RTS Thursday – 8 Bit Armies

Despite the fact that there hasn’t been a new, official entrant in the series since March of 2009, Command and Conquer (C&C) remains one of my all-time favorite real-time strategy franchises. To me, C&C is one of the cleanest and most elegant approaches to RTS design in existence. I’ve written before about the Dune RTS model, which is closely related to the C&C model, and so I’m always on the lookout for new games that follow in this vein.


And what, you may ask, does this have to do with 8-Bit Armies? 8BA, Petroglyph’s latest title, is their second attempt (following Grey Goo) to revive the C&C approach to RTS games. And while they have been largely successful at recreating the pacing and general feel of a C&C title, I feel like they have yet to capture the fun and strategic depth of the franchise they are attempting to emulate. Let’s examine this turn of events in more detail.

Game Basics

8-Bit Armies is a real-time strategy game that is not just steeped in nostalgia, it actively revels in it. Drawing mechanically from Westwood’s heyday and decorated with a retro art style, Petroglyph is begging you to relive the glory days of the real-time strategy genre. The game’s title is a bit tongue-in-cheek as the game is not actually “8 Bit.” Rather, the name is a reference to the aesthetic design of the game. A more accurate title might have been “Low Poly Armies.” The units, structures, and terrain are simplistic and almost abstracted, built of blocky shapes with little in the way of texture or detail. Nonetheless, the game is so self-effacingly lighthearted about its design that it’s easy to see the charm.

For one, the animations really help sell the game’s “cutesy retro” feel. Buildings bounce into existence, one feature at a time. Jeeps and harvesters bop along like something out of Steamboat Willie. Power Plants are humorously reminiscent of oversized 9-volt batteries with Tesla Coils sticking out at jaunty angles.

Furthermore, buildings and structures in the game are clearly marked and telegraph their function. The Tech Center has a big sign prominently proclaiming“TECH” and the headquarters structure is emblazoned with a declarative “HQ.” These touches serve the double purpose of helping players understand the function of each of their tools, while reinforcing the game’s lighthearted “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” shtick.

While 8BA only launched with one faction, the Renegades, Petroglyph has already added a second and has announced a third is in progress and may be ready within a relatively short time frame. Nevertheless, players are able to build huge armies with dozens of units without being hindered by mechanics seen in other games, such as population caps that limit the number of things you can chuck at your enemies. The game supports battles with up to 8 players, which is a nice differentiator given that many RTS these days seem to be content with 2v2 or 3v3 as their maximum match size.

Cities are mostly cosmetic, but provide dynamic backdrops for 8BA’s frenetic battles.

Economy and Base Management

Starting with a single headquarters building, the player is tasked with producing factories, barracks, refineries, power plants, and more as they rapaciously deplete the map of its resources (and their opponents’ armies). Players generally have only a single base that they will grow and expand over the course of the game by hauling in resources, constructing new buildings, and producing combat units.

8BA uses a “streaming” income model: harvester vehicles travel out from the base to gather resources and then return home to feed them to refineries at a constant rate. When units or buildings are purchased, they drain your income at a certain rate until their construction is complete. As is typical of C&C-style games, the initial purchase of a refinery includes the cost of a single harvester. Additional harvesters can be purchased from a Motor Pool to progressively increase the player’s overall income rate. All in all, resource collection is quite similar to the system found in Red Alert 3.

An interesting challenge in the game is that it can be difficult to build refineries close to resource deposits. New structures must be constructed within a certain “build radius” of existing ones. To access resources, you either have a chain of buildings extending to distant resource nodes, or long lines of harvesters crawling across the map as resource deposits are exhausted. This is reminiscent of classic Westwood RTS design (all way back to Dune) and leaves your precious harvesters vulnerable to enemy harassment efforts. While occasionally frustrating, this adds a lot of tension to matches: players must commit some of their unlimited population cap to protecting their valuable and vulnerable resource collection operations in the center of the map. This is a much different prospect than you see in an Age of Empires or StarCraft, where players turtle up in their base(s) to protect workers and nearby resource nodes. It keeps you engaged in the resource collection process, actively trying to identify and hold off threats around every corner.

8 Bit Armies keeps you busy expanding your production base + income.

As one would expect, players collect resources to buy “stuff”, which they can then use blow up other “things”. The game’s unit production structures should all be familiar to anyone who’s played RTS before: Barracks build infantry, Motor Pools pump out harvesters and a variety of vehicles, and Airfields make helicopters. What may be less familiar is that while a player can build multiples of each building, these additional structures don’t actually provide additional build queues. Instead, each instance of a structure decreases the overall build time for each unit produced in that structure type. For instance, two barracks will train infantry twice as fast as one. Add a third, and the multiplier goes to x3, etc. But no matter how many barracks you have, units will only come out of a single building, one at a time. Any building can be designated the “primary” structure, from which units will actually emerge – so if the player is able to get a barracks built in the middle of the map, they’d be able to dramatically shorten the time it takes to get more forces into the frontlines.

It does disappoint me a bit that there are no structures that allow additional simultaneous build queues or project their own build radius. These features could help speed up gameplay in the late game and solve a variety of logistical issues, such as expansion across the map. And without some sort of Mobile Construction Vehicle (MCV) that can pack up and move your base of operations, the game feels a bit static in the later stages. However, this does provide ample opportunities for harassing your opponent’s income because, as I mentioned above, players have to protect those long chains of vulnerable harvesters.

Humor and detail have been packed into every corner.

The Map

Map designs are mostly interesting from a visual standpoint. Many maps are rife with industrial clutter: cities or towns, power plants, docks, etc. Structures are only cosmetic however, they do not block line of sight and are easily crushed by tanks, though buildings will block the occasional shot or two before exploding. Units cannot be garrisoned and there are no capturable structures. One map does have lava streams which hurt units standing or passing over them, which is a nice touch, but otherwise the maps have little in the way of interactivity. I’d really love to see Petroglyph experiment more here. Buildings that block line of sight and/or are able to garrison infantry would greatly increase the appeal of urban combat. Additional interactive map features like the lava streams could help add unique challenges to each map and make every setting feel different.

Nonetheless, the maps are visually interesting, and Petroglyph has made good use of their aesthetic direction. For one thing, the low-poly structures are comparatively easy to create (I’m assuming!) compared to the detailed structures seen in many other games. As a result, Petroglyph has been able to sneak a lot of visual variety into the game: shipyards, canyons, suburbia, power plants and substations: they have a lot of stuff going on in their cartoonish maps. They’ve got a neat water effect going on with rectangular ripple effects, and the various terrain textures they’ve implemented are fun. Petroglyph’s models may seem to take less effort to implement, but they definitely know how to create maps with character.

Attacking up ramps is always an uphill battle.

Unit Design and Combat

The player starts with access to a basic anti-infantry unit and a missile infantry unit good against vehicles and aircraft. Later, players are able to build a scout/anti-infantry jeep and a heavier, anti-vehicle tank. Then there is the Engineer, which can heal friendly units, and a special Commando unit, which can be used for various sneak attack strategies. The Commando can only be acquired from crates scattered about the map (though these can be turned on and off in skirmish and multiplayer). Rounding out the unit list are two types of helicopters and an artillery vehicle that packs quite a punch.

At a high level, 8-Bit Armies manages to capture the feel of classic C&C titles with clear unit roles like the rocket infantry or the mainline tanks. There’s even an air transport, which I don’t recall ever seeing before in this type of game, but is a nice touch nonetheless. Tanks, artillery and harvesters can plow through buildings, crush infantry, and can be frighteningly effective even against massed rocket troopers. Aerial transports allow for sneaky assaults, and artillery are a force to be reckoned with. The sheer damage that just a couple of artillery units can do to a packed army has brought a smile to my lips (or a grimace, depending on whether I’m in control of said artillery!).

When the attacker is attacked…

In terms of tactical and strategic depth, combat is, for the most part, fairly flat with well-defined counters, though the addition of the experientially different Guardians faction has gone a long way to fixing this. Occasionally, there is room to micro units out of harm’s way (like when a tank is about to crush an infantry column) or to manually aim artillery, but most of the time this need or ability for finer control is missing. The unit list is diverse enough to allow for a variety of army compositions – relying mainly on air units, or on tanks, for instance – but once you see what your opponent is up to, the only real path to victory is brute economic efficiency (or nukes). The addition of the stealth- and fire-driven Guardians units ameliorates this somewhat: both army composition and manual control (sometimes called ‘micro’) matter more now in terms of how the player responds to their opponent’s threats.

The AI is aggressive (which is good), but not particularly intelligent (which is bad). I’ve seen it make good use of flanking maneuvers, such as sneaking armies around to undefended corners of your base. But this is easily countered since individual armies are smaller and quick to dispatch – and so this feels like an exploitable loophole in the AI’s logic. The AI will occasionally attack before you’re ready, especially if you’ve decided to be greedy and build up your economy early. But if the player is able to strike first and get the AI onto its back foot, it completely loses its aggressive edge.

Once you achieve a solid victory over an AI army, it often reverts to sending a trickle of units at you, more cannon fodder for your forces than an actual threat. The campaign missions (more on that in a moment) can and do account for this by starting the AI out with metric tons of defenses. But skirmishes tend to be a tech and production race that ultimately ends up following a predictable pattern. I was able to grok the rough timings for when the AI would unlock tanks, helos and artillery, and be ready with the appropriate counters.

Campaign & Multiplayer

Campaign mission select screen.

8-Bit Armies comes with both a single-player and a co-op campaign. Unlike most other RTS, 8BA makes these campaigns its focus. I think this is a smart move, given the relative difficulty RTSs have at keeping active multiplayer communities these days.

The campaign itself is structured around an understated story, including a villain named “Kain.” While there technically is a loose narrative tying the game’s missions together, it’s barely there. The only story in the game is told via written briefings on the mission select screen, and these are easy to miss or ignore. There’s nothing in the way of cutscenes, character interaction or anything else in-level that drives the plot forward.

The real motivator for progressing through the campaign is the increasingly difficult objectives with an Angry Birds-esque system of earning one to three stars for completing each mission. In order to earn a star, players must comply with various restrictions, usually something like a time limit or a restriction against using a certain type of unit. Getting all three stars on a mission will often require more than one playthrough, especially in the later, more difficult missions. In fact, some are impossible to complete fully on the first pass, as they require using certain units that are only unlocked after players have beaten the mission the first time. How’s that for encouraging replay value!?

Multiplayer appears to have to the potential to be interesting, since human players would be sure to make better use of tanks crushing infantry, sneak attacks with fleets of helicopter transports, and massed artillery (to say nothing of nukes, which the AI will build but not deploy – I’ve yet to see one used against me in skirmish). There is a multiplayer lobby, but it lacks an automatch system and there is not currently a large player base – it can be challenging to find another human person to play against.

It’s hard to fault Petroglyph for a smaller MP player base, since we’ve seen much larger games with better name recognition, like Stardocks’ Ashes of the Singularity or BBI’s Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, struggle to maintain a multiplayer population large enough to register in Steam’s community hubs. Petroglyph instead focused on the alternative: single player and co-op. While I’m all for encouraging multiplayer, their approach really does make sense. Furthermore, I think it would be a worthwhile endeavor for them to release more single player or co-op levels, maybe as part of a low-cost DLC.

Enter the Guardians

New blood!!!

After living in a low-poly world with only one faction for about a month, the recently added Guardians faction (who were free to those who purchased the game before their release) have been a breath of fresh air. The Guardians have a ton of enjoyable units: a flame tank, a stealth tank, sniper infantry… their units list is quite unique from the launch faction (who are now called the Renegades) and they make an engaging contrast in terms of combat dynamics.

The game feels considerably more complete with a second faction (which is still free on Steam, at least for now) and an entire second campaign (at the completely reasonable price of only $4 USD) to round things out. Some fun new tilesets, including a swamp-themed 1v1 multiplayer map, are thrown in for good measure. The Guardians will really increase this game’s mileage, and I have the suspicion that more content will only increase 8BA’s lasting appeal…

Looking to the Future

I’m excited about the prospect of an RTS that can get away with mixing genres like this.

When a player launches 8-Bit Armies, they are greeted with some key art, the game’s main menu, and, incongruously, a wizard in the bottom left corner with the text “Coming Soon?” Clicking the wizard opens up the image above: an apparent screenshot with the game’s existing units standing juxtaposed against skeletons, catapults, ogres, and more. For me, this is one of the most exciting things about the game – thinking about all the content and features that are still to come. I hope they can follow through on their intent.

While I have no actual knowledge of this, it looks to me like Petroglyph may be aiming for a long-time dream of mine: a genre-bending RTS. Pitting fantasy creatures against vaguely modern-era soldiers and vehicles, perhaps with a sci-fi faction in the mix, as well. With the popularity of modding and online content sharing services (like Steam Workshop) we’ve had the potential for this kind of faction mods or re-skins for years, but no one’s done it yet. Whether the fantasy faction is intended to represent asymmetrical balance or just a new look for the existing units and buildings I don’t know – but I’m excited by the possibilities.

Concluding Thoughts

The skirmish victory screen is delightfully campy.

While 8-Bit Armies is the first game in a while that manages to evoke the “Command and Conquer” feel, its generic unit designs and scaled-back tech tree makes the game feel more like a budding imitator rather than a full-fledged successor. In many ways, Petroglyph’s Grey Goo, its own issues aside, feels like a more complete take on the C&C model.

Nevertheless, 8BA manages to be a fun diversion and its Steam reviews indicate that it’s resonating well with players. When 8 Bit Armies launched, it was a fun diversion with a little replay value in the form of a quest for mission completion, much the same way I’d play an Angry Birds level over and over to win 3 stars. The addition of the Guardians DLC and campaign make me take the game a lot more seriously, and enjoy even AI skirmishes considerably more. There’s potential here, but it might be a long wait before Petroglyph can realize their dream and share it with the rest of us.

TL;DR: 8-Bit Armies is derivative of the Command and Conquer RTS formula – almost exactly. Instead of borrowing and innovating on C&C’s gameplay, 8-Bit Armies offers a stripped-down spin that delivers on nostalgia and fun, but is short on depth or character. It has some charm in the visual design, and the AI is reasonably skilled.  But long term replayability is lacking. The game has potential but feels underwhelming in its current incarnation.


You Might Like This Game If:

  • You gotta get your Frank Klepacki music fix
  • You need all things C&C in your life, and your favorite C&C was Red Alert 2
  • You dig retro graphics in your RTS
  • You play RTS for the campaign and co-op
  • You like driving tank battalions over masses of infantry and crushing them under your treads

You Might NOT Like This Game If:

  • You’re a Command and Conquer purist looking for someone to innovate on their model
  • You need all things C&C in your life and your favorite C&C was NOT Red Alert 2
  • You want a vibrant multiplayer community
  • You want a game that tells a compelling and engrossing story

Brandon played 30+ hours on his desktop PC, running with AMD 6300 3.5 GHz 6 core processor, with 16GB of RAM and an Asus R7-270 running Windows 10.

Brandon was gifted a copy of this game by the developer.

4 thoughts on “RTS Thursday – 8 Bit Armies


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