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 more well-known of the two modes present in the full release 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. And gaining that mastery can be a long, painful road with hours of colony-building lost to a mis-click or oversight.

I thought, in returning to the game post-release, that the Campaign would be a better way to build the mastery I need to survive the nigh-infinite undead. The Campaign is a loosely story-driven collection of 48 missions, ramping up from simple settlements in peaceful valleys to all-or-nothing holdouts against thousands of zombies. You earn points for completing missions that are used to unlock new technology on a massive tree, upgrade your hero for adventure missions, and get additional resources for special tower defense missions that bar your progress to certain regions. Normal missions have a fair bit of variety, sometimes challenging you to survive against waves, sometimes pointing you at a special target to destroy, and so on. Similarly, the adventure missions have you commanding your hero unit through ruined bases and bunkers to find old-world tech and little bits of backstory on the apocalypse.

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But the frustrations of Survival are even more apparent in the Campaign. Normal missions very quickly have you on shoestring budgets and time constraints that feel like trial-and-error to puzzle out build orders just to survive. Making a single mistake is just as deadly here, wasting all the time you put into the slow early periods of missions. The adventure missions are even worse, with how you have to slow-walk your hero through massive mazes of zombies just so they don’t get overrun. Here it’s much easier to miscalculate distance or damage, lose you hero in an instant, and watch thirty or forty minutes of work evaporate. The problem really seems to be long, expansive missions coupled with the perfection needed to survive undead assaults leading to a lot of wasted time for failure.

Honestly though, I’d hate to give up the punishing zombie mechanics here because they work so well mechanically and thematically. Few games manage their zombies like the slow, overwhelming, extremely deadly undead of film, and squaring off against that challenge is the big strength of this game. 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 the voice acting never improved from Early Access as I had hoped. 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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