There is a much beloved convention in RTS games that players always seem to feel that they see too little of: the ability to design one’s own units. Earth 2150 is a standout example of this, where the player is able to research a variety of chassis, weapons, and defensive options and bolt them together in numerous ways for fun and profit (‘profit’ here meaning ‘mayhem’). But, there are numerous issues with self-designed units from a balance perspective. In essence, it’s easier to balance systems when every part of that system has a knowable, discrete function, Thus, RTS tend to have pre-defined unit functions and RPGs tend to have pre-defined class functions.
Developer BonusXP, headed up by Dave Pottinger of Ensemble fame, thinks they have a new take on the idea of designing your own units, and are all set to unleash some mechanized havoc on the RTS space with Servo.
What is Servo?
in the broadest strokes, Servo is a real time strategy game – its focus in on building and expanding an economy at the expense of your opponents, acquiring resources and holding territory, and ultimately about armies facing off in spectacular fashion as players vie for economic and tactical supremacy. However, Servo has a couple of systems up its proverbial sleeves that it hopes will tickle the fancy of RTS gamers.
First, of course, are the titular Servos. These are giant humanoid mechs that tower over the game’s other units and structures, and are player designed from a wide array of parts and weapons. I’ll get into the specifics of the design and use of Servos shortly. The game also features base building and unit upgrading, and resource harvesting of a single resource called “Bloom” via automated refineries. Bloom is located in often remote points on the map. The game features a system, currently called “S-Con” (like “Servo Con”, a play on DEFCON) which resembles Ages in the Age of Empires games, unlocking a variety of techs all at once upon completion of the S-Con research.
In the world of Servo, the Earth is a wasteland, populated mainly by mutant monstrosities and the burnt out wrecks of long-since-abandoned cities. Gangs of mercenaries come to Earth in dropships to scavenge the rare resource Bloom and return it to space, and the Servos are their enforcers, fighting rival gangs for control of the Bloom harvesting operations and fending off the local fauna, which can be no mean feat in and of itself.
All right, let’s dive in now and see how this all shakes out and applies to the game in terms of visuals, systems and gameplay.
Currently, Servo looks good without really being… spectacular. The game’s visual design is solid without doing a terrible lot to stand out from the pack the whole game has a vaguely StarCraft-esque visual design: bright and blocky, almost cartoonish. However, the game’s art assets are still being tweaked: there was a new unit added in a recent patch that currently doesn’t even have a model at all yet (it looks to have got one now – the most current dev stream shows that an upcoming version of the game will see it with a pretty neat model), and is currently just a couple of cubes stuck together – this game is well and truly “Early Access” and is undergoing major changes with almost every patch. Several structures have undergone a series of re-designs, such as the Beacon (a repair facility), and the primary unit factory. In fact, a whole new unit factory was added recently, with one of the better structure models in-game. Each round of visual changes has really upped the game in terms of quality.
Servo is, as of this writing, a work in progress – the visual design, in particular, has undergone a long series of refinements and improvements and will likely continue to do so as the game nears its beta and release phases. Servo’s Early Access period is a true implementation of the core philosophy of such a tool, and the game has already undergone some noticeable visual and mechanical updates since Early Access began. So, all that to say, this should get better over time.
Servos themselves are blocky, colorful, and shiny, standing about 10X the size of the units that support them and at least 1/3 larger than structures (and there are plus-sized Servo models out there too, about 1/3 to 2x larger than the standard). Their attack animations are snappy, and they stomp around with a pleasing feeling of animated recklessness.
One of the game’s strongest visual elements are its explosions and other assorted impact events, such as units or structures being called down from orbit: they’re gleefully over-the-top. Even the game’s basic Soldier Drone attack causes a cascade of sparks larger than the unit itself, and Servos exploding throw out shrapnel about half a screen length away, which pleasingly bounces off of units, structures and terrain features.
The game is rife with angular featured and boldly colored character portraits, thanks to the game’s resident artist Andy Cotnam, the almost comic-book style illustrations really add a unique character to the game. as with the rest of the game’s art, these portraits have already undergone a number of revisions, each better than the last.
Provisionally, I personally like the game’s art style, though I think the illustrations are more interesting than the 3d models and hope that the game takes a bit of a risk with its art style and goes a little more off the wall with lighting and unit (visual) design.
Now, on to the meat of the game!
The Hangar/Store and Some of Their Implications
Servo has a meta layer to the game that you don’t see in traditional RTS: players design their Servo units out of match in an interface BonusXP calls the Hangar, with parts they’ve earned through playing, or purchased in the game’s store, called Drek’s Den. I’ll be dealing with each separately.
Store ‘Drek’s Den’
Drek’s Den is the game’s store. It’s not really fully fleshed out yet – players gain Credits and Scrap as they play both single player and multiplayer as currency to use in the game’s store. Credits are presumably the ‘normal’ currency, and are used to purchase ‘crates’ of random parts for Servos, while Scrap is used to purchase specific items out of a rotating but short list of discrete items that tend to be of higher quality. It should be noted here that items are also earned when a player finishes any mission, be it single player, campaign, co-op or PVP.
The store is currently in a somewhat unfinished state. Players are, for instance, restricted to selling one part at a time, which can be time consuming even after limited acquisitions. There are no filtering features as yet in either the Store or the Hangar, which can be frustrating if a player has a large stock of similar items, and item comparison tools are currently limited. Given the rapid pace of improvements to the game so far, I imagine revisiting this, as with virtually any other aspects of the game, will look vastly different in a couple of months.
Hangar – Servo Design
the Hangar is one of the single most important aspects of the game. It is here that players take 10 various components: Pilots, heads, chassis, legs, shoulder slots (2 of these) weapon slots (2 of these, though some weapons fill both), and ‘software’ slots (2 of these as well) and build a combat mech. Each component can have a variety of abilities, from modifying Servo hit points, armor, speed and resistance to the game’s various damage types, to special abilities that range from area damage to stuns, to game-affecting parts that decrease unit or structure build time, change unit attributes (e.g. a Servo part exists that increases vs structure damage for the melee Soldier Drone) or allow for more units to be called in.
Servos, you see, are more than MOBA-style hero units. They can have affects on the game’s economy, they currently have a call-in radius around themselves, making any Servo a potential base location or call-in point for another Servo. Management of Servo attributes in the Hangar has a profound impact on the way the player will approach any given scenario in-match, a potential wellspring of creativity, but a possible source of intense frustration as well – poorly designed Servos can be a death-sentence. Having up to 3 Servos in match is a mitigating factor, but if players get a couple of losses attributable to Servo design, I imagine they’d get a bit steamed.
Hangar – Pilots
Pilots also have unique abilities that really change the dynamics of the Servo they’re driving. The Pilot Hauk can control 1 Creep at a time. Blink can… well, her ability has changed a couple of times, but currently she teleports. Reese, the first pilot everyone gets, has a nasty orbital laser with a long(ish) call-in.
Currently, players cannot design Servos independently from the Pilot operating them, meaning that most players will have 3-5 Servos available at any given time. Currently, Pilots are earned based on player level (level is increased by playing any game mode), though I hope they add more that players can purchase with in-game currency or earn over time.
I also sincerely hope that BonusXP at least considers allowing players to design Servos and then ‘activate’ them by assigning a Pilot to the unit. This would seriously cut down on Hangar parts clutter and potentially allow for more/quicker experimentation. Believe you me, bad Servo builds become evident at exactly the wrong time.
I could describe the game all day long, but I might as well save myself some time, and provide you a video. Don’t worry, it’s not the crappy Let’s Play I put on my YouTube channel, it’s one of the developer streams (the most recent one as of the publication of this article).
Broadly, players drop in their Servos (the player decides an initial Servo and Pilot to bring into the game ahead of time) which, as I said in the previous section, serve as mobile weapons platforms as well as the means of calling in new structures through an innate Drop Zone around each Servo. Servos, therefore, must schlep it out to geographically disperse Bloomwells to establish refineries upon them and gain resources. There are a variety of support structures available, such as Beacons, which also have Drop Zones and will heal units and Servos; there are factories, tech labs for researching upgrades, turrets.
Most structures and unit types have upgrades: Refineries have several that increase output, Tech Labs have upgrades that improve units, structures and Servos, even Factories contain upgrades both generally and for specific unit types.
Units and upgrades are cordoned off into S-Con levels, which as I mention above are similar to Ages in Age of Empires. Researching a new S-Con level allows the player to pick a new Servo from their roster, and unlocks a variety of unit types and upgrades from existing structures. Also, some Servo abilities improve with S-Con level.
Servos have abilities available to them depending on how the player built them ahead of time and will often have 1-5 active abilities, depending on parts choices. Abilities range from point-blank AoE stuns, to single target damage, healing, unit control (stealing units) and many more. There are a variety of status effects, from slows to damage multipliers, damage over time, and more. Ultimately, Servos end up feeling somewhat like heroes from WarCraft 3, though their customizable nature and increased economic/tech effects make their place in Servo slightly different than what you saw in WarCraft 3.
Matches tend to feel very dynamic, with lots of back-and-forth between players. Servos respawn on a timer like heroes in MOBA games (they cost no in-match resources) and have a huge impact on combat: it’s possible to hold off Servo-led forces with units and turrets, and to hold of large unit-based forces with Servos, meaning that matches tend to have a tug-of-war feel.
There are a variety of game modes, each with multiple sub-modes. Each Co-Op map seems to have a random objective, from killing an AI opponent on a time limit to surviving waves of enemies, to killing meteors that fall periodically from the sky. The PvP maps too have a variety of conditions: some have Bloomwells that run dry, making resource gathering a race against time. Some maps have respawning creeps that will attack Bloomwells and armies and player bases, some give players access to structures that can purchase Creeps which will attack enemy bases. There’s a lot of variety here, with the hopes of more down the road. I personally think this is very smart and hope that BonusXP eventually releases modding tools and allows players to create PvP and Co-Op maps on Steam Workshop.
Currently, despite the customization offered by Servo design, I cannot help but want access to sub-factions, or something to mix up the relatively limited palette of unit options currently available. Variety is the spice of life, and of RTS games. BonusXP is considering a ‘factions’ feature, though there’s no indication of what form this may take, and it’d be presumptuous to assume that this would affect unit choice at this stage.
Currently, the game has no fog of war, no Shroud, as it’s sometimes called, and the jury is really out on me for this one. The BonusXP team has stated that they don’t want the game to devolve into cat-and-mouse hunts, and several mechanics, like variable locations for Bloomwells, do support this full-knowledge type of gameplay. However, I can’t help but wonder if the game might be better for having some uncertainty in the game state – you can’t see upgrades, and I think it might take a keen eye to grok exactly what a particular Servo can do just by looking at it, but right now combat is mostly about jockeying for position, aiming high damage area attacks, coordinating Servos and armies, and building the right units to suit the needs of the moment. It might be that the game is better for not having fog of war, but I’m still weighing the merits of this decision as a player.
Servo is still in its early stages, but right now it is challenging and fun. I am following its continued development with great interest. They still have a long way to go, but they’re constantly making great strides towards the execution of their vision.
What do you think? Does Servo have a compelling case, or are they barking up the wrong tree? Let me know in comments.