A Paladin’s Review: Grey Goo. I Review, So That Others May Play Good Games.

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The final review of 2015 about the real time strategy game released earlier this year.

I just want to say thank you for taking the time to read this (long) review. Tackling a RTS title like this was a project months in the making and I’m ecstatic that I got it done. This is, surprisingly, not my longest review I’ve ever done but I’ve done a lot of formatting work to make it enjoyable to read. Enjoy!

Read & rate this review on Steam.

A Paladin’s Review: Grey Goo. I Review, So That Others May Play Good Games.

  • Genre: Sci-Fi Real Time Strategy Title With Singleplayer & Multiplayer.
  • Developed & Published by: Petroglyph & Grey Box.
  • Platform: Windows only.
  • Business Model: Base Game + DLC.
  • Copy Gifted By A Friend

Preamble

Seeing a title like Grey Goo come onto the Steam store earlier this year was a big surprise for pretty much everyone. It seemed to come out of nowhere. An RTS styled with Command & Conquer strategy mechanics with AAA development behind it? That’s also an entirely new IP as well? From a reasonably experienced developer as well? It shouldn’t be considered crazy but it kinda was for 2014-2015. That being said, I feel like we may be seeing several more RTSes coming down the pipeline. Especially if the Homeworld Remastered project is any indication. Well, here’s hoping to a great year of strategy titles in 2016.  

Overall Gameplay Thoughts

Grey Goo is a Command & Conquer styled real-time-strategy game centered around three races with their own unique playstyles. The game comes packed with features including Steam workshop support, single & multiplayer modes, ranked/unranked matchmaking, custom game support and player profiles. Grey Goo’s main campaign features high quality cutscenes and a reasonable story arc for each race. So, there’s the Beta who are considered the “balanced” race in terms of offense and defense with their bullet and missile weapons. Their unique features include being able to deploy buildings anywhere on the map without requiring a direct connection to the main mother base and walls that can be manned by units. The Humans are the technologically advanced race and are generally more defense oriented. Everything about them is tied into one core base, with any of their buildings requiring power coming directly from said base. Finally, there’s the Goo, the most unique race both in presentation and playstyle. This race of nanorobots is a collective intelligence that use large formless units that can split off to create other types of units. They generally tend to be more aggressive than the other two races as their formless units can do significant damage to enemy units if in close proximity. Some of their strengths are offset but their complete lack of air units. All three have their own unique attributes while sticking largely to the core of Grey Goo’s mechanics.

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The Beta

Strategy Mechanics Conversation

The Beta and Human races play out very similarly to each other. Both have a single home base they are tied to, (The Humans require power connections to all of their buildings, the Beta do not) build generally the same buildings and have the same type of units. Each builds resource collectors that have harvesters transport resources from the collector back to the harvester. Both races then use these resources to carefully build more resource harvesters, tech buildings or factories. Technology buildings grant access to more advanced units and tech upgrades that can further enhance certain units. However, these tech upgrades are restricted to one change per type of unit. They tend to be helpful in certain situations but are otherwise not going to massively change how you play. When a player has lost all of their production buildings and main base, it’s game over. The Goo race on the other hand is unique though they ultimately have the same types of units and win/loss conditions as well. Instead of constructing buildings, they use Mother Goos to build up their forces. These giant formless masses can attack units, go to resource points and split off other Mother Goos or Proteans. They must stay on resource points as long as possible in order to build up mass which leaves them vulnerable to harassment. Proteans are smaller formless units that have a higher speed than Mothers, enabling them to attack or create light/heavy units depending on which protean they are. which can then be transformed to light or heavy units depending on the player. Once all Mother Goos are destroyed, they lose. 

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Humans, AI and Beta

Base buildup is essentially the same for the first five minutes. The player will build a single resource collector (or wait for the mother goo to build up), wait for it to finish and then build a small factory. Add a few tech buildings here and there while getting your infrastructure in place. Rinse and repeat until the player feels secure enough to start building lots of heavy units or is dead. The three races have 11 units each (Beta have 12) that have their own particular function. There’s infantry units to fill out the army and act as the backbone/meat grinders. Specialist units exist for scouting or wall defense among the three races. The heavy units are the tanks, each with their own unique specialization. They cost a lot of resources and time to build up but can be worth it. They are even more expensive per unit but make up for the expense with higher damage or anti-air/base ability. There’s the Beta and Humans access to flying units: bombers, fighters and unarmed scouts. Unfortunately, due to how cost prohibitive they are, how easy it is to shoot them down and their relatively weak damage to buildings, flying units are more of a harassment tool than a game ender. Their overall value is rather questionable to how long it takes them to get online. Finally, each race has access to an Epic unit. These require a ton of resources to build including a large factory, four tech buildings, any mother goos/proteans you send to the Goo Epic unit and have a long construction timer. You get to keep Human buildings, the Beta’s Epic Unit keeps the factory and the Goo can regenerate and give resources to other Mother Goos with theirs. However, the payoff is worth it. These epic units, while slow moving, can rain destruction upon their enemies with long-range weapons, lots of health and sheer capability. The best way to defeat these are to prevent them from being built in the first place or swarming them with units at extremely close range. Due to how powerful these units are, if they are allowed to finish, they will generally cripple the opposing players or end the game.

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A mixture of light and heavy Human units

When first opening up this game, it can fool you into thinking that it’s not going to be a very click-heavy game. Especially if you’ve played StarCraft II in the past decade, it would look like this would be a cakewalk in comparison. After all, there aren’t any activatable special abilities and factories have auto-build queues plus players are anchored to a single base. Surely, this should be a walk in the actions-per-minute park, right? Well, playing in multiplayer sessions or the main campaign on medium or hard difficulty shows how very wrong that first impression of mine was. Grey Goo has a fairly high APM requirement in order to be good. It’s not nearly as high/insane as StarCraft II’s multiplayer scene can be nor will your wrist break but it’s 2nd place on most APM-intensive RTSes I’ve played in the past half decade. There are a couple of reasons why that is. First: players have to keep their eyes on several different places at once. There’s a constant need to be expanding, taking resource points and defending them from counter attacks. Due to units being surprisingly easy to pick off (even the Tanks), they have to be managed a lot. I found in far too many games (especially in single player) that I’d lose units to constant harassment and bombardment attacks. The AI usually has a constant stream of small groups of units patrolling the maps that can be frustrating to deal with while building up a significant fighting force. I found it was rare to be really blindsided by the AI or even have a big unit fight with them. It was one of the main reasons I played the campaign on easy because I felt like I was losing by a death of a thousand paper cuts rather than poor strategy. Secondly, I feel like this game’s units are far too specialist heavy, relying on rock-paper-scissors approach to balancing. Tank units sound and look good in theory, but are hard countered by a small swarm of infantry or a couple of anti-armor units, for example. It’ll give new players an impression that everything outside of epic units is paper thin and they wouldn’t be wrong. There’s a small pool of units in the game so getting attacked by your hard counter is quite likely. There bombardment attacks from artillery units or bombing runs from air units that can be frustrating because healthy units can go down in a relatively small amount of hits, even the regular tanks. Producing tanks and aircraft would make you think you’d get relatively high-HP units. However, without careful monitoring they can easily end up dead from a few well placed shots or a swarming of units. Siege units in particular need a lot of special attention because they’re easily picked off and their vision range is awful. Third, this game has units whose strength is in kiting other units around. For example, the Goo would initially seem incredibly overpowered because of how much damage their proteans can do to standing units. But if you kite them around with tanks, they’ll just flail and probably die unless they can get up a mountain side in time. That being said, those tanks have to be directed to kite. Otherwise, they’ll just stand there making for easy pickings. I generally found that I was required to build a balanced contingent of units in both modes of play to keep my army alive. Creating a specialized force was simply too risky and not likely to pay off. 

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Beta units attacking a Human base.

I guess if I had to finalize my thoughts on the strategy aspects, it would be this. What these mechanics ultimately result in are games that can be pretty frustrating for new players and require a significant amount of APM in order to keep up. While it is indeed slower paced than other RTSes, it still requires a lot of attention in order to be good at it. Furthermore, there are no catch up mechanics in Goo. If you fall behind (whether through a mistake or resource crashing) and the opposing player is at least as good as you, you’re probably done for the match, it’s just a matter of how long it’ll take them. I’m also not sure I really like how specialized and few units there are. It doesn’t give you a ton of flexibility in what your strategies can be. Flying units are disappointingly weak as well but can sometimes work out if you’re lucky. Still, Grey Goo has a solid and interesting strategy system in place and it’s gone through several balance changes including a huge overhaul in the middle of the year. Though due to some multiplayer issues, it’s hard to tell how those balance changes have affected the game.

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Redgraves

PC Settings, Performance Problems & Audio/Video

Grey Goo thankfully comes with a wide selection of options to theoretically improve your experience. Most functions can be rebound to a different hotkey. There are a staggering nine audio sliders that can change master, music, speech, movie, notifications, gameplay SFX, ambient SFX, interface SFX and unit volumes. Most, if not all, resolutions, windowed mode and V-sync is supported. In the advanced video settings, there are seven different sliders that give a vague number for how much a setting is being used. Particles, geometry, environment, textures, shader, particle rendering and dynamic lighting all use these sliders. Bloom, heat distortion, depth of field and fog can be turned on or off. Anti-aliasing is missing from the settings menu. However, despite the flexibility in options, it’s hard to tell what affects performance in Grey Goo.

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Video Settings Menu

Performance in Grey Goo is disastrous despite months of patching and promises from the developers that it would be fixed. The entire main menu has severe lag, only managing to get somewhere in the realm of 20-40FPS. Why it’s so poor is unclear but it seems to be an engine issue. Cutscenes also have the same framerate problems and it’s really too bad because they are quite well done. It’s quite irritating to see this too when my CPU is only 45-50% consumed when Grey Goo is running. My GTX 970 should be able to easily handle this title but the framerate counter seems to indicate otherwise. The in-game situation isn’t much better as the framerate will go from a solid 60 to a mere 30-45 when a base is under construction. Turning every graphics option down to minimum helps things but it doesn’t fix the menu framerate lag and games can still bring the framerate down. It’s unclear why Grey Goo continues to suffer performance problems despite months of work but it’s definitely a problem worth considering if you’re interested in the title. It’s certainly frustrating enough for me to now want to play it. I could be much more understanding if the CPU/GPU was near max while playing Grey Goo. But it’s not. I did consult with their tech support over the course of several weeks in order to identify the issue but they didn’t have any suggestions on fixing it. Instead, they insisted that that my computer wasn’t up to the task. A computer that meets or exceeds the minimum required specs stated on the Steam store page. There have been multiple reports and reviews from other players reporting the very same issues. Unfortunately, the developers haven’t given any public announcement that they’re still trying to iron them out.

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Audio Settings Menu

Visually, Grey Goo is a far-future, realistic Sci-Fi style. It looks really beautiful, especially in the cutscenes of the main campaign. There’s a lot of detail to units and faces that you often don’t see outside of big blockbuster releases. The music is actually quite good with its orchestral and electronic mixing to provide a distinctive theme for the game. Each race even has their own theme and it suits them well. Though, for no understandable reason, the end credits music is heavily compressed and filled with artifacts.

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Goo Units

Multiplayer Strategy, Community and Business Model Discussion

Defeating the other player generally involves constant harassment and destruction of their economic resource collectors until you build up a big enough force to overwhelm them en mass. Scouting is important so that you know where the enemy is and what resource points they’ve taken. As resource collectors are very expensive to build, keeping them off the resource point as much as possible is essential to victory. Additionally, your units will move slowly and planes can get shot down from the sky if you don’t know where the anti-air units are. This requires keeping a healthy amount of information on the opposing player or otherwise you’ll run into some rather brutal brick walls. Going for tech buildings or factories is doable but I found that the biggest bang for your unit’s death was going for resources. This is mostly due to them being in vulnerable and difficult to defend locations.The most effective tactic I saw was building lots of infantry units and expanding as quickly as possible. Turtle tactics are doable, especially with the Human race, but aren’t likely to result in victory. In a 1v1 situation, the other player will simply be able to collect more resources than you and overwhelm your defenses eventually. If you are going to turtle, you’ll still need to harass their resource collectors and keep them down. 

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A mid-game Human base.

Unfortunately, the multiplayer community for Grey Goo has mostly died off since release. There are very few actively playing the game on a regular basis and even fewer on the ladder system. (About 100 players during peak hours). Queuing up on ladder results in 20+ minute waits. The Workshop has very few active creators in it at the moment. I noticed that there wasn’t enthusiasm to play Grey Goo from my usual list of RTS friends either. Custom games still work so if you can play with friends easily enough. So, what’s the reason for this player count crash? Grey Goo costs $50, even a year after release. Look, I get pricing your brand new game for $50 initially and I won’t criticize that if it’s got the features and quality expected of that price point. However, it arguably doesn’t justify the high price point. The performance issues alone are enough to justify not purchasing this title for some people. That aside, that price tag is going to keep people away. Keeping it at $50 for a year has almost certainly killed the growth of the multiplayer community when there are other options out there to choose from. I also don’t agree with the $8 DLC campaign that contains a mere three missions but I’ll talk about its problems in the story section.

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Defending resource points like these are very important.

The strategy component is interesting but has problems as I previously mentioned. This all combines to really paint a sad picture for Grey Goo’s future. The company has tried its hardest to keep it going. There have been many post-launch patches and a series of rebalancing patches as well as official tournaments to spark life back into the game. At this point, I don’t think it’ll be enough to bring the audience back that it so desperately needs. 

Narrative Discussion (Warning: Spoilers Ahead. Skip to Final Thoughts section to Avoid Them). 

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The campaign mission selection screen when complete.

During the campaign, you’ll be able to experience the three races in the following order. Beta, Human and last but not least, Goo. Each race is given five missions each for a total of 15. All three races have the same gameplay arc. You’re first given a very small army and no access to the race’s tech tree. The next three missions gradually unlock units and upgrades as you go along. The missions getting gradually more difficult as well. The fifth mission is the big event of the campaign, allowing the player to use the race’s Epic unit and all technology available. Overall, the campaign feels short even though it’s about 10 hours long. I’ll admit, I didn’t particularly enjoy the campaign either. Mostly because I did the same things to win mission after mission and the three race buildup starts creating a very samey feeling. It also doesn’t help that it feels like content has been cut from the game.

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Saruk

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Logistics Officer

It starts off with the Beta, Saruk leading this scientific project, opening a Keyhole. It seems they’re opening these keyholes (wormholes?) to get back to the stars with a ship. One of their tests attracts an unknown enemy to them and they find themselves hard pressed to survive against it. Initially, they believe it to be “The Silent Ones”, it’s actually the Goo. Part way through, Saruk discovers another unknown race, the Humans, to fight against and capture one of them alive. Why the Humans are here is never explained now that I think about it. Despite Saruk’s victories, the Beta are forced to fall back and retreat constantly in the face of the Goo. Eventually, Saruk has enough of the running and forces a fight to put the Goo down. After winning the fight, which has limited fanfare, the Human campaign begins.

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Lucy

The scene opens up on Lucy in her command ship in orbit above the planet we’ve been fighting on. Why she is here in the first place is unknown. But they have taken a sample of the Goo at some point apparently and it gets out of containment while Lucy is talking with Mum, an AI running the ship. The Goo spreads quickly, destroying the ship in the process forcing Lucy and the crew to abandon ship to flee to the surface. Singleton, an advanced AI, has been on the planet for some time and Lucy strives to make contact with him again. Upon doing so, Lucy gets word that Redgrave’s signal, the human captured by the Beta, has been detected. So, Lucy sets out to get him back. While doing so, they happen to capture Saruk in the process. After figuring out that the Humans and Beta have been fighting each other out of misunderstanding, they ally to fight the Goo menace. They set a plan in motion to trick the Goo into taking over a base filled with catalyst in order to blow them sky high. Singleton volunteers for this mission and ends up sacrificing himself. The Goo are seemingly destroyed so clearly this is where the player should take over their part of the campaign.

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Singleton

The Beta and Human combined forces are searching for any remnants of Goo that may have survived the blast. The Goo are now small pockets of mass, barely alive after their near brush with annihilation. After they escape from the blast zone, the Goo seek out their missing tech in order to regrow and face the “true” enemy, the Silence. It’s quickly revealed that Singleton has been absorbed by the Goo and is helping them from whatever unexplained reason. A reason that is not explained until the Emergence DLC campaign. Along the way, the Goo take over and hack Mum for her knowledge. What the Goo learn is that there are more more of their kind out there in the Universe, protecting what they can. But the Silence is growing more and more powerful. They also discover the origins of humanity as well as themselves. The Goo were merely a tool of exploration for Humans. They discover in Mum’s database that the Beta have a device that can open keyholes to the other factions of Goo. After Singleton pleads to Lucy to stand their forces down, and she rejects the offer, the Goo subdue the combined forces of Beta and Humans. They call in their forces from around the Universe and prepare to stand against the Silence with the Humans and Beta that they spared. Thus, the campaign comes to an abrupt end.

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Lucy and Singleton talking about the Goo

The DLC campaign, called Emergence, contains three story missions that explain what happened to Singleton during the final Human mission and why he eventually reappears in the Goo campaign. As the story starts, the Goo was able to absorb Singleton before he was destroyed by the explosion. His AI essence was able to stay intact despite their attempts to purge him from their system. The Goo find themselves surrounded by Beta and Human forces seeking and destroying any remnants of them. They struggle to build up even a decent sized force in the canyon and eventually escape. After the escape, Singleton asks the Goo why they are killing the Human and Beta forces. They talk about how they survived an encounter with the Silence, a force that destroys everything it encounters and they’ve been struggling to evolve and grow to counter it as their prime directive. Realizing the significance of their tactics, Singleton makes the decision that the Goo need his guidance if they are to survive. The Goo strongly disagree and attempt to completely purge him again. However, he survives and they cut him off from everything but the most basic Mother Goo structures. What follows is perhaps the most annoying, tiring and frustrating mission of all time. Culminating in a horrendously difficult fight against a Purger Goo (their epic unit) and roaming Human forces. I had to cheese the Goo’s AI in order to even beat it (because I didn’t have access to the Purger myself), which wouldn’t work in any other situation. It all ends with Singleton taking over the Goo and setting the events to take place in the Goo campaign.

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The Goo

The story is ok. There’s a decent amount of content with the 18 missions having their own scenario. There’s a decent beginning, middle and end to it the campaign. However, I feel like a lot of the story was left on the cutting room floor. Whether to be chopped up for DLC, future expansions/sequels or just wasn’t created at all is difficult to ascertain. But the DLC “Emergence” campaign seems to support the theory that the story was indeed cut up. It’s a pricey $8 after all and only contains three missions that fill in the gap in Singleton’s story. No multiplayer units or other features. I am very irritated with how very little value for money that DLC is, even if I was given away by the developers for a limited amount of time to current owners. The other issue is how very little explanation characters are given over the course of the campaign. The most we really ever learn about is Singleton and even his purpose is vague. Unless you read the in-game bios which actually give a decent explanation for why people and events are happening in the campaign. But, it’s an extremely lazy way of telling the story, especially since I’m almost certain that these bios weren’t included in the original launch of Grey Goo. Said Bios are also hidden away in the profile manager. But it doesn’t really excuse how poorly the campaign explains itself or how there are some pretty grievous errors in the storytelling.

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Beta base growing

Story & Character Issues

There’s a multitude of story problems and character moments that don’t make sense when looking back at them. When we get to the cutscene that talks about Humanity’s past, it says that they found no other alien life and thus retreated to their home world to preserve the only existence of life in the universe. Yet the revelation of the Beta’s existence is not even really talked about or even that shocking to Lucy/Singleton. Maybe it was talked about in one or two lines but it really should have been far more important than it was handled. We understand little about the culture of the Beta, to the point that they seem to serve as minor characters at best. Humanity is given a slightly better explanation but much of their past remains a mystery and Lucy being at this planet isn’t explained. The Goo are given the best treatment of the three but are flawed as well. They aren’t given much character in the story and act as a juggernaut force that doesn’t seem to realize it’s doing more harm than good. The explanation of why they’re destroying the combined humanoid forces is fairly weak, they don’t even say that the ends justify the means. It just seems like they never considered an alternative path.

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Then there’s Singleton’s confrontation with Lucy in the Goo campaign. ‘There’s a shroud of darkness threatening to cover all the lands, please, pull back your forces’. That’s not an explanation Singleton, certainly not an explanation that will convince someone like Lucy to pull back. It doesn’t make much sense why Singleton doesn’t try harder to convince her either. He just seems to shrug his shoulders and then destroy the Beta and Humans which is in stark contrast to his wishes to protect them from the Goo. The DLC campaign shows that Singleton takes over the Goo to keep it from destroying the Beta and Humans outright. So, why even be vague about the existence of the Silence? It’s not like they’re pressed for time. I mean, cmon, even the Beta know about the Silence. Had he talked with Saruk, they probably would have backed down. Instead, we get a mission where we destroy a lot of the combined forces and risk everything due to Singleton’s incompetence.

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Singleton confronts Lucy

I think perhaps the biggest narrative mistake Grey Goo commits is the buildup of the “Silence”. This unknown nemesis or force is mentioned a time or two throughout the campaign but it isn’t until late into the Goo campaign that we’re given any reason to care about it. It’s made worse by how very anti-climactic the conclusion to the campaign is. It feels completely undeserved and rushed. “Hey, we blew up lots of your units and killed people. Now, let’s unite against the true enemy!”. No, it wouldn’t happen like that. It definitely doesn’t help that I have no reason to really care about any of these characters we meet. Singleton, Lucy, Saruk, Redgraves, all are basically giant unknowns about their past, motivations or even their basic desires outside of survival. Why does Singleton care about saving others so much? What is Lucy doing here? Is Redgraves important or just a good soldier? There are mentions of Saruk not having a voice but why is that? Why is there doubts about him? I’m not looking for heavily detailed explanations but something more than what we got would have been appreciated. I can’t help but think that the missions were planned first and the story written in afterwards as an almost afterthought. As such, it’s hard to get any sort of emotional investment in the events, characters or even the races themselves. They put so much work into the presentation and mechanics of each race yet the main story feels half complete. It feels like this is the in-between book between two major books and the narrative suffers badly for it. This is not a good start for a new IP.

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Saruk planning the Beta’s next course of action.

I think the story in Grey Goo would have been much stronger if it had just focused on the three factions and their interactions with each other. I think that was the original intention. Or at least this tale was supposed to be about the Goo entirely, given how much focus was given to them (the name, the amount of time the game focuses on their backstory, how differently they play compared to the other races, etc). For whatever reason, it seems like the Silence were put in to give us a big evil to fight. An evil that we never fight, know extremely little about and barely get a glimpse of. This push to create a universe-ending antagonistic force that these factions must unite against lacks the punch it should otherwise have. I realize that I’m getting into nitpicking territory but I think these narrative mistakes are why I was so lukewarm to the story in the first place. What could have been a much more memorable tale becomes a by-the-numbers story with characters that deserve to be expanded upon.

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Singleton in Goo

Final Thoughts

I think Grey Goo is a reasonable modern take on the C&C formula established so long ago. There’s a decent amount of strategy involved and each race feels uniquely its own and fairly well balanced. Unfortunately, the multiplayer has been falling apart since release and doesn’t seem to be showing signs of returning any time soon. The 20min+ long queues at this point make it even more of an anti-recommendation at this point. The story’s narrative also has multiple problems and I don’t really think the game is worth getting for it alone. At the very least, it’s questionable value for money, especially the DLC. Credit to the devs though, they have supported Grey Goo pretty well over the past year with multiple balance updates, new features and minor content additions. I think they’re pinning a little too much hope on it becoming a e-sport though. It’s just a pity that the engine problems and the expensive price haven’t been shored up during the course of this year, as I have no doubt that’s what has kept the multiplayer community from growing. Ultimately, while Grey Goo as an RTS is possible to enjoy at times, I have trouble recommending it due to the performance problems, shrinking multiplayer community and multiple story issues.

Thanks for reading this lengthy review! If you enjoyed it, I have plenty of other reviews on my blog. Like and share this post if you enjoyed it as well.

-KingIsaacLinksr

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