9-Bit Armies: A Bit Too Far resurrects RTS, bit by bit in our hands-on preview

The team at Petroglyph knows RTS. Their pedigree includes the likes of Star Wars: Empire at War, Grey Goo, 8-Bit Armies, Conan Unconquered, Command & Conquer Remastered Collection, and obviously this game. They are also much of the brain trust behind Westwood Studios, so it’s no surprise that they understand what makes smashing two massive armies into each other fun. Recently we went hands-on with an early version of 9-Bit Armies: A Bit Too Far ahead of its Early Access launch. I’m happy to report that, despite the purposefully blocky appearance, the team hasn’t missed a step.

The flow of any battle in 9-Bit Armies: A Bit Too Far is to get cash flowing first. Your base is usually set up and ready, but you have no way to fund your army. Nearby oil pumpjacks rock away, but you’ll need to build a refinery and a harvester to pull in that oil to turn it into cash. When you’ve got a little bit more money in hand, you’ll hit the usual suspects – barracks, motor pools, power plants. These provide basic access to machine gunners, rocketeers, and jeeps, but that’s simply not enough to win the war. Tech buildings, satellite dishes, shipyards, missile silos, airfields – if all of this sounds familiar, then you’ve probably played a Command & Conquer game. Thankfully there’s a lot more under the hood of 9-Bit Armies: A Bit Too Far than a simple reskin.

Even in this Early Access form, the core gameplay is already rock solid. You’ll square off against your foe on land, sea, and air, with superweapons threatening to turn the tide at any moment. The Overlords are your typical human types (read: GDI), and you play as a new grunt commander in their army. The Sentinels…well, I’m going to let you discover them for yourselves as you play through the campaign.

Whether the license is attached or not, being able to revisit decisions you’ve made in a previous game can be a fully cathartic retrofit opportunity, and 9-Bit Armies offers up a lot of these. New base structures and super weapons, the addition of naval warfare, destructible bridges (that rebuild themselves after a timer expires) changing up the flow of maps, and dynamic challenges offer up new ways to play, as does a campaign with a few unique replay twists (more on that in a bit) are a solid hit of nostalgia, with some fresh coats of paint to keep things new and interesting. There’s C&C DNA in here, but still plenty of new goodness tucked in here for returning and new fans alike.

Speaking of C&C DNA, one big part of that comes from the soundtrack. Frank Klepacki is as synonymous with Command & Conquer as it gets, delivering fantastic soundtrack after fantastic soundtracks, and 9-Bit Armies is no exception. Bouncing between chirpy 8-bit midi action and full-on pulse pounding tracks, I can hear several of these that are at or near Hell’s March level of awesome. Seriously – if the team offers the soundtrack for purchase, Klepacki has given you a reason to throw money at your screen.

There will be two campaigns for 9-Bit Armies. Currently there are a dozen campaign missions for the Overlords side (plus an extraordinarily short tutorial), with the Sentinels campaign coming as part of Early Access. You can play these on easy, normal, and hard, which isn’t a surprise, but there’s something neat in here as well. Each level has a bronze, silver, and gold objective. Sometimes these are simple time goals – destroy all the bronze targets within 5 minutes, for example. Others are more complex like preventing the enemy from capturing or destroying a critical infrastructure piece. While it’s probably possible to get these done on your first run-through, it’s more likely that you’ll have to come back. Not just because you’ve gotten better at the game, but actually because you’ll have unlocked more tech. You see, there’s an almost roguelike element to the 9-Bit Armies campaign. Tech and weapons you unlock can be carried back all the way back to the first level. If you are the type of person who likes to bring a nuke to a knife fight, well, now’s your chance – the game heartily encourages it!

Beyond your unlocks, your units also have persistent veterancy. That means troops will grow in skill and power over time. Sure, you’ll still send them into the meat grinder by the score, but eventually they stand a better chance at survival than at the start, with added health or damage thrown on top.

9-Bit Armies’ approach to build orders, placement, and flow feels nostalgic to my eyes, having cut my teeth on the likes of Dune II and the original Command & Conquer. However, when combined with the unlocks and unit veteran system persistence, I feel the urge to go back and replace previous missions either to obtain a final star or two, or just as catharsis as I field superweapons on a mission built around just having basic units. Either way, it’s unique and fun.

In addition to the campaign, 9-Bit Armies can be played cooperatively. Cooperative combat isn’t new to RTS fans, though recent advancements have made it a more clean and rewarding experience. Here you can tackle the entire campaign with a friend. It’s nice to team up against the enemy, and it makes some of the side objectives a little easier.

While I deeply appreciate a full campaign, RTS games thrive on the strength of their ongoing online play. 9-Bit Armies supports a PvE skirmish mode which lets you square off against AI bots, an online match mode to battle your friends, and even LAN support to ensure that this game continues working for online play now and forever. At launch there are two 2-player maps, five 4-player maps, four 6-player maps, and even four 8-player maps. AI difficulty ranges from Casual to Insane, with six options to choose from for your computer-controlled companions or foes. Once you’ve worn out this map list, you’ll be happy to hear that the game also supports Steam Workshop integration, with the ability to download new maps and mods. I can’t wait to see what sort of insanity fans come up with in the future.

Early Access can be a meandering jog with a sudden pop to 1.0, but the Petroglyph team has already published a solid list of goodies we can expect in the near future. The aforementioned Sentinels campaign will be a great opportunity to see how the enemy fights, though you can test that out in multiplayer of course. On the main menu lies an option called 9-Bit TV where players will eventually be able to create and share replays of their favorite matches. More maps and challenges will also drop periodically in Early Access, as well as a more comprehensive tutorial to help new players learn the genre, as well as helping returning veterans master what 9-Bit has to offer. Inevitably there will be a number of Quality of Life and other enhancements that’ll pop up over the course of development, but this is already a pretty healthy list.

Even at the launch of Early Access I was impressed with just how much fun there is to be had with 9-Bit Armies.  The teams feel very balanced, and while you will be throwing a lot of troops into the grinder, there’s still a solid paper/rock/scissors system in place where each unit and building type feels unique and necessary.  Better still, the naval units feel impactful — something you’ll feel keenly if you decide to ignore that aspect of your overall army.  The team at Petroglyph have always had a solid grip on what makes dirt-farming RTS fun, and 9-Bit Armies looks like it has an excellent foundation to do it all over again.

Best of all, you don’t have to take my word on any of this – there’s a demo sitting on Steam, offering up three levels of the game for you to give it a spin for yourself. 9-Bit Armies: A Bit Too Far is now available in Early Access on Steam as you read this preview!

Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief | [email protected]

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming.

Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter.

Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 28 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes), and an Axolotl named Dagon!

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