Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023
Gray Goo Review: A real-time strategy throwback moving forward

The multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre is definitely a hot commodity in the gaming industry. Every brand and every publisher seems to be dipping its toes into the rushing water League of Legends And Dota 2. However, the genre is not fully formed from those modern games; its current success is due to a genre that has largely disappeared in the meantime: the real-time strategy game (RTS).

To remember how big RTS games were, you must have played games before Blizzard’s “World of”. Warcraft franchise. That moment was the beginning of the RTS decline; even star craft 2one of Blizzard’s RTS mainstays, has seen its popularity decline in favor of the free-to-play pastures of MOBAs.

But the RTS genre is now getting some new attention in the form of Gray Goo. This indie outing comes courtesy of Petroglyph Studios, a developer made up of leftovers from the old RTS masters at Westwood Studios (Command and Conquer, Dune II). Although Petroglyph has been around for over a decade, its last notable creation was Universe at War: Earth Assault, a 2007 release that was a flagship of Games for Windows Live (remember?). Can Gray Goo reviving a genre?

Simple story, improved interface

Gray Goo is a return to the simplistic storylines of the RTS games of yesteryear. You have your three warring factions, a sci-fi supersubstance that fuels everyone’s economy, and the promise of a larger, fourth threat that maybe eventually bring them all together. “Grey goo” might as well describe the game’s premise, as it’s an indistinguishable blob of sci-fi game tropes catalyzed by some surprisingly abundant (and gorgeous) cutscenes.

Those same pre-rendered sequences explain the intoxicating meaning behind the game’s title. The blobby, silver “Goo” faction is based on the real-life theory that self-replicating nanomachines could one day consume all matter on Earth. As you might expect, that puts the machines at odds with the other two races: the post-industrial alien race of betas and a highly scientific future vision of humanity.

Gray Goo is so relentlessly serious about its more conceptual elements (such as the grasping nature of humans or the Goo himself) that it actually became endearing towards the end. Pass or fail, it is clear that someone believed in what they were writing, even if they didn’t have the time or budget to get there completely. At times, the story hits land, such as the somber comments about humanity’s attitude to space exploration. Other times they don’t.

While the story isn’t groundbreaking, the subtle user interface improvements help push the genre forward Gray Goo obviously took a few design cues from the rise of the MOBA. Like RTS games of yesteryear, Gray Goo lets players control everything from unit production to base building with the press of a few hotkeys. The addition of this game is to take each of those hotkeys and put them in plain sight.

Gray Goo maps structures, light and heavy units and technology are mapped to the QWER keys, just like the keys for activating spells Dota 2. Once in one of these menus, a combination of the same four strokes will produce the correct structure or unity. The overall effect makes running a base similar to controlling a single hero in a MOBA, allowing players to make the minute decisions that control the build flow with ease and, most importantly, fast.

A ruthless campaign

The emphasis on speed is immediately noticeable in the single-player campaign. There really isn’t a second to lose; even on normal or easy difficulties, enemies will storm your base once they feel confident enough to do so. In my experience, that meant about two minutes of idle prep time in the earliest missions. It also definitely meant an incredible amount of rebooting as I learned how to build efficiently.

My problem in those first reboot-filled matches was that I didn’t have a specific “build” in mind for my base. In the competitive scenes around games like StarCraft even Dota 2, matches are won and lost by build orders – the ability to select and execute one of many proven strategies faster than your opponent. In a typical RTS, that’s not a problem during campaign mode, usually allowing players to be more experimental and lethargic as they poke and prod the systems to figure out how to play and win.

Not so inside Gray Goo. I quickly learned that if I wasn’t building two plants immediately after I built my refinery, I was basically done. To the game’s credit, the hotkey-based on-screen menu makes just that kind of action smoother than most games of this type. It even offers a fighting game-style move list under each item, reminding you which combination of button presses will produce the desired unit.

These same key combinations are usually reusable in all three races. The human, beta, and goo factions each have their own tank, bomber, and artillery equivalents. Each also has a single overpowered “epic” unit – an airship, robot, or giant blob of silver that trudges across the battlefield a little slower than the rest of the game’s units, completely at odds with the pace of the controls.

My biggest problem with Gray Goo, and the one that makes it so hard to judge is that the three factions are way too similar. Visual and numerical differences exist between the three factions and their units (the Goo in particular stands out from the other two), but in my time with the game it’s been hard to say how important these differences really are.

While numbers emerge from the game, such as the armor and damage a unit deals, they don’t tell the whole story of a unit. Factors such as production time, resource costs, and speed of movement should be considered when assembling a force, but it’s not yet clear which factions have the “best” numbers in which of these areas. Do the Goo’s Destructors outrank the Beta’s Guardians? Is it more profitable to build a third factory or a second refinery first? This is the competitive ‘language’ of the game and has yet to be written by players.

The concern may seem esoteric, but in a game built from the ground up to encourage hasty tactics, this kind of data can be critical when making decisions. It will likely become more important when the game’s multiplayer suite reaches an audience. As it stands, the level of information available is just not up to the mark.

The campaign doesn’t explain much about things like build orders, team composition or the rock-paper-scissors interplay of which units against which. It’s up to the community of players to discover these strategies for themselves, using a horde of ghosts to smash their collective heads against theories until something sticks. Gray Goo could absolutely set such a community on fire and make for a nice multiplayer experience over time.

However, it is difficult to speculate on what ‘could be’. All I can do at this point is praise the game for what I know it does right (a progressive and accessible control scheme) and a damn for what it gets wrong (a frustrating and sometimes forgettable campaign).

I will say this for Gray Goo: I will watch the competition scene, or lack thereof, with great interest.

The good

  • A fluid, progressive interface that advances a long-dormant genre
  • Beautiful CGI cutscenes that recall the good old days of the genre
  • The story is presented with a confidence that becomes endearing over time
  • Strong voice acting and general story direction

The bad

  • Hesitation of any kind will be penalized immediately
  • Steep learning curve requires a lot of experimentation and rebooting in the beginning
  • Most units feel like reskins from their faction counterparts
  • A wafer-thin plot that can’t support the game’s loftier ideas

The ugly one

  • Powerful, excruciatingly slow epic units mean you have a lot time watching your giant robot walk from point A to point B

Pronunciation: Gray Goo is definitely a throwback, albeit with some compelling innovations. Those who remember the heyday of the RTS genre should get a kick out of it, while the unprepared might be scared away.

By akfire1

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