Dark Light

It feels good to be back in the saddle- playing strategy games again is a rare pleasure for me! Age of Empires 4 is taking an eternity to come out, so anything that fills the void is definitely good. I got to hear about Iron Harvest, the dieselpunk RTS set in an alternate reality of 1920 on one fateful day and decided to take it for a ride. It is a solid re-imagination of the RTS genre, bringing tons of obscure mechanics back from the dead. Strategy is a relatively niche genre, and as someone who has been into Age of Empires and Rise of Nations since primary school, the responsibility of glaring at a new game with the judgemental eye falls on me. Yeah well, let’s get the show on the road – I’d rather be talking about the game, and there’s plenty to say!

iron harvest

War Never Changes

Iron Harvest, like most other strategy games, is playable both in singleplayer as well as in multiplayer. In singleplayer, you can play through the game’s campaign – a story consisting of many twists and turns. The game also comes with several challenges that can be completed when the player really wants to test the fullest potential of their grey cells. These put players in specific scenarios where specific tasks have to be completed, with additional objectives that can be completed for more bragging rights.

Iron Harvest has a skirmish mode! EEEEEEE!

The game’s main fun lies in the multiplayer. There are several modes that allow one to enjoy with friends and other people over the Internet (and we all know that the best way of enjoying is hearing that random kid say that he spent time in bed with your mom). Of course, the game has a skirmish mode which allows you to play with the AI on a variety of maps. I consider every strategy game which doesn’t come with a skirmish mode sub-par, and Iron Harvest hasn’t disappointed me. There’s one thing though – skirmish mode in this game has a profound lack of maps. Considering that this is the mode where I spend most of my time in a strategy time – this is something that needs addressing. Multiplayer takes some time to search for games and translates into a rush fest most of the time – every team rushing down points on the map as fast as possible. I have played multiplayer in games like Starcraft 2 before, and I’m accustomed to enemy rushes, but most players new to the franchise won’t exactly like it.

For the Motherland!

Iron Harvest‘s campaign puts players in charge of three factions – Rusviet (most likely an acronym for Russian Soviet, which is slightly surprising considering that they are still ruled by a Tsar), Saxony (Iron Harvest‘s version of the Third Reich, ruled by the Kaiser – relying on technology to get them what they need) and Polania (yes, you guessed it – it’s the game’s version of Poland and it’s nearby countries amalgamated into one). Iron Harvest may borrow a lot of concepts from its predecessors, but story-telling isn’t one of them. In fact, I’m glad they didn’t.

Rusviet soldiers rushing to occupy Polania.

The game starts at the end of the First Great War which had devastated Europa (the game’s version of Europe), forcing the call for peace. Peace negotiations were thwarted and internal uprisings, as well as acts of aggression, meant that another war was on the horizon. The campaign is centered around the conflicts in this war, a war that involved all great nations of the world. There seems to be a structure of storytelling similar to Age of Empires 3 where the focus is on one family initially – which changes, later on, depending on the narrative. There’s also a decisive similarity with Age of Wonders 3 in the plot – an organization in the shadows is the ultimate evil that puppeteers everything including the war.

The game also has several mentions of another faction called the Shogunate (most likely a reference to Industrial Japan) in several sections, likely indicating that it might be added in a downloadable content pack in the future. Despite the sheer suddenness with which facts are broken in the story, I liked it, and another chapter would simply help me put more hours in the game (that is if I’m not busy playing skirmish).

Nikola Tesla’s Biggest Invention

Iron Harvest is a more tactical approach to RTS and ‘virtual warfare’ in general. It tries to replicate the formula created by Company of Heroes while adding its own twists to make the game more enjoyable. Of course, it has the advantage of being set in a time much later than Company of Heroes (and other titles like Dawn of War 2, which also employs similar mechanics) – so people have an idea of what to expect. The game does not rely on the formula of collect resources, construct buildings, train units, and crush enemies – it’s slightly deeper than that. All troops are trained to come in squads, which means a bunch of 4-6 infantry comes when a unit is trained. Of course, when a unit takes damage in combat, each member has a chance of dying individually – reducing the effectiveness of the squad. You can reinforce your units in your base – replacing all dead members of the squad with fresh recruits.

Mechs are Iron Harvest’s best creations.

There’s also the concept of “cover” – an idea around which the “strategy” in Iron Harvest revolves. The environment is laid out in such a way that there are multiple locations where infantry can take cover behind to increase their survivability. While it doesn’t mean that infantry units in the open are as good as dead, but it is reasonable to say that cover naturally protects the unit from being barraged by the enemy. There is also a chance that your units can be in “exposed” terrain, making them take extra damage instead.

Iron Harvest‘s biggest innovation isn’t in any of these mechanics – these are more or less the same. The biggest change comes when you talk about the vehicles of warfare. The game takes place in an alternate timeline where famous inventor Nikola Tesla has invented automatons, large machines that can are manned by humans. These machines, originally purposed for warfare, were later repurposed for multiple other uses in the fields of agriculture, industry, and infrastructure. Each faction has multiple machines under their control, replacing the tanks and other war vehicles from other games. It still retains the concept of “hit it in the back” (a fleeting reference to a concept in Company of Heroes where it is necessary to attack a vehicle in its rear to destroy it) – all machines have an exposed rear section where it takes more damage. Also unlike previous games, you don’t have to sleep off to engagements where your entire squad of riflemen gets taken out by a lightly armored jeep because it has armor on it. In Iron Harvest, there is a case of unit compatibility – heavy weapons are better against mechs while guns and flamethrowers are better against infantry – even though it doesn’t enforce the concept very rigidly. You can win a fight against a mech firing tons of bullets at you with your grenadiers, but it is more efficient to have someone carrying the heavy weapons to take out the mech earlier.

Polanian railways go choo choo!

Base building isn’t a huge focus of the game. You would mostly be constructing and upgrading buildings near your base. What is a dampener is that you can’t construct your base structures anywhere except the designated area near your headquarters. Also, you can construct only a barracks and a workshop for training units and that’s about it. The game applies more focus on the construction of defenses, and that’s what makes the game slightly more tactical than its predecessors. You can construct bunkers, but they only have a limited line of sight. There is a necessity of building minefields for destroying unaware enemies (even though they cost you some “upkeep”, a resource which indicates how many units can be trained – I just can’t figure out why) as well as building barbed wires for covering chokepoints from enemy aggression. There is an active focus on defense construction over Dawn of War 2 (which has nothing remotely called “base building” – and yes, I’m salty about it) as well as Company of Heroes – and that earns Iron Harvest quite a few points in my book.

Resource generation doesn’t work like other games. You can’t “harvest” resources from resource nodes on the map. Instead, you capture iron mines and oil pumps with your infantry – both of these generate resources automatically at regular intervals. These mines and pumps are placed at strategic locations throughout the map. One thing that I regretted was the fact that there wasn’t any way to “defend” a point once taken. In Iron Harvest, upgrading an Iron Mine or Oil Pump only generates more resources – it doesn’t act as a fortification that needs to be breached and can still be captured by the enemy. Resource costs in the game oddly tuned to be in harmony with the resource generation rates – which means that you don’t need to wait an eternity for getting your best mechs and infantry on the field against the enemy. This is something I absolutely hated in Company of Heroes – the resource costs for your bigger units were too high.

iron harvest
The AI brings out its big guns pretty early.

If there’s something that is really praiseworthy in the game, it’s definitely the AI. I played the demo during the Steam Summer Festival and the AI was extremely lackadaisical in its approach to capturing and holding points back then. Also, you would find yourself getting to your mechs extremely fast while they tried to counter with infantry and heavy weapons. I’m happy to see that this was the section that received the most attention, and the results are clearly visible in any Skirmish game that you can play. The AI still plays reactively based on your moves, but it ascends the tech ladder faster and can push out heavy artillery and walkers against you quite early – something which I didn’t see in the demo (of course, the demo didn’t have that many mechs to play with, but the AI never trained any mechs in the first place). If you’re one who’s all in for turtling, be sure to reject your habits and embrace the concept of rushing – attacking enemies early and in places where it hurts them.

The Great War at its Best

Another thing that received a boost since the demo is the view distance. I was critical of the fact that the game didn’t allow the player to look at the units up close during the demo. Now you can zoom in and inspect the finer details on your units like the badges on your infantry as they gain experience in battle. Despite the changes, one thing that the game sadly lacks is animation quality. There is a huge difference between the animations in the cutscenes and the animations in-game.

iron harvest
The cutscenes in Iron Harvest are really beautiful, straight out of a 1940s theater.

If that sounds bad, it feels worse when you play the game and zoom up close. The visual fidelity isn’t that impressive, although the particle effects can be stunning (even though they have a huge performance cost). If you can ignore the animations, the game is pretty well-designed visually, especially the walkers and the smaller mechs.

One thing that still seems to exist in the game since the demo is the lack of optimization and fine-tuning. While work has definitely been put in to improve the experience, frame-rate drops happen from time to time, especially when a lot of action is happening at once. The particle effects, even though they make the game extremely pretty, are very harsh on the performance – especially visible during the destruction of buildings by larger walkers. For some reason, the game lags when there are a large number of mechs on the screen.

There also seems to be quite a few unruly bugs that exist throughout the game and feel especially annoying when they appear in the campaign (there is an annoying bug in a spy mission at the beginning of the Rusviet campaign where your character, an assassin, dies whenever she exits a building which she has taken cover in – this is even more annoying because it is really game-breaking in nature). I’m hoping to see more patches to address the performance and for removing the bugs as necessary.

The Hounds of War

The game’s ambient sounds are some of the best I have seen recently. All sounds in the game are very realistic and made to suit the grim nature of the war. Mortar fire, the spinning of machine guns, mechs walking on the ground, artillery barrages, walkers destroying buildings – everything looks like they were built from the ground up. It is recommended to reduce the volume a little – the sounds of mortar fire can be deafening like they are in real life.

iron harvest
You can hear the victory screams of the soldiers from beyond the screen.

The music is tuned to perfection in a way that fits in with the theme of war perfectly. It is something that gets stuck in your brain after playing the game for quite some time, and that’s saying something.


Iron Harvest is a fun real-time strategy game that has a few difficult mechanics to grasp – but is extremely rewarding when you learn to use it properly. The game boasts decent visuals but detailed animations and has a lot a few frame-rate hiccups from time to time. However, the campaign is really enjoyable for an RTS game. The ‘return of the skirmish mode’ should also make it quite enticing as a purchase especially for fans of the genre. People new to the franchise should probably wait for a sale before getting it.


1 comment
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts