Reviewed: May 10, 2002
Released: March 5, 2002
If you would have asked me a few months ago what genre was overly saturated with games I would have said, “Why, first-person shooters, of course”. But the computer game industry is always in motion with developers and publishers trying to capitalize on what they perceive to be the “flavor of the month”. Take a look at any software store’s section of new releases and you can bet that over half of them are RTS games.
Real-time strategy became popular after several key releases such as Command & Conquer and StarCraft. Gamers scrambled to buy every RTS game they could find and developers rushed as many as they could out the studio door. Of course, this meant many of these titles were either lackluster clones of existing games or simply poor games in and of themselves.
When a genre becomes as flooded with product, as RTS has become, gamers and reviewers alike become overly critical of every new game that is released. Now the pressure is really on for developers to come up with some interesting twist or new concept to make their game stand out and above the rest of the competition.
Dark Planet: Battle for Natrolis manages to excel in several areas of design including multiplayer and graphics, but it fails miserably on just about every other level. My first big complaint is the total lack of story to get the gamer involved with the game. Perhaps there is some background info in the manual, but my review copy didn’t come with a manual. There was an awesome opening movie that showed the three races engaged in some cool combat in a jungle setting, but it told nothing of the races themselves or the reason for the conflict.
What little story I could derive from the game’s website basically has the humans pillaging the planet, Natrolis for all its natural resources. The indigenous life on Natrolis is called the Sorin, and in an attempt to drive off the human invaders they have recruited the Dreil to aid them in their battle. If that’s enough story to keep you going through a dozen or so missions then good for you. Aside from what I just told you, there is little more story to be told, either through between-mission cutscenes or even during the minimal missions briefings.
Dark Planet features three unique races, each with their own strengths and weaknesses that you must learn to capitalize on and exploit. While the novelty of playing as human invaders might seem attractive at first, the humans are generally the weakest of the three groups. They rely on ranged attacks and will die quickly when forced to fight in close combat.
Of course there is the requisite need to mine resources so you can create and upgrade your armies. These resources are unique to each race and some are easier to find that others. There is an overwhelming selection of upgrades you can pick for each species, and it can become quite confusing at times.
There are some advanced features in Dark Planet like troop formations and even the use of a commander or leader figure. Supposedly, if you have one of these leaders with your group they are supposed to fight better. I found no obvious advantages to using either leaders or the various formations; especially in light of the difficult game interface.
Dark Planet has my vote for “Worst Interface of 2002”. With so many RTS games before it, I cannot fathom why Edgies released this game with its current control system. Let’s begin with the unit grouping function. We’ll start with the obvious limitation of only being able to create 6 groups. No other functions are assigned to 7-0, so this is a totally arbitrary decision on the designer’s part.
As any RTS gamer will tell you, you group your units and assign them a number, then you can call up that group by tapping that number. Dark Planet destroys this concept by switching to your desired unit after only a single tap of that number – not two - then centering the map on the designated unit. This is not only very presumptuous of the control scheme; it is downright counterproductive to gameplay.
Let’s say my screen is centered on an enemy base I want to assault with three previously created unit groups I have hidden off screen around the perimeter of the base. In most RTS games I could select my unit then click on their target destination; let’s say the command bunker, and they would start moving. In Dark Planet as soon as I select my unit the screen moves and centers on that group.
Now I must pan back to the target I wanted them to attack and click, then repeat the process for any other units I want to attack this target. And speaking of panning around the map; this is the first RTS game I know of that doesn’t allow you to click on the mini-map and instantly go to that section of the big map. This has been a standard convention since the RTS genre was born back in the 90’s.
And if controlling your units wasn’t difficult enough, Edgies has tossed in a camera system that rivals the control scheme in pure frustration. In a modern 3D RTS game one would expect full 3D camera control including pan, tilt, and zoom. Not so in Dark Planet. You can pan around the map and rotate around the current location, but there is no tilt allowing you to adjust your viewing angle.
In a game like Dark Planet that features true 3D terrain of varying heights, you simply must be able to tilt the camera to get the best view of the area. I was also shocked to learn I could not use the mouse to rotate my camera if I had any units selected.
The graphics are the best and really the only good thing about Dark Planet. The 3D engine is simply amazing with bright and colorful graphics, detailed textures, and some of the best animated maps I have ever seen in a RTS game. Trees and plants will wave in the breeze and there is a day-night cycle and random weather that actually affects gameplay. If it starts to rain you can expect the ground to get wet and movement of your units will be reduced.
The special effects are incredible with some great lighting and even better explosions. The various campaign maps all depict certain locations of the planet Natrolis, and all look suitably alien to give you that “other world” feeling. The creatures themselves also look quite alien. You can zoom in to see some amazing detail and subtle animations that you won’t find in many other RTS games.
Despite the colorful graphics and unique unit design things can often become confusing in the heat of battle. The bright colors can bleed together and you will often have to use your mouse to highlight a unit to determine what it is and whom it belongs to.
The audio experience for Dark Planet is neither outstanding nor terrible. It falls in that comfortable middle ground of simply leaving you with an indifferent opinion. The music during the opening movie is above average but the background music during the missions simply fades into the background. It doesn’t serve any emotional purpose and it isn’t cued by any events that take place during the game.
Sound effects are pretty good, but it’s nothing you haven’t heard a hundred times before in a hundred other games. You expect a laser to sound a certain way and it does. Speech was minimal and below average in quality. In fact, there was a glaring absence of speech in much of the game, so much in fact that I thought I had it turned off in the options menu at first.
Unlike most games where you get to walk through a tutorial learning the controls while your commander or a computer AI or something TALKS to you, Dark Planet opts for you to read paragraph after boring paragraph then perform the task then read some more. Reading went out with Infocom adventure games people.
Dark Planet advertises three campaigns similar to StarCraft. Unlike StarCraft however, Dark Planet takes you through the exact same three campaigns, same maps, same missions, same everything. All that changes is the race you are playing and the features and capabilities of that particular species. This amounts to nothing more than a costume change for the lead characters as you replay the same game three times.
You can breeze through the campaign missions in 10-15 hours if you can stand to fight the interface that long. With no real reason to play as any of the remaining races you probably won’t be wanting to play the single player mode more than once, if that.
There are no level editors or design kits to let you modify or expand the game, so once you have tasted what Dark Planet has to offer you will likely move on to bigger and better things.
There are some really good multiplayer features in Dark Planet, and it’s easy to hook-up with other players using any of the popular online services including Ubisoft’s own service. There is a skirmish mode, and a domination mode that requires you to capture and maintain control over several key map points. You can even play the campaign missions in co-op mode; a very nice feature that is often overlooked in other RTS games. Unfortunately, none of these features can make up for the interface issues that ruin an otherwise enjoyable game.
Admittedly, I’m not the biggest fan of the RTS genre, and it's games like Dark Planet that have probably contributed to that indifference. With no story before, during, or after the game, I was never motivated to play through the campaign or even a single mission.
There are some gorgeous visuals, but nothing that can negate the horrible interface and control system that will have you fighting the game more than the enemy. Try the demo if you must, but in my opinion Dark Planet will probably disappoint even the most devout RTS gamer.