Years ago, Populous stormed the gaming world with a bizarre blend of strategy and action. It's one of the toughest games to categorize - not a sim ala Simcity, not a typical RTS ala Dune 2. While some argue that it's the true ancestor to the real-time strategy genre, the fact remains that Populous rewrote the gaming rulebook.
Now some 10 years after the original, Bullfrog releases Populous: the Beginning. Although it is the third game in the series, this remake bears little resemblance to its ancient cousins. With a terrific graphical engine and innovative gameplay, it's a welcome return. That's right folks - God is back, and she's looking better than ever.
Populous: The Beginning is a 'prequel' to the original. You play a Shaman, the leader of a tribe and bent on becoming a god. Achieving this lofty goal requires the absolute eradication of all other tribes in the universe. No one said omnipotence was easy.
The first thing you'll notice is the graphical engine, which, in a word, rules. Taking a cue from the groundbreaking Myth, Populous uses 2D sprites in full 3D worlds. The coolest thing here is that you're playing on a globe, which leads to some amazing camera rotation. The sphere also provides for some neat landscape effects, like a horizon and some truly impressive terrain deformation. With full D3D and 3Dfx support, this is a real treat for the eyes and pushes the limits of the genre.
Of course, graphics only go so far. The gameplay follows the basic RTS theory - highlight units, order 'em around, build stuff, and do whatever it takes to kill everyone else. But Populous does some things differently.
This is not a resource based RTS, and places less of an emphasis on management and more attention on action. Since you're not dealing with mining for gold/spice/metal, Populous never really degrades into a 'war of attrition;' you can't just choke out your enemy's harvesting plan and slowly hunt them down. Your tribe acts as your major resource (though buildings require wood, which is always plentiful), and the best way to ensure success is to allow your people to flourish. This directly affects your Mana level, which is depleted as your Shaman casts a bevy of offensive and defensive spells. Again, this is not your standard real-time deal.
The Shaman is really the crux of the game. She has a wide range of spells to use, though only certain ones are available on each level. There are 26 in all, many of which are aimed at the terrain. What better way to get rid of your enemy than with a well-placed volcano? Take that, stinking pagans!
However, with all this new ground comes some old concerns. For one, there are only really a handful of unit types, and with the uber-powerful Shaman really running the show, there isn't much of a need to diversify. Plus, the unit AI can be irritating. At this point in the progression of the RTS, I'd hope that my units would figure out some of the more basic ideas on their own - like attacking the enemy when he starts pounding on my buildings. Too often warriors are just standing around watching their houses burn to the ground. Stupid peons.
There are also a few problems with the difficulty. The first few levels are pretty easy and allow you to figure out how to navigate and command troops, but later levels get very hard and frustrating, often requiring little more than sheer numbers to overpower the enemy.
Multi-player, on the other hand, solves many of these CPU problems. The game runs smoothly through the free 'populous.net' server and is plenty of fun and relatively lag-free. Few things are more satisfying than eradicating other tribes and achieving online divinity.
Populous: The Beginning is a stylish and solid game. It utilizes current graphical technology beautifully and delivers a very interesting gaming experience. While it still falls prey to some of the more irksome pitfalls of the genre, it manages to break through the haze and shed some new light on the masses. Both the heretics and the faithful will get a kick out of this one.
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