Review: They Are Billions

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Review copy provided by developer

Zombie games are legion, but too many of them stop short of capturing that actual feeling of undead legions. There are plenty that manage to make the hordes they can cobble together threatening, of course, just not on the apocalyptic scale that makes the undead truly terrifying. That’s why I’ve grown so enamored with They Are Billions, despite cooling on the whole zombie craze long ago. The name is not just for show, as you’ll be contending with thousands upon thousands of infected at a time as they bear down on your precious colony. And while you might not be thinking about it as you watch your people be torn apart by undead, it’s the impressive scale of chaos and carnage that keeps the game fresh.

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It’s the future, and the future belongs to the dead. Humanity has been annihilated by the nigh-infinite infected, leaving you responsible for one of the last pockets of survivors in existence. You’ve got the resources and the know-how to pull civilization back from the brink, but expanding your colony is going to put you at odds with a whole planet of the undead. Clearing territory, growing your population, and walling them off from the hordes is key because they’re not going to leave you alone for long, and there’s way more of them than there are of you. Survive long enough and you can claim victory, but even a single mistake can spell doom for everyone.

I’m describing the Survival mode of They Are Billions, the only option present in the current Early Access version. There’s a Campaign mode coming soon but for now, holding out against waves of infected is the name of the game. Survival drops you into the middle of a vast map, teeming with resources to consume and undead to consume you. You need to hold out for 100 days and every two or three weeks, ever-greater hordes of brain-eaters will stream onto the map to crush your colony. A wealth of difficulty options that affect game length and zombie density will help you customize the experience to something you can manage, and a randomized map will give you new challenges to overcome every time you play.

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In gameplay terms, They Are Billions is very much a real-time strategy title, one that veterans of Starcraft and its ilk will be immediately familiar with. Starting with just your headquarters and a few soldiers, you’ve got to build up your colony with homes, workshops, factories, power plants, and amenities to grow your population. There are a number of resources to keep track of, including food to feed your people, gold to pay your workers, materials like wood and stone to build your structures, and power to keep the lights on. Expansion relies heavily on that last one, requiring you to build special towers that spread your electrical supply and thus building territory. There’s a definite city-building aspect in laying out your structures and managing your resources, but the real challenge is in making sure none of the infected get their rotten hands on any of it.

Expansion is complicated by the thousands of zombies shambling around the map from the very start. They can be one-off wanderers, dense crowds of undead, or entire villages of infected that dispense nigh-infinite hordes to contend with. You’ll need to train troops and command them in their efforts to cleanse the land, a task aided by the ability to pause and issue orders at any time. But it’s also complicated by details like dangerous unique zombie types, and mechanics such as loud noises like gunfire alerting nearby groups. Once you’ve got your land staked out you’ll need to prepare it for the regular invasions, for which you’ll be erecting plenty of walls and towers. Identifying choke points and fortifying them is key, especially as the hordes grow from dozens to hundreds to thousands as you approach your goal.

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That’s what makes They Are Billions so compelling, and what elevates it above other titles in the zombie genre. The hordes are not screwing around here, and will beat on your walls in overwhelming waves to devour your colony. You need to be operating in full zombie survival mode here, too, because of how the infected attack. Zombies won’t raze your buildings to the ground, but when they reduce a structure’s health to half they turn the inhabitants undead as well. That means that once one home or sawmill falls, the tide is going to turn heavily against you. A single undead that breaches your defenses can end it all, so mastering your fortifications is the only way you’re going to survive.

Gaining that mastery can be painful, and at times give the game an almost roguelike arc to its learning curve. Survival games can be two to three hours long, and one gap in your walls or one horde a little bigger than you expected will easily wipe out your efforts. For my first couple of hours I couldn’t survive more than a few weeks, losing colony after colony to overzealous expansion or a hole in my defenses. The difficulty options will help you find a place to start but you won’t know how big those waves of undead are until they’re washing over your settlement and licking it clean of brains. Similarly it’s going to take significant experimentation to figure out what upgrades to make when or what units to lean on heavily. And while the randomized maps help keep the game fresh they vary wildly in layout. You’ll be settled on a safe peninsula rich in forests and stone in one game, and plopped into a barren crossroads around the corner from an infected city in the next.

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Not everyone is going to be comfortable with that kind of mountain to climb, and for a time I was concerned my failures were going to burn me out on the game. I’m pretty terrible at real-time strategy games anyway, but I found myself unable to keep from trying again and again. The variety of challenges that come from the random map and zombie threats were exciting to see, and finding new ways to assemble my colony and its defenses became absolutely enthralling. Again, it’s the scope of the game that makes it so compelling, building cities of thousands to stand against legions of the undead. Watching the hordes crash against your walls and get shredded by gunfire makes for an incredible spectacle, after all. And even my failures became entertaining in the same way that watching the ocean devour a sandcastle does.

It certainly helps that They Are Billions looks and sounds great, too. The clean, detailed art gives life to every lifeless husk and hardy survivor, along with their humming steampunk residences. It’s a good direction for the game, avoiding the tired apocalyptic digs for polished brass and crackling electrodes. The sound design is similarly on point with excellent combat effects and a moody soundtrack, though I definitely hope the doofy voice acting is only a placeholder. Assuming you can stick out enough hours of undead stomping on your works to learn how to beat the bastards back, there’s more than enough action and drama to be had just from the single Survival mode at present. They Are Billions makes good on the promise of its name, pitting you against countless legions of the undead in a compelling struggle to survive and rebuild.

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