Just like the mechs that populate its Dieselpunk alt-history battlegrounds, Iron Harvest is a creaky, imperfect contraption, but one that’s clearly been bolted together with love and undeniable charm. Also, like its outlandish and inventive mechs, it’s welded together with an eye for form over function. While the core of Iron Harvest is a dynamic and often exciting RTS that pays tribute to Company of Heroes and Dawn of War, mechanical intricacies can often seem like an afterthought alongside the glorious smoke and mirrors of its outer casing.
A standard skirmish or multiplayer match in Iron Harvest is always going to be a desperate, constant scrap over resources and victory points until one side gets the upper hand, giving them the edge they need to overwhelm their opponent. Each iron and oil refinery held means you can produce a steadier supply of reinforcements. It also means that staying put to defend a base and build up forces won’t work here. The game rewards regular, well-timed raids over biding your time. Deathballing – amassing a huge blob of powerful units to sweep the map – is too slow to be viable. The result is dynamic, involved skirmishes with ever-shifting fronts.
Strategic variety is also encouraged by the variety of units that stay viable and useful even when more powerful choices become available. Plonk a unit of rocket infantry in cover with a bead on a mech’s rear armour and they can wreak havoc. Sentry turrets can chew through infantry, but a well-microed grenade can quickly end the party. The speed at which units die is a little slower than a classic RTS, so there’s often room during skirmishes to both reposition and micromanage special abilities. This, alongside the significant survivability that cover provides to infantry, means that planning a versatile force is often rewarded.
Base building itself consists of just three structures: a Headquarters, a Barracks for infantry, and a Workshop for mechs. Both the Barracks and Workshop can be upgraded, but there’s no complex building chains or tech trees. Instead, most of the strategic elements in holding positions come from fortifications. The highly versatile engineer can place sandbags, pillboxes, barbed wire, and mines, as well as repair the mechs. With cover being as useful as it is, identifying and reinforcing chokepoints can be extremely powerful, providing yet more choices over when to focus on defence, and when to press the attack.
The slightly-arcadey immediacy present in the point capture also exists in the way infantry units can swap roles on the fly. If your unit of rifleman mops up a unit of machine-gunners, for example, they can then collect their weapons, transforming them into your faction’s version of that unit. This is neat because it occasionally makes soldiers grow beards in an instant, but it also means more opportunities to respond to, rather than just predict, your opponent. On the other hand, it diminishes infantry variety between factions, since each of the three playable sides need to have roughly equivalent choices for this to work.
That’s not to say there’s no differences between these minor choices, and the three factions do have a fair amount to separate them. Polanian basic infantry have rifles, Rusviet shotguns, and Saxony SMG’s, each offering different range and damage potential. Saxony’s mechs are powerful, lumbering things, while Polania favours mid-range skirmishers, and Rusviet powerful melee options.
The mechs are the main event here, the equivalent to tanks in this alt-history, and they’re incredibly impressive visually. Lumbering chimeras that have stepped out of furnace-heated workshops, sparked into existence at the point where low and high technology meet and scrape up against one another. In battle, they’ll fall apart as they take damage, and eventually stagger and fall when felled, leaving smoking wrecks on the battlefield. Artillery from both mechs and gun emplacements leave muddy craters where they land, and larger mechs will walk straight through buildings, levelling them like card houses.
Practically, he mechs veer to the simplistic side, effectively acting how large vehicles would in any other RTS do. The presence on the battlefield that the audiovisual design works so hard to establish is undermined by the mech’s inability to navigate difficult terrain. They can crush sandbags underfoot, sure, but they’re also unable to scale even slight elevations. The inclusion of buildable fortifications works towards allowing spatial dominance of the battlefield as a viable and interesting tactical approach, but the mechs don’t compliment this in an interesting way.
The single-player campaign consists of twenty-one missions – seven for each faction – and a ton of cutscenes between them. The focus on story and the length and production of many of the cutscenes feels extremely generous, and while the plot isn’t always captivating, the enthusiasm with which it’s told is. There are some genuinely excellent, dramatic, and surprising missions in there, but there are also a handful of staid, ill-suited stealth missions which feel at odds with the game’s core strengths. At their best, these slower-paced hero missions can add some great history and texture to the gameworld, but at their worst, they feel like torturously slow-paced filler.
That gameworld itself is not entirely what I expected or hoped from concept artist Jakub Różalski’s work, either. There’s wistful, tragic, pastoral romance to Różalski’s paintings, but Iron Harvest often feels much more like Saturday morning cartoon. Levity, big explosions, badass mechs doing badass things. If Różalski’s work evokes questions about the relationship between ourselves and technology, or the automatisation of work and war, Iron Harvest mostly asks “Aren’t big mechs cool?”
That’s not to say there aren’t splashes of depth here. The first half of the Saxony campaign in particular is an exploration of tragic folly, of arrogance and ambition, and of the “meat grinder” of 20th century conflicts. This last idea is baked into the mechanics as well; the gruelling pace of combat often reminds you that the women and men under your command are not necessarily out to kill, but trying to keep their heads down to hopefully see another sunrise and win themselves a better future. In these moments, Iron Harvest absolutely does the poetry of Różalski’s work justice.