01st Oct2020

‘Iron Harvest’ Review (PC)

by Matthew Smail

Back in 2016, a board game called Scythe blew the world away with its incredibly evocative artwork, which featured hand painted images busy farmers working the fields against a backdrop of huge, mechanical walkers that seemed to eye them in equal parts both wary and protective. This artwork came from Polish artist Jakub Rozalski, and whilst the subject of today’s review, Iron Harvest, isn’t actually a Scythe branded game, there’s no doubt that Rozalski’s worldbuilding links the two in an undeniable way.

Iron Harvest is set in an alternate history world in around about 1920. The Great War happened, but instead of being fought by men in trenches with little or no mechanised support, it was actually fought by those huge, hulking mechs that I mentioned earlier. Following the war, an uneasy peace remains in place, but border disputes between The Polanian Republic and the Rusviet, whilst the Saxony Empire waits in the wings.

Each of these factions is playable across three interlinking campaigns and whilst there are some clear “baddies” and “goodies” among them, the storyline is complex and “adult” enough to allow the players room for interpretation. Where many RTS games keep their distance and avoid personal relationships at a per-unit level, in Iron Harvest, these relationships form a key part of the storyline and are dealt with throughout the gameplay by the introduction of hero units that come with special abilities and other unusual features.

Whatever thematic links between Scythe and Iron Harvest there may be, there’s no doubt that Iron Harvest has its own identity in gameplay terms. The PR surrounding the game speaks often of capturing the spirit of games like Company of Heroes and Dawn of War II, which both originated around the same time and occupy a space somewhere between the base-building approach of classics like Command & Conquer and the more modern, purely tactical strategy games that have been increasingly popular.

If capturing the spirit of these games, as well as pretty much all classic RTS titles that came before it, was the goal, then Iron Harvest is a success. Throughout the twenty-five hours or so that I spent with its campaigns, I felt many moments of nostalgic joy. Most missions involve a mixture of building up troops, advancing on control points and collecting resources (iron and oil) as well as occasional stealth sections. Early missions (and others infrequently throughout the campaigns) give players a very limited amount of resources and demand that they be spent wisely, but these are infrequent.

The actual combat is also relatively traditional, despite the inclusion of mechs, anti-mech weapons, flamers, machine guns and a wide variety of other ordnance that works in an almost rock-scissors-paper kind of way. Flamers and machine guns work well on infantry, but are less effective against armoured targets, whilst larger cannons fire less frequently and are unlikely to disrupt infantry quickly enough to be considered effective. Flanking and cover is at play here, and the maps are well designed to frequently allow players to take advantage.

With that said, I didn’t feel like there was a ton of impactful choice about how to influence each skirmish once it had begun. Iron Harvest feels more about ensuring that players bring the right tools to the fight in the first place, than it is about using cover or manoeuvring forces to gain an advantage. Flanking and cover, as I mentioned, do feature, but it’s quite rare to find that a change of position mid firefight would be more effective than continuing to use the same units to keep firing.

This is often because getting behind a mech comes with significant risk of return fire, and because infantry in particular will crawl when suppressed, making offensive movement challenging. I found myself creating battlegroups consisting of armoured units and infantry of various kinds moving together but grouped on separate hotkeys. When a battle was to be fought, I’d often command the infantry into the “best available” cover, then use the armoured units (including heroes on occasion) to break up the enemy forces and, if appropriate, get behind them.

Using an approach like this also allows the player time to use the special abilities of hero’s like Anna Kos, who has a snipe ability, or even the abilities of more average units like grenadiers, who can throw a grenade when commanded, but won’t do so on their own steam. This might sound like a bit of a gripe, but in practice it’s not – it’s just a return to an older style of gameplay. What brings the action together is the lore and the excellent story, which puts these bizarre units and likeable heroes into a believable and semi-familiar setting that is also completely soaked in Rozalski’s dieselpunk theme.

In terms of presentation, there are two sides to Iron Harvest that are worth calling out. The first, which is the cut-scenes, is close to flawless. The way in which Rozalski’s world is realised in terms of the living, breathing characters – both playable and supporting – is superb. The visual aspect is very well done, with lengthy, interesting and action-packed scenes bringing life and character to the world, and great voice acting adding weight. This, largely, carries over into the other area – which is of course the visuals and sound during the actual missions.

Iron Harvest is played from a fairly standard, slightly angled top down perspective, with a camera that can zoom in at an increasingly horizontal angle and take players right into the action and that offers free movement and rotation. To my eye, the visuals are finely detailed, with individual soldiers featuring moustaches, detailed weapons and uniforms, and buildings and terrain offering a fair bit of height or depth that can be seen easily from a distance. Moving units into a dugout behind some sandbags looks like a “safe option” when zoomed out, and when you bring the camera in close, that inkling is confirmed by the fact that the soldiers are snugly beneath ground level and behind the physical sandbag barrier.

Mechs and heroes also feature a lot of detail, with heroes like Anna and her bear Wojek featuring extra personality in the form of animated hair and other detail. There’s a fair bit of incidental chatter among the soldiers in each mission as you give out commands, and the music is just about rousing enough to keep the player focussed on the task at hand. Combat escalates both the visual and aural flair, with weapons offering a suitable range of lighting and smoke effects, as well as authentic enough sounds to accompany them and bring some weight to proceedings.

The real crowning achievement in terms of presentation, which also has a significant bearing on gameplay, is the destructibility of the landscape offered by Iron Harvest‘s engine. This is demonstrated early on by features as simple as trails of footprints left in snow, or walls crumbling into heavy gunfire. Later on in the game, large mechs will smash through entire buildings, causing the bricks to bulge outwards in opposition to the approaching mech, and then falling convincing into piles of rubble.

This destructibility is not only glorious in terms of how it looks when it happens, but it is also tactically important, since among the few moments where the kind of flanking manoeuvres I discussed earlier are possible, many come from walking through a seemingly impassable obstacle. I should stress that whilst many mechs are light (perhaps able to knock over a low wall) there are some that are huge – almost in the same league as the famous Star Wars AT-AT, and these offer completely new approaches that the player won’t have seen earlier in the game.

Between the fantastic story (and its really lengthy campaign) and the hybrid of modern and classic gameplay, Iron Harvest is a fantastic real time strategy game for any fan of the genre, but it is Rozalski’s theming – which is stronger than ever – that really puts the cherry on top of an already sweet treat. This world is incredible, and seeing it realised through believable, fully featured characters is videogame magic. The gameplay itself has a few slight drawbacks owing to the heritage that the design team aimed to recreate, but for every small mis-step, there’s another classic set piece or memorable battle that eclipses any such issue.

For the single player mode alone, then, Iron Harvest is an immediate RTS classic. This is a game that any fan of the genre should own, and which any player who is curious about what a good RTS looks like should also consider starting with. There’s enough content here to justify the price twice over, and that’s before I even dive into the multiplayer content which I’ve barely even got to grips with. Another small benefit in support of both single and multiplayer modes is that updates have been constant, and communication between the design team and players is fantastic – leading me to believe that Iron Harvest has a fantastic future ahead of it.

****½  4.5/5


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