Dark Planet: Battle for Natrolis has a lot of nice qualities that are negated by a poor interface and bland story. Comparisons to Blizzard Entertainment's StarCraft are completely unavoidable, and the definite "been there, done that" feel to the game resulting from the close link hurts its overall effectiveness.
Natrolis is populated by the insect-like Dreil who live underground and never bother the Sorin, the planet's other race (lizards with samurai overtones). Human colonists arrive and start a war with the lizards for control of the planet, which prompts the Dreil to surface and try to take over. Unfortunately, the story has no real progression beyond this point, as you enter the war with only mission briefings to keep things moving.
You can play all three races from the beginning, each with unique strengths and weaknesses requiring consideration of unit construction and attack plans. The colonists are all about big guns and explosions, are the easiest to play, and have some nicely detailed robots with exo-armor. Human units have the most range but are the fastest to die. The creepy Dreil, with a nice mix of close combat and "magic" units, feature a variety of worm units like the Stealth Assault that burrow underground then pop up when stepped on to devour enemies. The Sorin are the most complex race in the game and have the most units, upgrades, and special abilities. Their Priest Protector units have a host of attack spells with the ability to enhance and destroy resources and protect their army.
The single-player campaign has a few puzzle-based missions, while multiplayer action features capture-the-flag- and domination-style games and a cooperative mission against the computer. Each race has its own campaign, but it's basically the same scenario played against the other two races, with the graphical interface being the only substantive difference. Icons and common menus are different for each race, and while the design adds uniqueness, having to relearn everything becomes annoying each time you play a different side, although each menu is laid out with elements in the same places. The game's leader and formation feature is supposed to boost your army's attack power and defensive ability, but is only partially effective since there's hardly any difference between leaders. Organization, though, will help protect weaker units by allowing them to perform tasks like "cocooning" bodies for resources.
Each race has one unique resource requirement -- humans need thermal energy for power, Sorin use faith for spell abilities, and Dreil need live enemy bodies to create more units. This diversity can affect playing strategy, as you have to play aggressively for the Dreil to get bodies for developing advanced units and technologies. Other resources can be used by a mix of races; for example, both colonists and Dreil require crystals for building, while the Sorin don't.
Gameplay issues include the lack of implementation of simple conventions that have been solved in various RTS games prior to this release. For example, hitting the assigned number key associated with a specific group centers the screen automatically, but you then need to pan back to the spot where you want them to attack. One of the two mini-maps lacks any function, and the other displays only a tiny portion of the world. Since no commands are available for selecting certain types of units, you have to search for them individually, and no alerts are given when a building or research is completed, costing you time during a battle as you constantly check on progress back at the main base.
In fact, most of your time is spent trying to distinguish between the different unit appearances so you can link them up with the nondescript icons and cluttered interface. The camera presents yet another problem. Even though you can zoom in and out, you never get a solid overview of the entire situation -- close ups prevent you from seeing troop positions, while expanded views make it difficult to distinguish units.
The colors, units, and environments nicely depict an alien world. Animations are good, especially watching Sorins chomp down on the enemy, but humans look a bit funny when firing. While the graphics are eye-catching, the lack of music and skimpy sound detract from the experience. The simple addition of a tone indicating completion of buildings or research would enhance gameplay immeasurably and allow you to focus on other more important elements.
Dark Planet: Battle for Natrolis could be a solid RTS if not for the lack of story and the cluttered and variant interface. Having to relearn a new set of icons and words each time you want to play a new race is daunting, and with basically the same campaign for each race, nothing makes the game stand out in the crowded field of RTS titles.
Graphics: The 3D graphics look good, and the character animations are nice. The lack of good camera perspectives makes gameplay difficult by making surroundings or units hard to distinguish depending on the close-up or faraway viewpoints, respectively.
Sound: The game lacks music and a significant sound element. The omission of an alert tone signifying completion of research or a building makes gameplay a chore. Battle sounds are standard RTS fare.
Enjoyment: The inability to call up a certain type of unit, awkward interface, and odd camera controls detract significantly from enjoyment. Most of the time is spent at your base waiting for research, building, and units to be completed.
Replay Value: There's no skirmish mode and the campaigns are exactly the same, just played from the perspective of each race. Multiplayer may bring you back, but the interface is a deterrent.
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