Duke Nukem 3D – Nightmares and Pipe Bombs

Duke Title

Back in childhood days, computer games were usually a group activity. Two or three kids would crowd around the screen, pop in the floppy disk or tape, wait patiently for the game to load, and take turns trying to play. The emphasis was on trying, especially when those kids, used to side-scrollers on the Mega Drive, tried to play Duke Nukem 3D.

Duke Nukem 3D isn’t the friendliest introduction to first-person shooters for anyone, compared to something like Doom. Even the basic enemies hit pretty hard, so you need to either be quick to take them down, or be good at dodging bullets. If you’re still learning how to move around, this doesn’t end very well.

We were usually lucky to even make it into the cinema, often being killed in a small apartment near the entrance, not able to turn around a corner fast enough to take down the enemy standing around the bend. Not being able to aim means running out of ammo fairly quickly, and trying to storm the cinema by kicking everyone to death. Not knowing how to strafe, and only having keyboard controls rather than a mouse, had a lot to do with it. It was fun to toy with, but impossible to progress at all.

So it’s been nice to go back and try it again now I can actually play the damn thing. And what a damn thing it is. As good a game as Doom still is, Duke just has something that Doom lacks. Part of this is the level theming: much of the first episode, and all of the third and forth, take place in stereotypical cityscapes, so you raid a cinema, a bank, a police station, and the set for a film about Duke’s exploits in the previous episodes. The last two episodes in particular take this to the extreme: the forth episode is a Mission Impossible sendup, and the third boss is fought in the middle of an American Football stadium. They make a welcome change after the claustrophobic, dimly-lit, facehugger-filled spaceports of the second episode.

Another part of the theming comes from Duke’s dialogue, especially in the first episode, so enthusiastically evoking the action nonsense of the nineties that it’s impossible to take the game seriously, with Duke merrily taunting enemies he’s just blown up, or badly singing Born to be Wild in a karaoke bar, or swearing when the aliens blow up his ride. Three times. Camp was more muscular and explosion-laden in the nineties, but it definitely wasn’t dead.

One thing you notice as you play through the game, though, is the levels start becoming rather skewed when giving out ammunition. Why are the levels so liberal with pipe bombs? Explosions are great, but unless you’re up against a great crowd of enemies, which doesn’t happen overly often, they seem rather a waste. The level designer’s fondness for them is hard to decipher.

That is, until you play it on Nightmare.

Doom’s Nightmare setting is a place of hurry and panic, where the sole focus is on running through the level as quickly as possible. Duke’s, while not exactly leisurely, isn’t an enforced speed run like Doom’s is, but leaves room to breathe and think things through.

This is almost entirely because of a single difference between the two games. In Doom, every enemy comes back. In Duke, they only do so if they leave a corpse. And explosions destroy corpses.

Duke Piggy Boom

Suddenly, the dishing out of pipe bombs makes sense. Rather than running everywhere in a blind panic as you try to remember perfectly where to go, you can stop for a moment to consider whether you’ll need to come back through the area you just cleared out. If you are, put down a pipe bomb so the inhabitants can’t come back. You can now take the time for detours to grab weapons from secret areas, and can afford to not remember exactly where you’re going.

Inadvertently, this means both Doom’s and Duke Nukem 3D’s mechanics in Nightmare bring the feel of playing them closer to that of their bare-bones story.

Doom’s story is of a demonic invasion of Mars and Earth, ending in the inevitable demonic conquest of Earth. Taking this story as-is would imply a tone of panic, of the feeling that time is not on your side. However, on the lower difficulty levels, the ease with which armies of demons can be blown away, and the leisurely pace at which one can explore the levels and absorb the atmosphere and the music, give the game its natural feel of 90’s camp goriness, defying you to take it seriously. On Nightmare, though, the demonic forces come back over and over, and since ammunition is mostly picked up from the ground rather than bodies, the game becomes a panicked dash through the levels, hoping to reach the end before sheer numbers bring you down, as is fit for an inevitably victorious demonic invasion. Playing at this setting, you can almost take the story at face value, Daisy and Romero excepted.

Duke Nukem 3D, on the other hand, has its tone enhanced by Nightmare difficulty, not subverted. The basic plot, and feel, of the game are that Duke is an incomparable badass, and that, while the invading aliens are powerful and numerous, Duke’s victory is assured, through brawn and firepower. While Nightmare is still difficult, the ability to take out enemies permanently gives a sense of final victory that Doom lacks. Where Doomguy can only hope to run his way through the endless eldritch onslaught for as long as possible, Duke can take his time, confident that he can blow his enemies to Kingdom Come. He even destroys the Alien Queen herself, after all, with a pipe bomb.

Dominions 3 – Less Capitals, More Jargon

Charnel Mouse: Looking at Theocracy is delayed for now due to technical issues. On the other hand, Dominions 4 is due soon, so let’s get on with it.

Desert Eye

Year one, in the middle of Spring. Here is the map where we’ll be carving out our kingdoms, the Desert Eye. It wraps around at the edges, and has a disturbing lack of chokepoints to place Forts at for good defensive spots.

Start Position

However, I’ve been given a pretty nice start position for Marignon. A lot of my commanders will be able to sail their troops across ocean regions, and the ocean regions on this map are rather large, so the oceans to either side mean I’ll be able to move armies around my starting position quite quickly, and be able to do surprise attacks into provinces that can’t attack me back.

dreadfulpain: Let see what map he chose… oh, this one. The annoying one with no real choke points. With around 6 computer players, early fights are standard, which suits my build fine. However, I would like to turtle later to get my build going, and I’m not sure how I’m going do that. Fudge… fudge fudge fudge, Charnel can sail on this map. As if it was not annoying enough.

CM: I have three commanders at the start. Chernuble is a Captain, an army commander with the Sailing ability. Confar is a Spy, able to sneak into enemy provinces to find information about the armies there, and to cause uprisings. Finally, I have my Pretender, now with an appropriate name. Let’s meet him again.

Solomon

Solomon is going to be in charge of a lot of Goetic Masters, after all. His Attack Skill has increased due to his knowledge of Fire Magic, but his life expectancy has also been decreased. Still, I have about four hundred years before I should need to worry about that. The second icon on his row of abilities is the one I got for having such a high Dominion setting. What does it do? We’ll see in a moment.

Adding to my good starting position, Marignon is located in the middle of farmland. That means more gold income, but less resources for building troops. I’m surrounded by forests and mountains, which are the opposite. My capital, like anywhere that has a fort, can bring resources in from neighbouring provinces, so once I’ve captured some neighbouring territories I’ll have plenty of materials for army-building.

Starting Forces

My starting army consists of a few pikeneers and crossbowman. Crossbowmen are lightly armoured, and only fire every two turns in combat, but their bolts are armour-piercing. Pikeneers are decently armoured for humans, and their pikes are good for repelling attacks by enemies with low morale. It’s not much, and the pikeneers probably won’t last very long, but it should be good enough to conquer a few independent provinces.

Turn 1 Recruitment

I could do with more, though, so the first thing to do is get recruiting. Each province can recruit one commander per turn, and as many troops as I have gold and resources for. I can only recruit my unique national troops from Forts, so I’ll want to stake out some good sites to build new ones as soon as possible.

I’ve recruited a Goetic Master, since he’s the most efficient option for hiring mages to research spells. I’ve also recruited two Men-At-Arms, heavy infantry with shields, for a special purpose, and used the rest of the resources to train a few more crossbowmen. I’ll get them all next turn.

Turn 1 Orders

I can reach any of the neighbouring provinces, connected by yellow lines. However, it can be dangerous invading on the first turn, because I can’t see the neighbouring armies yet.

Chernuble’s army is therefore staying put, so I’ve ordered him to become Solomon’s prophet instead. That means he gets access to most Holy Magic in battle, he automatically spreads Dominion like Solomon does, and his hit points in combat are affected by the Dominion level in the province, also like Solomon. The main advantage for now is that he can cast Smite, so he can pick off enemies one by one instead of hanging around behind his army.

Confar goes north to start looking around for the other nations.

Solomon also doesn’t have anything to do, so he begins the research effort.

Turn 1 Research

Besides requiring a certain amount of knowledge in magic paths, such as Fire and Blood, spells are categorised into several different schools of magic, each with a loose theme. I’ll talk about the different schools of magic as I start researching them. For now I’m going for a few levels in Construction first, which means I’m ignoring battle spells, and planning to build magic items to give to my generals. It’ll also eventually lead to the items I plan to use to overrun the Desert Eye with the forces of Hell. Baby steps.

I also now know who the other nations are. For those of you who’ve played before, Ermor is not in the game, R’lyeh is, and as far as computer-led nations go the rest don’t matter. Everyone else, I’ll introduce them when they appear.

dread: Starting position is so-so, not keen but that’s more to do with the map. No real plans as yet, I recruit a Daimyo to be my prophet and send my Ninja to check out where I’d like to attack.

CM: Ninjas are the scout-like commanders for Jomon, making it one of the few nations that can recruit assassins. They’re armed with standard daggers, and they can also throw shurikens that poison whatever they hit. Given how good most troops are at accurately firing ranged weapons, I’m skeptical about how good they are as assassins before they’re given magic items.

That’s it for Turn 1. Turn 2, late Spring.

Turn 2 Messages

First, I get to sift through my junk mail. There’s not much happening yet, so all I have for now is messages from a few nations proclaiming their new prophets.

Turn 2 Territory

More interestingly, I can now see the armies in the surrounding provinces. Mostly militia to the north and southwest, mostly heavy infantry to the west, and mostly archers to the northeast. Oh, and mostly Ichtyids in the ocean, but I won’t be able to go underwater for a while. Overall, there are more heavy infantry than I’d like, but I can’t really expect a perfect start position.

We’ve also got white candles appearing, marking the spread of belief in Solomon. If you look closely, you can see the bottom of a black candle in the northeast. That’s belief in another Pretender, so I’m going to bump into another nation pretty early. I’m hoping they don’t attack on sight – I need time to build up my military.

That makes it even more important to expand quickly, so I’m sending out two separate invading parties. One will be the regular army, plus the troops I recruited, led by the prophet Chernuble Smiting from the rear. The other party will be Solomon, by himself. Yes.

Chernuble’s heading northeast: it looks like the least-defended neighbour, and his army will deal with archers more safely than our Moloch.

Solomon’s heading north to a province mostly guarded by militia. I don’t want Him getting into too much danger yet: if He gets wounded heavily enough He’s got a good chance of ending up with a permanent affliction, and some of those could render Him mute and unable to cast spells. Most of my strategy – and my design points – revolve around His magical powers, and I didn’t put any points into improving the performance of our nation in general, so if Solomon is struck dumb, I’m screwed.

Heading north also means I’m expanding towards the enemy Dominion I can see, so I can create a buffer between my capital and the forces of whichever nation that Dominion turns out to be for.

Turn 2 Recruited Goetic

Metase is the Goetic Master I recruited last turn. Goetic Masters are Marignon’s magical workhouses, with decent Fire and Blood magic – for Late Age humans – and a little skill in Priest skills and Holy magic, with a research speed of seven points per turn. I haven’t researched any decent spells to use in battle yet, so he’s tasked with research, as will be the next several Masters I recruit.

Royal Guard Stats

I’m also switching troop recruitment entirely over to Royal Guard, the heavy cavalry. They don’t have the impressive charge impact of cavalry armed with lances, but they have decent hit points, morale, defence skill, and protection, giving them good staying power, and their strength and broad swords are usually enough to take down most enemies. They’re a bit expensive on resources – at the moment I’M only recruiting one per month – but that shouldn’t be a problem once I conquer a few neighbours, and they should make up the majority of my human forces for the game, backed up by crossbowmen recruited with leftover resources. Resources can’t be stored between turns like gold can, so I might as well use the excess for something.

dread: I sent the ninja to scout a local province that had mountains, forests and farmland. I told him to assassinate the commander, but I’m not sure if it’s worth it. If I can assassinate all the commanders before my army attacks, they automatically retreat at the start of the battle, however I do not know if I should wait and build up my army or push out next turn…

Turn 2 Mercenaries

I hired some mercenaries (neutral troops that can be hired. Which ones can be hired are chosen randomly, and can be hired in any providence that you own. However, because you hire them at the end of the turn, if you lose the province during that turn you don’t get the mercenaries.) Normally they are a drain on gold however I need to push out fast, next turn once I get my prophet I’ll attack using the mercenaries as fodder. Current plan, get ninjas and a mix of archers and red devils – slightly more expensive samurai, but as it is I need resources, not gold. I’ll use the ninjas to scout and assassinate and conquer the surrounding provinces. Once I do, then I’ll check if I can see anyone else.

CM: Mercenaries start with one experience level, which increases some of their stats. They work for the highest bidder, and will go up for auction after three years of employment. The current employers get a bonus towards the amount they bid, but in the long term they still cost much more to maintain than recruited troops. They also keep any magical equipment you gave them if they go to work for someone else, and you can’t take it back off them. Still, they can be very good for quickly increasing the size of your army, or if they give access to magical paths your national mages don’t have.

On to Turn 3. I get a few more interesting items in the mail bag this time.

Turn 3 Messages Gems

We get a random event. These vary wildly in their effects, but most commonly involve finding some magical gems, or being invaded by bandits. How often events happen is affected by the Order/Turmoil and Luck/Misfortune scales, and the latter also affects are likely the events are to be good ones. Luck can be a nice way of getting additional income if you’re planning to wipe out your own population, which isn’t necessarily as stupid as it sounds.

dread: Random event, a group of zealots wish to fight for my cause. One of the many many reasons I use a lucky dominion.

We also get reports for the outcomes of the two invasions we launched. The messages give the numerical breakdown, but what would be the fun in that? Let’s just watch them.

Combat in Dominions takes some getting used to: due to the turn-based nature of the game, the developers decided that your control over your forces in battle would be rather limited. In the pictures above that showed the forces in a provinces, you might have noticed some mostly-green squares, and the phrase “set battle orders”. The green squares are where you set the starting position of commanders and army groups, so they don’t just all start together in one giant mass.

The battle orders are limited: standard troops can have one generic command that they follow for the entire battle. Commanders can have up to five turns of direct orders, than a generic command, but they are free to decide for themselves what to do turn by turn, especially when deciding which of their available spells to cast. This is all you have to work with.

Turn 3 Chernoble Deploy

From left to right, Chernuble stands with the crossbowmen, behind the pikeneers. In front of them are the two men-at-arms. The idea here is that ranged troops are usually just ordered to fire at the closest group of enemies, so most enemy fire will target the men-at-arms, whose shields will make them much more likely to deflect the missiles. I’ve got them waiting for a few turns before advancing, so hopefully they won’t overlap with the pikeneers too much and get them shot up anyway.

The independent army is a mishmash of archers – shown firing in the screenshot – and a few light and heavy infantry, led by a priest. The priest won’t be doing much, because all he can practically do is bless himself.

Turn 3 Smite

Meanwhile, Chernuble can kill people with a ray of holy power. Between being Smited, and facing a wall of pikes, the defenders soon start to run away.

Turn 3 Pikes Archers

Once the pikeneers reach the archers, the battle’s practically over. Attacking independent provinces with the support of a prophet like this is pretty standard practice, because it’s a simple and effective way to expand early.

Turn 3 Solomon Deploy

Now for an entirely different approach. Solomon contemplates how best to tackle the army defending his target.

Turn 3 Solomon Attacks

An attack from the rear seems best. Flying troops basically have no movement restrictions in combat, so I can have Solomon move straight to the rear. This is great for quickly taking down archers, or when facing armies led by a few weak commanders, as killing all the commanders makes the troops run away.

The imps that Solomon is accompanied by in battle are rather weak, and don’t last long against the heavy infantry most of them flew next to, leaving Solomon surrounded.

Turn 3 Awe

This is where the new ability for Solomon starting with a high Dominion comes in. It’s called Awe: anyone trying to attack Him in close combat has to pass a morale check. Failure is shown by troops flashing, as in the picture above. But heavy infantry surely have good morale, right? Normally, yes, but Awe interacts nicely with another of Solomon’s abilities, which is Fear. That means when Solomon first comes near anyone, there’s a chance their morale will drop. That means more attacks deflected by Awe.

Fear also means their combat group will probably have to take a morale test to not run away. That means, since Solomon can fly, that he can just land next to a big group of enemies, and either get them to flee, or attack with relative impunity.

Turn 3 Aura Burn

Add to that the fact that the defenders are quickly tiring, and occasionally being set on fire, due to the intense aura of heat radiating from Solomon, and the battle ends with almost no damage done to Him.

I mentioned a lot of technical terms, and several different ways to approach things. How do you remember all of these? Well, you don’t at first. Instead, you play several times, and try things out. Some nations and Pretenders execute different approaches better than others. Some nations are more straightforward to use than others. It sounds pretty daunting to newcomers, but the first time you play you can just compose an army of whatever troop types look good, name a prophet, research a few combat spells, and see how far it gets you.

Of course, that requires some sort of emotional hook to make you want to learn all this in the first place. I’ll begin to address that in a moment.

dread: Assassination attempt… fail. This is why I hate using assassins. If you can pump them out, you can clear neutrals easily. And using them against other players is useful, but if they are smart they will guard the important ones, and will of course know who sent them. Not sly at all.

Turn 3 Territory and Gath

CM: dread wasn’t joking when he mentioned early fighting on this map. You can see how close my capital, and that of my northeast neighbour, are. More on them later. I have some housekeeping to do first.

Turn 3 Province Defence

The first thing to do is to raise local defences in the provinces we’ve just liberated. This means we move our armies away without having to worry about having the provinces being easily recaptured. It might not be too much to worry about this early on, but there are easily accessible spells that can drop small armies into any province on the map, so some nations can quickly make use of any defensive negligence on your part.

Local defence can become expensive quickly – the cost in gold of raising the defence by one level is equal to the level it’s being raised to. That means that you start off by getting a troop or two for one gold, but by the time you get to level twenty or so, it begins to get very expensive, even with level twenty and above adding extra troops, as well as a commander mage. Here I’m raising both provinces to level ten – they won’t stand up against any serious invasion, but they’ll automatically look for enemy scouts.

Turn 3 Hall of Fame

Solomon and Chernuble have earned places on the Hall of Fame, a list of the most successful commanders to date. You can see from the nation flags that several have expanded already, but there are two commanders up there waving the flag of independent nations. I have no idea who Saeg is; Rolf Magnus is one of the mercenary commanders.

Turn 3 Prophet Heroic Ability

Non-Pretenders that make the Hall of Fame get a special ability, that gets stronger the longer they stay on it. Chernuble’s gotten an ability that makes him able to lead more men, and that makes both himself and nearby troops less likely to run away. The ability anyone gets is random – another common one is earning more hit points, in exchange for a higher encumbrance, by virtue of becoming fat. Yes, really.

Also, Solomon got enough experience to gain an experience level – increasing several of his stats – and the mercenary commander dread hired is topping the list. How delightful.

Turn 3 Recruitment

We can now recruit more cavalry at a time, because of the resources coming in from the provinces we captured. One of those provinces also had the option to recruit scout commander, so I’ll recruiting those too. Having a good idea of what’s happening nearby is invaluable.

Turn 3 Goetic Master Picks

I’m also recruiting another Goetic Master, so I should explain what I want them for at the moment. Their research speed is good, so I’ll get access to decent spells pretty quickly, but the best spells consume magical gems. We’re getting a small income of Fire, Air, and Astral gems from special buildings in our capital, but once we start making magical items we’ll need much more than we’re getting. We’ll also want blood slaves, the Blood Magic path’s equivalent of gems, which you have to send commanders to actively hunt for in your own territory.

We can increase our gem income by sending out mages to hunt for magical sites, most of which supply a gem income. For the moment we need to send out mages to do this, so I’d like to send out a mage with as much variety in magic paths as possible. Masters begin with two levels Fire and Blood, then get random additional levels as shown above: one level in Fire, Earth, Astral or Blood, then a 10% chance of another level from the same choice. I’d most like the extra Astral gems, so I’m hoping to recruit a Master with a level in Astral magic early on.

For hunting blood slaves, the competence of a slave hunter depends on their knowledge of Blood magic, to a maximum of three levels, so in the long term I’ll be pulling Masters with an extra level in Blood off the research line, into the hinterland for a good hunt.

Enough looking ahead, it’s time for a gander at the neighbours.

Turn 3 Gath Description

Gath are based on the Nephilim from Jewish mythology, or at least the interpretation where they are descended from angels. They’re particularly nasty in the Early Age. Giants are powerful. Giants in chariots the size of elephants are even more powerful. Giants in chariots, backed up by mages with access to almost all the magic paths, are ridiculous. Their only big downside is that they eat their own population, but this can be handled by moving your main research centre out of the capital. By the time of Late Age the giants depend more on the neighbouring tribes of humans, but they’re still nasty.

Really, the backstory of Gath up there is the sort of thing that gets you into Dominions in the first place. The inspirations for the different nations are really varied, with a lot of mythology in the mix, from the Aztec-inspired, subtle-as-bloody-knife Mictlan, to the many Norse-inspired nations, to the Slavic nation of Rus. This is before you delve into the spell list, the different supernatural beings that can appear, the magic items… Dominions has a lot of Stuff, and a lot of background description describing the societal structure of the different nations. It’s a fascinating world to explore, and while it might not teach me any real mythology, it certainly makes me want to go and learn some. And really, if a game makes you want to go and learn something, that’s one of the best results a designer can hope for.

Turn 3 Orders

Chernuble’s remaining pikeneers are only six-strong. I don’t think that’s enough to defend the crossbowmen against the calibre of the local defenders around these parts, so he’s marching back to Marignon to pick up Royal Guard for reinforcements. Solomon flies northwest to another weak-looking nation, and Confar is moving east to have a closer look at Gath. In particular, I want to know whether their Pretender is awake or not, because that will heavily influence how difficult any early war would be.

dread: Got my mercenary fodder. Got my random zealot fodder. Got my prophet. Let’s do this. I should really be more careful, as this will set the pace for the rest of the game. If I lose my prophet, it will be a while until I can get a new one, and also to build up another army. I’m going to hire some more mercenaries and hope.

CM: Next time, Solomon gets into trouble, more of the enemy nations show themselves, and the Great Blood Hunt begins.

Dominions 3 – Birth of a Pixellated God

Main Menu

Charnel Mouse: Oh boy, it’s Dominions 3. This is probably the game I’ve played the most over the last few years, and there’s so much of it I still haven’t seen.

Dominions takes place in a large fantasy world, where the old god, the Pantokrator, has mysteriously disappeared. This brings the world back to where it was before They appeared: a world split by warring nations, each led by a Pretender trying to destroy all the others and achieve true godhood. Let’s just say this is not a game of permanent alliances.

The main thrill of it is the absurd levels of detail and content on offer, and fascinating narrative and thematic contexts that fire the imagination far beyond what is displayed by the dated graphics. It’s the same qualities that I imagine proper wargame fans love in overwhelmingly massive hex games like War in the East.

This is going to be a series covering one game, featuring myself and dreadfulpain, plus six nations played by the computer. We probably won’t be able to cover everything, but we’ll show as much as we can. I’ll try and space things out, and spare everyone from complete information overload.

The first thing to do is to choose our nation and Pretender. The latter in particular has a lot of options, as is appropriate for the character that represents you in the game world, so I’ll just go over the ones I’m using.

Dominions games can take place in three different Ages. Generally, earlier ages have more high-magic, mystical creatures, whereas late ages are marked by dwindling magical skills and most of the nations being overrun by fast-breeding humans, as well as a lot of the nations going horribly, horribly wrong.

Marignon

This game is set in the Late Age, and I’m playing as Marignon, a feudal theocracy that split off from another faction, called Ermor, during the Middle Age. The reason for the split has a lot to do with Ermor starting to be cursed by undeath, and Marignon reacts to this in an extreme fashion, with Inquisitors and Witch Hunters leading mass purges.

dreadfulpain: The reason I suggested Late Age was that whenever I fought with Charnel Mouse in past games he would always have an advantage because he actually uses magic. I on the other hand have never mastered using battlefield magic and so chose Late Age as it is the least magical era. That being said, I always shoot myself in the foot because whenever I do play Late Age I tend to pick fairly magical races.

Jomon

Jomon is based on Japan, and uses samurai and ninjas. Late Age Jomon is the era of humans after they have gotten rid of the goblin overlords. Based on Japan and its myths, it is a fairly cool race to play. I have always (like many westerners) liked Japanese culture (which I do feel bad about as I’m part Chinese) and as we are playing Late Age it was between Jomon or Bogarus, which was based on Russia (which I also like). Both have a lot of unique summons that I enjoy, however I went with Jomon because Rus, while fun and cool had, I felt, only one decent troop type and that was their knights. The problem is those knights are still fairly weak and die too easy last time I tried them. That and Jomon can get sea units if I am lucky.

CM: dread is a bit harsh on Bogarus, I think – only having one decent troop is true for a number of factions – but they are certainly more dependent on battlefield magic than dread would like. Being able to get good sea units can be handy, because getting a good presence underwater is usually slow and painful for factions that don’t naturally live there.

dread:
Army: They have a nice mix of troops of archers and heavy infantry. Their cavalry while not amazing is not to be sneered at, and their archers are fun because they are samurai so do not suffer from melee. And of course ninjas. In game terms they are assassins that have a poison range attack that gives them the chance to poison the enemy commander at the start of the fight to increase chance of success. Not the most amazing assassins (I’ve seen Demonbred) but they are still NINJAS.

Magic: A good mix of magic paths into everything but Blood and Death. While blood is relatively useless to them, Death mages could summon the Oni from the Early Age. However the chances of getting the mage you want is pretty slim. I did the math at one point and discovered that my math has suffered… and that it’s next to impossible to get the one you want. Going to need to go down the construction path first.

CM: When you recruit a mage, they often have a random chance to get additional magical powers, and depending on a particular set can often be a long waiting game. I’ll explain this a bit more when we get into the game.

dread:
Priests: so-so, only real note is the monks. They have monks that have one magic level which allows them to cast a race specific spell depending on what type it is. Never really bothered checking them too much because they are battlefield spells >.<

CM: Having priests that also cast magic has some annoying side-effects, which I’ll be running into later on.

We’re also sticking in four random AI opponents. The AI in Dominions 3 isn’t very good: it has a bad habit of spending a lot of gold on troops in provinces it’s captured, rather than saving it for their superior national troops, so they quickly end up with large armies full of fodder, and not much else. If you can form decent armies to hold back the tides of mediocrity, you can probably win by attrition alone. Still, it should be a bit more interesting than two factions slugging at each other all game.

Marignon Deities

The choices we get for Pretender type vary by faction. Marignon refuses to have an undead Pretender for historical reasons. That’s fine, because our choice still includes dragons, a Phoenix, an Angel, a fountain that gushes blood, human mages with great magical flexibility, and a giant flaming head. The manual has a few suggestions for each faction for those starting out, but we’d like to think we vaguely know what we’re doing.

Moloch

We can’t choose undead Pretenders, but we can choose demons, as I’ve done here. By the Late Age, Marignon has switched out Witch Hunters and Paladins for Diabolists, who hold off disasters by making pacts with demons. In Dominions terms, that means most of our magic is Fire- and Blood-based, as is that of the Moloch. Choosing a demonic Pretender thus makes some thematic sense.

There are a couple of ways to go with designing Pretenders – I’ll take about them later on, when the different strategies will have some context. Our Moloch starts with two levels of Fire magic and one level of Blood magic, which will be useful for the high-level magic I’m aiming to be casting later on. He’s also decent in combat situations, with a respectable amount of Health, and high Strength for His claw melee attacks, so He’ll have something to do until I have the resources for Him to use His magical skills. For reference, a standard human has a value of 10 in the eight stats that run from Hit points to Precision.

Magic

I’m spending a bunch of points increasing the Moloch’s power in His magical paths. Fire magic is great for lots of destructive magic and raining fire down on everything. Blood Magic is a strange one: lots of rulers have banned it. The other magical paths all derive their power from Astral Magic and the magic naturally present in the world, but Blood Magic is fuelled by sacrificing Blood Slaves, young virgins you have to actively hunt for inside your own territory. It has some really nasty battle magic and a lot of ways to summon various demons. Have I talked about demons enough yet? Just as scary is its ability to let you summon Horrors, astral beings that rip into the physical plane and tear everything to shreds. We are not going for a sympathetic Deity here.

The Oni dread mentioned above, as well as being worryingly powerful, are summoned with a spell unique to Jomon – it’s surprising just how many factions have faction-unique spells that use magic paths their mages don’t have access to. A common way to counteract this is to make sure your Pretender can cast it.

I’ve spent points to increase the Moloch’s magical paths quite a bit – again, with the late-game spells in mind. The “Strength+2” on the bottom appeared because of His high skill in Blood magic: it’s a stat boost that any Sacred troops will get in combat if they’re blessed by a priest. Most of the Sacred troops I’ll be using will be mages, so this won’t have much effect.

dread is keeping his Pretender and magic choices close to his chest.

Scales

Everything apart from Dominion Strength on this screen are Scales that affect your entire nation, instead of your Pretender specifically. I’m not doing anything with them here, so I’ll let dreadful talk about these. All I’ve done here is increase our Dominion strength to a whopping nine. Apart from making belief in our Moloch spread incredibly fast, getting it up to nine gives Him a nice combat ability I’ll mention when it gets used.

That’s it for Pretender design. There are a lot more options here that I’m glossing over – I’ll address them when we meet a nation where they’re relevant.

dread:
Scales: Scales are bonuses/handicaps that affect provinces under your dominion. It does not matter if you own that province or not, as long as they believe. If you are not careful you could end up giving other races bonuses from your scales or suffer handicaps from their scales. What can be affected are

Order/Turmoil: affects income and chances of random events.

Productivity/Sloth: affects resources production and income (but not as much as order/turmoil)

Heat/Cold: each step away from a race’s ideal level reduces income and supplies.

Growth/Death: population growth/death, supplies and income.

Fortune/Misfortune: chance of random events and chance that those events are good/bad.

Magic/Drain: spell resistance , spell fatigue and research bonuses.

Each level in the good scales costs points in pretender design. While each level in bad scales gives points. So by giving yourself good scales you tend to end up with a weak pretender or by giving yourself bad scales you could make a really powerful one. It is about finding the right balance or play style that you want. Heat/cold is considered bad scales either way so if you change from the middle, even if you race prefers a different temperature, it will give you points.

CM: Yes, that means factions that prefer a climate different to the average one effectively get free points. It’s alright for some.

dread: For me I tend to go Turmoil and Fortune. They cancel each other out point wise and I prefer having random good events. Sometimes I could end up with more money than the income bonus anyway but it is a more risky play style. You could get really good bonuses right off the bat or you could even get bad luck. I prefer the good events because some of them are gold, items, province defence, or even unique heroes that you can only get through luck.

Productivity is important if your race has a lot of heavy troops or you plan on making really big armies fast. The amount of troops you make depends on whether you have enough money for them then the amount of resources that province gets a turn vs. the amount of recourses it take to make them. If you have a lot of gold but not much resources you can buy a big army but it will take a long time to make them.

Growth is good because it slowly increases the population in a province which increases the stats of the province overall. It is also important to feed big armies. If the army cannot be fed it will starve, which reduces their fighting abilities and can cause diseases which slowly kills them off.

Magic/Drain really depends on your play style. Do you want a lot of magic or not? If not then go drain, because while it makes it harder for you to cast and research spells it also gives your troops bonus magic resistance and more points to put elsewhere in your pretender design.

CM: Scales work slightly differently if your Dominion is over a province owned by someone else. I’ll get to that as we go.

12 Plot 1

13 Plot 2

This plot dialogue appears at the start of every game. Seems a good place to take a break. Next time, we have a look at the map, and take our first steps towards overrunning the world with the armies of Hell.

Perimeter – The Scourge and Wrapup

This series is dragging, let’s finish it.

The main problem faced with traversing the Chain – according to the narrative, at least – is that the presence of humans triggers the appearance of the Scourge, a vast array of alien beings that head straight for your base to destroy the Frame. The Spirits think that they are the physical manifestation of people’s nightmares.

Scourge

In theory, it’s an interesting aspect of the setting. In practice, the people living in the Frames have some very unimaginative dreams, and those dreams are consistently unimaginative for several hundred years. Also unexplained is why no one has nightmares during a battle with another Frame. Battling via remote-controlled robots creates a lot of adrenaline, I guess.

Maps involving Scourge rather than other Frames are an exercise in tedium. The Scourge come in large numbers, and are more time-consuming to take down than they are challenging. Since they frequently respawn, these maps just become a long grind to the objective. What was their purpose? It’s possible they were included to give a break from the Frame missions, but the length of them undermines this.

Even worse is the map with no enemies at all, where the mission is to move your frame to the portal at the other end of the map, endlessly retreating when a volcano appears, covering it, and moving on again. And no, you can’t just make a run for it. I showed what one volcano in the last spotlight. Imagine having to move right over three or five of them.

Between these and the tendency of later missions against enemy Frames to be brutally unfair lessons in your ability to save every time something goes wrong, the campaign becomes frustrating in the latter stages. I’ll be honest, the reason I took so long to finish this is that the sudden difficulty spikes burnt me out – not because I couldn’t get through them, but because I had no incentive to do so. I reached the last mission when I played this game before, but now I don’t have the patience. I’m going to sum up my feelings on the game, and move on.

Wrapup

Logo

When Perimeter came out, the marketing was a-gush about how it was going to change the RTS genre with its new ideas. They were excited about how the units worked, and about how many polygons the engine could deal with for the terrain manipulation. The game box itself subtitled the name with “Real Time Strategy Reborn”, and that’s how it appears throughout the game itself. It might not be as tediously unnecessary as most subtitles are these days, but it’s a lot more arrogant.

The claimed changes to the genre obviously haven’t happened. Why?

The first reason is simply that units that change types repeatedly aren’t appropriate for most of the milieu that strategy games take place in. Many strategy games involve armies comprised of people, and people are usually given rather specialised training: you’re not going to see a bunch of ground squaddies suddenly start flying a squadron of Lancaster bombers.

The second reason is similar: the terrain modifying. I talked before about what a nice concept this was, but its implementation left much to be desired. The textured terrain appears oddly stretched after being morphed, which doesn’t give any favours to a game which is pretty drab in appearance to begin with.

To sum Perimeter up, it had some interesting ideas, but the gameplay was not what it could have been. If the ideas sound interesting to toy with, it could be worth a look.

"That's all we get, huh?"

“That’s all we get, huh?”

So this first series ends with a whimper. I might come back to it some day, but for now we’ll press on. Next up is Theocracy. I’ve also started a game of Dominions 3 by email with a friend, so we’ll start posting about that once we can start discussing our strategies without showing our hands to each other.

Perimeter – Puzzle Maps, Conveyance and the Exodus

Did You Say PUZZLE MAPS?

Asking a strategy gamer what they think of puzzle maps is like asking a tabletop roleplaying gamer about their opinion on railroading. The responses will vary massively.

For those not familiar with the term, a puzzle map is when the game’s campaign contains a segment in which there is a single planned solution, and while the player can approach the problem however they like, they won’t be able to solve it without finding the one approach the scenario designer had in mind.

On the one hand, puzzle maps are useful for focusing on specific parts of the game’s system to teach the player how to use them, such as different types of unit. They encourage the player to be flexible, rather that sinking into a rut of using the same strategy over and over. They force the player to slow down and consider strategies rather than playing through on autopilot, making the scenarios more memorable due to the time spent thinking about them. Strategy games can benefit from linear map design just as much as any other genre.

On the other hand, puzzle maps are horrible because they mean the campaign has no replayability – once it’s solved, it’s solved. Their tendency to focus on a single solution means the map focuses on gameplay that was created specifically for the puzzle, when it should be focusing on showing off the game’s intrinsic mechanics. Puzzles also exacerbate the habit of campaigns to give a false impression of how to play the game well. Why are you wasting your time on the campaign, anyway? They always teach you bad play habits and the stories are usually terrible and poorly paced. If you’re a solo-only strategy fan, you’ll have to sift through a lot of dreck.

This argument can go round forever, because ultimately there are players that want to experiment and do as they please, and there are those who prefer linear, tightly focused games with scenarios laid out by the designers in a test of your skill, and your opinion will vary depending on your preference on this sliding scale and why you play games in the first place.

Early Perimeter maps aren’t exactly puzzle maps: they’re not impossible if you tackle them in a different way to that indicated. But they’re a lot easier if you do, especially early on when you may not have many viable options.

For example, you can build units on Krugh, but you don’t really have anything good at taking down buildings – you have access to Subterra, but so do they, and they start with the lab and anti-subterra turrets, so that won’t get you far – and the enemy quickly gets a level 3 Bomb Lab for building howitzers.

Howitzers that aren’t taken down quickly are incredibly irritating, because they will pound away at your buildings from long range, and all you can do is suck up the damage, suck up the energy cost of repairs or protection from the Perimeter, and hope you can take them down quickly. Given the objective on Krugh is to keep your energy income high to charge your Frame’s Spiral and pass through the Portal, this map can quickly go horribly wrong.

So, what do you do? You behave like a good little Legate and do what you’re advised to do.

Orders1

Orders2

I mentioned back in the post on buildings that Cores could capture each other. This map introduces the concept, and it constitutes a large portion of your activity. You build a few Cores, build some within range of both your own and those of the enemy under cover of your Perimeter, raise their shield once built to capture the ones next to them, repeat a few times, then sit back and wait for your Spiral to charge. The end. You’ll never even see units from the other Frame.

So why does this map cause difficulties? Well, the game might tell you what to do, but it certainly doesn’t tell you how to do it.

I could complain here about how the problem is that nobody reads manuals any more, but while it does state how to capture Cores with the Perimeter, in other cases reading the manual won’t necessarily help.

Where Did All My Energy Go?

The most annoying aspect of playing Perimeter is that it’s very opaque about some parts of the game. Here’s the info panel you get when you hover the mouse over a unit.

Info Panel

That list of viable targets gets the job done, but isn’t great to use, being a great slab of homogenous text. What do those two Damage numbers mean? I’m guessing they’re damage and health. Or maybe they’re to do with how much energy the units need to fire. I have no idea, because neither the game nor the manual feels like telling me. The manual doesn’t mention them at all, in fact. And what does that Armor level actually do?

Manual

What the manual does explain is which units are good at what. The game occasionally mentions this when a unit is introduced for the next map’s gimmick, but a lot of units are never mentioned at all when they turn up, and the tooltips aren’t giving anything away. Mention strengths in the info panel? Screw that, people should read the manual.

At least you can get a feel for units’ strengths by using them. The first few times you run out of Energy, you probably won’t know why. Everything is Energy in this game. You use it to build buildings and units. You use it to charge a squad’s Charge Meter so its units can morph into something else. You use it to keep your Perimeter up. You use it to charge your Big Cannon, whatever that happens to do. More crucially, you use it to repair buildings and make your turrets and units fire. Given how often you’ll have enemies within turret range, and how often your buildings will be getting hurt by terrain damage, it can be very easy to find your Energy quickly dropping for no reason you can easily fathom.

At its worst, this means a single-player mission can quickly become an exercise in reloading over and over again. Their Howitzers went up before yours? I hope you have a lot of Energy and a plan to get rid of it quickly, otherwise you’re quickly going to lose all your Energy trying to repair whatever it’s launching shells at. Oh, and that means you have nothing to fire back with, or to raise your Perimeter. One of the first standard tactics you learn in Skirmish is to build a Bomb Lab and upgrade it as quickly as possible to get access to Howitzers. In a game where the emphasis is on aggressively using units to take down the enemy base, Howitzers let you do the same thing by building them and waiting for a while.

Unit Spotlight: Exodus Units

Exodus

Each faction has their own special Lab, that gives them access to four unique units and a unique Big Cannon. As we go through the game I’ll be looking at each of the factions, and comment on how it contributes to the feel of that faction in the story.

Exodus is the original faction, the ones who keep their faith in the Spirits and the promise of a new Eden. Their logo is shown above, and blatantly contains the Square and Compasses. I’m not sure what they’re implying.

Exodus Form

Despite being borderline religious fanatics, the Exodus are fairly forgiving – in early encounters with the Empire they choose to withdraw, and they block the Harkback from going down the Chain instead of destroying them, to give them a chance to repent. Given this and their faith in the existence of Eden, this means that they spend more time than anyone else exploring new worlds, and dealing with the Scourge instead of other humans.

Most of their unique units are introduced as ways to deal with the native aliens – the Scourge – rather than Humans, while the other two factions almost completely focus on Frame-vs-Frame combat. Their attacks are often indirect, damaging the landscape rather than directly attacking units.

Splitter

The first unit is solely for taking down buildings, by making huge cracks in the ground. How’s that helpful against the Scourge? The Scourge sometimes build large nests, out of which they’ll spit in large numbers until the nest is destroyed. Rather than a constant all-out assault, you can undermine it with a few cracks in the ground, and then leave it to gradually fall apart.

A Level Two Exodus lab gets you two units – one takes out units by firing tornados at them, which is great against air and subterra units, and the other one is a flying units that fires solar beams at the ground, burning up units and heating up the terrain, damaging subterra units while it’s at it. They’re both great at dealing with Scourge in the massive groups they’re beginning to band into at this point in the campaign.

Twister

Heater

Their use against other Frames is more questionable. the air unit is very vulnerable for such an expensive unit, and despite looking like an offensive weapon, they’re as bad at fighting with support from other units as the rest of the Exodus units. The tornado machine can do good damage to large groups of weak units, and has the advantage that it can fire invulnerable tornadoes through the Perimeter, but the random way in which the tornado moves after its initial firing makes it hard to use optimally, as this requires firing at something deep inside the enemy base, so it will still damage buildings when it starts spiralling.

Finally, the really offensive one, the Scum Thrower.

Thrower

This is essentially a giant moving catapult that fires huge balls of earth at things, doing a lot of damage at the point it lands and making modest holes. I don’t have much to say about this one, because there isn’t much else to it: it’s a siege weapon that does good damage and can take a good beating, but can be blocked by the Perimeter. It’s useful, but nothing spectacular.

Each faction has a Big Cannon, which needs a lot of Energy to fire and takes a long time to recharge. In the Exodus’s case we have the Scum Disruptor.

Disruptor

I’d never used this before picking the game up for this, so I assumed it just made a huge crack in the ground like the Scum Splitters. It’s way better than that. It makes a volcano.

DisruptShot1
DisruptShot2
DisruptShot3
DisruptShot4

Those fireballs go through the Perimeter, too.

In summary, the Exodus units are all about making big holes in the ground and destroying buildings by taking out their foundations, an odd speciality for a faction using the same symbol as the Freemasons. I wouldn’t exactly call it passive, but it’s a pretty indirect approach to things, and makes a good demonstration of what Perimeter does with its terrain engine.

Next time, we’ll look at how the Scourge were a wasted idea, and how the Harkback control your nightmares.

Perimeter – Campaign and Setting

This post was originally going to be a lot longer, but I’ve cut out several sections and am going to come back to them later. This mostly because Perimeter is a pain in the neck when it comes to taking screenshots: it has an inbuilt screenshot function, but only works when inside the game engine. I need to use a separate program, Fraps, to take screenshots of campaign screen and menus, and another program to take screenshots of cutscenes, since the player for watching them isn’t fullscreen so Fraps can’t use it. It’s a mess.

So far I’ve been looking at the mechanics of the game. What about theme? What about story?

The basic plot goes like this: at the start of the game, humanity is about a quarter-century into the Exodus, a mass-migration of all mankind from the three worlds it habitated – the Root Worlds – inside vast moving cities called Frames. The Frames travel through portals to new worlds in a large network of planets called the Chain in search of Eden, the supposed paradise at the Chain’s end. The Exodus was begun by the appearance of the Spirits, who claimed to have created Mankind and the Root Worlds, and spoke of an Eden, convincing mankind to go in search of it. They also claim that the Root Worlds have collapsed after they were emptied, leaving no way to go but forwards.

Spirit Portal

The Spirits look like Humans, and it’s left ambiguous as to whether they’re some sort of alien, or a group of humans with high mental capabilities. Either way, they were persuasive enough to force all of mankind to take part in all of this, and they’re needed to construct Alpha Portals for interdimensional travel.

The player is pretty detached from the story: each Frame has a designated Legate that takes command during a combat situation, and you take the persona of the Legate for whichever Frame the story focuses on for that mission.

The first thing to say about the campaign is that it focuses more on the large-scale narrative of what happens to each Frame rather than on specific characters. Instead of conversations between different personalities between missions à la Starcraft, you have an aloof briefing given to yourself as Legate. Is that a flaw? Giving different Frames a personality would be an odd way to communicate the tale of a ship that houses an entire ninth of the human population. These are not small communities which will be led by a small council, they are massive superpowers that are physically insulated from the outside world and under attack from the manifestations of the nightmares of their people.

It does mean that you’re not going to have a particularly strong emotional connection, so if you look rooting for individuals this isn’t your game. The only individuals you see, with one exception, are in the video clips. The Spirit lifting the Portal above is a recurring character, and spends most of the rest of the time looking around with a bored expression on his face, as if he’s seen this all before. The video clips are also the only time you see humans, where they’re shown remotely controlling the combat units.

Human

Soldiers

They’re the only place you’ll see Basics kicking ass.

The story takes place over hundreds of years, so it’s ambitious, at least, with an interesting setting. How much do they do with it? Let’s see as we go.

As far as the actual missions go, the campaign can roughly be split into two parts. The first part gradually introduces the concepts and units of the game one or two at a time. The second part is a tortuous series of missions where the opponent will begin with more and more of the map, and you’ll begin with almost nothing.

When I say the first part introduces things one at a time, I mean one at a time. You can’t even build units until the third mission! The Spirits give them to you as a sacred technology, marking the confirmation of your status as Legate. Of the first two times you face another Frame, the first one requires almost no conflict at all, and in the second one you spend most of it defending, snatching the odd Core by covering it with the Perimeter, and building up enough Energy reserves that you can run away.

This second one takes place on a planet called Krugh: a quick look around the Perimeter forum over at GOG.com shows it’s the mission where a fair few people quit, because that’s when the game became hard or nonobvious. It’s a good point to start looking at particular missions, as it gives a simple example of how the first part of the campaign works.

Next time, we’ll look at the usefulness of puzzle maps in campaigns, and shine a spotlight at the Exodus’s unique units.

Perimeter – Buildings, or Situation Excellent, I Shall Attack

Last time I mentioned that units are cheap to build. They’re also fast to build once you get a few buildings up. Units are disposable things that come and go, so the game usually comes down to aggressively attacking buildings rather than whose army is left standing after a series of skirmishes. So how does squad vs. building combat work out?

By needing to be very aggressive. Despite the interesting things Perimeter does with its buildings, it is not a game where you can put up some fortifications, relax and build things to your heart’s content.

This mostly comes down to needing flat ground to build on. At the beginning of a game, you’ll have a small amount of levelled terrain near the Frame, your massive colony ship and the objective for your opponents. Apart from that, the rest tends to be rather bumpy. For example, look at this map, coincidentally in the shape of a giant fish, scales and all.

Fish

You need to flatten the rest of the ground yourself to be able to build on it. This is done by Brigadiers, hovercars maintaining a small army of hovering drones that shape the land by eating it and dumping it elsewhere. You can also build ditches by lowering the terrain until it hits the abyss below, which damages anything moving across it. Basically, the map is completely deformable. It’s quite cool, and the landscape morphs very smoothly without any jagged edges due to the engine using voxels rather than polygons, but because the engine is having to track the height of the entire map, the game is more of a systems hog than it looks.

The converse of needing flat ground to build on is that if the land underneath a building becomes uneven, it starts taking damage over time. Your announcer will take great pleasure in telling you this every couple of seconds. It’s a pain to sort out: your builders – called Buildmasters – will continually pour energy into the building to repair it until your Brigadiers even out the ground. That’s energy you could have spent on building Labs, units, turrets, or anything else.

By that point, the ground’s probably been taken out from about three other buildings by whatever’s attacking you. Then one of them runs out of health and collapses, making a nice crater that damages anything next to it, and so on in a vicious cycle. If those craters reach an Energy Core, the tall towers that power buildings close to them, you’re in even more trouble, as you’re in danger of losing power to buildings around them. Combine this with the fact that Buildmasters and Brigadiers are both under the same tight unit limit, and this can become a real headache, so you want to minimise the amount of terrain damage you’re taking as much as possible.

One obvious way to limit it is by fending off enemy attackers with units of your own. The other way is by fortifications.

Almost any strategy game will have fortifications of some sort. Even in something as fast and aggressive as Starcraft, turrets supporting your army can help you fend off an attacking force larger than yours. What you don’t see as much of these days is walls.

Walls have an odd role in strategy games: they can block off paths for enemies, yes, but they’re vulnerable to siege weapons, and towers built behind the walls usually don’t have enough range to shoot back at them. This means that walls are more useful for slowing down an attacker, or for funnelling them into “killzones”, than they are for outright rebuttals. They’re also a pain in the neck to build properly: it’s all too easy to build a wall between two cliffs, then find out you missed off a tiny section that units can pass through.

This difficulty in building the ultimate defence isn’t really a bad thing: if you could build fortifications that were tough to crack, a game could quickly devolve into an endless slugging match between two impregnable fortresses. Total Annihilation springs to mind: the walls are almost indestructible, some towers are gargantuan siege cannons that can attack the other side of the map, and the Energy needed to power those towers can pretty much be gathered from anywhere.

Perimeter’s walls get around these problems.

Perimetera

That big shiny glowing morass is the eponymous Perimeter. You flip a switch on some or all of your Energy Cores, and up it goes. Nothing can fire through it – including yourself – and enemies that try to move through it will blow up in short order. It’s almost the perfect defence, but having the entire shield up burns through your energy really quickly, so often you’ll be turning Energy Cores on and off as attackers change targets rather than putting up the whole thing.

Perimeterb

It also introduces walls as an offensive tool. If the area powered by a Core contains another Core, then raising the shield on one protects the other. If it’s yours, that is. If it’s your enemy’s, you capture that Core, as well as the buildings it’s powering – turrets, labs, everything. Capture all the enemy’s Cores, and you can even capture their Frame instead of having to destroy it.

There’s a much faster way to capture buildings, though.

CapturePlan

Here we’re playing one of the early campaign maps where there’s a good opportunity to capture the entire southern wing of the enemy base. When you build Energy Cores, they link up to a nearby Core and try to form a chain back to the Frame. If they can’t, they lose power and shutdown. Whoever powers them up gains control.

CaptureAll

If you can find a weak link in the chain, you can power down whole sections of an enemy’s base and take them for yourself before they’ve realised what’s happening.

Now that I’ve started using examples from the campaign, I should stop before I get too ahead of myself. We’ll start looking at how the campaign plays out next time.

Unit Spotlight: Underground Units

I said the Perimeter blocks everything from passing through. That’s not quite true: underground units can go underneath. There are only two of them, but that’s all you really need. The first one can’t buildings, or land underneath them. Whatever. Here is the second one, the Scumer:

Scumers Above

It burrows under the enemy base and chews up their land, causing damage both instantly and over time to the buildings above it. That’s a pain in the neck for the reasons I described above. The other reason they’re annoying is how you get rid of them:

Scumers Below

That round structure next to the Scumers is the game’s underground turret. It fires slowly, the missiles take time to hit, and the turrets are fairly large, so you can’t build too many of them and they can be tricky to fit into your base. You might destroy the Scumers, but they can do a lot of damage before that and generally annoy the hell out of you. If nothing else, they keep you distracted while the enemy assembles something better.

But you can just take them out with units instead, right? Sort of. Below is the Extirpator, your only anti-subterranean unit. It’s a lot nastier, but they use a lot of Energy when firing, and if you’re attacking Scumers inside your base it can backfire.

Extirpators

Look at the crater it leaves! Exactly the sort of thing you want to make next to your own buildings. In short, you’d better hope you can intercept Scumers before they reach your base, otherwise you can look forward to a few minutes of nonstop irritation.

Later on in the battle, you can bring enough Energy in to attack with the Extirpators instead, as I’m doing above. You’ve seen how much damage they can do to buildings. Add in the fact that they can also fire at buildings from the other side of the Perimeter, and they can be very nasty indeed.

I’ll talk about others turrets as and if they come up. Next time we’ll stop guffing about game mechanics, and start looking at the campaign. We’ll take a look at the universe the game takes place in, the different factions involved, and tutorials in campaigns. We’ll also start looking at some missions in detail rather than making more sweeping generalizations.

Perimeter – Units and the Irksome World of Numbers

The traditional real-time strategy game goes something like this: you gather resources. You build some buildings. These buildings produce different types of military unit to smack your opponent over the head with a wet fish.

Different units have weaknesses to different types of fish. This leads to manuals and helpsites displaying them in messy diagrams with lots of arrows on them, like a food web where the alpha predators are eaten by the Sun.

You need to work out what types of fish you need ahead of time, make sure you have the resources and breeding pools for it, make sure you have the resources for the breeding pool, make sure your opponent isn’t getting the fish that can cave in your units’ skulls, and so on.

Perimeter thinks this is far too much planning for such a simple pleasure as giving someone a good fish-whacking, and you should be able to take a mackerel and a few salmon and turn them into a tuna that summons sharks.

Unfortunately, Perimeter is a bit of a numbers nerd when it comes to terms like “a few salmon”.

There are three types of units you build, called the Basics. Soldiers shoot. Officers suppress enemy fire. Technicians heal things. None of this matters much, because you will seldom use them as they are, they die if something so much as breathes at them and their production cost is almost nothing.

Basic Units

Here a Soldier and a Technician stand on a large tree trunk, while an Officer flies into position from above. Those flaps on the Officer lift up when it goes into the air – it’s a nice detail, considering that if you’re not zoomed in like this these units are barely visible.

When you have a squad selected you get a small group of panels, each with a different unit on them. Each unit requires you to have built different types of Weapons Labs. Once you have those Labs, you can turn the squad into that type of unit. For example, a Laser lab lets you use Snipers. Snipers are listed as requiring 3 Officers each. What does that mean? It means if the squad has a couple of Officers, they will break down and combine like this:

MorphAll

Snipers

You get one Sniper per three Officers. They have decent range and they hit things faster than the basic soldier. They’re pretty decent all round. Alternatively, you could build a different lab and convert Soldiers into Rockers, mobile missile launchers that can attack buildings and are much better at taking out anything in the air.

Let’s say you want the unit that summons sharks. That wasn’t just an awkward metaphor – there is a unit that does this. They’re in the green circles at the back:

Sharks

Sharks are pretty nifty to watch and great for taking down buildings. What Basics do you need to make them? Let’s mouse over the panel.

SharkTip

This is where Perimeter can be hard to get used to. Each of the Combo units require a certain ratio of Basics each – Basics left over in a squad effectively disappear. They still count towards totals and will reappear if you break the squad back into Basics, but for fighting they might as well not be there. You’re also never going to have many of the really powerful units, because they need a lot of Basics and the limit on how many Basics you can have at the same time is quite tight. Even worse, some of them can’t fight by themselves very well and will need support.

This means Perimeter takes the forward planning you’d normally do for your opening in the game and spreads it over the entire battle. Starting build orders aren’t that complicated, but you’re never going to be in the position where you’re gathering resources quickly enough to build units without paying too much attention – you’ll always have to keep track of how many of each Basic you have where.

However, the tradeoff is that you have a lot of flexibility. If the enemy base is susceptible to a certain type of attack, morph into something that uses it and in you go. If the enemy brings over defenders good at countering your attackers, morph into something else and run away. There’s a limit to how frequently you can switch around, but it’s a very different dynamic to the traditional strategy of “Focus on two types of unit and make as many of them as you can”. There’s also room to bluff the contents of your squads, even when they’re in plain sight. “I can counter that squad at the moment, but if they’ve got some extra Technicians hiding in there they could turn into something that will wipe the floor with me!” You get the idea.

So much for units. I’ll probably come back and spotlight some of the more interesting ones as we go. Next up, we’ll look at buildings, why this game is called Perimeter, underground units irritating everyone, and how destroying one building can let you capture half of your opponent’s base.

Off We Go

I haven’t had much time to play games recently. This means it’s the perfect time for me to start up a gaming blog. No, hang on, I’ll start again.

Games have had a major presence in my life over the years: from watching my dad play Doom and mucking around with his old BBC Micro and Acorn Atom, to being the snobbish, self-serious strategy/roguelike fan I am today, games have taken up a lot of my time, much more than music or television. Thus, I could talk your head off about the intricacies of the plot of some obscure game that came out when I was two, but I probably haven’t seen that TV series you thought was a compulsory part of a ’90s childhood.

Most games – most good games – require your active attention, so these days it’s harder for me to find the time to sit down and play through the pile of unplayed games I’ve accumulated. This blog is an experiment in getting myself to a) play the damn things, and b) start writing again.

Most of the games I’ll be playing are quite old, but most of them are also off the beaten path a bit, so hopefully this will be interesting to someone.

First off, I’ll be looking at Perimeter, a science fiction strategy title from 2004. I have played this one before, but it’s been a while and it seemed as good a starting game as any. It’ll possibly involve talking about map terrain, puzzle maps in strategy campaigns, having to work out unit ratios at the same time as your buildings are on fire, plots with gaping chasms in them, voice prompts that never shut up, and unhelpful tooltips/manuals. After that we’ll miss being vaguely topical by a couple of months, and play Theocracy (2000) to help the tribes of Central America prevent armageddon.