Iron Harvest – 1920

Iron Harvest, like its mechs, is cool, but also big, clunky, and frustrating.

Ed Note: This article should be read as a review of the campaign, and not the PvP multiplayer. We haven’t played pretty much any of the multiplayer, just a bit of campaign co-op. Even in the co-op, these issues were still present, but please don’t get the impression that we played enough to know if the multiplayer is balanced between factions and such.

This post was going to be about a different game called Unrailed, but instead, it’s about a different type of steam powered machine. Five second version of the article is this: I like Iron Harvest, but it has too many small problems for me to recommend at the moment, and its core gameplay systems don’t interact with each other well. Maybe it will be patched. Maybe the price will drop. But right now, it just costs too much for the issues it has. You can leave now, or you can stick around and read why I think that.

Iron Harvest is a RTS, more of the Warcraft 3 variety then say StarCraft. I’ve mostly just been playing through the campaign so far, and at about 18 hours in, I think I’m about two-thirds through. The two big parts of the game for me, are the story and the gameplay. So those are the two things I’m gonna talk about. Let’s start with the story/lore.

Look at that. I mean, just look at it.

Overall, the story is solid, if occasionally stuttering. Set in the same universe as the board game Scythe, you play as a variety of forces in a 1920 Europe with diesel-punk tech. This includes the Not-Quite-Germans, the Not-Quite-Polish, and the Not-Quite-Russians. The only real gripe I have about the story is that for all of the emphasis on the value of human life, the actual gameplay will have you blowing up shit from hell to breakfast. Otherwise, I’d say it’s fine, and from what I’ve seen, it does a pretty good job of nailing the “World War 1 was a clusterfuck that should never have happened” vibe.

Then we have the gameplay. You create bases, build units, and generally do RTS things. I want to talk about the units in a bit more detail though, because they’re where I have most of my issues with the game.

There are three types of units in Iron Harvest: mechs, infantry and weapon platforms. Infantry is a single group of up to 5 units, mechs are large single-unit mechanized robots, and weapon platforms are things like mortars, machine guns, and cannons manned by infantry.

All three units share a few things in common. First off, they feel fairly expensive, at least in comparison to say, units from something like Starcraft. You cannot afford to just run them like lemmings to their doom. They also all have an experience system, in which leveled up units get access to more actions/better stats. For some units, this is fairly minor, and for some, the units are more or less useless without leveling up.

All units also feel relatively clunky, albeit in different ways. Infantry is inherently the most mobile and least armored, with the ability to take cover behind fences and walls. This would be fine, except some fences you can take cover behind, and some you can’t, and until you mouse over them, you won’t know which is which. You can’t actually move an infantry squad individually, you can only move the group. This can become very frustrating when you can’t get them all behind your defenses.

(As a brief example, you can order engineer units to build barbed wire, but you can’t control them individually, so it’s entirely possible to build a line of barbed wire, only to end up with half of the unit on the wrong side, and now forced to walk around the map to just get back home.)

Speaking of defenses, let’s talk about mechs, and the terrain deformation system. I’ve included a brief example below.

What a small lovely church. I sure hope nothing bad happens to-
Oh dear.
This isn’t even from attacking or anything. This is from just having that mech move through it.

This is one of the coolest, and at the same time, most frustrating things about Iron Harvest for me. Mechs will just roll over a fair amount of anything that gets in their way. Unfortunately, this applies to your defenses as well. Unless you are very careful with your command move orders, they are more then happy to just stomp through fortifications you just finished setting up. Trying to keep mechs from destroying your own defensive line is a real struggle. And given that your defensive line usually exists somewhere between your factory and the place you want the mechs to go, it happens a lot.

This might be deliberate given that they’re supposed to be these hulking multi-ton behemoths, but it can also be exceedingly aggravating. They control like slugs on crack: hard to get moving, and even harder to stop. Mechs take about double damage from attacks that hit the back of the unit, so you want to be able to put them exactly where you need them, but the game doesn’t always play toward this. Move commands will not always actually re-orient a mech, and the turn speed on many units is very slow. This means you can end up with your forces pointed the entirely wrong direction in a fight.

Finally, the weapon platforms. I only have one real gripe with these, and it has to do with how the game handles attacks. From what I can tell, Iron Harvest seems to have a physics-based projectile system for attacks. This is true for all units in the game, but it’s easiest to notice with infantry-manned weapon systems.

This means that you can actually benefit from cover and high ground, but it also means your mounted machine gun will sometimes fire directly into the defensive sandbags you set up in front of it, instead of into the approaching enemy forces. You might just deploy cannons and later find out that they can’t actually hit anything. And since your troops don’t automatically adjust, they’ll just sit there while a battalion of jackholes with flamethrowers waltzes up to sauté your ass.

I’m going to try to summarize my issues here but it generally works out to this: unit controls are too clunky micro effectively, and interact with terrain, but if you don’t micro, you get wiped out. Not using terrain will mean you have a decent chance of just shooting into a wall. The experience system encourages you to keep your units alive, but scouting the map often requires at least some sacrifices, and again, requires that ever present micro. And you need to be doing all of this at the same time.

This last bit illustrates my biggest issue with Iron Harvest, and I think if I had to summarize it, it would be, “It feels like there are several underlying systems at work that simply do not play well with each other.” The game wants you to build fortifications, but you can’t control units effectively enough to not destroy them. The bunkers you can build that don’t just get destroyed when they get walked over count toward your population cap, as do anti-mech mines if you have access to them. The AI both gives you very little control (you can’t individually position units, just issue move orders until you have them where you want) and at the same time, you’re asked to be as careful as possible with placement, for example taking double damage if you’re shot in the back.

And finally, you have a destructible terrain system feels equally likely to fail you when you try to move a larger mech, and accidentally take out a line of barbed wire, because the AI simply follows orders.

Iron Harvest is full of interactions like this. You can station units in buildings, but you can’t give them hold fire orders. Attack move commands feel more like a suggestion. Units will repeatedly fire directly into walls, because they “see” enemies, but their attacks are blocked. Mortar and ranged units don’t have a “hold and fire” option. You can’t necessarily fire into fog of war.

These issues are less of a problem on the smaller levels, where you control a small number of units. Some of these levels are my favorite in the game, including one where you escort a train with a massive cannon. Another level has you using small sets of infantry to infiltrate and take out defenses, all the while avoiding larger patrols. These missions, where you have the time to focus and micro, where you only have a few units, and where you can really keep them alive, are where the games feels fun. You have the space to plan and watch, and figure out how to use all of these systems in your favor.

It’s when the game tries to have truly massive fights that everything just starts to fall apart. I found myself mostly just face-mashing my way through certain levels. I would try to build diverse unit compositions, but the second I lost a critical unit (longer range siege, anti-mech infantry), I would have to retreat and regroup my forces, as I would eventually run into a problem I didn’t have tools to deal with.

Iron Harvest is just too rough right now for me to see it as worth its price tag. The moments of fun are just not balanced out by the massive slog and frustration some of the larger levels can become. The quality of the campaign is varied, and doesn’t always play to the strengths of the game as a whole.

Iron Harvest is currently $50 on Steam. If you really love the aesthetic, and think you can put up with the issues above, you can buy it there if you want.