Game Review - by James Allen
In the future, we humans will expand throughout the universe on a five year mission to explore strange new worlds, and apparently meet exactly two other civilizations. This is the message that comes across time after time in real time strategy games, which seem to always feature humans and two aliens races. Of course, this is probably because most RTS games are derivatives of Starcraft, so it's not that surprising. Dark Planet: Battle for Natrolis (I'm tired of these two part titles: isn't just Dark Planet enough?) weighs in on the RTS etplace, featuring three races battling for some thing that starts with a "N," I forget what it is exactly. Will Dark Planet prove to be a defining RTS title, or just another cheap Starcraft wanna-be?
As I stated in the introduction, Dark Planet has three different races: the human-like Colonists, the organic Dreil, and the magical Sorin (magical is the best I can do). These three teams can battle to the death in campaigns: a series of linked missions with specific objectives (not always kill all the other team, I'm happy to say) that are mysteriously similar for the three species. If you need to learn the game, you can use the poor tutorials: the objectives of what you are exactly to accomplish don't stay on the screen long enough (this is the beginning of the interface issues I will elaborate on later). You can also play the computer or your friends in skirmish, capture the flag, and domination games: it's interesting how shooter-type games have infiltrated their way into RTS games. I suppose that it's the continuing infusion of game genres, as the once solid lines of division become progressively more blurred and indistinguishable. Soon, there will be one game that has all the genres in it, and will lead to some long abbreviation like AARTSSRPGFPSP (action-adventure-real-time-strategy-sports-role-playing-game-first-person-shooter-puzzle). Anyways, back to Dark Planet. I like the number of different gaming modes along with the variety of the campaign objectives, and this proves to elongate the replay ability of the game. There are enough different things to do; of course, whether you can stand to do them is up to the quality of the rest of the game.
The sound in Dark Planet is the definition of a mixed bag. The environmental sounds are great, as you hear crickets during the nighttime and rain pattering on the ground (and sometimes pittering as well). The explosion effects are also very well done, encompassing all of the ear-ringing intensity you would expect for blowing up a large structure. After these two examples, however, the sound degrades quite rapidly. The unit response sounds are generic and repetitive, and the battle sounds are meager to laughable. Just listen to the sound when Sorin troops attack steel buildings: it sounds like someone is tapping their fork against a glass in a toast. It lacks any sense of significance, and doesn't reflect the fact that damage is happening to the target. It's rather strange to see such extremes in the sound department, as for most games it's either all good or all bad. Thus is the complex tapestry that is Dark Planet.
We've seen this all before, and Dark Planet: Battle for Natrolis gets no point for originality. There is not one thing that I can think of that hasn't been done in another RTS game before. In addition to that, there are several things that Dark Planet screws up that other games have done right. You know how the RTS games work by now, so I'll just touch on the specifics of Dark Planet. There are three main resources (plus energy), and each race only collects two of those three: this could be considered the only original idea in Dark Planet, but I'm sure that it's been done. You can research new technologies and upgrades and increase the capacity of your stronghold, which adds the possibility of constructing new houses. Now, on to the fun part of the review. The units have very erratic path finding: two units that start from the same place and are ordered to the same place may take two totally different paths to get there. It's not even consistently bad! Plus, units can't go through woods. Man, why did all the armies of the world bother building forts and the like when the woods kept the bad guys away? Better watch out, those trees are too close together! We might get dirty! Your troops will attack enemies units on their own, as long as they are not moving. If they pass by enemies while on a march, they just go on by like nothing is there. I suppose that I needed to research glasses for my troops. If you choose a bunch of units by using the all-familiar drag box, and want to unselect some of the units, it unselects them, but doesn't remove their portrait from the screen. Bug? Design issue? Who knows? And the most annoying error of the game: this has got to be the worst interface in any game ever. All of the options are given in small pictures that are too hard to read, and even when you get used to them, you STILL can't see which one is which. You shouldn't be hindered by the interface in the game, and Dark Planet tries it best to be difficult. You won't understand how horrifying it is unless you experience it first hand, something I discourage. In summary, Dark Planet: Battle for Natrolis regurgitates the same RTS formula seen before, but faults in several areas that actually makes Dark Planet worse.
The graphics in Dark Planet: Battle for Natrolis are some of the finest that I have ever seen in a real time strategy game; they are neck and neck with those found in Battle Realms. The units have an extraordinary amount of detail in them (assuming you can see them, as they tend of overlap frequently: no physics for us!). The structures for each race have their own distinct character: high-tech for the Colonists, organic for the Dreil, and Japanese for the Sorin (so the Sorin buildings REALLY look like Battle Realms). The environments are also very detailed: there are great water effects, swaying trees, detailed bushes and shrubs, and even mushrooms. The trees sometimes look like green blobs when you observe them from the right (wrong?) angle. You can tell the passage of daytime from the hues on the screen; as the sun sets, the map turns a cool red color, which is a very neat effect. The blood splatters are both gross and very cool: it's sickingly neat to see a hotly contested battlefield after many lives have been lost. The projectile effects are picturesque, and the lost souls are stylish. Obviously, the most attention in Dark Planet was paid to the graphics, and they sure look good.
Dark Planet: Battle for Natrolis proves that pretty graphics don't make a good game. Despite the variety in game modes and occasional great sound, the fact that nothing new to the genre is added and several things are taken away make Dark Planet a difficult game to recommend. Sure it looks good, but it plays bad. They (you know who I mean: they) say that screenshots sell games, so it's my solemn duty to inform you, the gaming public, so just take the screenshots instead of the whole game in the case of Dark Planet: it's cheaper and a whole lot less painful.