[Editor’s Note: This review and score cover only the single-player campaign of Iron Harvest; we’ll follow up soon with a dedicated review of the multiplayer component.]
The choking smoke of diesel engines, gunfire plinking off of metal, explosions throwing soldiers to and fro. Through it all, the stomping of a mech’s piston-powered feet. That’s the landscape of Iron Harvest: stylish alternate-history real-time strategy with modern gameplay and a detailed single-player campaign. It’s bursting at the seams with ambition, as though the developers at King Art Games looked back fondly at the mid-2000s heyday of the RTS and said: “We can do that.” While it might not have pinnacle graphics and sound, Iron Harvest represents something that has become all too rare for fans of the RTS, and it’s the best single-player RTS campaign I’ve played in years.
Iron Harvest is filled with unabashedly, nonsensically cool stuff for nerds. The brilliant character designs, inventive mechs, and convoluted equipment are a delight. Why have wheels on your heavy machine gun when it could have eight legs? Why have a mech’s cockpit on top when it could hang from the bottom? Why use explosives to propel a bomb when you could launch it from between two spinning wheels? Why indeed.
Iron Harvest is set in the brilliant world of 1920+ (created by Polish Artist Jakub Różalski), an alternate history where the development of “automachine technology” revolutionizes the world with diesel-powered mechs that starkly contrast with peaceful agriculture and old-world streets. At the same time, it’s not weighed down with decades of complex lore you need to understand, and isn’t too reliant on dieselpunk cliches aside from the obtrusive presence of Nikola Tesla. Our World War 1 doesn’t happen, but the mechs become agents of destruction in a delayed Great War that consumes the continent of Europe for five years. As an armistice settles over the continent there are many wary of war, guerillas angry at the cost of peace, and a nefarious few who would see the war begin again.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Iron%20Harvest%20has%20tantalizing%20hints%20at%20the%20wider%20world.”]Iron Harvest has tantalizing hints at the wider world: How nations are run, geopolitics, recent history, and events on other fronts in the war. The countries of Polania, Saxony, and Rusviet are the focus of the campaign and the three unique factions in Iron Harvest. (They’re Poland, Imperial Germany, and Tsarist Russia, if you didn’t get that from the names.) Each faction feels distinct thanks to their own unique heroes, mechs, and seven-mission campaign that’s part of a larger story.
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It’s an RTS campaign in the grand old style, something we’ve only had a few of in the last decade. It calls back the story structure of RTS like Warcraft 3, where central point-of-view characters lead a cleverly-crafted storyline through to its conclusion in interwoven faction campaigns. It’s full of better writing than I expect from most games, let alone an RTS.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=It’s%20full%20of%20better%20writing%20than%20I%20expect%20from%20most%20games%2C%20let%20alone%20an%20RTS.”]The story of Iron Harvest takes simple characters through cheap thrills and clever cliffhangers to surprisingly emotional conclusions. That the characters are simple isn’t a knock against them, but rather it helps the story move forward in a limited space. Take Anna, a Polanian villager who takes up arms when her family is threatened. She and her pet bear Wojtek are a key hero unit whose story comes to terms with the horrors and heartbreak, then the complexities, of the war over the course of her campaign. She comes into conflict with her uncle, with war-weary authorities, and ultimately with her own values.
Or take veteran Saxonian general Gunter von Duisburg, an old-breed warrior who fails to see the true scope and horror of industrialized warfare before the great war begins. It’s a familiar story from history, but no less effective for it. His mournful, grumbling admonitions on the inhumanity of chemical weapons, killing en masse from afar, and the vanity of kings are great material for the greater story. His relationship with Saxonian crown prince Wilhelm grows from mentorship to rivalry, and has a jaw-dropping twist mid-campaign.
I call out Warcraft 3 very specifically, because there are few moments in the past 20 years of RTS gaming that give me goosebumps like the opening cinematic of Alliance and Horde clashing as Medivh narrates to Thrall. Iron Harvest has one of them.
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Actually fighting is more modern than classic, with minimal base-building, though engineers can build emplacements and fortifications. The two resources—Iron and Oil—come from capturing and upgrading income structures on the map rather than collected by worker units in a more complex economy. It’s clearly inspired by Company of Heroes, but it’s less doggedly tactical and has more strategic emphasis.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=It’s%20clearly%20inspired%20by%20Company%20of%20Heroes%2C%20but%20it’s%20less%20doggedly%20tactical%20and%20has%20more%20strategic%20emphasis.”]Strategy is a balance of attack and defense—first to secure resource points across a broad front, then to keep them upgraded, repaired, and defended. You spend most of your attention figuring out which units you need to counter the enemy’s composition, building them, and directing them into combat. I came to really value units like the Polanian Smialy light mech, a big soda can on chicken legs, because it’s a fast long-ranged defender, or the Saxonian Isengrim, a normal-looking tank with crab legs, because it’s tough and doesn’t need too much attention while I micromanage elsewhere.
All those cool mechanical beasts mean that Iron Harvest looks good enough in average play—though I turned off the obnoxious motion blur—but the graphics fall down in small places when you really start to pick at them. Polygons have sharper edges than you’d like, or textures aren’t quite as nice on closer inspection. They’re not bad, they’re just not as photorealistic as the art style aspires to.
The sound design is similar. It gets the job done, and the voices are good, but it lacks the punch of games with similarly realistic looks. Gunshots lack the distinctive crack of real firearms. The mech engines are more a timid background growl than the throaty, even deafening roar you expect from a tank engine. The music is a bright spot, with a medley of folk instruments and styles from across eastern Europe blending smoothly with bombastic orchestral pieces.
The cinematics before and after every campaign mission are nearly always a delight. Their graphics and sound are leagues better than the gameplay, and they’re smartly directed: They use varied camera angles, lighting, clever set dressing, and understand how to tell good, short stories. One in particular depicts the rise of an autocratic ruler in such a succinct and direct way that, despite knowing nearly nothing about the internal politics and daily life of the nation, I immediately got the story and wanted to know more. They could be mistaken for cinematics from a bigger game with a much bigger effects budget and well-known voice actors. The official cinematic trailer is—for once—a good sample of the level of talent at work in Iron Harvest.
Mechs and soldiers move through the world fairly smoothly, though sometimes pathfinding gets weird. Infantry have slick animations for moving over terrain like walls, for standing from getting thrown, but are otherwise pretty basic. The real animation work is in the mechs themselves, embracing the awkward and illogical look of the armored monsters. They’re constantly in motion, even when still, juddering and spouting exhaust. The Polanian mechs in particular look like they could come apart at any moment.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20destructible%20environment%20is%20the%20best%20I’ve%20ever%20seen%20in%20an%20RTS.”]One of the biggest stars, though, is the destructible environment, which is the best I’ve ever seen in an RTS. There is nothing, but nothing, like watching a super-heavy mech stomp through every building in its path. I remember a particular moment from my playthrough when I had ordered an attack on a town and was watching the enemy lines where it would hit. Then, running at full tilt from off-screen, my massive Rusviet Gulyay-Gorod walking fortress annihilated a row house as it burst into the street, bricks and roofing flying to impact nearby homes. It was a spectacular, cinematic moment that demonstrated the power of these awesome walking tanks.
And there are a lot of buildings to stomp through. The campaign maps are varied, ranging from urban landscapes to pastoral countryside and rugged mountains. The things you do in them aren’t particularly new: Sometimes you control a handful of units, finding more as you go. Sometimes you control a full base, capture points, and can build what you like. Sometimes, mid-mission, you switch from one style of play to another. There are even a couple bad, shoehorned-in stealth segments. It’s all pretty normal RTS campaign gameplay, but to be very honest I was happy to see all these cliches again after so long since the last significant RTS came out.
Some of the missions, though, use those simple parts to create masterpieces of level design. In one early Polanian mission you control an armored train alongside a handful of forces, piloting it through mountains and switching from track to track at stations while characters banter and you fight enemy patrols. When you come to a fortified bridge, the mission switches to base-building so you have enough forces to take on the enemy—and only then did I realize that the map had been constructed for dual use as an RTS battleground and in story-driven exploration. That’s a simple example, and later levels take it much further. By the end, I wanted the 30-some-hour campaign to last longer.
But the core of the RTS genre is still there, and one of Iron Harvest’s problems is the basic way in which it balances its combat. The tactical landscape isn’t complex enough. Though it’s a much more prevalent issue in multiplayer, fighting between unit types can feel a bit too much like rock-paper-scissors. A unit can either be a hard counter against another type and rip it to shreds, or it can feel like it’s useless, with not much in between. Gunners, the anti-mech infantry, tear up lighter mechs but don’t do well against almost anything heavier, even when they have cover. That’s because anti-mech mechs, unlike anti-tank units in other games, are simply good at killing anything smaller than they are—infantry included.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Hard%20rock-paper-scissors-style%20balancing%20limits%20the%20tactical%20depth%20available.”]What’s disappointing is that there just aren’t many “soft,” or partial, counter-matchups between units, depending on situational factors or upgrades. That kind of rock-paper-scissors balancing limits the tactical depth available when everything from positioning to maneuvering is subordinate to whether a unit is “supposed” to win against another. Even in Company of Heroes, where tanks squash infantry like bugs, front, side, and rear armor made them vulnerable if you weren’t paying attention to where the enemy was attacking from. In Iron Harvest’s campaign, though, it’s not so bad if you enjoy the scenery: Giant robots trading haymaker blows and naval-caliber artillery shells put on quite a show.
Hero units, on the other hand, are a bright spot of interesting tactics. They often have a variety of uses, or span several niches, to create some of the soft-counters Iron Harvest lacks. Polanian hero Lech Kos’ ape-like mech is a great example: It’s able to devastate enemy mechs in melee, but it’s still quite vulnerable to those same mechs because it lacks a real ranged attack.
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Much of the true tactical complexity actually comes from how you use infantry, rather than the mechs. Part of that is in their flexibility: like in Company of Heroes, infantry units are able to switch between weapons and roles by picking up equipment from dead soldiers or from supply crates. Generic soldiers pick up grenades, now they’re grenadiers. They pick up cannons, they’re anti-armor gunners. Shovels, engineers. Medkits, medics. Battles can be cleverly won by stealing your enemy’s weapons to counter their forces. I was particularly fond of sending in a charge of shotgun-wielding Rusviet Vanguards to kill enemy anti-armor infantry, then picking up their cannons to polish off the mechs.
The AI is decent enough on the campaign maps and challenge missions that it’ll put up a good fight, but you can make mistakes in your matchups and still survive. Campaign scenarios steadily ramp up in difficulty, and for a few late-game missions I had to drop it down a level to learn the scenario before I could beat it on medium or hard. In contrast, the AI is disappointingly bad at skirmish matches on even the highest difficulty.