Come to Iron Harvest for the mechs, stay for the beautiful, wonderful destruction in this solid and approachable real-time strategy game.
Making a real-time-strategy game right now must be pretty tricky. Think of the established franchises you would have to go up against if you wanted to develop an RTS; names like Warcraft and Age of Empires, Warhammer and Company of Heroes, the list goes on and on. You’d have to bring something different to the table, something that makes your title feel new stacked up to other franchises that have had releases spanning the past 20 years. Iron Harvest manages to do just that. It mixes up the rote experience of building units, getting resources, building better units, etc. in favor of a more fluid classpath and giant, diesel-fueled robots.
Iron Harvest takes place in an alternate version of the world just after WWI wraps up. In this alternate history, the Great War didn’t just debut automatic rifles and chemical weapons, but also massive mechs. These iron behemoths could slay men by the hundreds, and stomp their way through a town leaving nothing but rubble. They changed how war was fought in the world – instead of worrying about the machine gun on the other end of no-man’s-land, soldiers had to worry about being flattened.
Like other RTS games, you have a couple of options for how to play the game, but I recommend everyone start at its natural beginning, the campaign. Set after the war has ended, its story revolves around Anna Kos, a young, idealistic woman with a massive bear as a best friend. As neighboring Rusvia begins to occupy her homeland, Anna stumbles backward into the resistance movement trying to reclaim Polania and the scientists that originally created the mechs.
Most of the story isn’t gracefully told; it inches forward like rusted gears, grinding and clanking. Along the way though, the game does manage to get its messages across. It’s clearly anti-war, unlike so many other games that center around the subject. In cutscenes only, it asks players to question what war is worth and who should be fighting them. I also couldn’t help but find symbolism in the characters that were always found in mechs. They are by far the most ruthless in the game, causing the most violence whether it be for their own country or for some greater movement. While the suits of metal these characters used helped them carry out their ideals, I can’t help but think it also insulated them from the reality of it, similar to the way a drone pilot doesn’t really know the damage they’re causing. The best part though: all of this is only in one of the game’s campaign stories – there are two more focusing on the game’s other factions.
Regardless of their ideals, the fighters in Iron Harvest represent one of three factions – Polania, Rusvia and Saxony, each with their own pretty blatant real-world counterpart. At first, there aren’t many differences between these three nations during play. For the most part, all infantry troops are the same, and consist of classes you would expect from an RTS; riflemen, grenadiers, medics and engineers among them. While this all sounds par for the course, Iron Harvest does have an interesting way of giving players more options with their infantry units. Instead of producing units that you specifically want–say, machine gunners–you can command a group of riflemen to take out enemy machine gunners, then pick up their weapons. This kind of class fluidity plays a huge part in Iron Harvest, where situations can change quickly. For example, if your army is getting blasted by enemy mechs and all you have are riflemen, getting some extra firepower is as simple as finding enemy cannoneers and taking their gear.
Of course, when you’re fighting a war cover is important, especially when your enemies are shielded in tons of iron. Iron Harvest has a very barebones cover system, one that automatically positions each person in a unit against the wall closest to where you’re directing them. Except that automatic direction isn’t all that accurate. If you’re commanding more than a couple of units and want them all to take cover, a couple will inevitably be standing out in the open, not going to any available cover at all. Just moving units around felt inaccurate; sometimes they would go too far or stop short of where I expected them to go. It’s a needlessly tricky system that takes much longer to figure out than it has any right to. If you really need cover, I suggest finding the nearest building and having your troops hold up in there, in a position where they can fire out the windows.
But let’s be honest: infantry combat isn’t why you’re here, it’s not why you’re interested in Iron Harvest, and it’s not why I was interested in Iron Harvest. Just like Horizon Zero Dawn, we’re all here for one reason – giant fighting robots. Are the mechs in Iron Harvest *technically* robots? No. But that’s semantics, sue me.
Mechs in Iron Harvest are close cousins to armored units in most other RTS titles. Like tanks, they’re resistant to the munitions that prove fatal to basic infantry troops, so to combat them you’ll either need a bigger gun or a mech of your own. Mech troops are also where you’ll find a whole lot more unit variance, not just in terms of what options are available in commanding them, but also visually. They range from basic to super-advanced weapons platforms, excruciatingly close to just being Metal Gears. Even so, early mechs are just bad-ass. For Polania, the first mech available is bipedal and wields a massive bolt action rifle. The second crawls on spider legs, sporting two machine guns on each side of its cylindrical body. From there it just gets more impressive and terrifying – mobile mortar platforms, mech hunting bots that fire steel rods. There is a chess board’s worth of these bots to choose from, and each faction has a different list.
There is a purpose for mechs outside of wonton destruction though, one that only you, the player, will feel, and that’s their presence. Like a Stand in Jojo, Iron Harvest‘s mechs are intimidating and terrifying. I can’t count the number of times I’d be fighting a small skirmish, thinking my infantry units have beat out my enemy’s, only for some massive metal thing to lumber in. Every time this happens, it causes a visceral kind of fear, just because they’re so enormous. To further exacerbate their presence, mechs also have a wonderful sense of scale. They’re nearly unstoppable, bursting through brick walls and buildings like a knife through butter. The sandbags your engineers so carefully laid down to prepare for this fight? The bot can just walk over them. This casual destruction is part of what’s so terrifying about mechs, and it’s a thoughtful addition in Iron Harvest that makes their presence feel, for lack of a better word, more weighty.
It’s sad to say though that controlling these bots is as unwieldy as controlling infantry units. Getting them to move with your other units is a struggle – some of them are so big that they just move slowly. This ends up affecting the pace of most missions, stretching out playtime as I wait for my armored units to take the brunt of an enemy’s attacks so I can send in infantry troops. But once those mechs are gone? I have to retreat back to base, build my mechs again, and continue to fight a war of attrition. Situations like these are far too common in Iron Harvest, and it’s sad that they’re derived from the game’s best feature.
In the midst of battle, you forget about that though. You forget about the minutes you had to wait for your mech to reach its target, the difficult-to-wrangle controls, all of it. When your amassed forces of diesel-powered killing machines and heavily armed troops clash with your enemies, it becomes a wonderful show. The sounds of machine-gun bullets tinging off of metal shells, the explosions of mortar fire that spray dust and debris into the air, the utter destruction as a mech charges through buildings to attack another; it’s a simple and brilliant spectacle. If you’re not interested in playing Iron Harvest, I at least urge you to watch someone else do it, because just watching the action play out is a treat.
Iron Harvest doesn’t feel like an RTS for seasoned players of the genre. Much like its mechs, some parts of it feel clunky. But past its rusted exterior, inside Iron Harvest is a fun and entertaining time sink. It’s one of the few titles I’ve played this year where I can totally get lost in a match. Just start it up and poof, suddenly an hour is gone. You get so wrapped up in your strategies, enemies attacking your resources, your units, that even with a real-time clock in the top right I found myself up in the early morning playing at points. While it won’t provide the blistering fast gameplay of other time-honored RTS titles, Iron Harvest is still worth your time if you’re looking for a more-than-solid experience.