Grey Goo is something worse than bad; it is mundane. Not so much a throwback as a bland crust, the heel of a loaf of bread left on a cutting board. It is a competent husk missing any vital organs. You can practically smell the Westwood coming off the feature list, which is hardly surprising given that developer Petroglyph includes a bunch of former Westwooders. Grey Goo has a lot of the trappings of those Westwood classics: simplicity, speed, streamlining, individual soldiers and tanks jostling each other as they swarm around in a big blob. But what you can’t smell is any sense of personality or joy. In their prime, Westwood games reeked of giddy pleasure. Even when the games weren’t good, they were overflowing with an ebullient affection for the act of throwing armies into each other and watching them blow up. Polish? Pah. Watch these bazooka dudes break up this tank rush!
After the jump, we’ll always have Command and Conquer.
Petroglyph’s RTSs have come close to recapturing that Westwood spirit. Empire at War, harnessing the power of Star Wars, was ambitious and lively. Their last major release, Universe at War, made up with personality what it was missing in polish. The faction with the giant tripod/walker was one of the most memorable things to happen to real time strategy games since the zerg rush, except for the fact that so few people actually played Universe at War.
But Grey Goo doesn’t have anything up its sleeve. Petroglyph collaborated with Weta, the antipodean special effects company we all know from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies and not their contribution to real time strategy games. The setting , delivered in a brown paper wrapper with the word “sci-fi” stenciled on the side, is sci-fi. You get two vanilla factions and one grey goo faction that gives the game its name. In case you’re wondering, Petroglyph didn’t invent the term “grey goo”. It’s the name for an apocalyptic scenario in which self-replicating nanobots destroy the world. It’s worth noting that even the scientist who coined the term back in 1986 has since said he wished he’d thought up a different term.
The vanilla factions — stop me if you’ve heard this one — harvest the game’s single resource and then use it to build factories, which churn out space infantry, space scouts, space tanks, and space artillery. But the grey goo are different. They park a blob over a resource node, at which point it slowly grows. As it grows, you can split off blobs that you then morph into various flavors of spiders. There are infantry spiders, scout spiders, tank spiders, and artillery spiders.
Playing the grey goo feels different enough as you’re waiting for your blobs to suck enough resources out of a node to split off another blob. There’s a sense of higher stakes as your vulnerable “mother goos” slowly undulate across the map to claim more resource nodes. But the economic model boils down to the same waiting as waiting for a harvester to move between an extractor and a refinery. The grey goo are a simpler faction to play since they don’t have to manage factories, and the interface does a great job of showing you every mother goo’s progress as they swell towards splitting off more blobs. The flip side is that the grey goo don’t have the other factions’ options to increase their “bandwidth” in terms of creating armies (the zerg in Starcraft have a similar problem). But once you’re drag-selecting your spider infantry and spider tanks, you’re basically playing the same game as the other factions.
The interplay among units is asymmetrical enough, and this is where Grey Goo is most meticulously designed. Although the grey goo don’t have aircraft like the two vanilla factions, some of their units can cross and even perch atop impassable terrain. One vanilla faction can’t build turrets, but it can build walls. One vanilla faction has a healing building. One vanilla faction has to connect its buildings with power conduits, which are a huge pain in the ass that almost single-handedly makes them the most tedious faction to play. All the factions get various options for stealth and detection (there’s also a stealth dynamic with foliage that hides units, a la the bushes in a MOBA or the forests in Eugen’s RTSs).
What really streamlines the gameplay is that none of the units has an ability you trigger. There are no special attacks or toggled states. You never click an icon or press a hotkey to make a unit do something. In terms of micro — the term for army management as opposed to economic management — your job is strictly to position units. At a certain level of play, this is going to feel like just cranking out units and throwing them into battle. Very hands off, very inconsequential. You’re just watching things blow up, hoping you have more things than the other guy. But if you want to learn the game, and play it the way Petroglyph designed it to be played, you have to pay attention to the nuances all but buried underneath the streamlined gameplay, snappy pacing, and generic graphics. One of the ways Petroglyph encourages you to pay closer attention is with the tech upgrades.
Tech upgrades in Grey Goo aren’t simple upgrades like boosts to damage or armor. You’re never going to simply improve a unit’s rate of fire or give it more hit points. Instead, these tech upgrades are tweaks, sometimes subtle. For instance, the space tank for one of the vanilla factions fires four shots before changing targets. This is fine if it’s pounding away at a big tough unit. But if it’s facing a mass of cheap infantry, it’s going to waste its time shooting four times at a soldier that got killed with the first shot. So there’s a tech upgrade that lets it fire one shot at a time, changing targets as quickly as it wants.
What I really like about these tech upgrades is that a whole mess of them are mutually exclusive. You can’t simply pile on improvements. You have to pick and choose which ones you want, and being competitive in Grey Goo might involve swapping out upgrades depending on the circumstances. Is this sort of nuance what you’re looking for in a real time strategy game? Most RTSs have this nuance, buried to varying degrees under the hood, but Grey Goo forces you to consider it as you ponder the upgrades. Do you want your tanks to take individual shots, do you want infantry that explode when they die, or do you want artillery that can move while firing? Pick one. Later, if you change your mind, you have to spend the time and resources to replace the one you previously picked. This sort of choice is a fundamental part of Grey Goo.
A really good RTS expresses this nuance through gameplay and graphics. But there is very little of that in Grey Goo. Battles are fast and furious, with a lot of flash and not much helpful information. None of the units is particularly expressive, and armies are shuffling masses of sameness. It doesn’t help that Petroglyph and Weta have imagined some incredibly bog standard sci-fi, and even the grey goo faction’s various spiders are poorly varied. When and if you finally get to each faction’s epic unit, the action can briefly come alive. It sure is satisfying loading up a giant hover tank and clearing out an enemy army. But what about the other 90% of my playing time? A good RTS makes that satisfying as well, and not such a dry exercise in pondering nuance.
A sad fact of Grey Goo is that most of the time I spent playing, I was wondering why I wasn’t instead playing an RTS with some personality, with more distinctive units doing memorable things, with perhaps a deeper economy, or with more meaningful base-buidling, or with a strategic front end around the campaign, or with some assurance that the multiplayer community won’t dry up in a few weeks. But Grey Goo is a dry and forgettable B-side RTS with no advantage over other RTSs save the fact that it was more recently released.