[Review] Grey Goo [PC]

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Title: Grey Goo
Developer: Petroglyph
Publisher: Grey Box
Genre: Strategy
Platform: PC (Steam)
Price: $49.99 (USD) 54.99 (CDN)
Rating: Teen
Release Date: January 23, 2015
*Review Copy Provided by Publisher

We’re barely into 2015, and already the year is shaping up to be a great one for PC gaming. Kicking off the year is the eerily yet aptly named Grey Goo. On the surface Petroglyph’s Grey Goo is an unassuming RTS that, once you start to pull off a few layers and uncover the nuance of its mechanics, is a remarkably refreshing and accessibly title that grabs hold of the RTS genre and attempts to wrangle it back to simpler roots.

It has been years, maybe even two decades since I was truly sucked into an RTS. Once a cornerstone of my PC gaming experience, weaned on a diet of what are now considered classics from Blizzard’s WarCraft and StarCraft to Westwood’s Dune II and later Command & Conquer games; I found myself with age migrating away from the genre preferring turn based strategy. While playing Grey Goo I was forced to take a critical look at the genre; that is, why I migrated away and why the mysterious Goo managed to suck me back in.

Since the early days of the genre I found myself, quite frankly, becoming overwhelmed. As time went on “improvement” meant the addition of hundreds more structures and units, and hero units with an ever increasing list of ability bound macros needed to be memorized to efficiently manage and command your army. What was once a fun rush to collect resources, build and overrun and enemy became a frustrating cycle of micromanagement. With Grey Goo, Petroglyph has gone back to a simpler, yet no less in-depth model where fewer units and less abilities per unit doesn’t compromise gameplay, all bound together by an interesting story. Make no mistake, with the world building that occurs in Grey Goo, I am already looking forward to the next chapter of the narrative.

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Being a sci-fi nerd at heart, the setup, setting and title of the game itself was one of the first things I took notice of. It has been 500 years after man began to explore beyond the boundaries of our solar system, only to encounter a whole lot of nothing. Not surprising given the vastness of space and the seemingly low quantity of planets within the “habitable” zone to support life as we know it. That changes when a signal is received from a distant planet that could only be the work of intelligence. Of course we go to investigate and encounter a once great spacefaring species driven into hiding known as Betas, and the unfortunate and terrifying result of pushing forward with a technology we barely understood… The Grey Goo.

While the narrative is nothing ground breaking or new (humans head out into space, find aliens, and fight) there is a lot more going on than meets the eye. Without boring you too much (we will return to the game) I felt it was important to talk about the title of the game itself to begin to highlight the considerable amount of research and thought that is apparent in the world building.

“Grey Goo” is actually the name of an apocalyptic scenario coined by nanotechnology future-thinker Eric Drexler back in 1986. In his book, “Engines of Creation,” he outlines a scenario where self-replicating nanomachines would begin to compete with real life bacteria and high forms of organic life, eventually reaching a state of replication and consumption where they consume all matter on Earth. Nanites themselves are the evolution of thinking first posited by mathematician John von Neumann. His theory on self-replicating “macroscoptic” machines was adopted by NASA. In 1980 NASA began to seriously investigate the usage of self-replicating factories to aid in space travel (don’t have to worry about escape velocity with a heavy load of resources if you can manufacture them in space) and in 2004 NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts revisited the idea as a way for exploring space and mining asteroids.

The best science fiction is grounded in science fact, and as you progress through the single player campaign (which, to be honest, serves as a glorified tutorial for multiplayer) the legacy of Eric Drexler and John von Neumann grounds what could be a more fantastical story. NASA is exploring Von Neumann probes to explore the galaxy. Futurists have warned about the potential perils of nanotechnology, and we are at an increasing rate finding more candidate planets that can support life as we know it.

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In Grey Goo there are three factions to play. Betas, the grounded alien race I mentioned earlier that possess four arms and whose vehicles and units have a large, blocky and heavily industrial look and feel to them. The humans surprisingly sporting slick and streamlined vehicles you usually see used as the art direction for “technologically” advanced aliens in other games. Lastly there is the title characters themselves, the Goo; a roving nanotechnology blob-like faction, with a mean appetite and vastly different gameplay mechanics.

Without going off on too much of a tangent, I do want to give some lip services to the dynamic between the Betas and Humans. When you first sit down to play the single player campaign you are not given the choice of which faction you start with. Unlike some of the titles the Westwood veterans at Petroglyph worked on in the past, here you are forced through a narrative progression where you are introduced to the Betas first, then the Humans before you get your hands on the Goo. This was quite clever in a number of ways. First and foremost it forces you to sympathize with the Betas. Far too often in sci-fi of this nature humans are the underdogs. Our technology the least advanced and primitive looking. In Grey Goo, the poor Betas take on the “underdog” role; to see their hopes and dreams of returning to space torn asunder by a more technologically advanced human species and the unfortunate nanite plague released made me empathize with the Betas so much that when it came time to play as humans, it took a while for me to warm up to them.

Neat narrative jujitsu aside, gameplay wise Humans don’t differ much from the Betas. Aside from the cosmetic appearance, there is only some slight nuance in tier trees and structure creation. Betas, I have been describing (for lack of a better word) as “untethered”; they can build freely (as long as resources permit) allowing them to throw up “hubs” within their sphere of influence that serve as modular bases. These modular bases have nodes for attachments (or mods) that modify the facility to build specific units or provide unique functionality to those units. For examples a hub unit that has a factory attached and a tank attachment will produce the mechanized units; an air attachment gives the factory the ability to produce air units. Adding a level of additional depth are tech upgrades.

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Whereas the attachments determine unit type (air, mechanized, artillery, etc) the attachments also modify the attributes of the units produced. These modifications can be offensive or defensive in nature. Tank tech for Betas may increase the rate of fire or increase target acquisition rate. Tech requires some thought as they cost precious resources to unlock and can drastically change how a unit is utilized adding for greater depth and more flexibility in strategy.  The system is easy to pick up, straight forward and a nice nod to Petroglyph’s roots working on the Command & Conquer franchise. It also exponentially expands the versatility of what is seemingly a limited number of units by today’s RTS standards.

Humans are not too much different, and I found myself referring to them as “tethered.” Similar to Betas they have modular factory structures that can be modified with attachments to produce different units, but have the requirement of connecting all structures to conduits, essentially power lines that are needed to connect all buildings and provide them power. In multiplayer matches and further in the single player campaign, destroying conduits is a great way to cripple the human’s war machine, a weakness not inherent with the Betas.

While the difference between Betas and Humans are nuanced, the Goo provides an entirely different and refreshing gameplay experience. Starting off with the large blob known as “Mother Goo”, the more interesting faction of the three forgoes structures entirely for these “formless” sentient masses that can split, replicate, consume units whole and spawn off smaller specialized “formed” units that take on the more traditional unit archetypes the Betas and Humans have; artillery, aerial units, and mechanized units. While all three units have a remarkable level of detail, begging to be zoomed in to capture all the little moving parts, details and animations, the Goo undoubtedly steal the show with their pulsing glow and War of the World’s tripod vibe.

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Catalyst is the resource of want in this universe, and all three factions require it to produce units. Like predecessors in the genre it requires building a facility to capture and refine that resource into a usable state (or in the case of the Goo, simply rolling Mother Goo over it and having her do her thing.) While every player may approach it differently, the modular and expansive nature of all three factions combined with the fact that catalyst sites can be depleted encouraged in me aggressive expansion. That is quite unusual for a traditionally defensive player in RTS games that will turtle and hunker down rather than try to claim every resource point on the map.

Once you find your flow, and especially against the AI in the single player campaign, you’ll find that churning out units is quick and easy. It becomes a battle then to keep your  catalyst income rate high enough to spit out units to not only defend against (against AI and most human players) wave after wave of attacking forces and repair structures damaged  by the environment or enemy attack, but also send out your own attacking forces to whittle down your opponent.  In say Command & Conquer I would have gladly been happy with two Tiberium mines, in Grey Goo it was almost essential to expand your zone of influence, put up as many factories as possible (modded to produce different unit types) and seize control of as many Catalyst locations as possible.

Thankfully the large maps encourage exploration. While there are some moments during the single player campaign that forcibly “encourage” a certain strategy or path (i.e. clear out a round and about way through a forest to avoid the more direct route that goes through a kill zone camped by enemy artillery units owning the high ground; quickly produce X unit and do Y) that maps themselves are gorgeous, encourage a myriad of strategies and are alive thanks to little touches that make them vibrant environments. For example, while there are specialized stealth units in the game, any unit can go into a densely populated “wooded” area and become hidden from enemies. You can use telltale signs produced by the planet’s fauna to figure out where the enemy is and approaching from without wasting resources on a scout; a sudden flock of birds for example heading south west observed by a capable commander can alert to the presence of enemies approaching from the north east. More than a few maps also have environmental hazards such as earthquakes that weaken structures forcing the investment of resources to repair them (while also building up your army and defending against attack.)

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Despite my praise for the game, its single player campaign and world building, it isn’t without some criticism. When I first received the title a few days before its launch on Steam, the menu screen, mission briefings (which feature amazingly detailed close ups of character faces with a level of animation that ranks up there with Mass Effect) and cut scenes induced significant frame rate drops. My editor in chief wasn’t even able to load the game. These problems went away once I was in the game and on a map, but I was quite frankly flabbergasted that a machine that could run Dying Light and Dragon Age: Inquisition on the highest of settings with a solid 30 FPS or more FPS would choke with this RTS. Granted the cutscenes and those mission briefings have a tremendous amount of detail, bit even then I questioned how well optimized that cosmetic addition was. Recent patches have eliminated this almost entirely on my machine and my editor in chief can run the game, but the menu screen (of all things) still is a bit laggy.

In terms of missions early on, even on the normal difficulty, the game quickly goes from fun to brutal as the rate at which enemies produce and spit out units seems ridiculous. Often you are going against an entrenched and established force while you are starting from square one. The side missions, which provide neat distractions often have timers for completion, or completion may trigger an end to the mission without giving you a chance to complete the main objective (and vice versa.) While these side quests do include clear warnings that completion will end the mission, it is disappointing how absolute they feel – forcing you to pick one or the other instead of completing both. With the single player campaign surviving as a glorified tutorial, mission variety also is lacking. While they may have some great and unexpected moments and distractions, they all turn into races to capture as much resources as possible, mass produce as many units as possible and simply wear down your enemy in wars of attrition. Lastly, while I applaud the way each faction/race is introduced I sorely miss the ability to choose which story I wanted to encounter or experience first. I understand partially why it didn’t unfold this way, but given the veterans at Petroglyph I’m curious why we weren’t treated to something like the old GDI & NOD selection screen.

Rather than throwing more units, structures and macros to juggle like most modern RTS games, Petroglyph shows with Grey Goo sometimes you can do more with less. Grey Goo is an easy to pick up and fast paced RTS, with fun units that can be expanded upon to provide more strategic depth, lush and vibrant maps to explore, and that makes use of all the modern graphics bells and whistles to deliver a visually stunning experience. The multiplayer ensures I will be playing for some time and I wouldn’t mind seeing a traditional expansion pack or two (I loathe to say DLC) to further expand the game’s universe.

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About KareemHarper
Having nearly lost his life running up $900 phone bills in the dial-up era calling The Sierra Network, Prodigy Compuserve and BBS lines for gaming and having survived the first dot com bubble burst working at UGO.com/1UP.com, Kareem now works in PR specializing in digital marketing and analytics. Insonmia allows him to juggle a demanding career and his PC gaming hobby.