Say what you like about game developers in the ‘90s, but they at least knew how to name their games. Look at any list of releases from just about any year in that decade and you’ll find any number of punchy, pithy, interesting-sounding titles. Doom, Warcraft, Civilization - of course the fact that these games are all classics lends their names a certain familiarity and ease with which they roll off the tongue, but you’d have trouble convincing me that Command & Conquer wasn’t a genius name for the game that popularised the RTS genre. It’s three words and five syllables elegantly structured in such a way that they almost perfectly sum up the product they’re attached to. They’re catchy. They stick in the mind. They’re memorable, so much so that twenty years later just saying them will evoke fond memories of that opening GDI beach assault. They also evoke something that’s been a little bit lost in the intervening two decades; an attitude towards strategy that I wouldn’t exactly call more thoughtful or relaxed, but certainly slower. Starcraft popularised an emphasis on frenetic micromanagement that gradually became dominant throughout the genre, to the point where even the later C&C games aped it (to their great detriment), but there’s a lot of people out there who miss the older, more languid style of Command & Conquer, and would very much like it if somebody made a modern game in that now almost-retro style of RTS.
The good news is that this game now exists. It’s even made by Petroglyph — a studio staffed by some of the last Westwood veterans in the industry — so you’d expect it to nail that old-style RTS feel. And it kind of does, I guess. It’s just that… well, the bad news is that the game is called…
Roll that phrase around in your mouth a little. Feel the taste of it on your tongue. Grey Goo. Grey. Goo. This is not a title that brings to mind a resurgence in classic RTS; I’m not saying it’s impossible to use the word Goo when naming your game, but that game had damn well better be a whimsical puzzler a la World of Goo. It’s an inherently comic word, both onomatopoeically and because its meaning is just a few steps removed from the childish high point of watching Noel’s House Party on a Saturday evening. Where Command & Conquer sounded authoritative and decisive, Grey Goo just sounds faintly ridiculous. (Indeed, it gets even more ridiculous in the mission cutscenes, when exquisitely rendered CGI characters utter such immortal lines of dialogue as “I won’t rest until every drop of goo has been destroyed!”) I know they’re trying to tap into the modern zeitgeist of those depressingly regular hysterical news reports wherein science goes mad and creates out-of-control nanobots that will consume everything, but it really does boggle my mind that, like Mass Effect 3’s ending, the name Grey Goo made it through an entire company’s worth of people without anyone standing up and saying “This is really goddamn stupid.”1
So right from the offset Grey Goo is operating with a serious credibility deficit, which is a shame because it’s the best game Petroglyph have made . If you’re aware of my opinions regarding previous Petroglyph games this may seem like faint praise indeed, but I do mean it; it’s the first Petroglyph game I’ve played that I didn’t fall out of within three missions of starting the campaign. It does a decent job of fusing older concepts I last saw in C&C (you can build walls in this game, for crying out loud) with newer innovations such as three very asymmetric factions who each have their own super-unit lurking at the end of the tech tree. It follows the same C&C structure of having face-to-face mission briefings interspersed with nice CGI cutscenes that function as your reward for completing a mission. It even has an outstanding score by Frank Klepacki which is easily the best work he’s done since Red Alert 2. And yet despite all this, despite the obvious care and effort that’s gone into preserving some of that old C&C feeling while simultaneously trying to move this antiquated portion of the genre forward, Grey Goo still feels incredibly underwhelming.
More than any other Petroglyph game, Grey Goo is a reasonable collection of decent-to-nice ideas that really don’t come together. The factions are each designed to be quite distinct in terms of playstyle: you’ve got the Beta, who are probably the most “traditional” faction, all bullets and walkers and artillery with a visual aesthetic that’s full of belching smokestacks and whose gimmick is that they can mount most of their units onto walls (and onto the Beta super-unit) as turrets; the Humans, who field very gleamingly high-tech robotic units (a nice touch is that there’s maybe three actual humans in the entire game because they’re supposed to be explorers, although they certainly don’t seem to have a problem with letting their drones slaughter other intelligent species for them) and who can teleport their structures around to where they’re most needed; and the Goo, who are going to need a whole other paragraph to explain them because they’re so non-traditional.
The Goo faction is probably the most innovative part of Grey Goo. You start the game with a single Mother Goo, a huge amorphous blob that you promptly plonk down onto one of the catalyst pools that function as this game’s resources. The Mother Goo won’t gather those resources and convert them into spendable currency like the other races do; instead, the catalyst feeds the Mother Goo directly, causing it to grow both in size and hitpoints. Once the Mother Goo hits a certain size threshold it can hive off parts of itself into either Small or Large Proteans, or another Mother Goo. These are all varying sizes of amorphous blob, but they’re all fully mobile (albeit a bit slow), can climb cliffs and other usually-impassible terrain with ease, have a caustic attack that damages any enemy units they touch, and — most importantly — can be converted into other more conventional types of Goo unit at any time. This is unfortunately the part where the innovation breaks down somewhat, as the need for the Goo to have units to fulfil all of the stock RTS unit roles means that a Goo-tank is still a tank even if it stomps around on six legs rather than tank treads, but it still results in a faction that plays dramatically differently to the other two. The Goo is far more mobile than the Beta or the Humans and can shift its Mother Goos around with ease (and in fact the Goo AI is a massive pain the ass because it abuses this ability to the utmost), allowing it to quickly take over most of the map and start pumping out units from every catalyst pool it can get its tendrils on; but the flipside of that is that the Goo has no base structures of any kind and is entirely reliant on its units to overwhelm the enemy.
Now, aside from the mobile Mother Goo units there’s nothing particularly unconventional about how the Goo plays — or at least nothing we haven’t seen before; it’s a faction that takes a lot of inspiration from Starcraft’s Zerg as the side with the cheap swarm units that it can pump out very quickly. The Mother Goo and the Proteans make them different enough to be interesting, though, as it’s a rare example of a game mechanic servicing a theme rather than a design goal and having it all work out fine in the end. The other two factions are much more overtly artificial in the way they play — there’s no good reason for the Human buildings to require a connection to power lines that are manually constructed by the player, except that that’s their gimmick — which I do think hurts them a little bit as playing them is an experience that’s more-or-less indistinguishable from Universe at War, which was the last time Petroglyph tried to resurrect the old-school RTS. The Beta and Humans are well-designed in a clinical, forgettable sort of way, with nothing about them that sticks in the mind other than the Australian accents sported by the Beta. Command & Conquer was a game about near-future warfare using mostly conventional human weaponry, yet I still remember stuff like the Hand of Nod and the Obelisk of Light. I feel like a game about far-future warfare should have allowed Petroglyph far more latitude to make fun, memorable units and factions, and yet I couldn’t tell you the name of a single Human or Beta unit besides the Beta Commando – and that was just because he kept popping up on the holophone with his name helpfully stencilled under the screen.
That’s not so much a problem for how the game plays, however. I won’t remember anything except the Goo in a year’s time, but that’s a failure of theme rather than mechanics, and as far as mechanics are concerned the Humans and the Beta were engaging enough to keep me playing throughout their campaigns. The part where the failure of theme does start to bleed over into the mechanics, though, is in the visual design of the units. Being able to instantly identify a unit based on its silhouette and movement is a very important element of any RTS both for the controlling player and for the player fighting against it, and Grey Goo has the same problem that the Supreme Commander games did in that this is pretty much impossible because everything looks the same. In SC’s case it at least has the excuse that you’re viewing the action from a thousand feet up where everything looks like a tiny dot on the landscape, but there’s no reason why every single one of the Human units should be a crescent-shaped hovering robot2. Yes, the details are different, but you don’t have time to zoom in and visually inspect units for fine detail when you’re in the middle of a raging firefight, and so you end up being reduced to identifying units based on size alone – or in my case, you bypass the problem by only ever building one type of unit: tanks.
If you wanted to play a game where you hunker down behind your base defences building up an irresistible force of tanks before sweeping over the paltry enemy forces, then Grey Goo pretty much has you covered. I guess this is somewhat fitting for a game that consciously wants to be a throwback to the series that invented the tank rush, and it’s not like it doesn’t make an effort to spice things up a bit with Starcraft-style mission objectives, but it does render the various things the game does to try and move this style of RTS forward a little bit moot when the most effective strategy is still to construct 30 tanks and then do an attack-move order into the enemy base. They make it so easy for you; base defences are really, really powerful and can only really be taken down by artillery, which the AI seems a little reluctant to field; while the new walls block vision and must be destroyed before you (or the AI) can even see what’s behind them, making it trivially easy to set up an impenetrable killing field. You can try to play proactively by seizing control of vital points on the map with groups of specialised units, but unfortunately the AI doesn’t give a shit about resources (it doesn’t appear to use them in campaign missions, judging from the number of bases I took down that still had full resource pools when I’d completely exhausted mine) and will continue to spam wave after wave of troops at you that will gradually wear you down. It’s best to just let those waves break against the bulwark of your defences — which you can at least repair in between attacks — whilst constructing an unstoppable tide of tanks, which despite what the tooltips say, are good against all unit types and not much less effective than artillery at taking down buildings. Then you do that attack-move, and then you win.
Now, I can hardly complain about this. I bought Grey Goo because I wanted something that was deliberately reminiscent of that old-school style of RTS gameplay, and Grey Goo certainly delivered on that count. Its failing was not really one of design; all of the bits and pieces you need to make an excellent C&C game are present and correct, and it even does something pretty new and interesting with the Goo faction. In terms of theme and character, though, I’d struggle to name a less memorable game I’d played in the last year. It’s the classic Petroglyph problem: their previous games weren’t particular slouches when it came to design either, but they were seriously lacking in the degree of vision and polish required to make a disparate collection of design ideas come together into a coherent whole. Grey Goo is no different. It’s a decently-made game that’s missing a soul, and it’s difficult to come up with a pithy, punchy title summing up your game when your game is about nothing in particular, really. Which is probably why it got lumbered with Grey Goo. Mystery solved.
- Note: I work in game development, or at least *at* a game developer. I’m aware that this usually isn’t how it works, and that 99% of a developer’s staff get no say in what a game is going to be called. At the very least, though, I would like to have been a fly on the wall during Petroglyph’s product naming discussions. ↩
- It gets super fucking obnoxious in the base-building AI, because there’s no tooltips telling you what the particular requirements for building an advanced structure are. All you get are 1-3 silhouettes, and you have to guess what they are. It took me about ten minutes before I figured out that yes, I was supposed to build an air hangar before I could build a repair pad. For some reason. ↩