Iron Harvest developer King Art Games knows what's good. Mechs, of course, are very good. Plonking those mechs in an alternate 1920s is even better. Bears? Also good, especially when you get to charge into battle with one. And an RTS with a cover system, weapons that can be picked up and a focus on singleplayer? Call the undertaker because, friends, I have died.
There are shades of many classic real-time strategy romps evident in Iron Harvest, but none have provided such clear inspiration as the oeuvre of Relic, most notably Company of Heroes. Calling it Company of Heroes with mechs is a slightly reductive description that I'm still absolutely going to use because there's no escaping its presence.
One of the first things that the tutorial teaches you is how to hide behind stuff. That's something you'll be doing a lot as you try to keep your troops from being riddled with bullets. Hover over some cover and you'll see green pips representing your units, and once your troops are behind the wall they can start exchanging fire without getting mown down straight away—at least until their cover gets blown to smithereens.
Enemies will try to do the same, obviously, necessitating tactics slightly more advanced than just clicking on stuff you want to kill. Chucking a grenade over the wall will help with any entrenched foes, but more often you'll want to flank them. If the AI or another player sees your troops moving in from the other direction, they might be able to fight off your attack, but that's where stealth comes in. As well as being able to sneak through bushes, you can hide behind anything that breaks line of sight, making it easier to get the drop on your target.
With even just a small number of basic troops, engagements have several tactical considerations and, in all the explosions and smoke, plenty of drama. It's rare that you'll just have bog standard riflemen to play with however, as Iron Harvest gives you plenty of opportunities to specialise them. You'll be able to recruit engineers, grenadiers, anti-mech units and the like from your barracks, but you can also get access to them out in the field by ordering your soldiers to pick up equipment from caches or fallen foes. Every encounter will invariably drop something, so you can be agile, shifting your tactics and reforging your army on the spot.
These features immediately evoke Company of Heroes and don't represent the full extent of the—welcome—similarities, but they've not been lifted wholesale. All of them feel different from Relic's approach, for better or worse.
Getting into cover, for instance, can be pretty fiddly. Frequently, I found my gormless troops walking to the wrong side of the wall, essentially marching into a firing squad. This happens a lot when you've selected multiple squads, because there's no room for them all, but it can also happen when you've just got a single squad selected and they've got nothing but space. The addition of melee combat throws more issues into the pot. When a squad behind cover gets into a melee brawl, some of the individual soldiers will remain in cover and ignore the attack, even if you've ordered the squad to fight back. Melee fights are also a lot harder to parse than ranged encounters, and generally just feel less refined.
The looting has been more successfully implemented and seems more central to Iron Harvest than it did in CoH, to the point where there's almost the whiff of an RPG. It feels great to be able to just grab some heavy weapons or make someone an engineer instead of waiting for them to appear back at the barracks and then hoof it all the way across the map. The campaign missions can be lengthy, but they always seem brisk because of their constant forward momentum.
Assisting the masses of infantry are hero units, a trio for each of the three factions, like Ana the sniper. Each of them brings animals into battle with them because why not? In Ana's case, it's a friendly (most of the time) bear, but other heroes are mates with tigers and wolves. Rather than being separate units, the pets follow their hero around everywhere, and their abilities are found alongside the hero abilities. This cuts down on micromanagement and lets you treat the pair like a single character with loads of utility. It's great, but the pet AI isn't. Unless you stay on top of them, it's anyone's guess where they'll end up. I lost count of the times I had to ask "Where the heck is Wojtek?" because that blasted bear had once again run off to attack some distant enemies who weren't even part of the fight.
Then we've got the mechs. Oh boy, what a treat. They come in lots of different shapes, sizes and roles, but compared to humans they are almost all behemoths. And sort of terrifying. Everything is squishy compared to a mech, and they laugh at cover. Sandbags ain't going to protect you against a machine that can smash its way through a building. The real bruisers can make mincemeat out of tough, fortified bunkers, and even the lighter ones can dish out and take a major beating. Chuck just a few of them into a fight and you're in for some carnage. Once the dust settles after the really big scraps, it's like looking at a wasteland. Buildings turned to rubble, trees uprooted, the ground pounded until it's just holes and mud—it's impressive and a bit horrifying.
Despite this, mechs are far from unstoppable. I was surprised, actually, to see just how quickly even the big bastards can be taken down with some concentrated fire and a good position. If you can get the mech facing away from your troops, it won't take long to dismantle, especially if you've got some heavy weapons and artillery. This glaring vulnerability doesn't make them any less deadly, but it makes fighting them less of a slog.
When everyone brings the big guns out and dukes it out until the bitter end, Iron Harvest becomes a glorious mess. One of the campaign missions ends with the desperate defense of a train as wave after wave of mechs and men rush at you. It's around 10 minutes of near constant, exhausting fighting, and with every wave things get bleaker and bleaker. All that handy cover starts vanishing and the trainyard becomes this open space where everyone is just kicking the absolute shit out of each other. It's hard to make considered, tactical decisions when the apocalypse is happening all around you. I just kept flinging more meat into the grinder and plugging up gaps with as many bodies and guns as I could. At one point, with nary a rock to hide behind, I ordered my engineers to construct more sandbags right in the middle of a firefight. To their credit, they managed to fill in half of the wall before a mech—my mech—destroyed it with its massive clown feet. Thanks, bud.
I mentioned the singleplayer focus earlier, but there is of course still multiplayer, along with skirmishes that you can play alone or with pals, and special singleplayer challenge missions. It's the campaigns, though, that sit at the heart of Iron Harvest. I've only played a portion of one faction campaign, but at launch there will be three. Those I took for a spin all boasted unique wrinkles and objectives, both primary and secondary, that left plenty of room for different approaches, though not to the extent that I was ever left wondering how to get ready for the next explosive clash.
Campaign missions are interspersed with conversation and bookended by cutscenes, usually following a memorable set piece battle. Personal stakes and family drama shrink the war down and make it less abstract, offering a greater sense of the world without heaps of exposition. This also makes it potentially a good entry point into the 1920+ setting, which it shares with Scythe. There's more than a bit of Warcraft 3 in it, in both the structure and character-driven narrative, and this taster has given me an appetite for more.
There's not too long to wait. There are seven weeks to go until Iron Harvest launches, but based on this preview build there are still quite a few rough edges that need buffing out in that short space of time. As well as the cover and melee niggles, there's the UI that hides a good portion of your troop list and inconsistent pathfinding. With its foundations built on some of the best games in the genre, however, and the spectacle of the mech and infantry combat, there's still a great deal of promise. You can make a bear fight a mech—that counts for a lot.