They Are Billions is an RTS that's all about defense

I was focused on expanding to the east, caught up in a rhythm of pushing forward with my rangers, falling back when zombies massed, then pushing forward again. After each gain in clear space I put up a Tesla tower to consolidate my area of control while searching for a chokepoint, somewhere the forests and mountains bunch up close enough I could fill the gap with a wall and tower and feel secure.

I got so caught up I forgot how close the timer was to the next horde arriving. I'd been given eight hours notice that the zombies were massing to the south, then completely forgot about them. When the alarm sounded there were dozens of them at my wooden wall (not even a double wall), and there was only a single soldier manning its tower.

Rangers came off the western defenses in support and I queued up another unit at the barracks, but the flimsy wall wouldn't last. The column of zombies had spread along it, covering every inch. Fortunately, at this point an election was declared.

At regular intervals in They Are Billions you get to choose a new mayor. Two candidates pop up offering a different bonus, in this case an increase in the amount of resources returned when canceling a building or a couple of extra units. Since you get back 100% of structure costs if you build while paused, and everyone in my colony is about to be murdered, the free snipers offered by candidate Binkley seem like the best choice.

They Are Billions is a real-time strategy game of the classic kind, one that reminds me of Age of Empires or Warcraft, except instead of the enemy being a well-matched opponent with their own base they're a legion of zombies spread out over the post-apocalyptic map who periodically mass and throw themselves at your walls. A year ago I wrote about how much I used to love turtling in strategy games, especially in the kind of single-player skirmish modes that were downplayed in the move to online multiplayer. They Are Billions is in Early Access but the fully playable survival mode encourages exactly the kind of turtling I dreamed of. 

It's not just about sitting and waiting for the enemy to come to you—it's about gradual, creeping expansion and consolidation. There are resources scattered around the map, iron and oil and stone, and I need to push out to grab them. That means opening a gate and sending out a squad, claiming some ground, then building new defenses around it. 

Those defences change as I climb the tech tree, unlocking ballista and shock towers and units that include steam-powered mechs. There's a steampunk theme draped over They Are Billions, but it's a pretty thin layer. The campaign mode, which will be added later this year when it leaves Early Access, will presumably lean into the top hats and cogs stuff more heavily.

Even with just survival mode, it's a good time. The spacebar lets me pause and issue commands for units as well as buildings, to micromanage my bow-wielding rangers step by step as they fall back when a running zombie pushes out of the herd of shamblers. When they come the hordes move like water, slapping against walls and then spreading along them to test their limits. 

The only thing that really bugs me about They Are Billions is that the unit barks are annoying. I'm tempted to turn their volume down, which thankfully there's a slider for. Warcraft and Starcraft are still the gold standard for that stuff (I could listen to orc sailors all day), but these steampunk doofuses get on my nerves. 

Still, when I'm cautiously putting down additional pylons—I mean Tesla towers—I feel like Protoss besieged by Zerg. And that's all I ask for.

Those two snipers provided by Mayor Binkley walk very slowly from the command center to my besieged south wall, but once they finally get there a string of headshots turn my fortunes around. I hit the repair all button (god bless the repair all button) and set to work improving my defenses for the next wave, and the next. 

On day 59 the settlement finally falls, two hordes arriving at once when I've only prepared for one. Survival mode is permadeath so my only option is to start over yet again but I look forward to the next attempt, to seeing what's hiding in the far reaches of the tech tree and just how many zombies They Are Billions really will throw at me.

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.