Populous: The Beginning is a devine rebirth

Populous: The Beginning
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A standard refrain in any industry is that "everything old is new again." Old movies get remade, old songs get covered by new bands, and old cars always have a chance at a comeback. This year a classic was re-released. Still using the same familiar lines as the old model, the new version is peppier, cooler looking, has bright new colors, and lots of little extras. No, I’m not talking about the new Volkswagen Beetle, I’m talking about Populous: The Beginning.

Oh, the hours I used to waste playing the original of this game! Back before StarCraft, Civilization, and Alpha-Centauri or any big real-time strategy games, Populous gave you the power of a god over 16-color animated lives. You could create, you could destroy, you could defend, or you could just kick serious butt. And therein lies the reason for the trepidation I felt when I knew that a new version of Populous was going to be released.

I thought it was going to be like a cross between when they tried to recreate the Muppet Show and the last couple of Bob Hope’s Christmas Specials, when they’d trot him out in front of the cameras well past the time they should have let him drift off to retirement. Why even try to unearth some moldy corpse from years ago and attempt in some Frankenstein-like manner to reanimate it? After all, hasn’t the industry progressed to a level where those aforementioned games have raised the bar to such a level that no matter what they did, a newly minted Populous couldn’t even hope to compete?

I’m an idiot.

Not only is the new Populous: The Beginning a faithful extension of the old Populous, it manages to be a complete re-invention as well. A 3D-interface will be the first thing many will notice, and a slightly different approach is evident from the start, but the flavor of the original has been kept, while adding a few interesting twists.

The 3D-interface has you float deity-like over a globe. While the intricacies of moving around with this interface take some getting use to, I didn’t find the learning curve too steep. The biggest problem was that on some planets you might end up out in the middle of the ocean and have to search around for landfall.

The overhead view can pull back for a view of most of the globe, or zoom into a bird’s eye view for directing battles, building, and of course unleashing your supernatural wrath.

The 3D interface comes at a cost of course. While the game will run without a 3D-accelerator card, I would have to strongly recommend having one. Decent gameplay can be achieved without it if you have a state-of-the-art system, but chances are if you have a state-of-the-art system, you’ve got a 3D accelerator card anyway.

Your divine will, or wrath, can be expressed in 26 spells, ranging from a swarm of locusts to starting Armageddon. You can even raise an army of ghosts, that while they have no strength, and can’t inflict damage, appear as real living warriors to your enemies, causing them no small amount of confusion.

You interact with your tribe through a shaman. The shaman uses Mana to conjure the spells you indicate. Of course Mana is built up by having a bustling population. Really there is no emphasis on infrastructure here. Basically, you build living quarters, temples and warrior training huts to get more braves, priests and warriors to fight your battles. Nothing exceptionally tricky about that, just patience.

The emphasis here is more on battlefield tactics. Using your warriors, priests and spells wisely, and sometimes in very creative ways, you can snatch victory in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. For example, knowing to seek the high ground in order to effect a larger areas with your spells is a must, as is knowing how best to use the available terrain to either benefit your tribe or bring a world of hurt to your enemy.

Your tribe can either get around the map on leg power or can take to the high seas in a boat or traverse impassable land in a balloon.

As for the different classes that make up your tribe, you have three. Braves are basically the raw material, building buildings and providing Mana. When you choose, you can then turn them into priests by sending them to your temple or warriors by sending them to the warrior training hut. The function of warriors is pretty obvious. Priests can be used to convert your enemies to your side. It is actually pretty cute to watch. The enemy warriors will start to run up to attack, stop in their tracks and before they know it are sitting down to listen to your priests propaganda. After a certain amount of time they become one of your tribe. Of course the enemy can do the same to your warriors, so you have to be on guard.

Priests are the best choice to kill other priests. Sometimes a combination of warriors and a priest can be used to kill them a little quicker, but you have to make sure your priest engages the enemy priest or before you know it your troops have turned to the other side. Priests are very good to setup in guard towers as they have some measure of protection and can guard your borders by converting the enemy, rather than engaging them in battle.

Playing against the computer proved very challenging, as the AI is well designed and fairly intelligent in terms of strategy. Often times you’ll discover a weakness in a strategy game’s AI and be able to exploit it to win levels. While you should be able to exploit a weakness in your enemy’s strategy, finding a weakness in the AI always feels like a cheat to me. Thankfully, Populous: The Beginning seems to be fairly free of such defects. On level after level I found myself pushed by the AI, and could not discover any tricks that would fool it into making silly mistakes.

While certainly not rich in detail or realism in the manner of many real time strategy games, Populous: The Beginning is rich in the things that make gameplay fun. And once you feel comfortable with the gameplay, you can play your up to three other players, either over the Internet, a LAN or through a modem connection. You can be matched up with others looking to play multiplayer games through the game’s website at www.populous.net.

With colorful, engaging graphics and sound that really puts you in the game (thanks to Creative Labs Environmental Audio technology), Populous: The Beginning both harkens back to the original and provides a whole new gaming experience. Its distinct look and feel really contributes to hours and hours of excellent gameplay, marred only slightly by having to learn the unique interface.

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