Iron Harvest certainly does a good job of making itself appealing to any RTS fan. Set in an alternative 1920’s, Iron Harvest mixes infantry with hulking diesel-powered mechs that stomp across the landscape. It’s all inspired by polish artist Jakub Rozalski’s 1920+ series of paintings, which also acted as inspiration for an excellent board game by the name of Scythe. The result is awesome to watch. As squads of gunmen slam into cover and open fire, a massive mech will power into the frame and begin unloading artillery rounds. Mechanically, these machines of war are not vastly different from regular tanks in how they behave, but they sure do look a hell of a lot cooler, don’t they?
There’s a lot of Company of Heroes within Iron Harvest, from the pacing of matches to the heavy focus on cover and capturing points on the map to attain victory. In fact, you could almost claim this to be an excellent fan-made mod of Relic’s games, so similar does the moment to moment action feel, at least initially.
Hopefully, it’ll also follow a similar trajectory, because like Company of Heroes 2 at launch, Iron Harvest is very promising, but hasn’t managed to realize that promise. Over time I hope King Art Games can build this into something special. For now, it’s a reasonable RTS with a great visual style and some solid foundations. It can be better.
We also need to address some shady practices that have come from either the developers or the publishers regarding promises made that were not kept. The Steam page also lists things like full co-op campaign, Steam achievements and controller support, none of which currently exists. The developers say those things are coming (the co-op campaign is promised in the next few weeks) but no effort has been made to adjust the Steam page. That is, quite simply, false advertisement, and yet despite the angry outcry of those who backed the game’s development on Kickstarter and those who purchased the game based on the Steam page, King Art Games has refused to adjust the store page.
One thing that Iron Harvest focuses on and does quite well at is bringing back the old fashioned RTS campaign. It takes around 20-30 hours to complete the three faction campaigns, kicking off with Polania. The story picks up with Ana Koss whose brother dies fighting the Rusviets in the Great War. Years later, the war is over, but Rusviet has occupied a huge swathe of Polania. They come to Ana’s village and take her father away, and so Ana heads out with her trusty bear Wojtek (based on the real bear of the same name who was part of the Polish military. Look him up, he’s awesome) to rescue him, and winds up helping the Polanian resistance.
From there we get a tale of secret organizations seeking to undermine the fragile state of the world, which is still reeling from the great war. The story is mostly predictable and is almost comically overacted at times. For that reason, I’d advise switching on the native language voice acting with subtitles which makes a much better experience. Despite not being all that terrific, the story is weirdly charming and engaging with a few fun dramatic turns along the way.
Likewise, the objective design is fairly predictable but executed rather well. There are missions where you’ll pick up troops along the way, missions where you can build a base and there’s even a couple of stealth sections. You’ve probably played it before, but it’s all done nicely enough and results in a solid campaign structure.
With that said, there are some harsh difficulty spikes. Hell, I found myself struggling on Easy sometimes, especially since the enemy in the campaign doesn’t appear to follow the same rules as the player. This isn’t unusual – most RTS campaigns work this way, but this is perhaps the most aggressive and frustrating usage of these tricks I’ve seen. I’ve seen infantry and mechs pop into existence in an enemy base right in front of my own troops. They weren’t built from the base itself, they just appeared as a fighting force in the middle of my army. It’s a big fan of giving the enemy secondary bases, too, and even once they are destroyed units will continue to spawn in. The constant barrage of enemy forces makes achieving any forward progression feel like a grind, and tactics go out the window in favour of amassing as much units as possible to hurl at the enemy.
Across the campaign, skirmish mode, and online multiplayer you command three factions. They are fairly alike in some ways and distinctive in others. For example, Polania fields riflemen as their basic infantry who excel at longer ranges. Meanwhile, Saxony uses submachine guns for their standard squads, making them excellent at mid-range engagements. Finally, the Rusviets like to get up close and personal with shotguns. Each faction also gets their own mechanized infantry, plus a special unit, too, like flamethrower-wielding Rusviets who are ideal at wrecking infantry and buildings or Saxony’s medics.
Supporting the infantry are some specialist tools, like the field cannon. It’s slow to move around and has a limited firing arc, making positioning it key. It’s worth the effort, though, as a field cannon can decimate mechs and do some decent damage to infantry, too. But for dealing with soldiers the best choice is a heavy machine gun – again, its slow to move and has a firing arc once set up, but it can lay waste to any humans stupid enough to enter its cone of death. Finally, there are mortars for raining down death from afar. I like the balancing here; these units are powerful but are also slow to move, highly vulnerable to being flanked and quite expensive to produce. But if you get them to the frontline and use them correctly, they make a massive difference.
Cover plays a big role in Iron Harvest. Even basic infantry are surprisingly durable, but if you get them into cover they can hold out for ages. Unlike Company of Heroes, there’s partial cover or anything like that – infantry are either safely tucked away or they aren’t. And yet as vital as cover is, it also doesn’t tend to last very long thanks to the destructible environments. Even entire houses can be destroyed by the larger mechs, so during battles you constantly need to be keeping an eye on your troops in case their cover has been blasted away. And unlike some other RTS titles, squads won’t automatically seek out cover themselves when attacked, adding an extra layer of micromanagement.
But I’d argue that infantry is actually too durable. The daft A.I. will often charge through gunfire and take cover on the other side of the wall from your own troops, and suffer fairly minimal damage. Soldiers can also be ordered to get into melee combat, so a viable tactic is just to rush an entrenched position to tie up enemy squads in melee. The durability factor also means flanking isn’t as decisive as I’d personally like. Even when you get right behind an enemy squad in cover and open fire, they’ll still hold out for ages. Don’t get me wrong; positioning and cover are still vital to winning, but they aren’t as outright important as learning the very clear rock-paper-scissors structure that underpins the combat. Everything has a specific counter, so army composition often matters more than smart tactical thinking. Of course, it’s early days and as the meta-game develops online I will probably get proven completely wrong.
Infantry squads can be ordered to occupy buildings for extra defensive capabilities. It sounds good on paper, but in reality squads sacrifice so much offensive capability that they become, essentially, pointless. They’ll quickly be surrounded and decimated. Some balancing work needs to be done here so that infantry can more effectively make use of buildings.
The other defensive choices available in Iron Harvest have issues, too. Basic bunkers can be bodged together by Engineers and then garrisoned by troops. But like houses, so much attack power is sacrificed that this feels nearly useless. The heavy MG and heavy cannon bunkers fare better, but given their expense they feel too easily destroyed. They can also be easily wiped out by the long-ranged units in the game. But the most baffling thing is how bunkers contribute to the population cap. Presumably, the idea is so that players can’t just build insane defenses and use them to hide away, but throughout the campaign you barely have enough troops as it is without having to spend some of your population cap on bunkers.
It’s also worth noting that to build the better bunkers, Engineers have to be Veterans or Elites, and they can earn those ranks by building and repairing. Sandbags, barbed wire, and anti-tank mines contribute to this, but I found that actually getting a single Engineer squad leveled up was a real pain in the ass. Entire matches would go by without the more powerful defenses ever being built.
It’s within each faction’s six mechs that the most differences are found. Polania, for instance, has a walking tin can (could even be a Coke can) armed with machine guns that are perfect for suppressing troops. Its other basic mech has a giant rifle and is very speedy, making it good for hit and run attacks. The more advanced machinery includes a giant walking artillery piece and an anti-mech walker that’s slow to travel but packs a real punch. Meanwhile, Rusviet gets a giant mech with huge scythes on its arms. Because reasons. So far none of the mechs seem entirely dominant over the others, and all serve their roles on the battlefield well.
I also like that the mechs never overshadow the basic infantry. These walking death cans are expensive, and even getting the mech factory-built can take some time. Plus, a mech’s arse is much more vulnerable to attack, so your humble cannon-wielding troops are good for getting in a couple of sneaky shots. And if nothing, only infantry can capture resources crates, points and strategic areas.
However, I am a little disappointed that the mechs play a lot like regular tanks. They can’t take advantage of the terrain. Even the biggest mechs can’t just step up a small cliff that they are clearly much taller than, and they follow the same pathing as regular infantry for the most part. And while they can stomp sandbags into dust, they don’t harm infantry they walk over, although I’ll assume that’s for balance reasons.
Overall, there are some nice differences between the three factions, but in terms of overall tactics they are rather similar. This is a personal preference, but I like my factions to have distinctive styles.
There is one think that irks me about the moment to moment gameplay: there’s a palpable delay between issuing orders and units reacting. In the large mechs this makes sense thematically, but in the case of infantry, it’s often frustrating. It’s worse when employing something like grenades because they take several seconds to actually throw. You can’t cancel an ability, either, so it’s not unusual for an enemy squad to have wandered off before your own squad get’s around to tossing a grenade.
Outside of the campaign, you have the standard skirmish mode. Me and the developers clearly have a different view on what the term “vast” means, though The Steam page describes Iron Harvest as having a “vast “selection of maps. The reality is it has just 6 at launch. There are a couple more coming in the next few weeks, but it’s still a paltry selection. These maps offer a couple of 1v1 scenarios, two 2v2 layouts and one 3v3 map, and naturally you can set up teams, adjust the point limit, play around with starting resources and choose how big armies can get.
Scattered across the map are Oil and Steel mines that need to be captured for their resources. Just as important are the strategic points because holding them and building up victory points is typically the way you’ll win the match. Again, it’s very Company of Heroes and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s a system that works, and that creates some good back and forth action. Since defensive options are fairly limited, resource points are often captured and lost and captured and lost. Of course, you can also go and decimate the enemy base to end a match early, but base structures are surprisingly durable, so rarely did my matches end this way.
There’s an interesting twist in the form of reserves that you create before a match starts. Basically, you have a certain amount of tokens to spend on picking out a hero unit, and a few mechs or infantry squads. These can then be deployed during the game at a cost, and not only will they increase your population cap they also don’t count towards your unit limit themselves. This is a cool idea, and deploying your reserves at the right time can make a big difference.
The online side of an RTS can be a horrifying and nerve-wracking place to venture for newer players or even those who just don’t feel like they have much skill in the genre. A good A.I. is vital, then, so that people can build up their skills. Again, Iron Harvest disappoints a bit. Enemy A.I. doesn’t seem concerned with flanking, and will often run into a hail of bullets so it can take cover on the opposite side of a wall from your own soldiers. Pathing seems to be off with half a squad sometimes going in a completely different direction to reach the same destination. Engineers are especially bad about this when building barbed wire fences. Half the squad will end up on the other side of the fence and then have to run around the whole damn map to get back to safety. And I’d frequently jump back to a fight to find a squad of infantry just standing there while an enemy squad is shooting at them. In other words, the A.I. needs work and is susceptible to early game rushes.
There are a lot of smaller gameplay details that need looking at, too. Take retreating, for example: hit the button and the squad or mech will immediately turn-tail and run toward base. This is important because infantry can be reinforced at headquarters, which is cheaper than building a whole new squad. However, unlike Company of Heroes retreating doesn’t provide any extra armor or a speed increase to the unit. Without those things, they are likely to get mowed down anyway. You end up eating the losses and building new squads because it’s easier.
You also get a few Challenge maps, and naturally there’s multiplayer to try out, which I have to say I didn’t play very much. Only time will tell what balance issues players find that need tweaking.
There’s also a strange thing going on with Season objectives. Basically, you can complete Season challenges to earn new banners and other nonsense. There are also coins to earn, but currently they don’t actually unlock anything. It all feels half-arsed and entirely out of place in an RTS.
There’s a lot to like about Iron Harvest. It looks lovely and the battles have an excellent sense of spectacle to them as the gigantic mechs unleash hell while infantry squads exchange fire. And while the gameplay isn’t as tactically deep as Company of Heroes or other RTS titles on the market it’s still a lot of fun, flaws and all. But those flaws can’t be ignored: dishonest marketing, uneven campaign difficulty, dull A.I., and very few maps. I think Iron Harvest has a mech load of potential, and in a year or two could be an excellent game. Here and now, it’s a decent RTS and worth playing if you aren’t looking for something deep and fancy some spectacle.