[Editor’s Note: This review and score cover only the multiplayer of Iron Harvest; you can read our review of the single-player campaign here.]
Iron Harvest’s multiplayer is a unique take on the tactical real-time strategy game. It tries a new mix of balance of strategy, tactics, and speed that works in some ways, but is frustrating in others. Like I said in the single-player review, this is a very ambitious game, and the multiplayer has that same ambition – but it’s not quite as well realized here. There are only six maps at launch, for example, though more are promised in the coming month. As it stands at launch the bigger ideas are fun, but the deliberate balancing just isn’t there yet.
There are three factions: Light, fast, harassing Polania with its long-range units; fearsome Saxony with its damage-resistant mechs that rarely give up ground; and Rusviet, the fierce, close-range fighters who specialize in finding and exploiting an enemy’s weak points. The balance between the factions is pretty good, though some factions suffer in specific ways more than others. Rusviet, for example, has to rely on infantry or heroes for anti-armor since their mechs aren’t very good at it.
Iron Harvest’s basic rules are familiar: You build a very simple base composed of only three kinds of buildings. You must capture points to get resources, and can win the game by getting enough victory points or by destroying the enemy base. Defense is far less important than offense, and though you can build bunkers and mines they’re too static for the fast-moving matches and rarely see play. The adage that “the best defense is a good offense” is well-used here.
Iron Harvest has the appearance of a highly tactical RTS, rather than a strategic one, but it’s really somewhere in between. The tactical elements are there: Flanking, cover, and positioning matter quite a bit in individual battles. However, the interactions between units are ultimately too simple, and almost any form of defense requires you to babysit your units. The outcome of a fight between any given pair of units is simple enough that the importance of strategic actions, like economic management, is greater than in other tactical games because each spare unit of iron or oil could mean victory or defeat.
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In fact, if you’re an RTS fan, you probably already noticed that Iron Harvest looks a lot like Company of Heroes. It draws a lot of inspiration from the first Company of Heroes game, and from Relic’s first two Dawn of War games, but much less from the more nuanced, granular upgrades and combat in Company of Heroes 2.
Many of the things I spoke about in the single-player review carry over to the multiplayer: Iron Harvest looks good in motion, it’s fun to control, the terrain destructibility is unparalleled. But here, there are more interesting differences between the factions than you see in single-player. Take the differences between basic troops: Polanians have rifles, Saxonians have SMGs, and Rusviets have shotguns. This means that, in the early game, the Rusviet benefit from aggressive rushes, the Polanians want to set up defensive ambushes from cover, and the Saxonians want to keep their enemy at mid-range.
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The tactical RTS is a subgenre where the majority of your time is spent telling units what to do, as opposed to base building, and Iron Harvest definitely focuses on fighting. Because of that, 1v1 matches usually take a little more than 20 minutes to play out, and generally you can just add 10 minutes per extra pair – up to 3v3 matches at 40 minutes. With such short matches, the sheer speed of your actions provides an advantage over others, and all else being equal, in my experience a faster player will usually beat a more strategic player.
Heroes, in particular, are not new to RTS games but are a neat addition to the tactical RTS formula. Iron Harvest’s range of characters fills a variety of roles across every faction, enabling strategies that wouldn’t otherwise work for that group. Polania, for example, has a powerful harasser in the early game with its sniper Anna on the field, as she can hit hard at a distance and her bear Wojtek carries supplies to heal friendly infantry. Take Michal Sikorski’s cavalry unit instead and Polania’s speed comes to the fore, with Sikorski leading flank attacks to devastate slow enemies. Or maybe you’d prefer Lech Kos in his gorilla-like mech, a powerful mid-to-late-game melee combatant that’s able to take down all but the largest enemy mechs on his own.
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Taking flags gives you victory points, while taking iron and oil mines gives you resources. Because static defenses are so weak, no source of resources is ever secure, so you must constantly move to either defend your refineries or threaten your opponent’s. Here’s another key difference from Company of Heroes: Resource points can be taken and exploited at any time – they’re not attached to distinct map areas that can be cut off. Weapon ranges are quite short, and maps are very small, so nearly everything is under threat at all times. In contrast to that, the time-to-kill, and expense, of a unit is quite high, so retreating from a bad fight is often the best option.
There is a retreat button which sends units right back to your base, but it’s important to note that retreating doesn’t make your units faster or confer any protection from damage as it does in Company of Heroes, and you can’t cancel it once you start, but it does allow them to ignore suppressive fire from automatic weapons. It’s not very intuitive, but if you’re fast enough to micromanage it then manually retreating is best. (Unless you’re using retreat to escape from machine guns!) Mechs can retreat too but it’s risky: Most mechs take extra damage when hit from behind, and with no speed boost slow mechs are just lumbering targets. Again, it’s not very intuitive, but you’re often better off using C+Right Click to force a mech to move in reverse.
The early minutes of each match are vital, as you skirmish with the enemy for resource points, victory flags, resource caches, and equipment crates around the map. Resource caches give you either a fast burst of the resource in question, allowing for early game strategies at the cost of long-term income. Crates drop a weapon system so your infantry can change type – the same way they can change type by picking up a fallen enemy’s weapons. Crucially, picking up a new weapon changes the entire infantry squad to the new kind of weapon. If an engineer squad picks up cannons, they lose all their building powers and become anti-armor soldiers.
On some team maps the speed of your scouts practically determines the match’s outcome: If your opponent gets to the crate with machine guns before you do then there’s nothing to be done about it. (Infantry picking up new weapons aren’t stopped by being shot.) Since resource income is rate-based over time, if your team can’t hold or contest at least half the resource points on the map you’ll fall unrecoverably behind. It means the start of a match is tight and tense, but not so chaotic that you lose control of what’s going on.
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As a match goes on the pace of Iron Harvest picks up rapidly and the number of units in the fight grows significantly. Many will die simply because you can’t order them around fast enough, and the UI for controlling more than 10 or so at a time is cumbersome. Once the leader gets ahead there’s very little an opponent can do to catch up 1v1, barring a slick tactical coup (which is possible but difficult given the unit balancing).
I only ended a handful of my matches through victory points – most came from destroying my opponent’s base by either pulling off a key counter-play after seeing their strategy or denying them resources through superior micromanagement. That’s mostly how I lost, too. For example, I liked to make lots of infantry to bait out an anti-infantry mech purchase from my opponent, but keep enough in reserve for a surprise anti-armor mech myself… and that was often enough to decide the game. It’s another big departure from Company of Heroes, and I don’t think it’s a good one.
Another other significant change from the Company of Heroes formula is much more fun: Melee combat. When ordered to, Infantry – and a few mechs – can engage each other using fists, bayonets, and blades. It’s a neat tactical option that can be used to lock down enemy units and prevent them from shooting at crucial allies. For example, engineers and medics only have pistols, but if backed up by regular infantry they can charge and distract an enemy in melee while their allies do the real damage. Plus, you can use Wojtek the bear to kill an enemy mech, and there are few things better than a bear taking down a mech.
Units are one of four “weight” classes: Unarmored, Light, Medium, or Heavy, and each unit deals a varying amount of damage to each other class. So a heavy machine gun does good damage against an Unarmored or Light target, but barely scratches a Medium or Heavy one. Damage is also flat, with practically no randomization involved. Additionally, there aren’t many soft-counters, like an anti-tank weapon in a larger infantry squad or mixed weapon types on a single walker. That means the majority of units, especially the infantry, are so single-purpose that combat feels deterministic. You can often tell how a fight would play out absent tactics, and if you don’t have the right counter available no amount of tactics will save you. That’s true to some extent in almost every RTS, but it’s even more pronounced here.
It’s all a bit rock-paper-scissors, and just too simple for a game that’s about combat over economy and building. Infantry and light mech battles can be interesting because each does good damage to the other if the infantry is making good use of cover and swapping weapons – at least situationally.
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Once machine gun teams, anti-armor cannons, and high-tier mechs come out, though? Well, suffice to say that combat gets far less interesting in the back half of a match. For many of the units the only way to win is with a bigger mech or a much larger force, with combat devolving into a brawl determined by whomever has bigger guns rather than brains. It’s an environment where variations of a “death blob” strategy of throwing everything you have at the enemy, with minimal micromanagement, thrive. It’s not just boring to play, but actively demoralizing to play against when you think your idea should turn the tide… and has no impact.
This is the biggest place where strategy outshines tactics, and neglecting it can easily be a game-ending mistake. Putting together the right unit composition lets you shut your opponent down so effectively that they’ll never recover… because they simply can’t. The maps are small enough, and captured quick enough, that you can exploit a significant enemy defeat to seize half the map or more, which gives you all the resources they’d need to come back. Likewise, if your timing is off, or you spend resources on the wrong unit, the pace is so fast that you can’t easily recover. High game speed puts an emphasis on overall strategy. This is supposed to be a tactical RTS, right?
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Well… it is. It’s just unforgiving. It’s a clockwork of game systems that are wound so tightly they get caught on the loose bits, and that doesn’t feel like purposeful design.
What is innovative game design, and what saves Iron Harvest’s multiplayer from stagnating into an obvious metagame, are the hero units and the reserves system. At the start of each match you choose a mix of units and a single hero out of three for each faction, to appear across two waves of reserves. These waves are purchased from HQ for large chunks of resources, and they can include stuff you don’t even have the required buildings to create yourself yet. It’s a source of units you can base your entire strategy around, and getting a hero out early or deploying a wave of super-heavy armor in the mid-game can shut your opponent down hard.