Iron Harvest should, by all accounts, be just the game for me. It’s set in a universe I dig, and has a lot in common with Company of Heroes, a game I’m on record as saying is “the perfect RTS”. And yet every time I force myself to sit down and play it, something just feels off.
For those who haven’t kept up with the game’s development, Iron Harvest is a new real-time strategy game from King Art Games, based on the same 1920+ universe that serves as the setting for the top-selling board game Scythe. Which means we’re looking at a 1920s Europe where, rather than inventing tanks and armoured vehicles, the great powers came up with hulking big mechs instead.
In terms of gameplay, Iron Harvest isn’t just inspired by Company of Heroes, it’s cosplaying as it. Almost everything that made Relic’s 2006 game great has been recreated here, from the use of cover to the style of base-building to the presence of resource and control points on the map to the way heavier units can be flanked *let’s take a breath here* right down to the way you can order units to retreat back to your HQ if they’re in trouble.
To play Iron Harvest feels, initially at least, like you’re simply playing a Company of Heroes mod. Which is fine! Like I said, Company of Heroes is the perfect RTS, and so were this simply a functional, re-skinned clone, then I think I’d have been more than happy with it.
It’s a pity, then, that Iron Harvest left out parts of the functional bit.
While it certainly ticks all the right boxes on paper, and when everything is on fire and blowing up it looks amazing, Iron Harvest is incredibly rusty at the point it matters most: combat.
Company of Heroes — I’m mentioning it constantly only because this game is so similar — wasn’t perfect because of its setting or its firepower, but because of its intricate balance between cover and flanking. Controlling squads of infantry in Company of Heroes felt revolutionary compared to your average RTS, where instead of simply clicking on some guys and sending them to their deaths, battles felt more like this:
Iron Harvest’s combat, meanwhile, feels incredibly basic. An example: I’ve lost count of the number of times where, after running into enemy patrols and placing my infantry behind cover, the enemy won’t try and flank or take up their own cover, but will just…run right into my fire and occupy the other side of the same cover.
Iron Harvest has all the trimmings of a flexible, engaging RTS, but none of the meat. It has cover, and craters, and buildings, it just doesn’t use them very well.
An RTS game like this, with little base-building and no resource gathering, needs the emphasis to be all on the combat, and so that combat needs to be fantastic. Here it’s pretty tedious, with poor pathfinding and sluggish movement. Doubly so when you factor in that the game’s factions are so broadly similar.
This has been pretty tough to come around to. Iron Harvest really sucks you in at first. It’s got a cool set of cinematic, singleplayer campaigns (relative to the resources of the small team behind it, anyway), and is a great use of the licence that fleshes the universe out to a much greater extent than I’ve experienced on the tabletop. For my first few hours, I was really into this, but after the tutorial-style missions gave way to the campaign in full, I just found myself walking away every 15-20 minutes, and having to force myself to play it again the next time.
That’s never a good sign, yet it was frustrating here because I should have been loving this, but the combat and AI just left me so cold. Maybe a part of that is that the whole thing feels pretty thin outside the campaigns, since the number of multiplayer maps are so limited, and so singleplayer skirmishes are limited along with them.
Maybe though it’s because whole thing just feels unfinished, which may not be too long of a bow to draw since this is what the game’s roadmap looks like for the coming weeks:
Iron Harvest sure could have done with those maps at launch. Co-op campaigns were originally advertised as being part of the game at launch. And the Epic Games Store version of the game has been delayed because it’s…not yet ready for launch?
The year 2020 has been a challenge for all teams working on #IronHarvest.
Due to the unique situation the game is not yet ready to launch on the @EpicGames Store. A full refund for pre-orders on EGS will be granted. We apologise for the situation.
— Official Koch Media (@KochMedia_HQ) September 1, 2020
I’m not saying Iron Harvest is terrible. Other reviewers seemed to have a fun time with it, and it does have some interesting ideas of its own: while specialised infantry can be built in bases, you can also re-equip squads on the battlefield with other weapons lying around, or even those left by dead opponents.
And the mechs, as you’d hope, are great! Sure, in gameplay terms they’re just direct replacements for Company of Heroes’ tanks, right down to the way they’re weaker on the flanks, but it’s still a sight to behold building a bunch of the bigger ones then letting them loose, crushing buildings underfoot and setting fire to whole squads of infantry.
But it’s not enough to offset the combat. Maybe a small team bit off more than they could chew here, maybe the game just needs more work, but whatever, as it stands today Iron Harvest is sadly a bit of a disappointment.