Game name: Iron Harvest
Release date: September 1, 2020
Available on: Steam
Genre: Real-time strategy
Developer: KING Art Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
Back when I first saw Jakub Różalski‘s 1920+ world illustrations, I fell in love with its depiction of a world so similar and yet so different from our own at the turn of the previous century. Fast forward a few years, and I’m here, sitting at my computer, reminiscing of my old Company of Heroes days while I guide a squad of lumbering mechanical beasts toward an enemy base that’s not too far apart from the kind of encampment I’d be assaulting if I was playing Relic‘s 2006 classic. The difference? My mechanized force is not a group of tanks and armored cars, but it’s instead formed by a heterogeneous mix of walking battleships, and combat engineers to keep them in shape. I’m also not facing the forces of the Third Reich, but fighting the Rusviet, a faction reminiscent of Tsarist Russia, only that they field mechs and exosuit-clad soldiers. Welcome to Iron Harvest, KING Art Games‘ first foray into the real-time strategy world.
As you might have guessed from the few Company of Heroes mentions in the previous paragraph, Iron Harvest follows that particular school of real-time strategy gameplay, and not the one created by Westwood Studios with the Command and Conquer series. Here, how you use your units matters more than having a bigger mass of steel going full speed towards the enemy base (though of course that will always help, since it means you control more resource points than your opponent) and there is an intricate rock, paper, scissors match being played at all times.
Adding a bit more complexity to the mix, Iron Harvest features three factions which embody different approaches to warfare, with one focusing on infantry tactics and guerilla warfare, another favoring expensive, high-tech mechs, and the final one mixing both, and favoring close-quarters with their mechanical units, thanks to their heavy armor (which is balanced by their slow speed). The differences between each playable country become even more evident as we play the story mode (each faction has its own campaign, complete with fully voiced and animated cutscenes and hero units).
The basic gameplay loop is pretty much the same you’d find in a CoH match. Skirmishes usually start you off with a headquarters building and a few units, and there is a reinforcements system that comes into play once you’ve gathered enough resources to call your reserves to battle. Engineers can build different structures, and some of them can, in turn, produce more units (Barracks creates squishy non-metallic troops, Workshops create mechs, etc). Those buildings can also be upgraded in order to unlock more advanced units, and in order to upgrade or build anything, you need resources, which can be obtained by capturing specific points of the map (or picking them up with a squad of soldiers, in some cases). Of course, the enemy will be trying to do the same, so every captured strategic point or resource location will need to be protected, which means you’ll have to get some soldiers there, preferably in cover so they last longer than the squads sent by the opposing force.
This can be achieved in three different ways. You can order your engineers to build a bunker (which will then become a defensive position that requires soldiers to man it, and has a cone of fire, so you will probably need a few of them in order to better protect whatever it is you are trying to keep under your control), you can use the environment to your advantage, or you can get your troops inside of a house, so its walls will protect them from small arms fire. If you choose to position your troops behind environmental cover, check back often, as they don’t always go exactly where you expect them to (I’ve seen individual members of a squad taking cover on the wrong side of a chest-high wall more times than I can count). Iron Harvest features a pretty good physics engine though, so you should never expect buildings or pieces of environmental cover to last long, as mechs will tear through them, and artillery or grenades can reduce pretty much anything to rubble (killing your soldiers in the process if you haven’t ordered them to retreat before everything blows up).
And speaking about artillery and mechs, let me tell you this: mechs are the stars of the show, on both the campaign and the skirmish/multiplayer modes. Visually impressive and disruptive to no end, these products of an alternate take on the Industrial Revolution act as Iron Harvest‘s equivalent to tanks or scout vehicles, but they manage to give a very distinctive look and feel to each faction in ways that normal armored forces can’t really deliver. Depending on the type of mech being fielded, it’ll be able to better resist certain weapons (for instance, scout walkers are actually quite vulnerable to massed small arms fire, while heavy machines will shrug it off, and will only start to get worried when facing high caliber cannon projectiles). Of course, the type of walker also affects the weaponry being carried (and every faction has different ideas when it comes to mech armament, too). As expected from any combat vehicle that has to face enemy fire, most walking machines have weakspots at their back, which force players to think twice before engaging on certain maneuvers (thankfully, you can force your mechs to walk backwards if you need to retreat under fire, for instance).
Since this is a game that takes cues from real life, mechs alone don’t win battles, however. There’s always something that can turn them into scrap (which is a real mechanic in this title, as destroyed walkers leave behind a wreck that can be harvested for iron resources). This means that in order to succeed, attacks should preferably be carried out by combined arms forces, with engineers, infantry and medics supporting the mechanized vanguard and taking over abandoned enemy equipment whenever possible or necessary (the game has a mechanic where abandoned artillery pieces can be manned by the squads left standing, and you can even order your infantrymen to take over abandoned weapons, effectively switching them from one class to another on the fly).
Another important feature is the veterancy system, where units that have experienced enough combat will rise through the ranks, unlocking a new ability, and boosting their firepower permanently. This will, in turn, lead to players learning to take care of their squads, as fresh recruits can’t perform to the same level as a fully kitted out elite unit. No First World War-style meat grinders here! (unless you want to keep replenishing your frontline troops with inexperienced soldiers, a strategy that has proven to be extremely ineffective according to my time with the game). If that’s not enough to make you care for your troops, then their pleas for help when under fire will surely do the job, as the voice actors did an excellent job portraying soldiers staring at the face of total annihilation.
And while we are talking about vocal performances, I think it’s also time for me to highlight how good the campaign was from a narrative point of view, when compared to similar games. The stories being told are surprisingly down to earth, and it’s very easy to relate to the hero characters, even when the player doesn’t agree with their point of view. I’m pretty sure that most people will favor a specific faction, because there its campaign is a tale of human resourcefulness and its heroes are infinitely relatable, but overall, I was enormously satisfied with my time with all three storylines. Old-school RTS fans will also be happy to learn that there are fully animated cutscenes between missions, and you can go back and re-watch them in the mission selection menu, which is always a nice touch. Don’t expect Blizzard-like quality here and you won’t be disappointed (this is a crowdfunded game, after all). The portion of the game where you can absolutely expect true greatness is the soundtrack, as composers Adam Skorupa and Michal Cielecki have crafted a number of hauntingly powerful tunes that will stay with you long after you finish Iron Harvest’s three campaigns.
I haven’t played multiplayer in the final build (since all my time was before the embargo lifted, and I prefer to play against people I know), but my time with the Pre-Season open Beta would indicate that their current systems work well enough, at least in 1vs1 engagements. There is a rewards system where you level up your profile and get cool stuff to show for it (which also works if you play skirmish mode against the AI, a very welcome feature for people like me who’d rather practice before getting whipped by better players in the online mode).
Aside from minor AI issues and a few FPS drops here and there during heated battles, I had a blast with KING Art Games‘ first foray into the RTS genre, and I hope it won’t be their last, as they’ve proved that they can build a more than worthy alternative to Relic‘s Company of Heroes games.
8.5/10 – Great.