ran out of resources and needed to branch out with fishing cottages near riverbanks. I was busy planning this and ignoring the warnings of attacks on my defences on the other side as it was so early in the game I presumed my one archer in a tower could handle it.
The sheer panic this game can create in you when one zombie breaks through your defences is a real hook. They attack buildings and almost instantly render them infected. When a building is infected it is in effect paused until you repair it. By infecting my resource-producing buildings I was unable to produce more troops to deal with the small hole in the wall that zombies were now pouring into.
This basic hook of the gameplay is repeated no matter how far you progress in the game and at what scale you have evolved your tech too. If you let them in, you’ve had it. The longer you survive the more equipped you become and the larger the hordes become. Automated towers, spike traps and even Mechs are all achievable if you can keep the resources coming and your walls up.
The aesthetic of the game is initially off-putting but soon perfect as the blend of archers and sawmills with AR toting soldiers and mechs works brilliantly to give the game it’s own character and feel. There is almost a zen quality of building your forces and buildings up before the inevitable tidal wave of infected sends you back to the start. The boom then bust happens so quickly that it isn’t a chore to restart and with no load button you are right back to the beginning.
There are a few gripes. The controls while refined enough now a few months post-launch could do with more explanation. The game also desperately needs a tutorial level. It isn’t immediately clear why some buildings cannot be placed or even built and even rotated until you discover that by accident there is a useful turn on visual aids that should be ticked in the options by default but is alarmingly not.
The last problem is the lack of a campaign so far. The sandbox method works for games like Cities Skylines but when the rest of They are Billions lends itself to actual story-driven levels. The campaign is available on pc so we must hope it will make it across although any news of this is sketchy at best. Until then we have a brilliant concept that has been shoe-horned well onto PS4 and like Cities: Skylines is one of the best time-sinks available for a decent price.