Eaten By a Polar Bear: Grey Goo

After a snafu regarding Grey Goo on episode 80 of the BRBCast, I’ve spent the last week or so playing the game in an effort to see just why exactly so many people were upset I did not single it out as one of the best new traditional base building RTS games. While I was aware of the game and had dipped my toe into its waters before, I’d never really given the game my full attention. The fact I completely blanked on it during the podcast, and that I’m only now really giving it the shot it deserved is admittedly, for a self-described RTS super-fan, pretty unforgivable

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Developer: Petroglyph Games
Publisher: Grey Box
Played on: PC
Release Date: Available Now

My relationship with games made by Petroglyph (the developer) has seen its ups and downs. Star Wars: Empire at War is one of my favourite SW games of all time. The fact that game is still being played and modded today, a decade later, speaks highly of the team who made it. Now Universe at War: Earth Assault (whose DNA is all over Grey Goo) is another story. I was one of the chosen few who got tapped to alpha/beta test that game. To this day it remains one of the most poorly run, pointless and frustrating testing experiences I’ve ever had. Universe at War COULD have been one of the RTS greats. Instead it became just another middle of the road RTS unable to claw its way to the top of the field with the big boys like StarCraft, C&C, Supreme Commander and Warcraft. It has taken 8 years for Petroglyph to offer up something that excited me again.

Much as I want to stand atop a mountain and proclaim a new RTS god has been born, alas Grey Goo looks like it will share the same fate Universe at War: Earth Assault did. The ideas are great. The execution is hit and miss.

Let’s talk about the good before we get into the bad. The production values are super high, especially for an RTS. The voice acting and story really stand out as most RTS games struggle to provide players with an engaging narrative while trapped by the constraints of the genre. I got a real kick out of the story and listening to South Africans rather than the default British accent or gung ho American. The visuals and audio are both top notch. The cinematics and briefings look amazing, with characters that look and sound like REAL people/aliens. The UI is a bit bigger than I’d like, but it does collapse. More importantly the control scheme and quick access to everything on the UI make finding what you need when you need it very easy. Most importantly of all, the different races you wage war with are fun to play and often require unconventional thinking in order to see their full potential. Grey Goo is chalk full of fresh takes on the classic RTS framework. The game can be downright frustrating at times, but there is definitely a lot of intensely fun and rewarding moments to be had as well.

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It is not the presentation or the packaging that hurts Grey Goo, it’s the gameplay. Which is not to say the game is not fun to play; it really is. But it could be a lot more fun and a lot more satisfying than it is. So many great ideas and mechanics that just don’t mesh the way they should. For example the game has a mechanic where your army can fire from cover (a forest) at nearby enemies while the enemy cannot directly attack you without first placing a unit in the same cover (forest) to provide line of site. A similar scenario plays out when your troops are firing from atop a cliff while your enemy is below. Both of which are solid ideas. Where they fall apart is the individual unit AI and pathfinding.

You see Grey Goo units are dumb; really dumb. Aggressive for sure, but dumb. They will often take the LONG way around to a location should they encounter even the smallest amount of resistance. This is made doubly painful thanks to the map itself not always conveying to the player which portion of the land can be traveled on and what cannot. The ground may look flat enough for unit travel, but in reality it’s an invisible wall, often quite far from the edge of a cliff or turn in a bend. Having your units target and chase a specific unit often results in your troops stopping dead in their tracks the minute the enemy goes into cover, even if they are literally right beside one another. Your units will just stand on the edge of the forest blissfully unaware as they are carved to pieces. This makes moving your armies across maps full of cover and cliffs a real chore. The worst kind of macro management

You can’t just send a single unit or two into a forest or up a cliff. No, you have to send a good numbers of units, because you’ll be getting torn apart by enemies you can’t hit back. Meaning most of those scouts are on suicide missions. Which seems super wasteful for a game where resources are precious. So you need a throw away group to take the initial pounding as they get into position to provide line of site, and another group to actually kill the units in cover. When the entire map is riddled with cover and cliffs, this gets exhausting and decidedly not fun. Especially if the enemy just puts siege units with guards in every gosh darn forest on the planet. Your ability to indirectly bombard an area only somewhat negates this annoyance.

If you are a fan of grouping units together and utilizing “attack moves”, this is not the game for you. Granted, any RTS player worth his or her salt knows blindly grouping units and having them march across the map on an attack move is asking for trouble – but even on a smaller, tactical level, it does not always work properly. Your units will all open fire the minute they see an enemy, but the pathfinding is not always strong enough for your rear units to intelligently move around to also get some shots in. More than once I’ve had to individually move around units who could not move into position to fire on their own. There also does not appear to be any target priority code going on. Your units won’t consider enemies that can shoot as a higher priority than say a piece of wall. Meaning you’ll have to tell them who to shoot first individually. In the thick of battle, this gets messy, and extremely wasteful. The amount of troops I’ve lost because they decided to take a minute to shoot a piece of wall or powerless refinery is incalculable.

Then you have the races themselves. The Beta race are the one long time RTS players will feel most comfortable with. Traditional base building, walls, turrets etc. The Human race are a next-gen version of the Novus from Universe At War. They require almost all their buildings to be connected by power conduits, placing severe limits on expansion and more importantly, resource collection. The ability for Humans to teleport around the map kind of helps, but with the previously discussed issues with pathfinding, zones that should be traversable but are not and more, in practice teleportation is nowhere near the powerful edge it should be.

The Grey Goo are based on a real world hypothetical doomsday scenario involving molecular nanotechnology in which out-of-control self-replicating robots run amok. Which is pretty cool. As the name for a AAA RTS title however, it just seems silly, and playing the race is even more so. See the Grey Goo are basically just big puddles of mercury that ooze across the battlefield, morphing into different types of units as needed. The Grey Goo is all about mobility and asymmetrical combat. Which is kind of quirky and fun at first, but quickly evolves into an endless wave of hotkeys and map dashing. Playing against the Goo can be brutal.

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If you thought chasing down that last hovering Terran barracks in StarCraft was annoying, just wait until you are chasing down little puddles that can go pretty much anywhere on the map and don’t always show up properly on your radar. This is how 9 out of 10 matches against Goo end. To call the Goo unbalanced is like saying bringing a nuke to a gunfight is just a little unfair. They make the overwhelming power of the Zerg from StarCraft look like a joke. I literally steamrolled my way through 90% of the battles. Especially when fighting Humans. The Beta and the Goo are both strong, while the Humans just feel trapped.

My last gripe is with the three races super units. Which are all unique and cool in their own way. But they are SLOW. Way, way too slow. So slow in fact that unless I had to build one to finish a story mission, most of the time I simply did not bother. They take so long to build, and cost so many resources, only to move at a slugs pace, that in the end I just end up building a ton of fast moving units instead.

I’ve been a bit harsh with regards to the weaknesses of the game. Judging by the updates and communication from Petroglyph to the fans, I honestly expect Grey Goo to be a much better game in a few months (something we say all too often these days). Tweaks to balance, pathfinding, AI behaviour and more will make a huge difference. Right now Grey Goo is a stable, fun game. It’s not great, but if you have $55 to burn and are dying for a new RTS to play, you could do a lot worse (looking at you Planetary Annihilation). For the general gamer though, I’d recommend waiting for either the price to drop or for more substantial patches to arrive.

I truly do hope this game comes into its own over the course of 2015. A lot of Grey Goo‘s problems appear to be solvable. I love the RTS genre, and Petroglych is one of the few developers to even attempt to cater to the old school base building RTS crowd without dumbing down their game or turning it into some MOBA or point control abomination. I’d love to revisit the game in 6 months and see where it stands. Until then I’ll just enjoy drowning my enemies in mercury puddles and laughing as I blindly bombard every tree I see…just in case.

Official Game Site Steam Store Page

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Comments

  1. Aurochs

    Thanks for the really thorough review, pacman. It’s definitely a fun game but not without it’s many flaws that you’ve pointed out, balance being a main one. And it would surely be difficult to so radically redo the races to bring a decent level of balance to it. In short; not going to be seen on a competitive level any time soon.
    It’s like playing Yuri back on Yuri’s revenge. Great fun 😀

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