Insect RTS Empires Of The Undergrowth leaves early access in June, adding savannahs, termites and stink ants

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Even as Nic spent this morning writing lovingly about frogs, I was watching trailers of frogs disintegrating beneath an unstoppable ant tsunami. The game in question is Empires Of The Undergrowth, an RTS from developers Slug Disco and Manor Lords publisher Hooded Horse. The 1.0 version launches on June 7th, after almost eight years in early access during which Empires Of The Undergrowth has accumulated positive user reviews with truly antlike meticulousness. Here’s the release date trailer, which you should not watch if you dislike seeing various larger insects and small animals getting eaten alive by ants.

Watch on YouTube

Speaking of frogs, this game puts me in mind of Bullfrog’s creations and especially Dungeon Keeper, if only because ant nests, much like dungeons, tend to be constructed underground (a more obvious precedent is Maxis’s SimAnt). You’ll start by digging out hexagons of earth to create a network of store rooms and nurseries surrounding your Queen, the Dungeon Heart, who must naturally be protected at all costs.

From there, you’ll scour the world above for various food sources, using pheromones to group and direct your ickle all-devouring ant squads, and dealing with predators and competitor species who come and go at the behest of a day-night cycle. You can birth a bunch of evolving ant species, from hit-and-run trap-jaw ants through tanky leafcutters that draw aggro and wood ants who can be upgraded to shoot formic acid.

Chunkier threats such as scorpions, praying mantids and hermit crabs aside, you’ll have to worry about rival ant colonies and pesky humans. As Fraser Brown – formerly of this parish, nowadays a resident of feisty RPS spin-off production PCGamer – wrote in our 2017 early access review, the game’s campaign takes the form of a lab experiment, with gloved hands periodically reaching down to squish your inf-ant-ry and deposit terrible genetically engineered species such as scorpion-crabs. If the campaign doesn’t end with at least one full-sized human scientist being vengefully hollowed out and turned into an ant’s nest then I, for one, will be throwing a wobbly on the Steam forums. Laboratory theatrics aside, the campaign includes “documentary missions” in which you learn about different ant species and their habitats.

If you’ve already been playing, here’s what the 1.0 version adds, direct from the Steam announcement:

– The Matabele ants, termite-eating specialists, feature in 3 brand new fully voice-acted campaign levels in their own environment of the sub-Saharan African savannah!

– Harvest food from the towering spires of the cathedral-like termite mounds, carefully managing this precious resource

– Matabeles have a special medic class, allowing them to revive injured colony members!

– The scorching savannah is rich in biodiversity, and rife with danger

– Encounter marching lines of driver ants & solo-hunting African stink ants

– New huge titans, deadly scorpions, spiders, earwigs, beetles and more!

– New Game Plus mode will activate upon completing the campaign, unlocking new units and new options for further playthroughs

– Once you’re done in the savannah, return to the lab and add the Matabeles to your home colony for one final climactic formicarium challenge – the REAL final experiment!

– Sweeping changes to custom game modes

– Many quality-of-life tweaks and improvements

I must confess, I keep getting this game confused with Empire Of The Ants – another insectile strategy affair based on Bernard Werber’s 32-year-old sci-fi novel series of the same name, which has drawn attention for its fancy-dan Unreal Engine 5 visuals. Empire Of The Ants casts you as an individual ant, heroic No 103,683 in a nest on the floor of a French forest. It’s at once glossier and, seemingly, less involved than Empires Of The Undergrowth, by virtue of centring an individual ant’s perspective, but that’s a conclusion made without seeing any in-game footage.

One thing I’d like both games to do is interrogate the familiar framing of ant swarms as akin to human “empires” with rulers and armies, and explore how ant cognition and perception might give rise to different social structures, as discussed in this old Guardian piece from 2014. Failing that, I would quite like Empires Of The Undergrowth to get some Dungeon Keeper crossover DLC in which you can summon Horny and his ilk to massacre a few uppity spiders.

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