Iron Harvest: Dieselpunk RTS done decidedly well

I CAN’T recall the last time I saw an actual, proper real-time strategy (RTS) game that wasn’t a remaster – probably StarCraft II in 2010 – so it is great to see someone has decided we need a new one, and done it well.

Iron Harvest, developed by King Art Games and published by Deep Silver for PC is a dieselpunk-themed game set in Eastern Europe in the 1920s, where armoured vehicle development in WWI led (thanks to Nikola Tesla’s involvement) to oil-powered mechs and exoskeletons instead of the tanks we’re familiar with.

This sort of thing is extremely my scene, so you can imagine how pleased I was to get a review code for the PC version of the game.

The game is inspired by the real-world Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1921, but I gather the game’s world (“1920+”) is based on an alternate history board game  which explains why you’ve got three factions – Polania (Poland), Rusviet (Russia) and Saxony (Germany) fighting each other with giant mechs because of reasons.

Even without the cool dieselpunk aesthetic, Iron Harvest is a really good RTS. The designers have clearly been taking notes on what’s worked in earlier games and what hasn’t, and the result is distilled blend of that which goes down quite smoothly indeed.

Why yes, those are two mechs fighting in an alternate 1920s universe.

For example, I really liked the way you can take captured weapons from defeated enemies to change your infantry unit type – such as if your riflemen defeat a machine-gun squad, they can equip themselves with those machine-guns and transform into your very own machine-gun squad. You can also scavenge iron and ore (the main resources) from fallen mechs, which led to some great combat situations where I had infantry desperately recovering sorely needed resources in the middle of a raging battle so I could build reinforcements to stop a counterattack breaking through.

The game emphasises a more thoughtful, tactical approach rather than clicking the mouse button like a morse code telegraph operator juiced on cocaine and crystal meth. Positioning your units behind cover (fences, sandbags, buildings etc) provides some protection against damage, and field guns and mortars need to be limbered and unlimbered before use. Attacking mechs from behind results in more damage, using flamethrower infantry against entrenched units is a good way to get them out in the open, and so on.

This slower approach really appealed to me; it put me in mind of things like the Close Combat series from the 1990s.

The combat in the game is handled well and gets quite chaotic at times.

I didn’t love the unit build limit – as with things like Age of Empires II and Warcraft III, you can only support a finite number of troops or mechs, and that number isn’t particularly large, which did make it a bit hard at times for me to feel like I was commanding a robot army straight out of something like Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow.

The game comes with three full-length campaigns (one for each faction), as well as the usual multiplayer mode and the ability to play individual custom matches too.

The campaign stories are a great mix of individual unit control (ie, no base building, manage with what you can find on the battlefield) and traditional RTS style.

The environments are heavily destructible too – buildings collapse when mechs walk through them, artillery rockets create craters on the ground, walls collapse when hit with shells, and by the end of a mission the battlefield looks exactly like you’d expect a WWI-era battlefield to look.

The game’s alternate history setting is well done and accompanied by some neat artwork too.

I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging the story was too. For what is essentially “The Illuminati plan to start World War 1.5 because of reasons, with Nikola Tesla caught in the middle of the whole thing”, the game handles the three different national campaigns well, with different characters acting as heroes on the battlefield (one is a sniper with a bear that can heal nearby allies, another is a Tesla-Cyborg with a railgun for an arm, you get the idea)

While I really enjoyed the game, it’s not without its rough edges – some of the directionfinding isn’t great and the AI isn’t always the sharpest bayonet on the rack either.

I also felt there needed to be something in the space between “infantry” and “mech” – such as trucks with anti-armour guns (which historically existed in WWI), and the lack of aircraft in the game (again, something that was pretty well advanced by the end of WWI) was also surprising. I don’t know about you, but I would have thought the best way to deal with a giant diesel-powered AT-ST ancestor would be to dive-bomb it and strafe it with an aeroplane, not wheel out a 75mm field gun and hope for the best.

The destructible environments are another excellent touch for the game and add to the experience too.

There’s only three buildings for your main base (HQ, barracks, workshop) and while on one hand the simplicity of it keeps the focus on the units, I felt that a communications station or  something would have been a welcome addition. I respect the developers wanting to avoid the SimBase phenomenon, though.

These are relatively minor things, however, and given the roadmap the developers have laid out – which includes free DLC and game content – it wouldn’t surprise me to see air units appear in due course, along with some other playable nations too.

We really don’t see enough RTS games anymore, so for someone to not only fix that but also make one in a really cool setting is especially impressive and makes the game even more worthwhile, too.

Iron Harvest is refreshing enough to feel different, familiar enough to easily get into, and probably the best RTS I’ve played in several years. It does a lot of things really well, is engagingly different, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where the developers take the game next.