by Ewan Wilson
reviewed on PC
Building on the goo
I remember hearing about Grey Goo back when I was a kid in the 90s. Like the technological singularity or space elevators made from carbon nanotubes, it was one of those clever scientific hypotheses of the era that set your imagination alight. The Grey Goo is an apocalyptic vision where microscopic machines we create go wrong and begin metabolising the world and everything in it. It’s taken some time, but developer Petroglyph Games – veterans of the real-time strategy genre – are finally filling in the gaps and bringing to life those youthful fictions.
Grey Goo is a macro-oriented strategy game in the tradition of Command & Conquer. You’ll be mining resources, expanding outwards across the map and building up a mass of units in order to crush the enemy. Beyond the titular Goo, there are two space-faring species fighting it out on the planet “Ecosystem 9”. The Humans and alien Beta roughly represent two sides of the same coin. They’re both base builders who expand spatially and construct tanks through large-scale industry. The Humans are interesting in that they wage war via drones – sleek, hovering craft, as well as automated turrets powered by lines of electricity stretching out from their central base. The Beta, a species of four-armed humanoids, play a more traditional role. Their infrastructure drops down from skycranes and unpacks like Ikea-furniture, and they pilot heavy-duty mechanised suits.
The game becomes truly asymmetric with the introduction of the Goo. It’s with them that the genre’s core mechanics make most sense. The Goo are a swarm of self-replicating molecular nanomachines, and are by their very nature coldly strategic. They’re an entity that bridge the gap between the evolutionary and the economic; internalised factories that swallow matter whole in order to reproduce infinitely, or at least up until you hit maximum unit capacity. They capture the mentality of a strategy game perfectly – siphon resources, grow and reproduce.
Unlike other species the Goo are completely mobile, “Mother” Goo slide over resource nodes to extract from them. They can also eat away at enemy units that come too close. Great amorphous blobs, they slither across the terrain in seek of rich resource nodes. Once they’ve become fat enough, they can divide in two. Depending on how many resources the “Mother” has siphoned, she can split into either a small or a large protein. These proteins can then form into offensive units: translucent, tentacled monsters, of which the strategic type – tank, artillery, anti-air etc –the player can call forth when needed.
The Goo are as novel as they are alien – a bit like the Zerg from Starcraft. They’re also, like Starcraft II’s carnivorous creep-spreaders, the most intensive side to play as. Whilst the Humans and Beta operate on the economic principle of creating a smooth and consistent supply line, with factories pumping out units, the Goo are forced to continually move “Mothers” between resource nodes as well as individually split proteins in order to be efficient. It can be tricky to keep up with the Goo, but the game is strategically unique because of them.
You’ll play as all three species in the campaign. Missions are novelty-based. As opposed to straight up skirmishes, the game takes a similar route to Starcraft II, not only easing you in slowly, but also making sure each mission is unique and comes with an interesting twist or hook to keep things fresh. There are a surprising amount of CGI cut-scenes in between missions, all well produced, as well as some great artwork on the loading screens. All of this adds a great deal of polish to the game. The user interface is also superb – it’s well designed visually, and most importantly it makes important information clear, providing easy access to complex commands and the necessary hot-keys.
One of the best things about Grey Goo is the epic units. Each species has its own. The Beta has a gargantuan rolling tank-base that can produce units, be fortified, and fires a long-range nuclear cannon. The humans can build the “Alpha”, a titan-sized robot that fires a laser beam as large and wide as its massive face. Saving the best for last, the Goo’s epic is the “Purger”: a giant iconic glob that slowly drags itself across the map, its destructive tentacles bursting forth from the ground. If there’s anything disappointing about the Goo, it’s that the “Purger“ doesn’t convert its victims into mass so that it eventually consumes the entire map.
Despite the imaginative Goo and the general level of polish, movement and combat can feel a little sluggish. It’s easy to play turtle with both the Humans and the Beta; with both species able to cower behind impenetrable walls of turrets and fortifications. Units are slow and tend to clump together to become unwieldy “deathballs” that defensive artillery can make short work of. This means games can drag on and become lessons in attrition, with one player taking over the map and starving out the other confined to their base. Grey Goo doesn’t have the speed, fluidity or finesse of Starcraft II – although which real-time strategy game does?
With a slow and methodical pace, I’m not convinced Grey Goo makes a compelling multiplayer game either. It’s worth a few skirmishes, but the sheer asymmetry of the Goo makes me think this is a game impossible to balance. Any strategy game with such devastating “epic” units is going to struggle in competitive play. Imagine if the Queen in Chess came with a nuclear cannon that could wipe out the other side of the board…
Goo in the machine
Grey Goo might not be as complex or intricately balanced as “that other strategy game”, but it’s still enjoyable and imaginative where so few games within the genre are. Returning to the Grey Goo hypothesis, nanotech pioneer Eric Drexler – who coined the term – once spoke about its misuse. Whilst the term may spark the image of a swarm of metallic matter, Grey Goo does in fact relate to the principle behind the machines. The hungry swarm of robots may be superior in an evolutionary sense, but that does not make them valuable; they’re dull and indistinct like grey goo. Petroglyph’s new game is anything but.
The Goo are new and interesting, solid streamlined base-building, plenty of polish, great user interface
Two similar base-building races, sluggish and clumpy combat, multiplayer doesn’t have the legs to last