Among the many genres that feel at home on mobile, real-time strategy (or RTS) hasn’t always been one of them. The app stores are full of RTS-like substances, but not a whole lot of titles that PC gamers would be proud to include among their favorites. Leave it to Ironhide Game Studio to change that dynamic with Iron Marines, a game that certainly deserves to wear that badge.
It makes sense when you consider that Ironhide is the company behind the Kingdom Rush series, and what is tower defense if not RTS played under very specific restraints? Here, the developers get to show off their understanding of how to create that same mix of strategy and urgency in a way not too many others get just right.
While there is a story to set up Iron Marines, the narrative isn’t the focus. A human mining colony has been invaded by unusual alien life forms, and the only hope of pulling everyone’s fat out of the extraterrestrial fire is to send in the Iron Marines. They’re led by a Hero character who can be leveled up in various ways and be swapped out for other Heroes who each have their own unique abilities. The mysterious setting and grand orchestral soundtrack are balanced out by Ironhide’s usual art style, which keeps things from getting too grim.
The controls in battle are simple and fitting for mobile. Simply tapping on a Hero or unit and dragging them to the next spot you want them will send them on their way, albeit usually ignoring anything they encounter until they are in place. That makes every move count, as dragging things around willy nilly is a good way to get everyone wiped out.
Both Heroes and regular units regenerate quickly while not fighting, so you learn quickly not to bite off more than you can chew when engaging enemies. Still, Iron Marines never lets you get comfortable, as you don’t know exactly what you’re up against with different types of aliens until you run into them for the first time — which is completely logical, since you really wouldn’t if you were suddenly face to face with creatures not of this world. The variety of opposing forces helps keep things both interesting and challenging right from the first few levels.
And make no mistake about it, Iron Marines gets pretty tough pretty quickly, which is something experienced RTS players will appreciate. Since you’re constrained by both a maximum number of units and by resources to build them, the game makes every marine you summon feel important. On top of that, many levels require you to both defend installations and seek and destroy enemy forces at the same time, so there are few times you can sit back and simply play defense.
In-game currency allows you to purchase both passive boosts and active abilities for the troops at your disposal. You can also buy single use weapons and power-ups to help you out of particularly tight spots. Said currency is the result of one of the few qualms that people seemed to have about Iron Marines at launch; namely, that it was a paid download that also features IAPs. The hesitancy is understandable, but since you can also earn currency by watching ads or tackling extra content like the Spec Ops missions, it doesn’t feel like a big issue.
In fact the one thing that might give newcomers to RTS games pause is that you have to do some experimentation to figure out even basic actions like summoning reinforcements or taking and holding areas that will allow you to raise your maximum unit count. This isn’t a gaming experience where hand-holding would feel appropriate, but there are definitely times when a little more guidance would be nice.
Once you’ve sunk some time into Iron Marines, though, you’re likely to be delighted by the way it works both your brain and your fingers simultaneously, which is what truly excellent RTS titles always manage to do. It’s not easy, but when the going gets tough, the Iron Marines get going. If that’s not a phrase that people say, consider it officially coined.