We’ve been playing RTS games since Dune II. In that you had three separate factions, you built bases, send out your armies and had to deal with a difficult environment (and giant harvester-eating worms) to achieve success. 23 years later and look how far the genre has come, the most popular game in the genre is Starcraft II, where you have three separate factions, you build bases, send out your armies and have to deal with a difficult environment (caused mostly by difficult choke points). Perhaps that’s a little unfair, but Grey Goo is continuing the tradition and making some surprisingly progressive steps despite holding true to the mainstays of the genre.
The most important thing to note is that despite a lack of marketing, Grey Goo is up there alongside any AAA RTS in terms of polish and features. There’s a full campaign spanning all three races, there’s multiplayer matchmaking, a LAN mode (missing from many other recent titles) and a hefty amount of impressive CGI cutscenes created by WETA to show off what this conflict looks like. Each race has their own UI, there’s voice-overs, somewhat impressive visuals and plenty of content. The fact that Grey Goo has crept up on us like this is unusual but quite a spectacular treat for fans of this kind of game.
In terms of gameplay there’s three incredibly distinct races. The Beta are the ‘main’ faction (you start the campaign as them) and are aliens that look like a cross between humans and sharks. They create their bases in much the same way as you’d be used to from almost any RTS game of the last two decades. They can create buildings anywhere, can create add-ons to change the function of their factories and can push out infantry, tanks and aircraft that fulfil any role you can think of. Their big ‘alpha’ unit is made by creating a bunch of factories and add-ons together into what becomes a floating weapons platform, capable of firing small nuclear missiles. What sets them somewhat apart is that their walls can be mounted by most of their units, creating static defences that can be changed at a moments’ notice, enabling a versatile defence. All of the Beta’s buildings are connected to hubs and if these are destroyed, the buildings lose power.
Starting off with the Beta was a smart move, they’re easy to pick up and play and basic tactics like amassing heavy tanks with a bit of infantry and a few detectors can often be enough to overwhelm an enemy. Like all the races they tend to struggle with resources because Grey Goo works a little like Total Annihilation. You build extractors which create resources at a set rate, say +20/tick. When you build units or buildings (or research technologies that give you a particular group of units a boost or new ability) rather than paying up front, there is a resource drain per tick until the object is built. So a tank might cost -5/tick. As soon as your outgoings exceed your income you suddenly find yourself unable to do anything at all. The harvesters are painfully slow and each little burst if income will only move each progress bar a little. So it suddenly becomes important to plan far ahead and make sure you’re only building what you can afford at any given moment. Build too much production and suddenly you’re essentially bankrupt, unable to even build a new refinery quickly. Build too many refineries quickly (that have to be placed on special gas lakes) and you won’t have the units to be able to defend them from aggression. It’s a constant balancing act that takes a while to get your head around and new players can be destroyed by people who know what they’re doing because they will invariably run out of money around two minutes in and be completely unable to defend against any kind of attack.
The second race are the humans, in this game portrayed as a hyper-advanced and peaceful civilisation (for a change) that have forgotten how to fight wars which used to be managed by AI soldiers and tanks. Now they have found themselves embroiled in a new conflict they have had to resurrect the fighting machines and start again. These plot details are represented in the way that they play, a hyper defensive race that can build plentiful cheap static defences. Unfortunately they can only build one main base and everything must expand from that using conduit lines. If there’s a break in the conduit line back to their main hub, everything along that line will completely shut down, including their defences. This means attacking a human base is intimidating as there will almost certainly be a literal wall of cannons, AA and detectors, with artillery in support, but the humans have a spectacular disadvantage on many maps in that expanding to a new refinery site is a complete nightmare, being insanely expensive (to lay all the lines and new turrets to defend them) and slow. Thankfully to help with this the humans can teleport any of their buildings to anywhere else in their base, so once one refinery is mined out you can simply teleport all the turrets to your new ones, and you can even do this mid-battle to bolster a defence for a particular side of your base. This is an interesting and micro-intensive strategy so it’ll be interesting to see how the pros make the most of it. The human units are a fairly dull mixture of small tanks and aircraft, with a couple of fun exceptions like a large bomber that can do significant damage from quite a distance and a laser based tank that does increasing damage based on the amount of time it is firing at a building. The biggest problem with the humans is that it’s difficult to get the income required to build a large and impressive army to attack with, rushing as a human is quite a challenge, leading to long-drawn out games. Their ‘alpha’ unit is a single human in a mech suit, with the idea that it’s a dire situation that calls for a human to enter the battlefield.
The final race are the titular Goo. These are a swarm of nanobots and they play quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen in an RTS. Starting off as an amorphous ‘mother goo’ nearly everything the Goo does is mobile. The mother goo can move around and must, to absorb the geysers that spray out of the gas sites. To maximise production you need to patrol between different geysers and the mother goo has the interesting ability to move over otherwise impassable terrain like mountains. Another cool little ability is that it can attack units itself, absorbing them which creates a slow effect and does a significant amount of damage. The way the Goo create units is to grow the mother goo by feeding off geysers, and then splitting off bits of it when it’s big enough. Fairly quickly you can break off a small bit which can be turned into a variety of light units such as scouts, detectors and a couple of basic attack units. Spend a bit longer growing and you can break off a bigger chunk which can turn into heavy artillery and larger tank-like creatures. Or you can break off into a new mother goo to start growing from another site. Spend a long time growing and you can create the Goo’s ‘alpha’, a giant blob that does huge AoE damage, but that becomes stationary while growing, taking forever to mature, a process that can be sped up by feeding it other blobs and mother goos. The Goo can create huge armies surprisingly quickly but they do lack air units. There’s also an issue in that if a mother goo is attacked, it’s growth is linked to it’s HP, the more damage it takes, the longer you need to wait to make new units and the less powerful the mother goo is. Thankfully because everything is mobile, you can often just escape over a mountain and set up an ambush to put off attackers. Because of this there’s a chance for players to exploit the game a little, constantly running away from attacks and dragging games out into a prolonged cat and mouse style chase that can go on for ages until the enemy have set up a small army at literally every gas site on the map.
All this innovation is excellent and the genre desperately needs fresh ideas, but it hasn’t come without a cost. Many of the mechanics lead to very long games where it is incredibly difficult to finish off an enemy, even though they can clearly never win, requiring players to do the honourable thing and call GG. Of course as anyone who’s played on any kind of ladder knows, not all players are that nice. Even in the campaign (which is surprisingly difficult) you can find yourself clearly in the lead, only to start running out of resources and battling an entrenched enemy that you must clear out very, very slowly. At this point the game stops being fun and turns into a slog. Grey Goo’s answer to this is clearly the use of ‘alpha’ units. Unfortunately they lead to more problems, like the frustration of having an entire army wiped out by a single shot from the bullet-sponge alphas, with few ways to effectively counter one that’s being used by a sensible player.
Of course these issues are to do with strategy, and that’s the kind of problem you want to have in a competitive RTS, problems that can be worked out by balance patches and simply by the playerbase learning to overcome common tactics. We really hope Grey Goo will take off on the tournament scene as early streamers have shown that it’s an absolute joy to watch and as more replay and observer features are added (and they are promised to be coming) it could be a contender for games like Starcraft II.
Overall we’re immensely happy that Grey Goo has been made. RTS fans have been starved of quality games for a decade now and Grey Goo is certainly up there with a huge amount of depth and interesting ideas. It’s not an easy game and currently the learning curve can feel a little like a brick wall, but stick with it and you’ll find it to be refreshing and engaging. And perhaps you’ll stop giggling at the word ‘goo’.