Gray Goo in the test - The Anti-Starcraft

Author: Maurice Weber
Date: 2015-01-23 14:30:00
Finally uncomplicated tank battles again: Can the new real-time strategy game Gray Goo of the Command & Conquer veterans from Petroglyph make a triumphant return to the roots of the genre?

Real-time strategy, nowadays mainly Starcraft 2 . Of course not, because there weren't any other games in the genre at all. But we can rarely look forward to blockbusters like Command & Conquer - of the time-honored classics, only Starcraft has survived. So it is all the more remarkable that Gray Goo has consistently come up against this by the strategy veterans of Petroglyph. Where the best Starcraft players guide every single unit by hand with millimeter precision and manage several hundred actions per minute, Gray Goo deliberately wants to take it easy.

That's why the game whistles, among other things, completely on activatable special abilities. The developers' calculation: the less we have to deal with small details, the more time we have for major strategic maneuvers and gaudy mass battles. Macro instead of micro, so Gray Goo is best placed between Command & Conquer and Supreme Commander . Not even the worst role models.

Catalyst instead of Tiberium

Above all, we immediately recognize the legacy of C&C, a game starts just like it did 20 years ago: pull up the refinery, let harvesters rumble to the next resource field and with the Tiberium - uh, catalyst! - start the first factory. In the classic way, the key to victory is to snatch as many resources as possible and get the most tanks rolling from the stack per minute. If you don't want to be left behind, you have to spread across the map early and at the same time hail the enemy from expansion.

That keeps the games pleasantly dynamic, but Gray Goo always remains comfortable. Too busy fighting to look into the base and commission new troops? No problem, at the push of a button we show a construction bar at any time and click a few extra bombers in the queue. In order to activate new units, we screw four different technical attachments to our factories. Siege cannons require a tank extension and an artillery extension, for an anti-aircraft gun we combine artillery and air.

Of people and slimes

All three factions build their base together in their own way. The extraterrestrial beta first set up distributors, depending on the size, they offer two to six connection points for the other buildings. Because each factory only benefits from technical expansions at the same distributor, we have to plan our production capacities carefully.

Practical: We can drop the distributors anywhere on the map and thus easily establish outposts. This makes it much more difficult for people. All of your buildings have to be connected to your control center via power lines. All the easier it is for them to transform their base into a fortress stiff with arms.

And then there is the eponymous Gray Goo: intelligent nanomachines that combine to form structures made of gray matter and thus look like thick clumps of slime. You renounce building construction completely and instead start the game with a slime. We can move it freely and graft it onto resources, which it then sucks with relish. If he has eaten his fill, we split off more mucus and smaller amoebas.

The amoeba mutate into units, with the new mother mucus we spread like a parasite on the map. It creates a completely unique feel to the game, we are hunter and hunted at the same time - on the one hand we are able to attack from any direction, on the other hand we are always vulnerable if the enemy should track down our slimes. So both sides must always remain vigilant and keep an eye on the whole map.

Unit mash

As diverse and interesting as the basic structure is, the unit repertoire is just as disappointing. Humans field just ten types of troops, and across the board only slightly modified versions of their beta counterparts. The beta bomber may incinerate a slightly larger area and the human bomber hurls its load more precisely at individual targets, but that is where the differences are exhausted. Real special forces with unique functions remain the exception.

The walking goo bulwark, for example, automatically attracts shots from all surrounding enemies. Even if the macro game concept forbids activatable special abilities, there would be more than enough scope for exciting troops. And we would have liked a lot more of that. So we have the feeling that we have seen everything far too quickly.

After all, we research one of three upgrades in five technical areas for each game. Some of them actually open up new possibilities, such as camouflage while moving for the stalker 'Mechs. Others only slightly increase the values, and for many we find no use at all. To make matters worse, we can hardly tell our units apart; people, for example, only rely on almost identical white hovercraft tanks.

Only the epic units cannot be confused, they are the only ones that tower imposingly over the battlefield and bring some bombast into play. Each faction has its own, the Beta for example forge a floating fortress with the hand of Rhuk. It spits out new 'Mechs on the front lines, blows up entire armies with rockets and also offers six gun positions. Smaller troops can hook up there to target nearby enemies from the back of the hand.

A people suffer and we don't care

In the campaign we take over all three factions one after the other, each spending five missions in the spotlight. Let's start with the beta, who found refuge on the planet Ecosystem Nine after a devastating war. When a research expedition of the people stopped by, they saw it as an invasion and the two sides immediately attacked each other.

The real threat only reveals itself shortly afterwards: The mysterious Goo is about to devour the whole planet. The story is told in handsome rendering videos, but the characters remain pale throughout.

Our beta commander Saruk wields the usual brave soldier speeches but never develops an interesting personality. Neither are the factions themselves, by the way. Who are the Beta, and why did they flee on Ecosystem Nine? A Youtube trailer tells us more about their backstory than the actual game. In the end we didn't care who was going to grab the planet and who would be thrown into the gray slime.

Freedom without surprises

The missions go to great lengths to offer varied goals. Sometimes we have to hold a position until reinforcements arrive, sometimes refugees want to be rescued. Their real strength, however, is their freedom of action: Gray Goo gives us refreshingly few instructions on how to achieve our goal. We can charge without reinforcements and incinerate the enemy base before the auxiliary army even arrives. However, in the course of the missions we hardly experience any surprising twists and turns or memorable moments, for example when the mission objectives suddenly change.

We soon got tired of the surroundings, too, although they are really pretty. They remind us of Pandora from Avatar: idyllic waterfalls, rampant alien vegetation and strange fauna in between. But that's pretty much the only type of environment, occasionally interspersed with rocky wasteland or traces of the goo. We are also looking in vain for campaign-exclusive heroes or special forces, so that we often even have the feeling that we are playing a normal battle. Even if a pleasantly tricky one: the AI regularly makes us sweat with superior waves of attack, makes full use of unit types such as artillery and prefers to attack our most vulnerable areas.

No futuristic AI

So it is all the more incomprehensible that even the toughest computer opponent is ridiculously amateurish in combat mode. Even if we take our time and do not use an overly aggressive strategy, we can easily overpower his troops in the first battle and then take harm from his raw material collectors. And the AI can't even begin to cope with that. If we destroy one of its extractors, it tries desperately to rebuild it immediately in the same place - before we even have time to order our tanks elsewhere. It does not occur to her to switch to another resource, but she cannot afford liberation troops either.

It gets more interesting with other players, because here we have more space for clever tricks. For example, troops hidden in the forest are invisible if the enemy doesn't have men under the canopy of leaves, so we can set up a nasty ambush. Overall, the Gray Goo combat package is noticeably thin: just seven cards, a maximum of four players and no alternative game modes. A map editor is planned, but will not change the small release scope. Thus, despite a solid core, the game does not manage to stand out noticeably in any discipline.