Review: Grey Goo is a novel RTS with some issues
This review will contain small spoilers and plot details.
It’s been over four years since the release of StarCraft II, one of the most successful real-time strategy games that have come out on the PC. Since then, not many games have come to challenge its position as the definitive RTS game as both a single-player experience and an e-sport franchise. As an avid StarCraft II player and a follower of its e-sports scene, I’ve spent countless hours playing and watching StarCraft, often to the point of exhaustion.
It should then come as no surprise that I was pretty excited when I first heard of Grey Goo. Developed by Petroglyph Games, a team composed of veterans who have worked on acclaimed RTS series like Command and Conquer, Grey Goo held promise as an original title that would reinvigorate waning interest in real-time strategy games.
With three new races, a sci-fi universe, and unique production mechanics, Grey Goo has all the ingredients of a decent RTS game. Unfortunately, Grey Goo fails to fully hit the mark, resulting in a mediocre experience that has occasional moments of brilliance.
About a week prior to its launch, Grey Goo released the following trailer, and I was immediately psyched.
The terrifying power of the Goo, impressive cutscenes, and what looked like really interesting characters all seemed to point toward a massive storyline with character development, plot twists, and tear-inducing moments.
Unfortunately Grey Goo has none of these.
Without getting into too many spoilers, the story of Grey Goo begins with a surprise attack by the Goo on the Beta race, who are just ready to leave the planet and become the spacefaring race they were meant to be. Along the way, the Humans also join the fray by some weird happenstance, and all three battle it out in somewhat arbitrary circumstances.
The characters in Grey Goo remain static in their development, and aren’t really swayed by the events of the game. Further, the dialog (with the exception of the really cool sounding language of the Beta) is fairly stale and generic, leaving very little room for subtlety, nuance, or depth.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing in Grey Goo is the lack of characters. Basically, there are only three characters in Grey Goo, and they are all fairly hard to identify with because their personalities show very little weakness. A part of me wishes that Grey Goo would bring back live actors and movie quality production that made the Command and Conquer games so much fun to play.
While the characters in the cutscenes fail to bring them to life, Grey Goo does do a great job at animating them. At the end of every mission, you’re rewarded with a spectacular cutscene that gives the world of Ecosystem 09 a sense of eerie realism.
Like StarCraft, the action in Grey Goo revolves around three races, the Goo, nano-machines guided by a collective intelligence, the Beta, a spacefaring humanoid race, and the Humans. Each race features slightly production mechanics, though there is quite a bit of overlap between The Beta and Human races.
Both The Beta and Human race begin with a central base, or HQ, and the first step they have to do is build a refinery to collect Catalyst, the resource (or money) that lets you build things. Unlike StarCraft, there is only one type of resource in Grey Goo, and resource collection is more or less automatic after the refinery is built.
After building the refinery, the next step is to add a factory (or an assembler if you’re playing as the Humans) in order to produce units. In order to unlock higher-tier units, you can attach tech-modules to production facilities, which again is a shared mechanic between the Beta and the Humans.
Once the initial production and harvesting buildings are setup, the mechanics of the Beta and Humans start to deviate slightly. The Humans, like Protoss from StarCraft, need to build their structures on a power field, so in order to expand their base, they need to connect structures by building a power grid that is always connected to the HQ.
The Beta, on the other hand, can freely expand around the map by building hubs that they can attach structures to. These hubs act as miniature versions of the HQ (or in the case of the Large Hub, exactly the same) where players can add production facilities. The Beta can place these hubs anywhere on the map where they have vision.
The Beta has two types of production buildings, hangars and factories, which produce ground and air units respectively, whereas the Humans have assemblers where modules may be attached to build air units. Units are either produced one at a time from standard-sized buildings or three at a time from large hangars and factories.
As the titular race, the Goo has the most interesting production mechanic in the game. As opposed to an HQ, you start off with one Mother Goo. The Mother Goo is placed on a resource patch, where it gains health, which corresponds to its ability to produce different kinds of units.
Initially, the Mother Goo has a low amount of hit points, but the longer it stays on the resource patch, the better the units it can produce. At one bar, the Mother Goo can produce a small protean, which lets you build four different types of tier-one fighting units.
At stage two, the Mother Goo can produce another Mother Goo, which can be transferred to another resource patch on the map, effectively doubling your ability to produce units. Once you have three bars, the Mother Goo can produce large proteans, which let you build powerful tier two units.
The interesting thing about the Mother Goo is that it is also a fighting unit, as it damages units it comes into contact with. This is particularly useful during both the early and late game, where you can ward off enemy scouts and early pressure by simply rolling over your enemy.
In the late game, once you reach the max supply cap of 200, you can produce additional Mother Goos with no cost to your supply, which are very effective at destroying enemy buildings as well as producing units on the move.
One of my biggest hangups with the Command and Conquer series was the lack of micro potential, or the ability to deftly control fighting units during engagements. Unfortunately, Grey Goo suffers from this same problem.
At best, unit movement in Grey Goo feels extremely sluggish, and there aren’t many opportunities to affect the outcome of battles through micro. Although unit positioning is critical in Grey Goo, such as putting siege units in the rear of your army and fighting units in the front, there isn’t much else you can do.
Ideally, I would have liked to split my units when taking artillery fire, have more control over the pathing my air units take when they engage targets (they fly in a predetermined loop which makes them very susceptible to anti-air units), and be able to stutter-step against a Mother Goo.
With no melee units in the game (with the exception of the Mother Goo), each battle ends up being a numbers game, where the player with the larger army will end up winning. Of course there are certain unit counters, like anti-air for planes and artillery against tanky units, but these differences end up being negligible when there isn’t much else to do to control the ebb and flow of the battle.
The other problem with Grey Goo has to do with hotkeys. While you are able to add units and production facilities to different control groups, the mechanics for selecting all units of one type removing units from a control group, or combining control groups do not exist, which forces you to awkwardly select all units with a mouse and pick them out from the units bar on the user interface.
One thing that I think Grey Goo does better than StarCraft II is the amount of health that buildings have, which is a lot. By requiring massive forces to destroy something as fragile-seeming as a refinery really makes you really think about your expansions and whether or not you should focus on destroying your enemy’s economy or army.
Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that my standards for unit control are heavily influenced by playing a ton of StarCraft II, but there is nevertheless a reason why it is one of the most genre-defining games out there, and why certain gamers have made it their profession.
Letting players have increased control over their units unlocks the skill cap and dramatically increases the longevity of the game. By having very little control of how engagements occur and not being able to pull off cool micro, Grey Goo reminds me more of old-school Command and Conquer games, which, while fun in their own right, didn’t have the replay value they otherwise would have had.
Graphics and Sound
The graphics in Grey Goo are undeniably better than those in StarCraft II. The lush scenery of Ecosystem 09, finely detailed units, and the ability to zoom in and out of the action are all very well executed and deserve praise.
The unit animations are also quite satisfying. As most units in Grey Goo shoot projectiles, you’ll be able to see some visually impressive battles, especially during bigger fights. Similarly, the buildings in Grey Goo look downright amazing, giving each race a distinctive look and feel.
Petroglyph Games also does a great job in the sound department. The game’s original score inspires a sense of epic doom, and the in-game music doesn’t get old, though you can choose what soundtrack to listen to through the options menu.
The sounds for the corresponding races also help bring the races to life. The Beta have a very military-esque vernacular, whereas the Humans and their drone units sound sterile and machine-like. The Goo units have the best sounds by and large, which closely resemble to old-school 56k modem bleeps and bloops, or something out of a phreakers toolkit.
Overall, Grey Goo looks and sounds very polished, and the production team has done a great job making sure it sets a new graphical standard for what to expect from a real-time strategy game in 2015.
In more ways than one, the campaign in Grey Goo serves as both the high and low point for the game. All told, it took me about 20 hours to complete Grey Goo from beginning to end, making it above-average when it comes to video games these days, which tend to typically last 10 to 15 hours.
The good news of Grey Goo is that you get to play as all three races in the campaign mode. The bad news is that each race is only allotted five missions, bringing the grand total to only 15 missions. This may not seem like that many, but when you factor in their length (most missions last about an hour) and the fact that you may fail a few times before you beat the mission, then you’ll likely end up clocking in over 20 hours before beating the game.
One of the mixed bag things about the campaign mode in Grey Goo is the difficulty of the missions. Unlike StarCraft, which holds your hand during every step of the early missions, Grey Goo doesn’t outright tell you what units to build or buildings to make, making it one of the harder RTS games out there.
Further, Grey Goo really punishes you for being idle. If you don’t have a few offensive units our of your production facilities from the get-go, you risk getting spotted by an early scout, which will then summon an army that will destroy you.
As a gamer I enjoy a good challenge, and in this sense Grey Goo delivers. For newer players into the RTS genre, however, I can see Grey Goo as being hard to get into, especially when it comes to beating the campaign mode.
The other thing that bothers me about the campaign in Grey Goo is how arbitrarily long the missions are. Of course, I understand that with only 15 missions, the developers wanted to squeeze every drop of gameplay out of them, but during certain missions, it seemed like they were long for the sake of being long.
For example, in one mission, you have to defend a horde of attackers for around 25 minutes, after which you get reinforcements that you’ll use to defend the opposing army. Watching enemies be destroyed when they get to your base for 25 minutes gets really boring after a while, especially since they are the same units, over and over again.
You really wonder why the waiting part wasn’t just 10 minutes, or even 5 minutes, considering that the amount of time you wait has no bearing on the outcome of the mission, except to make it longer. The other problematic thing in missions are the painfully slow movement speed of epic units, which is another arbitrary increase into the total mission time.
Although the 15 missions in Grey Goo did take me over 20 hours to beat, I would have preferred to play 30 missions that took half as long, or even a quarter as long. I understand that ultra-long missions have their place in RTS games, sprinkled through epic portions of the game—but when every mission is so long, it kind of wears out the novelty.
Despite an original story and an interesting take on the doomsday grey goo phenomenon, Grey Goo fails to deliver a compelling plot. The characters remain flat throughout the course of the game and fail to inspire any real sense of empathy. What redeems the story is the unique and gruesome nature of the Goo race.
Overall, unit control in Grey Goo feels very sluggish and awkward. Unit selection, army movement, and engaging in meaningful micro-oriented battles are all development areas that Grey Goo needs to address if they wanted a serious multiplayer experience from the game. That being said, the race of Goo is one of the most interesting RTS races I've played, and really sets it apart from the other two races, which feel very similar.
Graphics and Sound: 9/10
Petroglyph Games does a great job bringing the world of Grey Goo to life with satisfying visuals and unique sound effects. The units, buildings, and maps look fantastic, and the musical score does not disappoint.
The campaign mode makes you hit the ground running, and newcomers to the RTS genre may have difficulties beating the missions. Further, the sheer length of the missions, which average to about an hour each, often feel arbitrarily long. Beyond these gripes, the campaign does do a great job at introducing you to each race and letting you try them out before hitting up the multiplayer mode.
Grey Goo is a novel real-time strategy game that attempts to emulate the luster and wonder of the Command and Conquer series. With sloppy mechanics, a less-than-inspiring plot, and a mixed bag campaign, it falls short of this goal. Nevertheless, for those looking to play something other than StarCraft II, you may want to give it a try.
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