The classic real time strategy game is becoming a bit of an endangered species these days. Many strategy game developers have veered into one of two camps: conquest-driven grand strategy games like Civilization and Total War, or squad-based tactics games like XCOM or Doorkickers. Through all this, it’s heartening that two of the original pioneers of RTS are still carrying the flag for a much cherished genre. The first is Blizzard, who are about to put out the third and final chapter of Starcraft II. The second is Petroglyph, comprised of many former employees of legendary Command & Conquer developer Westwood Studios. Petroglyph, having had a respectable amount of success with classic RTS games Star Wars: Empire at War and Universe at War, went on a couple of misadventures dabbling in MMOs, such as the ill fated Battle of Graxia and Mytheon. Their latest offering, the science fiction RTS game Grey Goo, presents a very strong return to form , and is perhaps the most ambitious title put out by the C&C alums since Red Alert 2.
Right off the bat, Grey Goo has a fascinating premise that manifests itself well in both gameplay and story. The story behind the origins of the Goo, as well as its nature as an unfeeling, all-consuming mass of nanotechnological horror makes for a very compelling story. True to their C&C roots, Petroglyph have crafted some of the most compelling story cutscenes in RTS history. This is especially apparent in the human campaign, as the characters Lucy Tak and Redgrave look so lifelike that at certain points I wasn’t sure if they used live actors or not. The voice acting, by that token, is also top notch, and I wound up being more invested in the plot and more compelled to play the story campaign than any RTS I’d played in a very long time. It’s clear that Grey Goo is the first chapter of a much larger story, and while the storytelling doesn’t take on the scale of larger budgeted games like Starcraft II or Red Alert 3, the game’s highly original antagonist and narrative focal point, the Goo, makes up for it.
Gameplay wise, Grey Goo is clearly designed for veteran RTS gamers in mind. Every unit and building has a very, very specific purpose, and within a few minutes into the campaign I quickly found out that wasting so much as a few seconds fumbling about with indecision was often a fatal mistake. Petroglyph have clearly taken a lot of cues from Blizzard’s RTS philosophy, as units and structures are expensive and take considerable time to build, and a 200 population cap ensures that you can’t go building units willy nilly.
I was also impressed by the way the UI was designed, as it incorporates unit and structure build menus in a way that allows them to be instantly summoned by the QWERTY keys. This allows you to quickly construct units, buildings and upgrades without having to even scroll back to your base or figure out which building does what. Very crucially, however, is that you can order your production buildings to autobuild units that you want. So in spite of the game’s slow and rigid pace, by carefully balancing your income and expenditures, you could amass an army in a relatively short amount of time.
Units also have access to a number of behaviors, such as patrol, hold ground, and guard, so there’s really no excuse for getting whooped in a match, as Grey Goo affords you all the tools to construct your base and destroy your opponent in the most unobtrusive way possible.
Although Grey Goo has skirmish and multiplayer, I felt that the heart of the game lies in its story campaign. It is a singular narrative that has you play one faction at a time, starting with the Betas, followed by the humans, and ending with the Goo. Each of the missions have varied objectives that, more often than not, involve something besides “Kill all enemies.”
While many RTS games’ single player campaigns are little more than target practice, where the enemy AI hardly makes an effort to destroy you, Grey Goo’s campaign enemy AI means business. This became very apparent in just the second mission, in which I was attacked within seconds of the mission starting and was promptly annihilated because I spent too much time being paralyzed with indecision. One especially challenging mission in the Beta campaign had me defending my base from an endless wave of Goo while subsisting on a diminishing resource field. I had to restart this mission numerous times because at some point I would make a fatal mistake of spending too much of my limited resources building unnecessary units and structures. The game doesn’t waste any time walking you through its design, leaving all of that to an in-game encyclopedia, so you can expect to learn it by dying quite a few times.
One flaw that is quite apparent was that two of the three factions, the Betas and Humans, play way too similarly to one another. They both have modular defensive structures, similar anti-light and heavy units, and identical production buildings. The only notable difference between the two is that the humans have to construct conduit lines stemming from their headquarters in order to build structures, while the Beta can build theirs almost anywhere, but must attach them to hubs that can only hold a certain number of structures. I did, however, find it to be an interesting twist that the human faction didn’t feature any human units; apparently by this point, all of humanity’s armies have been replaced by AI powered drones.
The Goo, on the other hand, play unlike anything I’ve experienced in RTS. Instead of having structures, the Goo start off with a single mother goo that, over time, will grow in mass. As it gets larger, different sized chunks of it can be broken off, which in turn can be used to form different units. Many of these units have an eerie, unsettling look to them; a sort of uncanny-valley quality that elicited a level of discomfort in me that I rarely feel. I was especially creeped out by the Bastion unit, a defensive unit whose appearance I can’t even begin to describe.
Although they lack an airforce, many of the Goo’s units are capable of climbing over uneven and elevated terrain that none of the Beta or Human ground units can. This is a huge tactical advantage, as Grey Goo prioritizes high ground by rendering units on lower elevation unable to see units on higher elevation. The Goo’s units are also quite unique; the afore-mentioned Bastion functions as a mobile defensive wall, the Dweller is a walking landmine that can split off into two additional units once it explodes, and crescent can climb over rough terrain while launching long ranged bombs that leave damage-dealing substance in the area.
The Goo faction’s design is such that a skilled player could potentially dominate others decisively. The lack of fixed structures means that the Goo can move all over the map from resource field to resource field while building up an army. Their units, while physically frail, can do tremendous damage if kept out of harms way. I found this out the hard way during the Beta campaign when my entire airforce of eight bombers was instantly annihilated by a couple of salvos from two Tempests, and during the human campaign when my entire ground force was decimated by a pair of Crescents. The faction’s lack of structures also means that, far more than the humans and Betas, a Goo player can very easily escape defeat by stashing a single mother Goo somewhere on the map and having it secretly amass an army by itself while the enemy is busy attacking the primary force.
Grey Goo’s biggest flaw doesn’t reside with a particular feature or department; it’s simply the fact that it doesn’t bring any groundbreaking new features to the RTS table. Instead, it is essentially a no-nonsense, bare bones RTS game that could hypothetically make a good candidate for professional gaming. Many of the units have very distinct functions that require that they all support one another, so there’s very little room for the kind of experimentation you would find in, say Red Alert 3, in which you could adopt a strategy using only your airforce. There’s little room for unorthodox tactics like an engineer rush or stealing resources with a spy, as each of the faction’s ten or so units are designed to complement one another in a united offensive. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if two out of three of these factions didn’t play so similarly to one another, and as a result Grey Goo sometimes feels like an RTS game from the mid 90s instead of the mid 2000s.
The Final Verdict
Grey Goo, aside from these shortcomings, is a superbly designed, albeit spartan RTS game whose strongest aspects are the most understated. These are things like the expertly crafted UI, the strict emphasis on resource management and the rock-paper-scissors nature of every unit, and the tools that allow you to macromanage your fight without getting hung up on the details. It definitely feels like a very well crafted base game from which Petroglylph could expand on through additional story campaigns, units and maps, and I certainly hope that they do. As it stands, there’s not much to draw in players unfamiliar with the genre or are casual to it, but hardcore strategy gamers looking for a no-nonsense RTS with an excellent story campaign to boot will find much to like.
+Excellent story campaign and cutscenes
+Emphasizes macromanagement well
+Goo faction is terrifying and unique
-Beta and Human factions are far too similar
-Very spartan design that won’t attract non-hardcore players