I’m going to start by saying that I already covered a lot of ground on the topic of Grey Goo in my preview which I released just under 2 weeks ago. I’m going to endeavor to not cover the same topics the same way I did before. I also, and I cannot stress this enough, am intentionally not intending to review this (or any) game as such. I feel that the diverse nature of gamers in general and RTS enthusiasts in particular make it feel presumptuous to me to tell you how to spend your money. Instead, my goal will be to provide context such as “players of X game are likely to find something in this title that appeals to them” or “players who focus on game story are unlikely to be satisfied by this title” within the text and conclusion of any of my non-reviews. I feel that this is a more honest and direct method of providing players with tools to make informed choices about a game. That being said, let’s begin!
Real-time strategy is a fairly insular community, both in terms of people who play these games and to a certain extent to the people who create them. You could probably count on one hand the number of core IPs in the RTS space, and one of the main ones hasn’t seen a new title since 2010… That’d be the Command and Conquer games, with the controversial-at-best C&C 4 being the latest release. Arguably, C&C 3 was the latest relevant title in the franchise – I’m not counting Tiberium Alliances for reasons I hope are obvious, and Red Alert 3 seemed to be something of a flash-in-the-pan, for better or worse. Anyway, it’s rare to see new RTS IP come out these days – all of the big money seems to be in WoW or Call of Duty ripoffs, or in DOTA or League of Legends ripoffs these days. It’s the brave studio who’s still making any strategy title at all, and many of those are being eminently safe by sticking with the formula that made their studio in the first place, with often incremental changes that we see in StarCraft 2, Company of Heroes 2 or the successive Total War games. Even many ‘new’ RTS and other varieties of strategy games coming out over the next year are franchise follow ups. All that to say, Grey Goo is in an interesting place. In an era where many companies have made so many iterations of their titles that they don’t number them any more, games like Grey Goo are assumed to be indie titles simply because the publisher doesn’t flood the TV screen with ads, buy up all the ad space on major tech sites, or that the title isn’t the 90th in a series. Grey Goo is a new entrant into the RTS field, developed by a studio that’s staffed by some of the people who created the field in the first place. It’s a return, in some ways, to the earliest days of RTS. In some ways, it’s something entirely different. But Grey Goo is anything but pretentious about this – it is content to have crafted a quiet, solid RTS experience that stands on its own elegance of design and while I do have my quibbles with some of the decisions that Petroglyph has made, I do hope that it is successful enough for us to see future games exploring this universe
I always like to start with the low hanging fruit – typically, the graphics. The game is pretty good looking for what it is, though certainly not in the way that Company of Heroes is. Units and structures in Grey Goo are detailed, but look almost intentionally modeled after plastic or pewter game pieces – Human units in particular evoke the minimalism of white plastic chessmen. In contrast, the scenery is verdant and wild, with industrialized set pieces in particular looking pretty darn nifty. The game’s color palette, especially that of the terrain, tends to be a little muddy, with most guides out there recommending that Gamma be set to 125% to get better visualization, particularly on twilight maps where the sunsets oranges and purples serve to further muddy things up visually. Visually, my only real complaint is the look of large outcroppings of rock or catalyst veins. The jungle scenery and mechanized terrain doodads are quite well done, but large aggregations of rock or ‘hardened Goo’ textures just don’t do it for me in this game. Easily my favorite visuals in Grey Goo are the Goo factions “formless” units – that is, Mother Goos and Proteans, and the Human Core. The Core pulses, throws out holograms, and has awesome little shimmery lines all throughout. To me, it’s one of the most visually striking command centers in a game, and feels very much like the beating heart of the Human faction. Proteans contain some neat fluid dynamics and despite their near featurelessness are pretty iconic in their own right. I do wish, however, that there was some additional distinction between Small, Large and Mother proteans. Mama Goos have a little glowing cluster crowning their blob to set themselves apart, but Large Proteans in particular seem to lack a defining characteristic.
I think I mentioned this before, but it definitely bears repeating: Grey Goo is essentially looking to distill the RTS formula to its core. The marketing for this game has been about ‘returning to the roots of the genre’ and the practical face of this is, essentially, cutting out any and all perceived clutter.
Part of this is reflected in the game’s resource management system: Human and Beta players build a refinery, place an extractor and pretty much are then able to forget about the supply chain. Lost harvester units are replaced automatically over time, and extractors are free and can be placed from a global button on the screen (I’m sure there’s also a hotkey for this).
Here’s a quick breakdown of the game’s economy system for the Human and Beta factions
- Refineries cost 800 resources, making them incredibly non-trivial to produce, much like refineries in C&C games. This means that in the early game, production and income are constrained quite a bit until players can get 3 or more refineries online, but this would come at a huge opportunity cost in terms of producing offensive units. Over time, as 5 or more Refineries come online, the pace of the game speeds dramatically as unit production of heavier units goes through the roof.
- Players have to purchase additional resource storage in the form of structures. This is effectively more costly to Beta as they have to commit precious hub space to increase their cash reserves.
- Harvesters are automatically sent from refineries to extractors. They can be killed en route, slowing down income. However, if they are damaged but not killed, they return from within structures at full health.
- Harvesters explode when killed if they’re hauling resources. This can outright kill harassing forces, especially close ranged ones like Drovers, or Formless Goo
- Unlike in StarCraft, units and structures are be purchased without the player being required to have all available resources. Beginning production of a unit or structure puts a drain on income at a rate/ per second until production is completed. This allows players to stall out their economy if they don’t carefully manage it, which I think is an important strategic consideration. Paying attention to income/expenditures is very important to being a good Grey Goo player.
The Goo, of course, work differently. Their main resource comes in the form of Mother Goo hitpoints. Mothers gain HP by ‘eating’ the steam that comes out of catalyst vents, or by eating units. This turns into ‘potential HP’ which metabolizes at a constant rate into real HP. I cover this in my preview however. The main point here: Goo ‘resource operations’ can be harassed just like Human and Beta ones, simply by damaging Mother Goo units.
Unit design, particularly in tier 1 units, is noticeably consistent across the 3 factions. The initial 2 units in each faction are different in subtle but important ways (actually that’s true of many of the game’s units) with most of the differentiation coming in terms of range, move speed, damage profile (dps, damage per shot, fixed/turret, fire while moving etc) hit points and armor having often slight variations. This is definitely in keeping with the game’s goal of cutting out clutter, but asymmetrical design is one of the hallmarks of RTS games and is something I definitely appreciate. Now, while the Beta and Human factions have the most similarities between their units, the economics of these factions to produce some meaningful differences. First off, Humans tend to have supply line problems as they cannot locate harvesting facilities nearby resource veins in most cases, so as the number of refineries they have goes up, they get some extensive harvester trains going – think long distance mining in StarCraft 2. Beta and Goo are able to cut this down considerably. Additionally, without teleporters, Humans have some significant force projection issues in the early game and into the midgame. This makes air dominance a big deal for Humans. Likewise, Human units cannot self-repair out of the box, while Goo units auto-heal when not in combat and Beta have repair pads. These small differences (and others) end up dramatically influencing how players interact with the game map and their approaches to combat.
Actual unit combat in Grey Goo feels more akin, honestly, to Supreme Commander than StarCraft or even Command and Conquer. In C&C games, units tend to have a specific role: rocket infantry to take on tanks, flak troopers to hit aircraft, et cetera. In StarCraft, units tend to have more flexible applications that can be influenced by micro or unit abilities, as how Banelings counter Marines, unless the player controls their Marines well and can split and back them away to minimize losses from the Baneling explosions. Grey Goo feels like neither of these games, with unit effectiveness coming down to range, speed, armor piercing and splash damage mostly. I’m reminded of how I chose unit compositions in Supreme Commander matches – high rate-of-fire units to minimize overkill on weak units, high damage, low ROF units with armor piercing to deal with heavier tanks, etc.
Which, of course, brings me to the competitive side of the game. I am still, after about 30 or so hours put into playing the game, unsure of how the competitive side of this game will take off. Petroglyph have carefully crafted a very specific type of game, without the blitzkrieg strategery of StarCraft or other traditional ‘eSport’ titles. The early game is quite slow-paced, and the variety of actions units can perform is drawn from a very limited palette. Once the flush of excitement of learning the game has worn off, it definitely still remains to be seen whether there’s enough meat in this game to meet the expectation of competitive, number crunching RTS fanatics. I myself am having tons of fun playing the game, but I’m basically in the 50th percentile of RTS players and nowhere near the level of top players in StarCraft, or Company of Heroes, or Command and Conquer. Petroglyph’s vision of the old-school ‘beer and pretzels’ RTS has been realized, I think exceptionally well – to me, the game seems crafted in a purposeful and even humble manner, reverent of the roots of RTS. But is that really what the players want? I’m really not sure. So far, I’m quite enjoying the game, but the gut reaction of a midlevel RTS player isn’t going to make or break a game’s competitive community.
This article is already tediously long, but single player is very important to many RTS gamers so I feel I cannot again leave this out. I can unreservedly recommend Grey Goo to RTS gamers who are looking for a decent story. Grey Goo’s story is not a hackneyed yarn about contesting some magical resource – catalyst is just a thing. It’s important, but not Spice Melange or Tiberium important. It’s not a space opera, comic bookish yarn about prophecies or magical space crystals – it’s much more Asimov than Lucas in its presentation. It’s a story of confusion and loss, of protecting populaces and understanding foes. It’s incredibly well presented in terms of production and actually fairly challenging – I had to change the game difficulty after the 4th campaign mission. Like the rest of the game, Grey Goo’s campaign isn’t pretentious or over the top, just well crafted and remarkably solid. I say bravo here.
Grey Goo is assuredly a game in the lineage of Command and Conquer. Many of the design choices have taken nods from the classic Westwood experience – the semi-automated nature of resource harvesting, the renewable (and single) resource, the necessity of player to watch their expenditures so as to not stall out their production, the soul of this game is the soul of Command and Conquer games in many ways. But its heart is its own. I cannot unreservedly recommend this game to any specific subgenre of RTS gamer. Those who are nostalgic about Command and Conquer are more likely to enjoy it than others, but the combat model is not what they’d expect from C&C games. StarCraft gamers may find the game shallow or slow, though perhaps they might find the pace refreshing and the combat interesting, as I do. Those interested in single player are likely to be satisfied with the well composed story and interesting faction variation. There’s a lot here to love, if what was left out of the game (relative to whatever you’re comparing it with) isn’t a deal-breaker for you. Thanks for reading. -wayward