Iron Harvest is an RTS about dieselpunk mechs in the 1920s, which means the tech level (particularly military tech) is at basically the same place as it was at the end of WW1. My guess is that the reason for doing this rather than just doing an alternate universe dieselpunk WW1 is because that would mean that the mechs (loosely equivalent to tanks) don’t show up until halfway through the war.
The Great War is referenced as having happened in the past, and yet it didn’t have the earthshattering consequences it did here in Earth One. Rasputin is still alive, Russia still has a Tsar (despite their official faction name being Rusviet – if that’s not a portmanteau of “Russia” and “Soviet” then what the fuck is it?), Germany still has a Kaiser, Poland is not an independent country (except it sort of is, but not really) but a resistance movement is trying to change that, there is a Great Arab Revolt against an occupying empire, and so on. The Great War definitely happened, but the political situation is remarkably similar to it having not, though it’s simplified in a couple of ways – Poland is occupied exclusively by Russia, rather than being partitioned between Germany, Russia, and a little bit into Austro-Hungary, and the Great Arab Revolt is against Germany rather than the Ottoman Empire, which I’m guessing was done mainly because they can’t just toss out a whole extra Ottoman Empire faction (they’re already letting America play Lawrence of Arabia so that their faction can be used as the Arab side, which I’m guessing is because they decided America was going to be their first expansion faction before they started writing the expansion’s plot, since we know from Scythe that this timeline does have a UK expy). As I get into further down, the factions are pretty same-y in mechanics, but they still require a lot of unique assets and from the pace of release it’s clear that adding a new one is a big deal.
The main plot has an Ace Combat 5 style plot where the factions all get into fullscale war with each other so that we can see them deploying their most impressive weapons against one another, but then at the end it turns out it was all the doing of a secret multinational conspiracy so that we can have a dramatic confrontation between good and evil at the end, but no one’s actual real world country has to be at fault by proxy. I realize that this is basically the only way to serve the twin goals of having a dramatic finale where good triumphs over evil while also avoiding nationalist flag-waving, but seeing as how this game is kinda-sorta about WW1, maybe we could just not have a finale where good triumphs over evil, and instead have a story where joining the war was a mistake but now we’re playing the game of thrones so we have to win even if the prize can’t possibly be worth what we lost by playing. The villains of WW1 were everyone who joined the war voluntarily, and if you want a WW1-adjacent plot, you should emphasize that. If you really need heroes, the obvious choice is Poland, who can be dragged into the war purely by virtue of being between Germany and Russia and now they’re just fighting to survive.
The game kinda flirts with both of these, with the start of the Polish campaign about a Polish resistance fending off Russian invaders (Germans are nowhere to be seen in the Polish campaign, and if you wanted to commit to this, you’d have Russia and Germany going at each other full tilt and occupying Poland incidentally, because it’s in the way). Then later it turns out the Polish resistance are bloody-minded nationalists trying to set up a city to revolt and be massacred because they think that will inspire the rest of the nation to rise up, which is a pretty compelling conclusion to the first act of a story about the costs of war and nationalism, but then the third act of the story is about all three nations coming together to fight a secret conspiracy who was playing all sides from the beginning. This turns the first act’s setup into a Space Whale Aesop. Instead of being about the costs and justifications of war, it’s about how war is caused by a secret conspiracy and world peace immediately follows their defeat in battle. And the transition cut scenes from the Polish to Russian campaigns completely ditch the relatively grounded themes of the Polish campaign to instead have a pulp plot of insidious conspiracies and counterconspiracies all centered around Anna Kos and her family.
The Russian campaign takes forever to get to the bottom of the exposition and let you play a normal mission, too – the first, second, and fourth missions give you a limited number of units with no base and you have to achieve objectives with that, which is perfectly doable and an interesting break from regular base-building now and then, but that third mission isn’t a regular RTS mission, either. It’s an interminable stealth mission where being detected by any unit means starting the whole mission over again, even if you’re twenty minutes deep. Fortunately, there is a “skip mission” option. It’s not until mission five of seven that I finally built some Russian buildings and units. Worse, you spend nearly the entire Russian campaign working undercover for the evil Russian colonel who’s part of the secret warmongering conspiracy, and the main viewpoint character of the Russian campaign is a Polish guy who’s undercover (and who just so happens to be Anna’s brother, something which has nothing to do with Anna’s involvement in the rest of the plot – it’s pure coincidence).
So they spend three missions on exposition to establish the multinational conspiracy, which wreaks havoc with the pace of the Russian campaign and gives us the single worst mission in the entire game, and then the villains are 80% Russian anyway. The Russian campaign in particular goes out of its way to portray the Russian rank-and-file as decent people, and there’s a civil WarCraft mission near the end where the Russian good guys fight the Colonel Zubov, the pawn of the warmongering international conspiracy, so clearly they wanted the Ace Combat 5 thing where no specific nation is the bad guys, but they, uh, did not stick the landing on that.
It’s from the Scythe guys, so if you’ve seen artwork of a giant mech walking past some early 20th century Polish peasants, it’s them. The functional top-down perspective of the RTS really doesn’t capture the very human perspective of the art, but it’s all rendered very well given the limitation that the camera needs to be a somewhat distant bird’s eye view. I really want to see some kind of human-scale perspective video game in this setting to really bring that art to life, a first-person shooter or third-person RPG or something, but the aesthetic definitely survives in bird eye view, even if it gets downgraded from breathtaking to just pretty cool.
The gameplay is solid, but unexceptional. It’s one of those RTS’s where you capture resource points and they give you resources automatically, although it has iron and oil as separate resources rather than a generic “influence” resource like most resource-point games have. You can upgrade resource extraction buildings after you capture them, and they remain upgraded if the enemy captures them from you (and vice-versa).
The game has only two buildings that are worth your time to build, the barracks and the workshop, although it also has a couple of different bunker types unique to each faction, none of which are worth the time to build whatsoever. Given the time period of the game, you’d expect that slapping down bunkers to defend the resource points on the front line with a couple of field cannons to deal with enemy mechs would be an effective way to hold the line. Sure, you’d also expect enemy artillery to be able to blast your bunkers away eventually, but also that it would take enough time that you’d be able to move your army into position to defend. This isn’t really how it works – both bunkers and field cannons are fragile enough as to not be worth their resource cost. You’re better off investing in teching up and getting more mechs. On the one hand, the mechs are the selling point of the setting, so making it more important to have a large and flexible mech force with infantry backup to capture buildings is probably for the best. But then, why do they even have all the bunkers? For that matter, why are the barracks and workshop even constructible buildings instead of upgrades on the headquarters you start with? The game has a few trappings of basebuilding but ultimately it’s all about units, which ones to build and where to maneuver them when they show up.
The factions are all pretty same-y, although this is a bit of an inevitability given the theme for every single one of them is “humans with dieselpunk mechs.” Each of the three core factions, Russia, Poland, and Germany (they have alternate-history names, but map very closely to their real world equivalents – this is not the case for all of the setting’s factions, like the board game’s Crimean Khanate which has no real world equivalent in the early 20th century, but it’s true of all the factions in the video game) has a slightly different basic infantry unit, with Russian vanguards carrying short range, high damage shotguns and being especially effective in melee, German stormtroopers carrying medium range submachine guns that can cause a suppression debuff on the enemy, and Polish riflemen carrying long range rifles. The differences between these three is pretty minor, but in the early game when these are basically the only units you have, you do get some interesting maneuvering as each unit tries to get into optimum range over the other. And each faction’s grenadier unit is the regular infantry but with a slow-recharging option to throw a grenade, which works exactly how a grenade should: It’s very obviously telegraphed to the enemy and has a timer before it goes off, so enemy infantry have time to run away, but must leave cover to do so (or try to tank the grenade, but those things will reliably chew through like 80% of a squad’s HP if it hits them while they’re clustered). Since each faction’s grenadier is a slight modification to their basic infantry, and their basic infantry are different, their grenadiers are different.
The factions also have different exosuit units, high-tier infantry further up the tech tree. Polish exosuits are fast, relatively lightly armored, and have cannons good at killing light mechs and infantry, German exosuits are slow artillery units good against mostly mechs (although infantry get instagibbed by the shells, the radius of the blast is pretty small and the exosuits can’t keep up a fast enough barrage to hit infantry reliably), and Russian exosuits are melee-focused jump troopers who are best against infantry but also hit light mechs pretty hard. Exosuit armor also counts as light mechs themselves, which means regular infantry weapons and machine guns struggle to damage them.
Your in-between infantry units are all basically identical, though: machine gunners chew up enemy infantry, especially out of cover, flamethrowers are short range, but ignore cover, anti-armor gunners (they have dieselpunk bazooka-rifles) are the only infantry that can deal respectable damage to mechs, and so on, and while I think there’s technically some stat differences between the factions, they’re minor enough that I’m not even sure. They definitely don’t have the visceral difference between the staccato crack of Polish rifles, the constant zipper tear of German SMGs, or the deeper boom of Russian shotguns.
Engineers are also identical between factions, but are interesting in how they remain relevant at every stage of the game. An earlygame map will usually have some crates strewn about, some of which contain resources, but others contain weapons. Any infantry unit can swap out weapons to become another infantry unit, so if you get an engineer to a weapons crate, they might instantly upgrade to grenadiers, flamethrowers, or gunners. They can also man field weapons like heavy machine guns, field cannons, and mortars, which gives you a free upgrade to what is generally an even more powerful unit, although they’re also really slow (you can build these things out of a barracks, but I never bother and the AI doesn’t seem to bother either, so I think these, like bunkers, might be a trap option).
Engineers are also cheap and instantly available, without having to save up to build a barracks (this doesn’t take long, but it’s not instant), so you might spam out some engineers, delaying you in the race up the tech tree to mechs and giving you a bunch of trash units with pistols who can’t win fights, but allowing you more units to capture resource points with while they’re all unclaimed and you can probably snag a few just by getting there first. Once you have some initial resources built up, you’ll need some engineers hanging out in your base to build the two buildings you care about, and once you have the workshop done, you’ll be producing mechs, so then engineers transition into a field repair role (there’s also medics who do the same for infantry).
The infantry units all being basically identical is a perfectly understandable, because the game’s headline is the mechs. And there’s a lot of variety in the mechs…nominally.
In practice, though, there’s basically four mechs you care about for every faction. There is a machine gun mech that’s good against infantry, an artillery mech that’s good at long range support, a mech destroyer that’s good against other mechs, and an endgame titan mech that’s good against everything, although it’s got the Timmy unit problem that if you’re in a position to even build one of these things you’ve probably already won.
The Polish have the Straznik, a tincan on legs bristling with machine guns, the Germans have the Grimbart, a somewhat more humanoid mech with one really big machine gun, and the Russians have the Ognivo, a shorter range mech with lots of flamethrowers (although using the Russian grenade-launching Kolokol is also defensible, since they’re faster, but it’s an anti-infantry mech either way). Like the basic infantry, there are minor differences between these mechs that leads to interesting maneuver battles when you’re using them against each other. Unlike the basic infantry, you don’t want to use them against each other. It doesn’t matter whether you’re facing Russian vanguards, German stormtroopers, or Polish riflemen, nor does it matter whether you’re facing them with a Polish Straznik, a German Grimbart, or a Russian Ognivo. You point your anti-infantry mech at the enemy infantry and then they die.
When anti-infantry mechs do encounter one another (which, in fairness, is common in the midgame), the battle is determined by three things, none of which are faction specific. First, numbers. I always bring a pair of anti-infantry mechs as reserve units if I can, which allows me to deploy them quickly and for cheap as soon as they’re unlocked on the tech tree, which means I have two when my enemies have one. Machine guns are really bad against mech armor, but that problem goes both ways and you’ll wear the enemy down eventually with a 2:1 advantage.
Second, engineers. If you have light mechs out, that necessarily means you have a workshop built, which means you never need to build a building again, so your engineers are now on mech repair duty. Having engineers on hand repairing a mech can turn the tide in a fight between two anti-infantry mechs, although beware that your engineers are infantry and an attentive enemy will mow them down pretty quick, so be prepared to retreat and heal them before that happens. This will still give you the edge, though, because it means the enemy spent some amount of time killing your engineers while you were still pounding away at their armor.
Third, gunner backup. Gunners, like engineers, are infantry, and have a really bad match-up against anti-infantry mechs. I think their intended role is as a cheap answer to mech destroyers, but I’ve never seen an enemy with more mech destroyers than anti-infantry mechs. If you find anti-armor guns in a crate and swap your engineers out for gunners, though, those guys do have a valid mid-game role as backup for your anti-infantry mechs in fights against other anti-infantry mechs. Even if the gunners have to retreat after just one or two volleys, those one or two volleys can do enough damage to give your mech a decisive edge.
The mech destroyers are the same story as the anti-infantry mechs. The German Wotan is a walking tank which easily wins the prize for looking the coolest, the Polish Lowca is a faster medium-armor mech with an anti-armor boltgun, and the Russian Serp has giant scythes for arms and tears enemy mechs apart (once again the Russians get a viable alternative, the Nagan, but once again the way you use and react to the Nagan is so similar to the Serp that any differences appear either only at very high levels of play or not at all). While those sound distinct, though, they’re all mech destroyers and you use all of them pretty much the same way. These, at least, are more likely to be fighting each other, which can lead to maneuver battles similar to the infantry, but this late in the game the battle will usually be decided by which side has enough resources to field two of them instead of one.
Now in fairness, perhaps this just reflects the fact that I’ve only sunk about 15 hours into the game. Maybe at higher levels of play you get more endgame mech destroyer battles with same-numbers where getting into optimal range really matters. Likewise, maybe the titan mechs that sit at the very top of the tech tree actually fight each other at a certain level of play, rather than just being a post-endgame unit that you might decide to build for style points after you’ve already gotten a decisive advantage in the mech destroyer battles of the endgame. They might also feature more in games with higher victory point goals, since you would expect those to go on longer, but my experience has been that once you get your workshop upgraded to level 2 (the maximum) and start producing mech destroyers, the subsequent battle will leave the loser wiped off the field for several minutes, during which time the winner can capture several resource points, which will snowball into indefinite field domination. Even if you need 1,000 victory points to win instead of 500, that just means more time sitting around with a doomstack launching artillery into the enemy base (and if destructible headquarters are turned on, you’ll just do that and end the game early). If there’s a way to turn things around after losing a mech destroyer battle, it definitely isn’t to build a titan mech. In any case, the vast majority of players will sink only two or three dozen hours, maximum, into Iron Harvest, so if it isn’t firing on all cylinders at that level of time investment, then it isn’t firing on all cylinders, period.
The game has an XP system for unlocking cosmetics, like player portraits and new skins for mech units (unit health bars are in their player’s color, and they also get highlighted in their player color when you mouse over them, but their diagetic paint job doesn’t change based on who controls them). The rewards are paltry enough that I don’t really care about them, but it’s fun to make a bar fill in and a number go up. Unfortunately, the XP system against AI overvalues having AI allies way too much. You can get enough XP for a bronze star on a skirmish map with a 1v1 duel against a medium difficulty AI, but on bigger 2v2 or 3v3 maps, setting all AI to medium difficulty does not give you a bronze star. And while I’m not sure how, AI seems to be noticeably weaker when it’s on the player’s side than when it’s on a team with other AIs (my guess is that the other AIs know and react to each other’s plans in a way that I do not). I dial my ally difficulty up to Hard because otherwise I at some point end up fighting both/all three enemy AI on my own to try and hold the line and when I inevitably can’t keep it up, the enemies start to overwhelm our resource points and the death spiral begins. Ally AI doesn’t carry me unless I turn it all the way up to Insane (one step above Hard) against Medium AI foes. This is not ultimately all that important, the XP system doesn’t affect the gameplay or story and if I really want that achievement I can just do 1v1 on maps sized for 2v2 or 3v3 (I will probably not bother, but if it really bugged me, I could), but I’d still appreciate the devs taking a second look at how much AI really carries you. Same-difficulty AI allies certainly do not carry you through a match, and in fact it’s the opposite.
Iron Harvest stands no chance of entering the pantheon of great RTS games alongside WarCraft III, Brood War, Dawn of War, and so on, but it’s a pretty solid RTS game with an interesting new aesthetic, so I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who’s already played the titans of the RTS genre and is still looking for more. The story and setting are heavy on creativity though light on plausibility, and the gameplay is solid and interesting, though you do have to be aware that several buildings and units are useless trap options.