In the future, humankind comes to discover and colonize a planet in the relatively nearby Alpha Centauri system. This planet's similarities to our own allow its settlers to thrive. Now a "third Earth" has been discovered, near Aldebaran, about 68 light years away. As the pilot of a "Sundiver," a city-sized, mind-controlled space ship, the player leads a brave group into the unknown to colonize this new world. But the situation becomes much more complicated as, while Earth is preparing to launch this brave expedition, a strange alien race appears -- and attacks.
The deep space 3D real-time strategy Project Earth (called Starmageddon overseas) was built to offer approachable, straightforward play with all the latest developments in the genre. Players lead their brave bands of settlers to harvest resources, develop more powerful ships, and survive the vicious attacks of the enemy as they travel to their new home. For a change of pace, it's also possible to take charge of the alien forces and attempt to lead them to ultimate conquest. In addition to the single-player campaign, Project Earth is designed to support up to eight human competitors in its multiplayer modes.
Project Earth is a real-time strategy game that puts you in command of a "Sundiver" (a mothership that is controlled by the mind -- sort of like the adaptive carriers in Hostile Waters: Antaeus) on a mission of colonization. Think of them in regular RTS terms as your main command center / factory. Project Earth supports a gaming backstory as old as the first space empire game, wherein the unified races of Earth, having ventured outside of their system and begun their outward migration, attempt at settling down on a newly discovered world.
Of course, there is a fly in the ointment, and this time it comes in the form of an alien species called Daemons, who themselves are in the midst of a war against a species called the Vitechy. Conflict ensues and beautiful explosions punctuate the solemnity of cold space. A simple story, just enough to get you into a fighting mood.
Graphically, Project Earth is very pretty -- almost impressive. Actually, it is impressive in many respects. It does capture the deepness and grandeur of space as ship parts articulate well and detail abounds. Go ahead and zoom right in and watch as scanners rotate, bulkheads open, and weapons track. Environmental effects (asteroids, planetary bodies, nebulae, energy trails, etc) add nicely to the feeling of moving through space and the use of real-time particles and "physics" (a la Independence War) sets the action to graceful but deadly effect.
How does it compare to Homeworld? The effects are better here. They're much more crisp with excellent use of transparencies and some of most detailed backgrounds seen to date. Best of all, the graphics are optimized to the point where you can get all the eye-candy even on mid to lower-end machines. So, to sum up the graphics end of things, Project Earth looks very cool.
At the core of Project Earth lies a very traditional RTS. If you've clicked your way through any of the seemingly endless parade of RTS games, you'll find the concepts of left clicking to select, move and attack, harvesting / gathering / mining, building vehicles, researching technologies, and waging tactical battles to be quite familiar. Each side, and you can play two, has its own set of unit equivalents, be they offensive, defensive, or non-combative.
The Earth forces tend to derive their unit's names after classical mythology, i.e. Furies, Thanatos, etc. The Daemons get their kicks from such chthonic beings as Imps, Incubi and Succubi. The Vitechy, who can't be played but are an integral part of the storyline, use Japanese designations for their units (Keikan, Heidon, etc.). So right away you're thinking, "Only two playable races?" Yep. It would have been nice to have more options, but more doesn't always equal better. Play balance is a tricky thing and it's better to have two excellently matched sides than four or six wildly divergent ones.
In Project Earth, the Earth forces and the Daemons have the "your weaknesses are our strengths and visa versa" mode of balance, most of which centers on resource gathering from different kinds of asteroids. For instance, the Earth forces receive a 100% benefit from ice asteroids, while the Daemons get only about 10%. Harvesting from radioactive asteroids reverses the equation. All pretty standard stuff, but wait, there's also the strategic possibilities inherent in playing on multiple battlefields that are linked by Gates -- a design feature last seen in a little played, but quite interesting game, called Conquest: Frontier Wars.
Adding a 3D layer on to what's basically a 2D game increases the complexity of gameplay, if only in how one navigates and plans strategy. Homeworld offsets this partially by having the camera anchored to the unit of your choice. Project Earth comes across as a hybrid that offers complete freedom for the camera in what's identical to a first-person shooter's mouse-look perspective. You can use the mouse and keyboard in a WASD-style combination that allows for such maneuvers as "circle-strafing."
Borrowing the idea from Homeworld's expansion title Cataclysm, Project Earth offers you a single-screen view of the action. Everything you need to fight those space battles is always right before your nose. Now, although the interface of Project Earth is basically a streamlined retooling of a traditional RTS, there are a few new command and control techniques you have to master.
Life in 3D space can be downright confusing. How do you orient yourself? How can you judge distances? Where the hell are my ships? To aid in navigation and general disposition, there are two mini-screens on the upper left side of your screen. These are the radar and level map. Using your mouse-wheel or Ctrl+arrow keys you can expand the radar's coverage as shown by the map.
Another tool is your cursor which can act as a rangefinder between your position and the cursor's. By using your middle mouse button you can instantly zoom to your where you've set your cursor. By knowing the range to any unit or asteroid and clicking the cursor there, you can send pre-selected ships to that exact spot. Because of Project Earth's single-screen interface you are given two modes to play in. The default mode is for real-time selection and movement. By holding down the control key you access the locked mode, where you do all your tech research and unit building.
Some folks will find this kind of control scheme confusing, and at first glance it does look unnecessarily complex suffering from the one-too-many-clicks to do the job syndrome. It took about a half hour to get acquainted and then it was no big deal. It's actually quite simple. Almost elegant. Let's talk AI for a minute, that bugaboo of most gamers. The enemy AI is passable. Pathfinding problems aren't as noticeable as it would be with a ground-based game. What's a bit disconcerting is the lack of control you have over unit behavior or unit formations. Beyond simple aggressive or guard behavior, the initial selection or grouping of units, and attack designations, everything else is handled by the AI. For gamers used to a bit more strategic input, this will be a sore point. Casual gamers will probably welcome this simplified approach. However, two points that will not be embraced with open arms by both camps is the lack of a pause feature and the ability to save only between levels. Let's hear a big groan...
Multiplayer options include deathmatch, team play and skirmish. The skirmish option can be played much like the skirmish (or instant action) levels offered by other RTS games with you against the computer in lieu of human players.
All in all, Project Earth is equal parts cool and mediocre. Playing the game is a blast and it sure looks great. On a casual basis it offers a good time with plenty of action. On a deeper level, where most strategy gamers like to think they exist, the game suffers from oversimplification of both command and control features. It's not a dumbed-down clone of Homeworld, rather it's a streamlined cousin that looks better, plays faster, and offers more "cheap" thrills.
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