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.