Nobody would argue that zombies haven’t been done to death. They definitely have. They’ve invaded everything from the lowest-rated movies and TV all the way up to prestige gaming in The Last of Us and prestige television in The Walking Dead. Nowadays, being a zombie game is almost an immediate mark in the Negative column for many people (see Days Gone, the PS4 exclusive that had a variety of problems, lack of originality being a major one).
However, when used wisely, zombies can provide a nice backdrop to an already-entertaining experience. They Are Billions accomplishes that goal in the real-time strategy space quite nicely.
They Are Billions is a single-player real-time strategy game that drops you straight into a broken world post-zombie apocalypse and tasks you with building a society strong enough to fend off the zombie hordes. With a decidedly steampunk aesthetic and fairly easy-to-learn mechanics, within a few attempts you’ll find yourself constructing a bustling civilization, with state-of-the-art industry and defense, and you’ll get to enjoy it for a little bit before a horde of zombies completely destroys you.
The main game mode is Survival, which plays out just like I described. You start with a command center that generates money periodically. You’ll use that money to craft living quarters for residents, which provides workers. You’ll then use those workers to construct resource-gathering buildings, such as quarries and fisheries. Each new layer feeds off of the previous. Dwellings lead to workers lead to resources. Then, once you’ve got a basic civilization set up, you’ll need to focus on expanding it. More people means more mouths to feed. More mouths to feed means you’ll need more living space. More living space means pushing out into the wilderness, never sure when a zombie attack might occur.
And zombies will attack. You can set the difficulty level by choosing the number of days you need to survive. The more days, the easier it is, since there are the same number of zombies regardless of the time frame you choose; more time equals more spaced-out zombie attacks equals fewer flung controllers. While you’ll be able to fight back at least the first few zombie raids, eventually you’re going to get overwhelmed. They’ll tear down your fences, kill your soldiers. Once they’ve invaded one of your dwellings, it’s pretty much all over. Zombies beget zombies, per common zombie lore, and your former citizens will turn on you and devour each other. It is truly startling how fast it can spread if you let even a single zombie through your defenses. That’s why you need to build smart.
Constructing your civilization is the most compelling part of the experience. The risk/reward of expanding your potential living area is thrilling, and the fact that you need to get energy to a potential piece of new land before you can build adds an additional layer of intensity. I would frequently drop a Tesla Tower (the game’s standard means of expanding your territory into the surrounding area) at the edge of my encampment and anxiously wait for it to be built, particularly since I couldn’t yet begin fencing the area I was getting ready to expand upon.
Eventually, you’ll need to expand your military forces beyond the scant few soldiers you start with. Soldiers come in different classes, such as Ranger and Sniper, and each brings its own strengths and weaknesses to the table. Rangers in particular are fun to play around with in the early game, as their fast movement will allow you to take some time to explore the map outside, finding resources like batteries and food that you can bring home. Once you can build a military installation, you’ll be able to train new soldiers to join the ranks.
Combat is fairly straightforward. Select your troops and move them near an enemy, and the fight begins automatically. You can issue other orders to your troops, having them patrol a certain area, for example, or you can move them into position manually and get them ready to go. Unfortunately, your troops tend to blend in with your normal civilians a little too well, and I frequently had a hard time locating them to issue them orders. I tried finding help online for this, and people suggested I use the “keyboard shortcut” to select all troops, and herein lies my biggest issue with the game.
I’m playing the version on the PS4, which just hit stores last week. Almost nothing has been done to make this game user friendly with a controller. To be fair, the game does give you the option of plugging in a mouse and keyboard to your PlayStation, but obviously I’m not going to do that. My PlayStation is a living room device, and I (and many) don’t have the sort of setup that makes a keyboard and mouse viable in the living room. Selecting specific things is tricky when your mouse pointer is controlled with an analog stick. Selecting multiple things is even trickier. This is a game that is optimally played on the PC. Unless you’re planning to do the old mouse and keyboard trick with your console, I’d say steer clear and grab it on Steam.
By focusing on single-player gameplay, They Are Billions removes a potential barrier to entry for new players. No need to worry about being outmatched by crazy-skilled players who have been at it for years; just worry about the A.I.-controlled zombies trying to ruin your day. There is a weekly challenge mode where players can compete to outlast other players, but the game is still decidedly single player.
They Are Billions doesn’t do a ton that’s truly new, but it does what it does particularly well. If you’re not set on playing an RTS against other players, this is a great way to spend some time. That is, assuming you’re not completely over zombies already.