Tooth and Tail review: Delightful, rodent-riddled StarCraft for the rest of us  9/17/2017 3:30:17 PM   Sam Machkovech
Enlarge / Two commanders. Two armies. One bloody, rodent-filled battle. Welcome to Tooth and Tail.

StarCraft II thought it had the secret to delivering a truly accessible version of its predecessor. The original game's troop-management battles are unmatched in terms of balance, so the sequel directed more attention to QoL tweaks like resource management, unit assignments, and movement pathing. In short, you could click a little less, and otherwise, you were still tied largely to the same gameplay systems and faction differences (aside from some significant rhythm-shifting changes).

But what if a StarCraft sequel, spin-off, or shameless homage took the entire game formula apart, then put its LEGO pieces back together to make a new, more approachable shape? No RTS game in the past two decades has reimagined the genre quite like the incredible Tooth and Tail, a years-in-the-making project from IGF Award winner Andy Schatz. It's as if three-man studio Pocketwatch Games looked at the mouse cursor in RTS games, made a joke about turning it into an actual mouse, and then called their own bluff.

The resulting game sees players face off in asymmetric explore-and-exploit battles that add speed, accessibility, and surprises (along with cute and, uh, cannibalistic critters) to the RTS world. Yet the depth's still here. Say "goodbye!" to zillions of hotkeys and skill trees. Say "hello!" to the first RTS game that legitimately works with a standard gamepad (and even shines as a split-screen versus battler).

Stop arguing—you can both have the ferrets

T&T's basic skeleton will sound familiar to anybody who's clicked through an RTS in the past 30 years. Manage an economy of resources to build an army, expand to other bases on a map, and eventually annihilate any number of rivals. (Up to four players can face off in team or free-for-all combat). Each army unit has its strengths, weaknesses, and resource costs, and victory requires understanding how your army, which is likely different than your opponent's, can particularly triumph.

The game's unique properties begin with your cursor, which does not exist in as a pointer icon but as a walking, talking mouse. (If you're wondering, it's dressed as an army commander from early 20th-Century poverty-stricken Eastern Europe.) To do anything on the battlefield, such as issue orders to armies, claim new bases, build or sell structures, or spy on your opponent, you have to direct your commander, either using a joystick or WASD keys, to run, run, run.

But that doesn't mean this game is all that similar to "active RTS" games like Herzog Zwei or AirMech. Unlike those games, your T&T commander can't shoot a gun or otherwise directly engage. Instead, you have two primary buttons: rally all armies, or rally one species' worth of armies. You can use different taps to order either selection to: focus on a specific enemy unit; have units move-and-attack until they reach a certain point; or sheathe their weapons and retreat to your position. Movement is relatively slow, though you can "burrow" to any captured base by holding down a button to dig for a moment. Be warned: your commander health bar regenerates very slowly, and getting killed while spying on a foe (or waiting for your map-warping burrow) will freeze you out for a few seconds' worth of respawn.

Additionally, Tooth and Tail opens its unit selection up to a free-draft system before every battle. Instead of picking a faction with its own balanced, pre-determined package of units and upgrades, players have to pick six of the game's 20 unit types. Fifteen of the choices are active soldier types, split into three tiers of power and value. The remaining units are defensive and barrier options. Should you wish to burn five of your picks as barriers, go right ahead—and your foes can do the same without any limit to duplicates on the battlefield.

Those six units are it for your battle, by the way, which means you cannot build any research stations or base upgrades. The units you build cost "food," your sole resource, and you can only get more food by building farms. Each windmill you capture counts as a "base," and you can build up to eight farms around each base. These all eventually exhaust, so you'll want to keep acquiring more of them (and be mindful of each map's limited, finite resources before reaching an endgame).

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Ranked online matches do a better job separating the better players from the worse ones. Unranked matches just throw everyone into the same queue, and that's tougher for new T&T players.
Enlarge / Ranked online matches do a better job separating the better players from the worse ones. Unranked matches just throw everyone into the same queue, and that's tougher for new T&T players.

The drafting system, surprisingly, is what makes me think of StarCraft the most, because T&T also wants you to keep a vigilant eye on your opponent. This game changes both how you do so (with a slow, "literal-mouse" character) and what you glean from a check-in. Instead of guessing at a possible tech-tree and build direction, and having some giant hints in the form of an opponent's faction, you're trying to find out exactly which six units you will have to face. Plus, that information may take time to appear on the map, should your opponent wait a while before building its most expensive Tier-3 units.

There's really no way to build a "perfect" sextet of small armies, flying units, barriers, AoE masters, and so on. Plus, your unit choices at the outset includes different prices for each tier of unit. Just to be clear: before a match starts, you can draft any six units you want, no matter what tier or cost they have. Unit costs don't factor in until combat begins. During a battle, generating a trio of weak squirrels costs only 60 food, while a super-powered spy fox costs 180 food per single unit. That economical choice has huge ramifications on whether and how you can react to certain tactics. Your opponent could spam you with cheaper, Tier-1 units or hunker down with enough defenses and food-producing farms to eventually go all Tier-3 on your ass. You have to be ready either way.

Your path to victory will be equal parts flexibility and motion. There's never a good time to stop or wait in T&T, especially due to so much early-game time for players to run around while waiting for food to be farmed. Yet each player's speed has a more recognizable cap of how fast a commander can run, and the warp-between-bases "burrow" move is only so fast, as well. I have already seen a gap between players who know how to run around and players who don't, but it's far narrower than the same gap between amateur and pro StarCraft players. You simply cannot perform as many actions per minute (APM) in T&T, and that's as much of an equalizer as you're going to get in an RTS.

But what an equalizer it is. Pocketwatch Games seems determined to attract a full variety of players to the RTS genre, and it succeeds in a few respects, beyond the aforementioned ones. Tooth and Tail's single-player campaign eventually gets damned hard, but it cleverly teaches concepts to RTS players new and old. The genre's scrubs get caught up on concepts like unit production and battlefield spying, while seasoned vets are treated to missions that emphasize the game's slow commander control and unique unit-picking strategies.

Meanwhile, online versus modes serve up something new every match: a procedurally generated battlefield. Higher ground, lower ground, natural barriers, and speed-stunting pools of water are all up to chance, and that means players are subject to equal parts advantage and disadvantage, even on some of the kookiest, island-filled maps.

Better players will surely know more about how to survey new maps and react strategically, but these random maps mostly play quite nicely and add a welcome, organic element of surprise (not to mention a good reason to further spy around in a match's early moments). T&T wants players to immediately survey and react to the emerging world around them, and, thanks to how each match plays out, the game may very well do a better job of selling that feeling than most other RTS games.

Is it exploit-proof, though?

Some of the humor gets decidedly dark.
Enlarge / Some of the humor gets decidedly dark.

One problem right now in the game's lifespan is its general sense of "Early Access" status. Or, at least, compared to RTS games that already have years (or, gosh, decades) of meta and discussion. Everything cool I've described is worth bupkis if some fundamental aspect is exploited to permanently impact the flow or speed of the game—which I have found to be an enjoyable and frenetic 5-10 minutes per match.

There's nothing apparently broken or overpowered (OP) in my experience so far, but I have noticed a trend of early players (including yours truly) finding more success by overloading on cheaper, first-tier units. I've responded in some respects by bracing for those kinds of opponents by default—meaning, more cloud-generating skunks and lane-controlling turrets. And I'd rather not find myself pinned into a single army expectation.

But what if that pinned-in feeling is just the fault of a nascent playerbase? Maybe a truly balanced meta will unfold as fans begin to appreciate higher-priced units like the snakes (the game's only poison-causing unit), the chameleons (who are equal parts tanky and stealthy) or the wolves (who pile all kinds of bonuses onto nearby units and farms). As such, T&T is admittedly tough to "fully" review without greater exposure to a retail playerbase, beyond admitting that I've seen some cheap-unit benefits in my limited experience. I'm simply not there yet. I've used all the units—that only took four matches—but I have a long ways to go before feeling like I have a grasp on most of the game's 5-on-5 matchups (let alone the team-battle ones).

So far, the game's developers appear to be active on T&T's primary forums. They're responding to player feedback and promising additions like map editors and campaign-level builders. Between that fan service and the utter lack of microtransaction BS (no paid cosmetic hats for your Soviet-soldier critters, praise be!), Pocketwatch appears to have support and player satisfaction in mind. As a result, I feel confident that the game will receive enough short-tail support to keep minor imbalances at bay.

Additionally, there's the bigger issue of online matchmaking (which has been super smooth since the game's launch) simply dumping all players into the same pool. The game's possible skill gap may be narrower than in StarCraft, but that doesn't mean new players have a chance in hell against RTS fanatics. I've had far more fun facing off against people like myself—as in, people who've followed RTS games for years but have fallen out of favor with the genre. I'm not the fastest at generating new armies or managing windmills. I keep learning the hard way about bad, brute-force tactics and not doing a better job arranging different unit classes in front-line, back-line formations to compensate for whatever long-range or short-range foes they're about to face.

But I have fun along the way, at least when matched against comparable players, and I appreciate the two-player, two-gamepad battles I've waged on the same screen. (I've yet to test four-player split-screen play, but, golly, I'm glad that's in here). This is StarCraft at my pace, and I'm still unwrapping gameplay and strategy surprises. The lack of normal genre conventions like tech trees is made up for by stressful drafts and important, decide-fast moments that keep matches moving at a brisk pace.

For players more in my camp, you owe it to yourself to try Tooth and Tail. For superior players, have fun learning a whole new way to manage units, space, and time.

The good:

  • "Deep-yet-accessible RTS with a gamepad" sounds like a BS selling point from a bad N64 game. It's not. Tooth and Tail nails it.
  • Turning the cursor into an actual mouse beautifully disrupts the usual screen-scrolling speed of classic RTS games.
  • Thanks to quick, frantic matches, you won't be able to do much screen-cheating in split-screen versus modes.
  • Lovely, clear art direction, rounded out by one of the best video game scores of the year.
  • Every version (PS4, Steam, and GOG) can play against the other via online multiplayer crossplay.

The bad:

  • Online unranked matchmaking doesn't differentiate pros from amateurs, which will be tough for novices drawn to the game's newbie-friendly elements.

The ugly:

  • If you don't like dark humor, this game's cast of cannibal rodents may not do it for you.

Verdict: Enjoy this with a willing friend (or three) if you like the idea of RTS games but suck at them. Jump right into online matchmaking if you're a pro. Test it out if you're RTS-shy.

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