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Review: Iron Harvest–Come for the Mechs, Stay for Compelling Alternate History

Screenshot: Iron Harvest

Ever since the 100 year anniversary of World War I, I’ve been a little obsessed with it. I’ve probably read about a dozen books on the subject, spurred on by my watching of the excellent The Great War channel on YouTube. The Great War was a woeful tale of honorable and gallant men being met with terrible modern machinery designed for war that killed on an industrial scale. World War I had some of the most egregious wastes of life, and I couldn’t imagine battlegrounds that would be more terrifying.  Technology adapted to this new modern war, with the invention and deployment of the tank for the first time, as well as the first widespread use of aircraft, submarines, etc. But just imagine if the innovations of that time never ceased, and led to even greater killing machines—Iron Harvest is one such glimpse.

Iron Harvest is a real-time strategy game set in an alternate reality filled with gigantic diesel punk mechs in the year “1920+”, shortly after a version of the Great War where tanks had legs, and the largest of these machines towered like massive structures over the battlefields. In this alternate reality, trench warfare was abandoned in favor of a war of giant stomping mobility—though infantry are still very much a deciding factor in how battles play out. In fact, with clever use of terrain and intelligent strategy and terrain, these large legged machines are vulnerable even to the lowly ground pounder.

Screenshot: Iron Harvest

While it’s been years since I’ve played Company of Heroes, I feel like that’s the quickest comparison I can come up with in regards to how infantry squads work in Iron Harvest. Unlike games like Warcraft III, each unit is made up of a small squad of soldiers. These soldiers can die individually, reducing that squad’s firepower, and these squads can make use of terrain and cover to mitigate incoming damage. A squad of infantry using terrain and chokepoints can be an almost impenetrable force, and the same goes for the attacker as well: it might be best to try to flank such an opponent, than attack head-on.

There are a number of infantry types to eventually choose from—rifleman, grenadier, anti-mech, machine gun. They’re all pretty self-explanatory, with machine gun squads (and machine guns in general) being great anti-infantry units, while explosives work better against armored opponents. Engineers and medics are essential support troops—medics can heal soldiers on the battlefield, while engineers can repair mechs and buildings. Engineers are also the sole unit responsible for building structures.

Screenshot: Iron Harvest

There are only three building types to build: headquarters, barracks, and workshop. Each of these structures has a linear upgrade path that’s dependent solely on gathered resources and a very short build time. There are only two types of resources in Iron Harvest: iron and fuel. These resource points can be upgraded to enhance their output, but you don’t have to have units ferrying materials from them to a resource gathering point—your resources just tick up as long as you control them.

Any ground unit in Iron Harvest can make use of, or abandon, heavy mobile cannons, machine guns, and mortars. Units can also swap out their kit with other down units—friendly or foe—so they can essentially change their capabilities mid-battle, without the need to make specialized units. This is a really cool mechanic I haven’t run into before. If you’re fighting a group of soldiers with machine guns, and see incoming mechs, you can potentially swap those guns out for anti-mech weapons.

Screenshot: Iron Harvest

Despite being three factions, infantry units and buildings are identical between Saxony, Rusviat and Polonian forces. This might be disappointing for some, but it lends itself to something Iron Harvest does excellently: it has simple mechanics that lead to satisfying tactical gameplay.  And while each faction’s buildings and infantry are identical, the selection of mechs between them is extremely different, and is one of the best parts of Iron Harvest. From Saxony’s spider-legged tanks to Polonia’s towering behemoths, each faction has its own take on the diesel-punk mech line-up.

Since Dark Reign’s artillery introduced me to the joys of long-ranged warfare in real-time strategy games, I’ve been a huge fan of units that deploy to fling shells or rockets to enemies afar. Iron Harvest’s factions each have a take on such artillery, as well as mechs that are designed for anti-infantry purposes, or those that are designed to hunt other mechs.

Screenshot: Iron Harvest

Each of the faction’s mechs also represents those factions in some way, stylistically, but also functionally. Saxony has some of the most experimental, but also some of the most basic “walking tank” designs. Polonia’s mechs feel like they’re barely held together. Rusviat mechs bear the colors and even some of the styling of the Rusviat motherland. These things look cool, and are fun to use. One thing I appreciate, that others might not, is that artillery and other area of effect damage doesn’t seem to affect your own soldiers, unlike in most real-time strategy games where it’s possible to kill swaths of your own men. It’s something some may not care for, but for me it eased some of the burden of micromanagement.

Iron Harvest has three game modes: campaign, challenge modes, and skirmish/multiplayer modes. I spent some time in the control-based Skirmish and Multiplayer mode—and while it’s a great gameplay mode, I long for straight fights, with no consideration for resource points. And more maps, because as it is there is about a half a dozen different settings to fight in, and that just isn’t enough for it to stay interesting. There are challenges that I only dabbled in, that pit you against almost impossible odds, but I found myself spending most of my time in the story mode.

Screenshot: Iron Harvest

Most modern real-time strategy games are extremely multiplayer focused, but Iron Harvest’s story campaign is the meatiest chunk of the game. The Great War has recently ended between the three major alternate history factions: Polonia, Saxony, and the Rusviats. I’m a bit of a nerd for history, and by extension, alternate history, and I like what they did here. While Saxony is an analogue for Germany (you can even play as Kaiser Wilhelm) and the Rusviats are Russia (complete with surviving and reigning Tsar Nicholas as well as his advisor, the shadowy Rasputin—to name a few historical figures that make cameos, or are even featured prominently. While the story deals with the three factions I mentioned, in at least one mission you run into American diplomats, and there are mentions of the war having been fought in the Middle East as well.

Starting as a Polonian freedom fighter, the campaign fleshes out the three factions, and even exposes a shadow organization that has among its interests perpetual war. The story is almost like something out of the Command & Conquer series, and is told over twenty missions with accompanying cutscenes. There are multiple different mission types, too. There are all-out battles, but sometimes you have to escort forces, or even remain hidden and avoid enemies in stealth-type missions. These mission types might frustrate some, but I found them well-done. Iron Harvest’s campaign missions present interesting tactical challenges, too, and sometimes require you to complete objectives with what few units and resources you have at hand.

Screenshot: Iron Harvest

Iron Harvest is the triumphant return of real-time strategy. There really haven’t been many notable real-time strategy games released in the last few years. Iron Harvest changes that in a significant way, and is one of the truest returns to the real-time strategy genre I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in almost a decade.   It’s a great, fun game that eschews complicated tech trees in favor of simplicity. Cut through the fat to get right to the well-done mech action—though the infantry combat is well done, too. I hope there will be a tool for the community to make maps, and would love to see more Iron Harvest in the near future.

 

Iron Harvest releases tomorrow on Steam, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

 

 

 

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