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I think it’s no big surprise to anyone who follows me on social media that I’ve been very bullish about Iron Harvest for a long time now. When it was first announced, I bought into the Kickstarter at a level high enough to be eligible for physical rewards. I didn’t know who Mr_werewolf was at the time, and hadn’t played Scythe… I was, however, very interested in the premise and impressed by the art and more than willing to take the gamble.
For me, at least, that gamble ended up paying off in a big way. Though it’s fair to say that everyone in the RTS space doesn’t feel the same. The game has received largely positive critical reaction, but players and observers have commented on everything from the game’s relationship with Relic’s Company of Heroes and Dawn of War series, to what some people are calling false advertising from the game’s developer and publisher.
My goal with this article is to describe the gameplay for people who might not be familiar with it, comment on the campaign, discuss the game’s similarities and differences to Relic’s games; and lastly, to comment on the ‘false advertising’ controversy to the best of my ability.
Per usual for me, this piece will serve more as an overview than a review. I’m not sure if me putting a number value (or series of number values) onto a game is a useful exercise. Additionally, I find number-based reviewing to be overly reductive and not widely useful in the first place.
I am well aware of the type of content and analysis I’m providing, and I want people know what they’re getting from me. There’s tons of Cynicals and Angries and Skepticals out there if people want to see what they have to say. I 100% stand by my analysis of the relative pros and cons of any particular game, even if my subjective weighting of those pros and cons tilts heavily towards forgiving, graceful, positive and hopeful.
Lastly, I want to try to steer clear from being a “game reviewer” as such. I don’t have a lot of free time to play and review a wide cross section of games, and I’d rather spend my personal time engaging in games I find fulfilling and enjoyable. As such I’m going to try to focus on the design elements of Iron Harvest and other games I write about.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to business.
First off, I was a part of 2 podcasts where there was much discussion about the design and relative merits of Iron Harvest. You can view those below if you want, or skip ahead to the content of the article:
With that out of the way, let’s get into the meat of things.
The Design of Iron Harvest: Basics
Let’s be very clear up front: whatever KING Art Games might say either affirmatively or negatively on the topic (I’m not sure of their public stance on this) Iron Harvest feels a lot like a Relic game. Specifically, there’s a lot of resemblance to Company of Heroes 2 (COH2) or Dawn of War 2 (DOW2) in many respects.
Iron Harvest is a squad combat game. It’s tactically focused, with low unit counts and a focus on map control for resourcing instead of worker management. In Iron Harvest, players start with a single command center building and 2 infantry squads (this is of course different in the campaign). Players have access to only 2 structures, and they are unable to field more than one of each of these structures at a time. Each structure can be upgraded to a Tier 2 (T2) version of that building to unlock higher level units from that structure.
Infantry are grouped into ‘squads’ of between 3 and 6 individual members. So, if you select a Rusviet Vanguard, you’re selecting all 5 members of the squad at once unlike in a game like Age of Empires or StarCraft, where you’re training selecting, and managing each unit individually.
I know I could just use comparisons to Company of Heroes to describe the game, since a lot of Iron Harvest’s design is a more or less direct callback to COH2 or DOW2, but I’m trying to not assume what games people might have experience with when reading this piece.
Players capture control points on the map with their infantry squads to take ownership of those points and gain their advantages. There are 3 different type of control point on the map: Iron, Oil, and Victory points. Iron Mines and Oil Derricks provide a player with a trickle of income of the respective resource, and Victory Points start adding to the player or team’s VP total. The first team to hit the VP goal (or to kill their opponent’s Command Post) wins a particular match.
Iron Mines and Oil Derricks can be upgraded for a somewhat nominal fee to produce more resources. VPs are really interesting though: each VP has a number of pips above it, and the longer a player holds that VP, the more pips of their color it accrues. When the other player or team takes that point from their opponent, they gain extra victory points equal to the number of pips on the VP flag immediately. This can help a player who’s fallen behind in victory points if they manage do start taking the VP flags back from their opponent, and is hard to abuse since it takes a long time with one player holding the flag for those pips to add up. I quite like the system (though I have ideas for other modifications to this model that I feel may be more interesting, that I’m testing in my personal game projects).
As might be expected from a game of this type, units are able to take cover behind sandbags and fences for a defensive bonus, they are able to garrison inside of structures on the map, and have 1-button retreat and reinforce commands that enable them to get out of combat and get back to fighting trim at the player’s base quickly and easily.
Combat is one of the hallmarks of the game. I would describe it as relatively slow and tactical. Damage tends to happen slowly enough to allow a player to retreat in-danger squads in plenty of time. There are some cases where this is less true, as when a Light MG squad is targeting basic infantry, or when some of the heavier mechs are on the field.
Players typically have plenty of time to react to things like grenades being thrown, or squads being flanked, et cetera, while there is still a sense that the player must keep watch over their units and not dawdle when reacting to threats. I think it strikes a nice balance with how long things take to die and the level of player control (micro) involved in keeping them alive and allowing player skill to carry combat.
To risk a slight comparison to COH2 and DOW2, combat in Iron Harvest (at the time of this writing at least, since balance may change dramatically over the coming months) feels a bit more ‘blob‘ focused than those games. Masses of units don’t have as many good early game counters, since in Iron Harvest, artillery squads, flamethrowers, heavy machine guns (HMGs), and many other tools that are useful for handling large groups of infantry tend to come out in the midgame or early-midgame, making it possible to gain an early advantage by simply outnumbering your opponent with basic infantry. To be fair, however, this is also possibly a factor of how new the game is, and a more mature meta may soon evolve that shows the weakness of such tactics. Time will tell on this one.
Each map in Iron Harvest is also dotted with pickups: single-use caches of weapons, Iron, Oil, and de-crewed AT guns and large MG crewed weapons that players can capture for an advantage over their opponent. The timing of grabbing these weapons and caches can be really important: even AT guns can deal nasty damage to infantry squads if their shots connect. In many matches, the early game is pretty dominated by players jockeying for control/access to these pickups, and players dispersing their units to capture territory then blobbing them up again to put the fight to their opponent.
Iron Harvest has launched with the RTS standard of 3 different factions: Rusviet, the Saxony Empire, and the Polanian Republic.
There are some tolerable differences between each faction. I’m a sucker for faction diversity and there’s definitely less than you see in COH2 – each faction has buildings with more or less identical functions, and infantry for each faction are pretty samey: each basic infantry squad is pretty different, with the Rusviet Vanguards having shotguns, Saxony Stormtroopers having rapid-fire weapons, and Polanian Riflemen having long-ranged rifles. Otherwise, there are pretty minor differences between infantry, besides which ones each faction has access to. For instance, only Rusviet have flamethrower infantry, and Polania have LMGs, and Saxony have Medics.
The Mechs are far more diverse, but we’ll talk about that below. This feels like a good time to segue into talking more about the infantry in general.
Combat and Unit Types
Iron Harvest has four main categories of unit type: First off, there are unit squads. Unit squads all carry a version of the same weapon, whether it be a shotgun, a light machine gun, an AT rocket launcher, or an Engineer’s pistol and toolkit. Infantry can freely swap between weapons and roles: when a squad dies, it drops a pickup or token on the map that any other squad can pick up to equip. The entire squad then turns into whatever squad the pickup represented.
This is considerably different from how picking up weapons works in Company of Heroes 1 or 2, where the weapon will simply be added to a single model of whatever squad picks it up. That squad would also drop its pickup on the map, so that another group of infantry could in turn pick up that cast-off unit type.
This is part of why I call Iron Harvest kind of an ‘arcadey’ sort of game, by the way: these pickups are turning a squad into a different type of thing, even if slightly. It feels a lot less believable in a way than a Soviet Shock Troop squad picking up a single BAR or panzerschreck, though arguably it’s a lot more clear to players what they’re dealing with on the battlefield this way.
Additionally, there are a handful of squads that are mechanical exo-suits. These tend to be Tier 2 units from each faction’s barracks, and walk the line between mechs and infantry.
There are also crewed weapons: large guns that infantry squads cart around and must set-up to fire. In some ways these are part infantry, part vehicle. When killed, the remainder of the crewing squad flees from the weapon, allowing another squad to grab it. Decrewed weapons can be destroyed as well, if a player wants to deny their opponent use of it in future.
The last two categories are Heroes and Mechs. I’ll deal with Heroes in the next section.
Mechs are definitely the coolest thing about Iron Harvest. Being divorced from the reality of actual World War 1 or 2 combat units, you see vehicles as diverse as a bipedal sniper walker, a wheeled rocket launcher, a tank with spider legs, a hexagonal walker that shoots rolling bombs, and a giant walker that uses large sickle blades to hack apart enemy infantry and mechs.
Of course, there are some mechs that are more situational (the Serp, the sickle mech I mentioned above, in particular is in a bit of a precarious place right now in terms of balance and utility) but that’s fine by me. Most of the game’s balance issues are pretty obvious at the moment and the roughest edges shouldn’t take too terribly long to balance out.
Heroes and the Reserves System
Heroes and Mechs are Iron Harvest’s key differentiators from COH2, though it’s fair to compare them to DOW2’s hero units or Elites from DOWIII.
Before a match, the player is asked to select their faction and Hero unit. Each faction has 3 heroes: one powerful, late game vehicle hero, one early game hero that comes with 1 or more animal companions, and one midgame hero that widely varies between factions. The hero pictured above is Brunhilde, the Saxony Empire’s heavy AT-AT-like heavy assault mech.
My personal favorite Hero unit is Lev Zubov, Rusviet’s giant boat/Deff Dread hybrid (see above). In addition to looking absolutely freakin badass (technical term), Zubov can also use jumpjets to maneuver around the map, getting up close to enemies so he can knock them to pieces with his giant saw hands.
Heroes feel less like something from WarCraft 3 than they do like Elite units from Dawn of War III (though they’re implemented in a much better way). Heroes are brought into battle via the game’s Reserves system.
At the beginning of a multiplayer match, the player is asked to choose their faction and the hero they’ll be fielding. Once that’s locked in, the teams are dumped over to the Reserves system to pick a set of units that they’ll be able to call into battle later on. Each player gets 6 ‘coins’ with which to buy units to slot into either their Reserves 1 slot or their Reserves 2 slot: Reserve 2 tends to give access to heavier mechs, where Reserve 1 is mostly infantry, support weapons, exo-suits and the occasional light mech. With Reserves, players have access to some infantry they otherwise wouldn’t be able to use, such as Medics for the Rusviet or Flamers for Polania.
There have been some issues with the Reserves system: some of the heroes are quite powerful when they hit the field, and some units are hard to counter since they can be summoned into battle without their prerequisite building. The system is still being balanced however, so I’m willing to wait and see how that all shakes out.
Overall I feel Reserves compares favorably to the Commanders system from COH2 – in some ways, it feels like a better take on the Elites system from DOWIII. It gives players the ability to choose their approach to the game via hero and call-in units, and allows even mirror matches to play out very differently on each side. I think there’s some danger of over-optimizing in terms of Reserves, but I think it’s at the core a flexible and interesting system. I hope KING Art are able to expand on it over time.
Heroes (like sniper Anna Kos and her bear Wotjek, above) are called into the field via the Reserves system. Some heroes cost 1 of your 6 total Reserves coins, some cost 2. Some are available only in Reserves 1, some only in Reserves 2. Et cetera. I think there’s a lot of room to get other custom units, heroes, and squads available in this system (though currently that isn’t the case). Regardless, I think it’s got a lot of promise even if the developer sees fit to not expand it, and simply refines it a bit over time.
I’m normally not a big player of RTS campaigns. I dabble but don’t often do much more than a handful of hours in any given campaign. It doesn’t hold my interest the way multiplayer does usually. And to be fair, I haven’t gone too far in the Iron Harvest campaign yet.
But so far, I’ve been very surprised by the quality of the story in Iron Harvest. I find myself rooting for Polanian sharpshooter Anna Kos and her family. The gameplay itself is pretty standard for RTS campaigns, but the story is definitely on the better side of things. I might write another article about the campaign specifically once I finish it, but for now I felt compelled to comment on the overall quality of what I’ve experienced so far.
Controversies, and Conclusion
When Iron Harvest launched on September 1 (about 2 weeks ago as of this writing) there were some things promised on the Steam page that hadn’t yet made it into the game. The promised co-op campaign wasn’t ready, the ranked ladder was similarly not enabled, the game didn’t have steam achievements, and launched without some localization options such as Japanese. Some players have claimed and felt that this is false advertising, since the game had claims on its store page that were not present upon purchase on September 1, 2020. The lack of co-op campaign in particular was a big sore spot for many.
Since launch, they’ve already released the new 3v3 map, added Steam achievements, and added an Archon-Mode like co-op for the campaign, where players share control of the same collection of units and buildings, etc.
At this point, having gone through the Kickstarter Alpha and betas (in fact some of the screenshots I’ve shared above are from those) and the open beta, and I’ve seen a consistent dedication towards making Iron Harvest the best thing it can be. When the open beta launched, the developer completely overhauled the melee combat system due to imbalances and did so in about a week. They have listened to the community every step of the way and are aggressive in improving the game.
While I am disappointed in the misleading Steam page, I’m inclined to view this more as a publisher rushing the game out before everything was ready, or a matter of delays in development after the release date was decided, or someone forgetting to amend the Steam store page; basically, I view it as a largely benign issue (personally) that should be sorted within the next 3-4 weeks or so, judging by the roadmap they’ve released (see above).
Another controversy/issue that should be addressed is the game’s similarity to the COH2/DOW2 formulas. Iron Harvest has been called (sometimes disparagingly, sometimes not) “COH2 with mechs” and there’s some truth to that.
Actually, in an objective way it can be a harsh comparison for Iron Harvest to endure. While the mechs and heroes in IH are more diverse than COH2 can offer, infantry combat is FAR deeper in COH2, with smoke, varying kinds of mine, varying kinds of weapon on infantry, minesweepers, wirecutters, delayed charges, OKW cars that can suppress infantry, et cetera. Smoke especially as a counter system for MG crews, and the increased diversity of grenade and weapon types, are nods in Company of Heroes 2’s favor.
Additionally, garrisoning is a much clearer system in COH2… I think you get the point.
And yet, strangely enough, for me, I’m really digging Iron Harvest right now. I’ve heard people say that playing IH makes them want to play COH2, and that, at this point, hasn’t been the case for me so far. The heroes, item pickups, mech variety… maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s the novelty? I’m not sure. Something feels more immediate about Iron Harvest to me, less fiddly in a way? In some ways it almost plays more like DOW2 than a Company of Heroes game, with its focus on hero units and players’ ability to contest anywhere on the map equally without worrying about territory connectivity. And yet, damage in IH is more forgiving than either of those games in a way.
I guess, ultimately, mileage might vary. Iron Harvest will prove too similar to COH2 or DOW2 to some, too different to others. I (and many other fans of the game) have been having fun with it on its own merits, and I think will continue to do so as the game matures over the coming weeks and months.
On my Discord server, I’ve had conversations with several other players of Iron Harvest, and I agree with one in particular. I find something joyous about Iron Harvest that I haven’t experienced in RTS for a little while now. Maybe, probably, that’s just something internal to me and a handful of other players. But I’m rolling with it. I’m riding along with that good feeling, and engaging in some delightful dieselpunk battles along the way. But personally, Iron Harvest has been a good game for me, and I’m greatly enjoying it, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that Zubov and I will have some good times together for years to come.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the battlefield. You can see a selection of my screenshots below: