Wayward Strategist

My thoughts about Grey Goo

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I consider myself a long time fan of Petroglyph games. I put possibly upwards of 100 hours into Universe at War, and was perhaps one of the only people who signed up for Games for Windows Live solely to play ranked multiplayer in the game. I was in the beta for aborted games Mytheon and End of Nations and was in fact one of the most outspoken proponents of this latter game. But the bitter taste left in my mouth by End of Nations’ demise left me jaded at best when it comes to supporting games and, sadly, especially those by Petroglyph. Getting worked up about a game, only to have it die before ever seeing the light of day, is exhausting.

So, when Grey Goo came along I was ambivalent at best. As I never seem to tire of mentioning, I have happily been living in the world of tactics and wargames for the past couple of years, and considered myself above the more abstracted and gamey approach of old-school real-time strategy games of the Blizzard and Westwood lineage. The genre needs to evolve, I said, not return to the mechanics of 15 years ago.

Well, whether or not I was correct with that assertion, actually playing Grey Goo has softened me to the idea of returning to ‘roots of the genre’. The game is undeniably fun and incredibly well polished, and despite having some deep reservations about some of Petroglyph’s choices, I’m now looking forward to laddering in this game. As to whether it’ll enter my regular rotation, only time will tell.

Factions

Far and above, the most interesting thing about this game are its factions. However, I feel that it’s tedious at best to describe them blow-by-blow for any potential readers – there are already excellent videos that describe many of the core tenants of the Humans and Beta on Grey Goo’s official YouTube Channel. For brevity’s sake, I’ve included these videos below, along with some of my thoughts about each faction.

Humans

Let’s now discuss some of the implications presented by the Humans’ toolbox of units and features.

Humans have been specifically and intelligently designed to be a defensive faction. They have virtually no ability to offensively place production facilities, which means that their armies will always have the longest travel time to the production and resource harvesting operations of their opponent. To counteract this, they are able to dynamically and quickly re-configure their entire base layout, allowing them to teleport defenses into place in response to an attack, and simultaneously teleport production or economic structures away in order to avoid losing them. The Humans are the only faction with actual dedicated turrets, which means that a higher percentage of their population can be devoted to attack than that of other races (unless a Goo player is going all-in, in which case technically their structures are aiding in the assault). The Beta faction, on the other hand, must dedicate units to wall hardpoints in order to have durable defenses (important if Goo forces are swarming with Protean units)

The Humans are also incredibly flexible in many ways: since hardpoints can be teleported at a whim, Humans can quickly re-purpose factories to produce different units, allowing them to ‘tech switch’ perhaps more easily than any other faction (I’ll go into this a little more in the Goo and Beta sections). Their scouts are some of the most advanced in the game, with their air scout having the longest vision radius in the game, making their offensive teleportation very hard to effectively stop.

Also not noted in the video is the reality that, out of the box, Human units cannot be repaired. There is tech that allows some structures, tanks or air units to be repaired (or auto-repair) but unless this tech is researched, human forces can be whittled down over time. This puts them at a disadvantage compared to the Beta with their repair pads or the Goo with their self-repair abilities. And you thought Protoss had it bad – at least they have shields. This actually underpins another reality about Human play: they are forced to be incredibly proactive. If a Human’s defenses are cracked convincingly, they will have a heck of a time coming back from it.

Humans

Beta

The Beta might be termed the ‘generalist’ faction, but it’s a misnomer. The beta rely on sheer firepower and economic overdrive to win games – seriously, they tend to be able to mine the most resources and produce the most units in the shortest amount of time. Beta rely on numbers and having the right tool for the job to win the day. They have a variety of offensive and defensive options that make them quite flexible, but find that their very diversity and wealth of options can do them harm.

The Beta are, quite simply, the simplest faction to play. They are the most straightforward, without a reliance on power conduits and extreme defense like humans, or being slaves to their race’s own benefits like the Goo (more on that in a moment). The Beta have the most unit types, and few outright weaknesses. Their units are light but plentiful, and they can set up production or harvesting operations wherever on the map they want, making them in some ways a midpoint between the immobility of the humans and the structureless nature of the Goo.

Beta’s wealth of unit options and catch-as-catch-can Hub production model leave them open to be defensive or offensive, macro focused or aggressive, but the nature of their hubs makes it an expensive and time-consuming process to switch out their tech. Hubs have limited slots, and structures attached to them must be sold back and then rebuilt to be re-configured, meaning that there’s an actual loss of investment if the player makes a mistake with hub design, or if changing battle conditions necessitates a tech switch. Similarly, their walls are clunkier than that of the Humans, since gates must be manually constructed and cannot be freely passed and fired through. However, individual wall segments can essentially turn any patch of ground into a turret farm, with enemies being forced to take out a wall segment before being able to kill the unit atop it.This has a number of interesting tactical applications including, offensive turreting.

The Hand of Ruk is the literal embodiment of the Beta’s combat philosophy – artillery, brute force, and production.

The Beta

Goo

The Goo are… interesting. Instead of resources, they rely on the hit-points of their only structure, the Mother Goo. Mother Goos gain hitpoints as they sit atop resource nodes, and have 4 possible ‘tiers’ of HP atop their core pool. Each time their HP grows to a new ‘tier’ they can spend it to produce a unit called a Small Protean, or to buy a new technology for their faction. At 2 tiers, they can spawn another Mother Goo. At 3, they can produce a Large Protean, which can turn into their higher tech units. Technically, nothing is stopping the Goo player from immediately accessing their high tech units from Large Proteans – only common sense might dictate that waiting to get these units right out of the gate might be a bad decision. The Goo have no real tech tree as such, as at any given point only the “cost” of Mother Goo HP restricts their actions.

The implications of the hit points of what would otherwise be their ultimate weapon (Mother Goos do nasty damage if they manage to catch anything) should not escape you – this severely limits the abandon with which players can commit Mother Goos to battle. Losing HP is equivalent to losing the ability to produce more army units. This is the hard choice the Goo player is forced to make: do I use the Mother solely as production, leaving it away from the frontlines to produce my army, or do I commit them to the fight, and potentially lose a significant portion of my production capabilities? This is the type of choice I live for in these games, the seriously non-trivial, the hard choice.

Small and Large Proteans themselves are combat units – Small Proteans are fast but do light damage in a melee area around themselves while Large Proteans are slow and do heavy damage. At any point these units can be expended to turn into a fixed number of units. This allows the Goo player to keep many or most of their units in the form of Proteans until literally the moment before the Protean dies – the resulting units will always spawn with the same amount of health.

However, when Goo units spawn from Proteans, they do so at about 60% health, which means that if they spawn in combat they’re more easily killed. The Goo is a constant dance on the knife’s edge of power and defeat, options and oblivion.

The Goo

StarCraft

Comparisons to StarCraft 2’s factions are inevitable, but deeply flawed. Let’s take the Goo as an. Obviously, one might say, the Goo are this title’s equivalent to StarCraft’s Zerg race, right? No, not even close. The goo, mechanically, possibly couldn’t be further from the Zerg in function. Let’s look at a quick bulleted list to clarify

Looking at the Humans in relation to the Protoss or the Beta presents similar frustrations, though being slightly closer comparisons in some respects. Ultimately, I feel that comparisons with StarCraft are reductionist and downright lazy. If anything, comparisons should be made to Command and Conquer 3 (though good luck with that as the Beta share similarities with both the GDI and the Nod, while the closest I can come to the Human faction are Universe at War’s Masari faction).

The one area I do feel like Grey Goo falls short compared to StarCraft is imagination. Grey Goo’s insistence on having no active unit abilities means that ultimately, you don’t see as many different things happening in a Grey Goo match. Units drop bombs, fire cannons, deal AoE damage etc, but there’s no Blink micro, no clutch Muta juking, or tense baneling/marine duels. Now, I’ve only had a handful of matches against other players to date, so it’s a bit early to tell the depth of strategic and tactical mastery that better players than myself will cook up. But this remains my largest remaining holdout – is there enough depth concealed in this streamlined game to keep people coming back after the initial headrush of learning and playing a new game wears off?

Gameplay

Far too many mainstream gaming sites produce nothing but uninformed tripe about the RTS games they cover, a perfect example being the utterly irrelevant Grey Goo preview posted to Rock, Paper Shotgun which had the utter nonsensical comparison of Grey Goo’s Beta faction with StarCraft’s Protoss as one of the least amongst its offenses. As a longtime but admittedly mediocre player of RTS games, I hope to be able to provide a more accurate picture of what Grey Goo is trying to do for interested readers.

Skillshots

When Petroglyph says they’re taking this game “back to the roots of the genre”, they’re not kidding. Mechanically, Grey Goo resembles a classic Command and Conquer title in many ways. First and foremost, unlike the convention popularized by Blizzard’s titles, no unit in this game has any activated abilities or skill-shots. No unit has a spell, psionic ability or MOBA-style line attack. Many units have unique characteristics or inherent traits but the StarCraft and Warcraft conventions of spellcaster units are not present in this game.

This is, in my mind, both a blessing and a curse. In RTS titles as diverse as Company of Heroes and StarCraft, one major determination of player skill is the counterplay of using and avoiding ground targeted abilities, be they Molotov Cocktails or Psionic Storms. A large part of the tactical aspect of these games is the managing of cooldowns, or the limited but renewable reserves of a unit’s mana pool. However, some subset of the RTS community does not view skillshots favorably – one major point of contention with Relic’s Company of Heroes 2 on launch was the incredible impact that grenades could have on infantry combat, a Gordian Knot type solution that broke down what was in the minds of some players the superior infantry combat model of the first game.

So, the lack of skillshots or spells of any sort is likely to be viewed favorably by one segment of the RTS community, while gamers who grew up playing Blizzard’s titles are likely to miss it.

Micro + Macro

Much of the game is slower-paced that what many modern RTS gamers might be used to. The early game in Grey Goo has been intentionally slowed down, and large armies don’t really start appearing off the bat. Part of this is the high cost of bringing additional resource refineries to bear, and part of this is the fairly sedate pace of armies as they cross the map to attack enemy positions.

While the game starts off more slowly economically, by the time each player has 4 or more resource gatherers, large armies start coming out and you’ll realize that some damage sources in this game are straight up unforgiving. Some bombers can literally wipe out entire attack forces in 1 or 2 passes, making air dominance in the case of Betas and Humans a not inconsiderable advantage. Human artillery is in the form of invisible ‘mines’ which can be triggered several seconds after they land, further dealing damage and punishing aggression.

In classic C&C faction, knowing what units to build and where and when to engage are incredibly important. Grey Goo works hard to minimize the more tedious parts of RTS play – especially economically – but does not aim to skimp on the strategy. Many decisions, both on the tactical and strategic level, are nontrivial, coming with an opportunity cost or severe consequence for misreading the situation, or both.

Conclusion

To me, ‘depth’ in an RTS boils down to the essential question of – how many meaningful options does a player have to execute different strategies, to respond to their enemy, and how nuanced and meaningful are the interactions between a player’s own units and those of their opponent? Ultimately, I’m not sure if Grey Goo provides enough… nuance, though in my opinion it surely delivers on fun. This, as an admittedly middle of the road RTS gamer who’s perhaps easily impressed.

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