The quest for ultimate power is eternal. Everybody craves it, lusts after it, but only few ever truly attain it. The processes that decide the lucky ones are often heated and frequently bloody. But for those who survive to collect the spoils, the rewards are worth it. Power, control, domination... not to mention some serious kicking in. If the pursuit of such positions of power in red life may seem a bit daunting, at least there are plenty of opportunities to stalk the corridors of power (and then blow them up) on computer. Bullfrog has already produced two sterling efforts in the forms of Populous and PowerMonger, while Gremlin is promising Flag for the near future (see last issue). Mirrorsoft's offering, however, comes as a bit of a surprise only because of its unexpected origins.
Those wild 'n' crazy guys at Sensible Software aren't known for being very serious. An unmistakable strand of whackiness runs through all of their games, from the classics Wizball and Parallax to their sports sims MicroProse Soccer and International 3D Tennis - and now Mega lo Mania, the boys' first attempt at Populous-style strategy. While Mega lo Mania's basic gameplay is without doubt a serious affair, plenty of effort has gone into ensuring that the actual approach is as camp and comedic as possible. After all, if you can't laugh when hundreds of your troops are being slaughtered on a far-off battlefield before your very eyes, when can you?
Mega lo Mania's storyline, such as it is, is set in an alternate universe where, when new worlds are formed and intelligent life placed upon them, interstellar freeloaders descend upon them to seize the reigns of power. However, when more than one decides to stake a claim on the same planet, problems can arise - as has in this case, when against all probability, four such megalomaniacs happen to have arrived at exactly the same planet at exactly the same time. Naturally, something's got to give, as a planet can only have one overall ruler. So begins an embittered campaign of imperialism as you take on three computer opponents with wide-ranging personalities for control of the planet. Of course there's no room for compromise, so only when every last member of all the opposing armies has been totally obliterated can victory be proclaimed.
The world consists of nine groups of three islands, each of which exits within its own epoch, or time zone. Things begin in prehistoric times and progress through all the major historical periods until the final level, played in the year 2001. The conquest is taken in steps, one island at a time. At the outset of each epoch, you're given a hundred men to do with as you will. Since men cannot be moved from island to island or epoch to epoch, even when conquered, it's vital that you divide your resources carefully. It may be tempting to send in ninety men in order to ensure quick and easy victory on the first island, but since this only leaves ten with which to take on the other two, it's not an advised course of action.
Islands consist of a number of independent square sectors, which join together in varying fashions to produce different shaped land masses. They differ in size and complexity, from simple two-sector countries at the outset to giant mini-continents and islands broken into smaller mini-islands. Each side (you'll always be up against at least one opponent, and as many as three) claims a sector at the outset and builds a tower filled with however many men have been allocated. From then on it's no holds barred as each side races to get that technological and strategic edge that will allow them to wipe the floor with the opposition.
Your men can be ordered to perform a wide range of tasks, from designing weapons and building factories to rampaging around looking for something to kill. However, if left to their own devices, they get down to... ahem, business of their own. Thus the number of your followers multiplies and continues to multiply until you give them something else to do.
Basically, Mega lo Mania is about war and killing, and so every sub-task that can be performed is a means to that end. In the design department, your men design weapons, both for the defence of your own land and the takeover of foreign parts. Factories and laboratories exist to build and research more elaborate weapons, and mines are built in order to extract raw materials with which to build yet more weapons. All of these operations take time and manpower however, and since they're all dependent on one another, your resources must be juggled correctly if you're to have any success. It's vital that weapons are built, since sending an army out ill-equipped is tantamount to suicide. An army armed with crossbows and catapults could easily wipe out an unarmed force three times its size!
As weapons increase in complexity and destructive potential, so does the time and labour it takes to build them. The most basic weapon, a rock, consists of just one element (bones, strangely enough), which doesn't need to be mined, and is built automatically as soon as the design and materials are available. More advanced weapons like pikes and bows require combinations of different minerals, some of which must be mined specially, and take time to design. As you advance further through time, weapons like machine guns, bazookas and even nuclear warheads appear which, while devastating in effect, require complex combinations of materials and masses of time and labour to research and construct. Without purpose-built labs and factory facilities, these more advanced weapons can't be built at all. As your research and build more tools of destruction, the "tech level" of your people increases accordingly, allowing you to move onto a new set of more advanced weapons.
Effectively, civilisation evolves into another stage, so cavemen become robed biblical characters, who become medieval men, who become Romans, who become Elizabethans, WW1 soldiers and so on through the ages. Tech levels increase at varying speeds dependent on how quickly a race is advancing, so it's not uncommon to see two armies from different time periods slugging it out. Obviously, the more advanced race has the technological, and thus strategic advantage in these encounters.
Much effort has gone into making Mega lo Mania as simple and as instinctive to play as possible. While the icon system seems a little daunting at first, automatic help boxes that appear to explain the purpose of everything you point to make things clearer, while a comprehensive library of sampled speech serves not only to add humour to the proceedings, but also to give vital aural clues - the way your design chief announces the completion of a weapon design, for instance, gives some indication as to how well that weapon has been constructed. Various other characters pop up as the game progresses, such as the Captain Mainwaring army type, who exclaims 'Tower critical' and 'It's all over!' when the battle is going particularly badly. Listen out too for the burly mine chief and Pauline, the chirpy cockney factory supervisor.
Mega lo Mania's an excellent strategy game for many of the same reasons why Populous was so good. It's simple to play, yet the strategy runs deep and is cleverly constructed. There are genuine tactics to learn and develop, and with three opponents that really are cunning and devious, there are some very tense moments. Allocating your men to the vital tasks for research, manufacture, mining and battle forms the main part of the game, since every department functions not as a whole, but part of a larger, more complex industrial machine. If one part falls behind, the whole thing can grind to a halt And while each landscape may only be a fraction of the size of a Populous or PowerMonger world it's amazing how complex and embittered the armed campaigns can get.
While the earlier epochs can be cleared quickly, towards the middle and end of the game, landscapes can be fought over for hours with battle after battle and hundreds of casualties on each side, before one side emerges victorious. Because things can be so teeth-grindingly bitter and bloody, winning is all the more satisfying - and defeat all the more painful. Fortunately the humour is there, in the form of the camp speech and text, to take the edge off things and provide some light relief.
If there is one major criticism of Mega lo Mama, it's with its longevity. It's questionable as to how long it will take to conquer all nine three island epochs, and once that's done there's unlikely to be that much incentive to return. This was never a problem with Populous and PowerMonger, simply because of the volume landscapes offered. Some kind of random epoch generator or level designer would not have gone amiss, in only to give the player an incentive to carry on once he's completed the main game.
There's very little faulting what's there, however, and given the die-hard difficulty of the later levels, you're not likely to get bored in a hurry. There's plenty to spur you on, in particular the desire to play with the awesome destructive power offered by the weapons in the later levels. In strategic terms, it's every bit as strong as Populous, while managing to offer new and genuinely innovative aspects never before see in particular the technical progression through the ages, which works brilliantly. In a nutshell, the best and most playable game of its type since Populous.
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