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.

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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.