I bought my Pentium 100mhz PC to play Command & Conquer.  I upgraded it as the franchise grew, and I was sad to see the series head in some bizarre directions as it progressed.  Many of the people behind that storied franchise left Westwood when it was bought by Electronic Arts and formed a new company – Petroglyph.  Petroglyph has since tackled some fantastic properties including Star Wars, an MMO called Mytheon, and even a card game called Guardians of Graxia.  But during E3 2014 I got to see their triumphant return to the RTS space, a sci-fi title called Grey Goo.  I came away from that meeting impressed, and they picked up our “Best new IP” award.   Fast forward to today and it’s time to see if the impressive title with the strange name managed to deliver the goods.

Setting a new standard
First and foremost I want to say that Grey Goo may have the highest production value of any RTS to date.  Not just in cutscenes (though they are beautiful, maybe even exceeding the lofty bar that Blizzard sets), but across the board.  The menus, the conversations with your commanders couched between missions, and the story cinematics are absolutely gorgeous, and that trend continues into the game proper.

Unlike most RTS titles, Grey Goo will push your machine.  The level of detail at any camera height is impressive. Like the T-1000 out of Terminator 2, the Grey Goo themselves are made up of millions of tiny nanomachines that transform into their needed form, and every vehicle and structure in the Beta and Human factions are alive with spinning and whirring.  These tiny details bring the whole game to life, and it’s a refreshing change for a genre that had, to be frank, stagnated.

Behold the Hand of Rok!

Behold the Hand of Rok!

I’ve often said that audio work can be the lifeblood of a game, adding atmosphere and personality.  Grey Goo has both in spades.  The Beta race sounds somewhat South African (think slightly British and Australian accents mixed, if you’ve never heard the dialect), the Human dialogue is well written, and the Goo….well, I’ll leave that surprise for you to discover.  Suffice it to say, it is as high quality as the graphical presentation and that’s damned impressive.

A bit of backstory
For those of you who might be new to the Real Time Strategy genre, or if it’s been a while, there is a handy primer, as well as a solid introduction mission that helps you rebuild those skills.  Additionally, there is a full encyclopedia that contains everything you might want to know about the units, tactics, build orders, tech tree and more, including some backstory and a full stat loadout for those who prefer to min/max their way to victory.

In Grey Goo there are three factions – Beta, Human, and Goo.  The Beta are a humanoid bipedal race with four arms (the two at their waste being far tinier) that easily tower over any human counterpart.  They are massive hulking beasts, but incredibly intelligent.  The humans are…well, us, but they have advanced into the realms of space travel and teleportation in ways we can just begin to imagine.  The Goo is something else entirely.  Created as an advanced exploration collection of nanomachines, the Goo has since become self-aware.  Their mission is pure survival, but when you are talking about a machine race that can replicate itself indefinitely, absorbing and transforming all it touches, it is all other races that must now fear extinction.

“You need to play as the Goo” – Mike Dunn
Each faction in Grey Goo operates in a completely different way.  Unlike other RTS titles, it’s not just a difference in units but in the way those units are brought to the field.  It’s really something you have to experience, but I’ll do my best to explain the mechanics at the very least.

The Beta race build hubs of various size which can snap on various modules to construct units.  Base expansion is in no way restricted, so you can drop a hub and factory right at your enemies doorstep.  The size of hub matters, as you must have a factory and the unit’s prerequisite modules attached to the same structure.  This means that if you want siege weaponry, you’ll need a hub that can hold the artillery module, the tank module, and the factory module before you can crank out your first unit.  Losing one of these hubs powers down everything attached to it, but otherwise the Beta structures require no power.   One area you cannot underestimate with the Beta is their ability to create wall structures that can be manned with a variety of troops and mechanized weapons.  Their weapons are formidable, and they are dangerous even in small numbers.

The overwhelming power of the Goo

The overwhelming power of the Goo

Humans don’t necessarily construct units, instead warping them in from the orbiting fleet.  Because of this, humans can teleport their buildings around at will.  It takes additional damage due to exposure during the process, but it means you can relocate a base in a hurry if you need to do so.  It also means that you can build a small factory with a pair of modules, and then re-use those same modules on your eventual large factory without resource cost – an incredible advantage.  Unlike the Beta or the Goo, humans are entirely reliant on power.  With a web of conduit, you can lay down sentinel structures with anti-air, anti-personnel, and anti-heavy weaponry as your primary base defense.  The Humans can put up some fairly fragile shield walls to block and corral units not unlike the Beta, but they are merely defense and cannot be bolstered with garrisoned forces.   That said, their artillery seems to be the most powerful in the game and can create incredible havoc with splash damage and exceptional range.  Their one disadvantage?  They don’t expand to secondary bases — everything must be connected to their headquarters.

The namesake of this game, the Grey Goo, are a sharp and massive departure from normal RTS mechanics.  First and foremost, they do not build buildings.  They don’t build extractors, they don’t use factories to generate units, and they don’t build walls or turrets.  The Goo simply consumes, spawns, and moves.  You start the map with a Mother Goo, and all life flows from her.  Placing her over any resource geyser allows her to harvest it and grow.  Once she’s consumed enough, she can split off a small protein.  Small proteins can split into four drivers, two striders, two radiants or two tempests, consuming the protein in the process.  With enough harvesting, the Mother Goo can spawn a large protein.  These can create another four sets of more dangerous creatures such as the Dweller, Destructor, Crescent, and Bastions.  The fact that no factory add-ons are required to generate any type of unit creates a flexibility that makes the Goo exceedingly dangerous.  What’s worse, anything the Goo proteins rolls over consumes that unit, thus healing the Goo.

Old tactics in a new RTS world
If you are a turtling dirt farmer like me, you are going to struggle with Grey Goo for a bit, even on normal difficulty.  The enemy has a near-inexhaustible supply of units to throw at you, and you can expect them at your doorstep roughly four minutes into any mission.  At the six or seven minute mark, you’d better have developed artillery, as they will assuredly begin bombarding you from outside your sight range by that point.   By the end of the second mission, the enemy had fielded 276 units to my 141.  Completing the third mission showed that my foes had thrown 650 bits of meat into the grinder against my 93.  There are three difficulty levels in Grey Goo, and until you figure out your tactics for each of the factions, you just might need them.  This leads directly to my biggest concern with this game.

I had one issue with a mission that pulled the curtain back on two very old tactics that I thought RTS game developers had moved past – cheating AI, and a need to kill every unit to achieve victory.  As you can see in the screenshot below, the AI is more than willing to cheat to have unlimited funds to generate limitless forces.  Combined with a mission objective to wipe out the entire army (the Goo in this case), it made for a mission that lasted more than two hours.  At that point I had captured every resource point and stationed units at regular intervals to eradicate cheat-spawned foes while I hunted down whatever hidden beastie was left somewhere on the map.  In the end, it wasn’t enough and I spent another hour doing it all over again to re-run the mission, flipping whatever trigger was previously broken to allow me to progress.

Familiar dirt farming territory

Familiar dirt farming territory

In a mission on the human side, the AI found the operative I was to rescue within 3 minutes of the mission start, killing him before I could field my first tank.   Restarting, the random positioning of the search areas had nearly all of them bundled just outside of the enemy base, right inside of artillery range.  Restarting a third time gave me whatever lucky dice roll was necessary to win, allowing me to rescue my stranded ally before discovery.

While some of these balance or cheating issues occur in the single player game, it thankfully doesn’t affect the multiplayer in any way.

In addition to the single player and multiplayer game modes, there is also a skirmish mode that will let you hone your skills.  In this mode there are six AI personality types across three difficulty levels, that range from military and economy focused all the way to one that is actually fairly idle, though I don’t know what the purpose of that setting is, given that it literally just sits there waiting for you to come crush it.  Eight maps are available at launch for Skirmish or Multiplayer, three aimed at four players, and five built for head-to-head matches.  They are fairly symmetric, giving no player an unfair advantage.

The single player missions reward, and occasionally downright demand, aggression.  Again, if you are the type that holes up and builds an armada to maraud through the map, you’ll need some different tactics.  That said, if you cut your teeth on the likes of Command & Conquer Generals and enjoy a little speed and aggression, you are going to feel right at home.

Superweapons and tech upgrades
Each faction in Grey Goo has a superweapon that can change the course of battle.  The Beta have a weapon called the Hand of Rok that is created by building two large factories, a large hub, and all four types of modules, all of which are consumed to become the Hand of Rok.  This mobile platform can pick up six units that can rain death onto your foes, and can also construct additional ground units on the move.   It also has a semi-nuclear ranged attack that can decimate groups of units in a hurry.

The Humans have a weapon called the Alpha.  This weapon is essentially a massive robot not unlike the Jaegers from Pacific Rim, that can cut through foes with devastating beam weapons.  The sustained beam can melt nearly anything it encounters.

The Alpha is absolutely badass.

The Alpha is absolutely badass.

The Goo have a creature called a Purger that it can unleash on the battlefield.   This creature is made from a Mother Goo when combined with smaller Goos to create a massive, but very slow, behemoth.  They are able to traverse any terrain and lob acid onto their foes from relative safety.

Each of the three super units can be game changers on the battlefield, but there is a smaller addition that makes just as much of a different – brush.

Cover in games, just like terrain height, isn’t a new concept.  What Grey Goo brings to the table is canopy cover.  There are areas on the map that have dense tree cover, and ground units can easily remain hidden in these, undetectable unless you send a troop into that forest to inspect it.  This means that large armies can be camped outside your doorstep, lying in wait in a nearby overgrowth.  This simple mechanic is a game changer.

Adding some variety to the game, each of the factions have a choice of 15 tech upgrades.  Split across five categories, you can only choose one from each, meaning the army you face in multiplayer will likely be slightly different every time.