Iron Harvest Early Impressions

Disclaimer: I personally paid $120 to back Iron Harvest on Kickstarter. This is how I got access to the alpha version of the game. KING Art Games is encouraging Alpha players to release content regarding the game, with the caveat that they acknowledge the game’s early (pre-release and pre-public) status.

I somehow missed the phenomenon of the 1920+ universe and Scythe board game, as brought to life by the artwork of Jakub Rozalski. But, as I try to keep my ear to the ground regarding real-time strategy gaming, I was given an introduction to the ‘dieselpunk’ universe via the announcement and kickstarter for the RTS Iron Harvest by KING Art Games, who I’d run across before by way of their Battle Worlds: Kronos kickstarter (which I followed but didn’t interact with in any meaningful way).

This article is, if you will, the story of how I came to learn about, and eventually play Iron Harvest, along with what I think about what I’ve played so far.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

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Introduction

All of that to say, I didn’t come into Iron Harvest with much in the way of expectations. To be completely honest, I was a little skeptical at first: I saw the developers share a survey (which I believe I responded to?) about the sort of RTS conventions that their community might want to see. That didn’t give me much in the way of confidence regarding the product; I felt like if the developers had a vision for a real-time strategy game, that a survey about what sort of experience their players would want would be a bit extraneous.

As the developer revealed their early screenshots of the game, I picked up what I imagined to be a Company of Heroes-esque vibe from the game. Something about the scale of units to the background, of the color scheme and detail of the maps, and I began to be hopeful that KING Art Games might have started with Relic’s model to realize their game. I hold Relic’s model (typified by Dawn of War and Company of Heroes) as my personal favorite RTS formula, and a game that takes that and lets me command greeble-heavy mechs on top… Well, that played to my fancy in a pretty specific way.

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When the Iron Harvest Kickstarter hit, I backed it almost immediately and probably for more money than I should’ve, and watched avidly to see which milestones were hit. I’ll admit to being pretty excited as each was reached and passed. Hope can be a powerful motivator, I suppose. In particular, getting multiplayer and co-op single player funded were important to me: these things are ways to keep a game sticky and let’s be fair, it’s hard to even want to commit time to learning a real-time strategy game unless there can be some hope of playing it for a good long while.

After the Kickstarter, Iron Harvest kind of fell by the wayside again for me, until earlier this month when I was granted access to the game’s pre-alpha. I’m approaching this with relatively little expectations for what 1920+ ‘should’ be or what the game is selling itself as; I feel my impressions here are pretty fresh and unburdened by expectation (beyond being pretty sure that the game borrowed at least some of Company of Heroes’ DNA).

With all that out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks.

Gameplay

If you’re interested, this video from strategy game YouTuber TaxOwlBear shares his impressions and shows off the gameplay:

As it turns out, Company of Heroes 2 is a pretty decent starting place for gaining an understanding of the current state of Iron Harvest. I say ‘current state’ carefully, as I’m given to understand that a lot more units are going to be making their way into the game, and it’s likely that several more buildings would be making their way as well.

But, if you’re familiar with Company of Heroes 2, you have a decent idea of how gameplay in Iron Harvest works. Starting with 2 infantry squads, you construct a mere handful of structures while spreading out across the map, capturing resource points and VP generators; trying to hide behind cover when engaging enemies, dodging grenades… all of this is pretty familiar.

Right now, the game feels a little simpler or stripped-down than Company of Heroes 2: there aren’t any upgrades, there are few unit abilities, and infantry can’t take cover inside of structures (though I believe in at least 2 of those cases, features are planned to be added later – I’m not sure about upgrades).

Also different to Company of Heroes, though similar to Dawn of War, territories aren’t ‘connected’ in any way and control of one territory doesn’t have any impact on control of any other.

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There are some interesting things to note about the game right now. First off, there are resource pickups spread across the game’s maps (right now there are only 2 of these: one skirmish map and one survival/defense map) that give you a quick burst of one of the game’s 2 resources: metal and oil. Also, there are weapons scattered around the map, and these have an interesting effect.

In Relic’s titles, a weapon either attaches an existing squad to a support gun (like a mortar or AT gun) or attaches a handheld weapon to a squad (adding a Browning to one of the unit models, for instance). In Iron Harvest, it seems that a weapon will actually change the squad entirely to the type of squad that would carry that item. A grenade, for instance, doesn’t add such a weapon to an engineering squad. It actually turns the engineering squad into a grenadier squad, replacing its abilities (and models?) entirely.

I kind of appreciate this from a design perspective: in COH2, it can be weird to have an AT gun manned by Soviet Shock Troops, which have better armor and weapons than normal Soviet troops, and can deliver a different experience in combat. With this model, every interaction will be more predictable. I know, from looking, what sort of counters will work against any engineer squad, any grenade squad, et cetera. It’s easier to read visually and produces more predictable combat interactions.

A part of me, though, finds this a bit reductive. That the game might be more interesting and nuanced with a system more like what Relic’s games delivered.

Resources and Pickups

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As I mentioned previously, Iron Harvest uses more… standard RTS resources than Company of Heroes. The COH2 model has 3 resources: Manpower, which is the primary determinant for calling in new units, and scales based on how many units you’re currently fielding; Munitions, which is basically just used for managing units’ special abilities, and Fuel, which is used specifically to restrict calling in of vehicles. Iron Harvest’s take is a more standard ‘metal’ and ‘oil’ which work like Minerals and Vespene to restrict the calling in of any unit, regardless of type.

They’re still harvested from static points on the map that are fought over, but I’m not convinced that it’s a better system than what Company of Heroes brings to us. One important thing to note is that, for the time being at least, there’s less of a difference between infantry and mechs than exists between infantry and vehicles in Relic’s games. This makes Iron Harvest feel a little more game-y, but again a little more straightforward, than the interactions in a Relic titles. It can be subtle at times, but I think the intricacies might end up driving how players end up feeling about this game.

And of course, it’s possible that this will continue to evolve as development continues, and/or that I’m mistaken about this difference. This is an ‘early impressions’ after all…

Regardless, I think those resource pickups are really interesting. It gives a sense of urgency to the early game, if you want to try to snipe some of those caches from your opponent, and could make the game feel pretty different from the evolution we’ve come to expect of something like Company of Heroes. Getting that early boost to your income isn’t trivial, and I look forward to seeing how the game is impacted by these little barrels hiding around the map.

There are also AT guns on the map at game start, and I think that’s also kind of important. If you get them too early, you’re setting yourself back in the anti-infantry department. But it’s an early and free source of anti-mech weaponry, which can help stall or turn the tide if your opponent rushes for an early mechanized unit. A clever bit of thinking, in my book. I remember vividly the feeling of frantic helplessness can can happen in other Relic games if one player gets out a vehicle and the other isn’t quite ready to deal with it.

One last note about ‘resources’ – if you count Victory Points as a resource, that is. Capturing one of the victory flags gives you an initial burst of VPs, and then a slower trickle over time. This could help in close games, but is potentially dangerous

What’s There, What’s Not, and What is (Hopefully?) Coming

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Right now, Iron Harvest has a skirmish map, where you’re restricted to one faction, and a survival map where you’re attacked by escalating waves of enemy units. There’s no fog of war in the game (yet – they acknowledge that it’s missing), and the AI isn’t too bright at the moment.

I’ve found the survival map to be quite challenging, but I’m a mediocre player, so take that with a grain of salt. For more on what they acknowledge to be coming, check out this little gallery:

 

 

 

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Basically: they’re still fiddling with the UI and there may be some improvement. The controls are a work in progress.

They acknowledge the AI is… ah, unifnished, and they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them.

The graphics are close to what they’ll be at launch, but optimization isn’t.

There’s a whole system of hero units (?) and pets that will be in the game that isn’t there yet. At a guess this would be something like Dawn of War (1), but I have no particular insight into that.

There are a lot of units and abilities coming, line of sight isn’t properly implemented, the factions are nowhere near implemented.

Given all of that, and my financial investment in the game, expect more Iron Harvest content from me in the future as things continue to percolate.

In Conclusion

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So, where does this leave us regarding Iron Harvest? It’s still a little early to talk meaningfully about a good many aspects of the game. From the pre-alpha they’ve shared with backers though, we’re able to infer a good deal about the overall direction or gist of how things are moving.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with what I see. I think a game that takes Dawn of War and Company of Heroes’ DNA and throws in the inspiration of Jakub Rozalski‘s artwork is a good starting point, and from what I’ve seen so far, I’m hopeful.

I think the game needs to work harder to be its own thing and not a ‘me-too’ for Relic’s titles.

I think the implications of the changes it’s making to Relic’s formula (for example, resource pickups) need to be worked through very carefully.

But, having dropped a pretty big chunk of change on the game in the anticipation of getting something COH-flavored, I’m feeling bullish about what I’m being shown in this demo. It might not be an exciting new direction for the RTS genre, but I think it stands a good chance of being something I’m happy to have in my game library (and hopefully, to spend a decent chunk of time playing on ladder).

Thanks for reading.

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