Iron Harvest: Pre-Season Hands On Impressions
Iron Harvest is a classic-RTS game by King Art Games that has just launched an Open Beta. I was quite enamored by the diesel-punk idea and of course a game that could be the spiritual successor to the greatest RTS of all time, Company of Heroes. Only you know, with big stompy retro-mechs. What’s not to love.
Turns out, quite a lot. Which is a crying shame as I really want this game to do well.
Let’s qualify everything you’re about to read first: this is the pre-season demo. No, I’m not quite sure what that means either, but nevertheless, that is where we are. The devs are using this to help them optimise the game and test it prior to release, which could be a very sensible approach.
The premise itself is an interesting one. It’s 1920’s in a fictional (but equivalent world) where a number of large (thinly veiled) powers are clashing. Each side has their own tech, their own aesthetic and it looks lovely. The art is amazing. The units and maps look amazing, it’s genuinely a world you want to get stuck into.
As a direct comparison Company of Heroes is a good place to start. A lot of the game is very similar to that and I think unfortunately that that may be Iron Harvest’s undoing. When the comparisons to another game are unavoidable you have to be as good as, if not better than that game. Iron Harvest, as it stands, is not.
What’s the issue then?
Well primarily it’s down to the way you interact with the game. Your troops never quite do what you want them to. The instances of them jumping over cover to attack someone and getting mercilessly mowed-down are too numerous to recount. It almost makes cover irrelevant, which is clearly an issue. It’s also never quite obvious what is cover and which isn’t, as sometimes you think the item you’re at should provide cover only for it to resolutely, not. It seem’s they’ve decided where cover is (to the pixel) and if you don’t click on it exactly… well then kiss your troops goodbye. It’s testament to Company of Heroes that everything just works the way it does to such an extent that you don’t have to worry about what your troops are doing, as they follow your orders, when it doesn’t work that way it’s very noticeable. There’s definitely room for improvement here in Iron Harvest.
Attacking is hit and miss too- Iron Harvest introduces melee attacks which add an interesting extra dimension to the proceedings. Unfortunately I’ve had troops with rifles charge half way across a map to enter into melee range when I ordered them to attack. They’ll also switch between the two randomly, obviously at the worst possible moments. It adds to the cover issues making controlling and martialing your troops even harder. Often you’ll have enemy in cover and more attacking close range. Well, enjoy watching your troops being picked off by those behind cover, as your troops charge out of theirs to engage in hand to hand combat. It’s…. frustrating.
It only gets worse when squads are entrenched in buildings or structures where your units appear to take more damage than if outside. I’ve played around with this a few times (save-scumming) and 9 times out of 10 more units die in an engagement when entrenched. That should not be.
The controls are problematic as well and i had to alter most the presets to get it into a place where i wasn’t constantly rotating the wrong way or clicking the wrong thing, now I’m 100% happy to say that that could just be down to my lizard brain, but it stuck out and added another barrier to getting into the actual game.
While we’re speaking of a barrier to get into the game…. The tutorial/opening section is just too long, by far. It starts out in a very clever way; you’re playing snowball fights with some kids and as such learning about movement and attacking in a ‘safe’ environment. I genuinely think this is a great idea and it’s a nice take on the more classic tutorial. That they also use it to show you about the campaigns main character too is very clever and you quickly find yourself warming to Anna Kros (who has a bear. Yes, a bear). Unfortunately it goes on just for far too long and path-finding issues with your character rob it of any real sense of learning or progress. Half the time I just gave up moving to the right positions and kept clicking the ‘go away’ button on the ‘enemy’ to progress.
Just when you think you’re done, another tutorial starts with Anna’s brother and you’re back in the grind. And it does feel a grind. This is not a good thing in a tutorial.
Part of the issue is the story.
King Art Games have made much of the extensive story and while it can often be a boon, for me, it just gets in the way here. It’s too long, too… invasive. There’s an odd dichotomy here, looking at the Steam page and a lot of the marketing material, the game seems to be being positioned as a traditional RTS, but i’m not sure that’s what King Art Games are actually trying to do. Sure there is an RTS there, but the story appears to be their primary focus, with the RTS just being the vehicle to support that. So, if you go into the campaign expecting to get into the business of actually fighting the war by building your army and base, then you might struggle.
If you’re after a more story-lead affair then you may end up enjoying it more, though I do still worry that the mix of story and RTS on display here is too heavily weighted towards the former and may get in the way of the gameplay a little bit too much. As with all things there’s a balance, and I think it’s just off for me here.
If i’m honest, after a while I gave up. I got to the fourth identical encounter in a village at the start of the game and just couldn’t face ploughing on anymore. I was still using weak humans and hadn’t even seen a stopmy-mech (outside a cutscene). My units kept dying by stubbornly refusing to use cover and the narrative was getting to me. Frankly, I was bored.
So I jumped into a skirmish to try to see if the game could stand on it’s own without all the baggage that’s been thrust on it. How does this RTS actually perform as an RTS. The answer I’m afraid is not very well. The comparison to Company of Heroes is completely unavoidable here. Given the tutorial didn’t actually teach you much, and we never got to the stage in the game where we could even build a base, there was a steep learning curve to the skirmishes. This is made even harder by the sheer brutality of the AI. It’s not particularly smart; all attacks effectively boil down to rushing you- but it does have one major advantage: it knows the build queue.
As a result you’ll be rushed by massively superior troops before you’ve even captured half the local nodes. This is not fun- but at least is eminently fixable. The other more intrinsic issues, I worry are not.
There’s also a slew of technical issues. Mostly limited to graphical and performance; with the anti-aliasing not working, massive game freezes when switching to menu’s, sound problems and sluggishness when the camera pans. It just adds on-top of everything and for me, became the point when I stopped. It’s death by a thousand cuts and it just becomes too much.
So where does that leave us? Well, for now I’d stay clear. There’s potential here for a fun and interesting game. Unfortunately as it stands it is neither.
Keep half an eye on it for sure to see what changes the devs might make during the pre-season, but I won’t be rushing to buy this just yet.