STAFF REVIEW of They Are Billions (Xbox One)

Friday, August 9, 2019.
by Adam Dileva

They Are Billions Box art I initially wasn’t quite sure what to make of They Are Billions. It’s described as a Steampunk strategy RTS, which is technically true, but it also has a flavor of Tower Defense in certain ways. You’re tasked with simply surviving an eventual horde of zombies, but to do so you’ll need to build your colony so that everyone inside its walls are safe, as a single mistake can infect and destroy everything.

They Are Billions lives up to its name, as when the Horde does eventually charge, provided you can survive until then, the screen will literally be filled with thousands of zombies. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, you’ll excel if you’re a fan of RTS games, as you’ll need to manage resources and base build, but when it comes to RTS titles on console, very few games have gotten down the mouse and keyboard transition to controller right. I wish I could say They Are Billions was on this list of controller friendly gameplay, but unfortunately I’m unable to currently.

Narrative wise, there’s absolutely nothing here aside from simply surviving and defending your home base. There’s no campaign to speak of at all. That being said, there is a full-fledged campaign with the PC version, but on console, it’s completely absent. While it’s most likely of a when, and not if, as to when campaign will get added to the Xbox One version, at the time of this writing, there is only a single Survival Mode to play, so keep that in mind when deciding to purchase.

Instead of a typical RTS top down view, They Are Billions is played in an isometric 2.5D perspective. You’re able to zoom in very close, seeing individual units and zombies, but also zoom out to see just how many zombies are approaching your camp walls at once. The Steampunk aesthetic fits the dark and gloomy setting, as does the artistic style with its cartoonish style of character design.

Every game you begin in Survival mode is built as a randomly generated world. Your base is placed randomly within the map, sometimes in a great position near a bunch of water and nodes to harvest from, other times, well, you’ll be struggling a lot more when the random placement doesn’t work for you.

Truth be told, I’m generally quite terrible at RTS games; always have been. A feature that is specifically made for me is the ability to ‘real time pause’. This means the game is still running, but events and actions are paused. I can use this feature to figure out what I want to build and where, setting up the plots, without having to constantly worry about zombie swarms until I’m ready. With how difficult the controls are, which I’ve delve into shortly, this feature made the gameplay somewhat more bearable until I got the hang of it over hours of trial and error.

You’ll need resources to do nearly anything though, from wood, iron, stone, food and more. To gather you’ll need to have specific buildings in place that are in range of nodes and not blocking others. To build these structures though, you’ll also need resources, so it’s a cycle of resource management. You can also eventually upgrade buildings, so you’ll need to keep an eye on many things at once, even your energy costs.

It’s a lot to take in, and the main problem is that there’s absolutely no tutorial of any sorts. So when I started my first Survival game, I became quickly overrun by a swarm, unable to figure out what happened or how to prevent it. It took me a good handful of hours to really dig in and want to learn what does what, and I’m not sure everyone will have the same patience to do so. A basic tutorial of how to build, navigate the clumsy controller setup, how to successfully build defenses and more, would have gone a long way to have me enjoying They Are Billions from my first game instead of hours of frustration from the beginning.

Until you start to grasp the many intricacies of how to properly build a base and survive, you’re going to fail a lot. What’s worse, a single stray zombie that bypasses your defenses can completely destroy your whole base and cause a game over. As soon as a zombie infects one of your buildings, it will quickly spread to the rest, making them unusable until fixed, though at that point, the damage has been done. Your workers and population will also turn, making it impossible to contain once the infection spreads, so you need to make sure you defenses are impenetrable.

You can send your protectors to explore the map for more resources, or defend your base, it’s up to you. These attackers will be your best defense against the zombie horde, which is impressive given that up to 20,000 units each have their own AI at any given time; and no, I didn’t accidentally add a few 0’s there. When you see the horde for the first time, it’s an actual horde and quite impressive, though good luck surviving it.

Survival mode has you trying to last a certain amount of days, with numerous difficulty options and map types once unlocked. There’s also a Challenge mode that gets rotated weekly. Here, everyone will play the same exact map, vying for a high score on the leaderboards. It’s an interesting way to promote competition in a single player survival mode.

Where it starts to fall apart, almost instantly, is from its control scheme. Initially a PC title, They Are Billions was clearly designed for mouse and keyboard gameplay. The remapping onto a controller simply doesn’t work intuitively, and even after hours of gameplay, I was still making mistakes with button presses, accidentally deleting buildings because I forgot to deselect it with a different button, and never was able to accurately select individual units or setup hotkeys.

While very few RTS games on console have nailed the controller scheme, it is possible, but They Are Billions is probably one of the worst and most cumbersome I’ve experienced yet. That doesn’t mean the game itself is terrible, but when you can’t control it properly and do what you want on the fly without having to really think, or simply guess, it doesn’t work fluidly and effects the fun factor. That being said, They Are Billions does support Mouse and Keyboard play on Xbox One, which is a great gesture, but it feels as though it’s absolutely necessary if you want any chance at being successful. You won’t be able to sit on the coach and relax with a match or two of Survival if you’re planning on just using a controller sad to say.

On top of controller issues, there’s also times where you’ll have some massive slowdown. I can only assume it’s from when a lot of action is happening on screen, or in the background, but it happened more than a handful of times to be noteworthy. The biggest offence though is the complete lack of any campaign. Sure, if Survival Mode is your thing, you’ll be content with randomly generated maps, but for those that want more, it’s not going to hold your attention for too long, even less if you don’t have a spare keyboard and mouse to play properly with.

It feels great when you survive a swarm that is stopped at your walls, but when you lose a game because of one stray zombie that manages to infiltrate your walls, it’s quite frustrating, as it’s as if you need to play absolutely perfectly to succeed. With a proper tutorial to teach you how to play, and a campaign, I would have enjoyed They Are Billions immensely more, but in its current state on Xbox One, it simply feels empty and a work in progress.

If you have a mouse and keyboard to play with, then They Are Billions can be an entertaining time once you’ve learned its mechanics and strategies; if you’re going to play with just a controller though, I’d recommend at least waiting until an update with a campaign is added to make the value more worthwhile having to deal with the frustration.

Overall: 6.5 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 6.5 / 10


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