Over the years, we've seen real-time strategy games cover every conceivable setting. We've seen games set at the dawn of civilisation in Egypt and then Rome. We've witnessed them cover the Dark and Middle Ages of Europe, and the feudal period of Japan. We've watched as massive armies manoeuvre across maps of France, Germany and Russia in Napoleonic times and both the World Wars. Realms of legend and fantasy have been contested, as have distant planets - worlds of ice, sand, water and fire. But it's taken until now for us to be presented with the opportunity to test our tactical acumen in an RTS that sees vicious conflict rage across a landscape composed of sponge.
OK, so we're not talking Battle Bugs 2: Conquest Of The Fairy Cake', but we are talking alien worlds composed of a soft, malleable surface matter that resembles - according to the in-game tutorial at least - sponge. And if this environmental background sounds a wee bit strange to you, wait until you see the rest of game. Almost everything about Perimeter is as alien - even to a fairly well-versed RTS gamer - as the porous landscape.
But don't get us wrong - in this day and age of copycat cash-ins and cloned sequels, we're all for a game that dares to do things a little differently. And this beguiling combination of setting and gameplay mechanics could well make it worth checking out above the battalion of other RTSs that will be released this year.
The game takes place in a far-flung galaxy that mankind has fled to escape a dying Earth. There, humanity's disparate factions must compete with each other, as well as hostile indigenous forces, to secure an inhabitable world.
In The Frame
At the beginning of a typical mission, you start on a wild, undulating landscape with only your Frame', or mothership. From this pyramid-like structure emerge your basic worker units - the brigadiers. These minute, swarming robots may resemble fleas, but they are capable of some pretty extraordinary feats of terraforming. Mark out a swathe of hilly territory and they scuttle off en masse and sculpt it all to zero' level - effectively flattening it all out.
The importance of this is that at zero level, the very land itself begins to produce energy that you can tap into by building power cores. Needless to say, this energy - the game's sole resource - can then be transferred into the construction of the buildings and units that you'll need to go lay waste to your enemies with.
What this effectively means is that land - in its terraformed state - is the stuff of victory. The player who manages to carve out the most of this zero level plain is the one who will inevitably win. Not only will he have the energy production to fuel his war machine, but he will have the ground on which to build it, as structures can only be erected on terrain that has been prepared by your teeming brigadiers.
All of this is brought to your eyes via a robust 3D engine. The viewpoint can be titled from a top-down perspective to a ground level view, and is fully rotatable. The alien landscapes are at times quite beautiful, in an obscure, psycho-organic kind of way. When things are up and running is where it comes into its own, though, with humming generators creating criss-crossing lines of energy throughout your base, terraforming bots scuttling around, and legions of robotic soldiers standing at the ready.
The perimeter of the game's name refers to the defence shields your bases can create. Using linked generators, you can throw up an awesome-looking, nigh-on impenetrable shield around your buildings. Like a wobbly, translucent envelopment of unassailable jelly, these screens really are something to behold.
Within the shelter of your protective ectoplasm, structures must be connected to your power grid by energy cores, and smashing someone's energy chain is one tactic for powering down his war machine. If you can manage this, as well as creating a bridge of terraformed land from your base to your opponents', you can capture enemy structures by connecting them to your own network via generators.
An Officer And A Gentleman
In what will be anathema to many RTS gamers, the number of units under your control in a mission will not rise much above a handful. In the missions we played, three or four was typical. But these command' units are made up of many little nano-technology robotic troops of three varieties: soldiers, officers and technicians. These are known as the basic units', and once produced they automatically join up with one of your command units where they stand around together, move together and fight together. Which, when you consider each command unit can comprise hundreds of basic units, saves on an awful lot of clicking.
But the main reason behind having these three types of basic unit reveals itself in the unit morphing system. By combining the right numbers of basic units and building certain research laboratories, you can start morphing your units into specialist squads. This morphing can be done or undone as many times as you like, and only takes a few seconds to achieve, allowing you to change the specialisation of your troops to fit whatever tactical situation that might arise.
So from your basic gunners, you might morph into a squad of laser snipers to take out some enemy troops at long range. Then you might need to cross a canyon to get at the enemy base, so you change your snipers into anti-grav dropships. Once across, a quick switch into mortar units allows you to start bombarding your opponent's structures. And these mutations only scratch the surface. There's a whole host of nano-technologically modified war machines out there, including craft that burrow through the ground, boiling the earth beneath their enemy's feet, ships that float over enemy bases carpet-bombing everything below, invisible stealth units, vehicles that drain enemy energy from opposition networks - more high-tech gubbins than even the old KGB's Advanced Research Department could have dreamt up.
From the few missions we were given to play, it's too early to say how well this system of unit mutation is going to work. But, like much of Perimeter, it's a nifty slant on what most expect out of an RTS these days. So, while at this stage we can't confidently predict whether Perimeter is going to offer a winning formula, we can at least confirm that it's going to be an original one.
Is The Perplexing Setting Of Perimeter Sheer Madness, Or Just The Kind Of Thing That's Popular In Russia?
It's really quite hard to get an exact handle on the plot of Perimeter. Whether it's down to translation problems, drug abuse or simply the fact that the guys behind it are clinically insane, the story is as confusing and downright weird as sci-fi comes.
What we do know is this: mankind has fled a dying Earth for a galaxy located in an alternate dimension - the Psychosphere. Which is where it starts going a little nuts. As far as we can tell, this galaxy is a series of floating worlds, each one reflecting the inner fears, thoughts and dreams of those who visit them. Which accounts for the great silvery snakes that glide through the air spewing fire and flocks of carrion-like kamikaze birds that explode when they ram your units, among other things.
Which makes us think, is this a Russian/East European preoccupation? Because Solaris, the George Clooney film (in which a planet reflects the moods and memories of people near it) was originally a Russian film based on a Polish book. All we need now is Gorgeous George to make an appearance in the final thing.
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Hadfttan did it to keep the wild Scots out. China did it to fend off the Mongol hordes. The Russkies did it in Berlin to ward off the reactionary capitalist pigs. Indeed, building great big walls to hide behind has long been our first instinct when we feel threatened. And if the vision painted by Perimeter is anything to go by, this practice is sot to continue far into the future.
Let me explain. Perimeter is an ambitious new real-time strategy game that takes its name from the impermeable energy shield that every base in the game is able to project. Looking something like a quivering mass of proton-charged jelly, this shield is your primary asset in Perimeter's interesting strategic fomiula.
A Game Less Ordinary
It may seem unusual for a strategy game to focus on a kind of passive defence, but it's far from being the only unusual aspect of Perimeter - not by a long way. In fact, we'd go as far as to say that in terms of both gameplay and setting, this is one of the most adventurous and innovative RTS games we've seen for many a moon. The only question is, does that make it any good to play? The plot that underpins Perimeter is slightly hard to decipher. What we can tell you is that it all takes place in the far, far future. Humankind has spread from the Earth, but managed to overpopulate every planet they've come across. Consequently, and with the help of the Spirits (whoever they are), humanity has built the Frames: enormous colonisation vessels that house thousands, if not millions of people. Using those Frames, man has crossed into a newly discovered galaxy known as the Psychosphere, where competing human factions vie with each other (and the malevolent local wildlife) for somewhere to call home. Fine, whatever - we'll fight anyone, just point us to the guns.
Hold your robo-horscs though, as before anything can be done in Perimeter, you need to level out some land. Buildings can only be constructed on land that's been flattened to zero lever, meaning hills have to be lowered and valleys raised until you have a nice, contour-free plateau to work with.
To achieve this. Perimeter places under your command up to five Multi-Modular Platforms. These MMPs are your worker units, and each one can be told to act as either a Brigadier (for terraforming) or a Buildmaster (for building and repairing structures). Select some land for terraforming, and your Brigadiers will automatically dispatch a bunch of tiny scurrying black nanobots to the area. Choose a structure from the build menu and slap it on the map, and your Buildmasters automatically spit out little floating dollops of energy that sail over to your new construction, each one bringing it closer to completion.
Build For Victory
The way this building terraforming system works means that you never have to control more than five worker units. And what's more, you rarely have to give them direct orders other than switching them between their Buildmaster and Brigadier functions. Like many aspects of the game, this system is initially confusing, but it's focused on eliminating micro-management, leaving you free to concentrate on the bigger picture.
Admittedly, there are one or two issues with the build queues. While you can have as many different types of buildings as you want assigned for simultaneous construction, you can only have one of each type queued, which is no help when you want dozens of a certain structure. Building laser turrets one at a time can become annoying, though it's hardly a deal breaker.
Perimeter's sole resource is energy. Thankfully, you don't have to construct legions of workers to go out and get it -the generator buildings that also create your defence shield do it for you.
This single resource is the key to the game. You want to build or repair a structure or unit? You need energy. You want to power up your perimeter shield? You need energy. A single meter in the centre of the HUD shows how much power you have in reserve, and the rate at which it's growing or shrinking.
Each generator draws power from the land around it -provided it's been terraformed to zero level. This makes levelled ground precious in itself. Indeed, many the game's more advanced weapon systems specialise in breaking up the land, wrecking the enemy's ability to generate power and construct buildings.
The approach Perimeter takes to reducing micro-management in terraforming and construction is matched in the way you control your combat units.
When we tell you that the largest your army will ever grow to is five units (or squads), many may pale at the prospect of limited tactical options. But once again. Perimeter shows its unusual hand by allowing each of these units to be comprised of countless little soldier, officer and technician battle droids. One click, and these squads move - and fight - as one.
What's more, provided you have the right technologies, these units can be morphed into a whole range of more powerful specialisations, including tanks, aircraft and even vehicles that burrow beneath the ground. Each specialisation requires a different mix of the three basic units, but provided you have them in sufficient quantities, a squad can end up comprising a practically unlimited amount of little battle craft.
Morphing your units takes next to no time. Click the button, listen to the drum 'n' bass-style sub-bass sound effect, watch all those tiny soldiers and technicians liquidise like blobs of mercury, and then seconds later your new units are ready. Where a moment ago there were ranks of machine-gun armed basic troopers, there's now a squadron of hovering air-to-air Strafer units. The effect this ability to quickly and entirely change the composition of your army has on tactics is fascinating, though a little hard to get your head round (see 'Who Goes There?', left).
Early on, your main opponenj is the Scourge - the indigenous inhabitants of the Psychosphere. A fairly predictable foe, the Scourge pour forth from their nesting holes every so often and swarm towards your base, running into the nearest structure or unit and exploding like kamikaze space lemmings. The perimeter shield will keep this lot out (although heavy on your energy reserves), until you can construct enough defensive turrets to fend them off.
Pretty soon, though, your major competition comes from the other human factions. With access to the same technologies and units as you, the computer Al fast becomes a tricky foe, making the Scourge seem little worse than a dose of space crabs.
None of Perimeter's maps are particularly big, meaning battles with enemy bases very quickly become confused, tooth-and-nail fights for survival. It's an interesting dynamic, as both sides extend their power and defence networks towards each other, looking to break into the opponent's infrastructure, capture energy cores and disable vital buildings. As your defences crawl towards each other, nanobots levelling the terrain as they go, the tangled combat gives off the feel of a far-fluna First World War.
Visually, Perimeter is vivid and pulsating, showcased by an excellent 3D engjn Crackling energy beams link your generators, the ground surface is tangibly textured and pock-marked, and rockets and laser beams fill the sky when things kick off. Shadows, reflections and dynamic lighting all combine to good effect, and graphics-wise, there's really little more you could ask for from a game of this nature.
This visual elan is matched by some superb sound effects, from some pretty decent voiceacting to the riotous roar of battle. The audio range matches up well with the deeply futuristic feel of the game, and the resulting atmosphere is impressive.
The Future Of RTS?
Perimeter is a technically excellent game, and you've got to give it to the developers for blowing away the cobwebs and trying to do something different. It's a fascinating, intricate and challenging sci-fi strategy title, and we're looking forward to seeing how it fares online.
Despite all that, the game does lack a certain warmth. With all these nanobots, power fields, alien landscapes and morphing robotic troopers, there's not much to latch on to, to identify with - especially early on. At tines, you can feel as alienated it all the colonists crammed Into their hulking Frames, hovering over hostile alien worlds and wondering if they'll see the blue globe of Earth ever again. Anyone who likes some sort of a hero, or even a few familiar reference points will feel a little on the outside.
It's also easy to feel a little lost and confused in the midst of a battle. Without many of the traditional indicators of success - control over resources, size of army and so on - it's bloody hard to gauge the balance of power at any given time. For all its fascinating gameplay mechanics, Perimeter isn't quite one of those un-putdownable strategy games that you simply can't tear yourself away from, despite the fact that it's 4.30am on Monday morning and you're due at work in four hours. It is, however, an ambitious, pioneering effort that has plenty to offer the dedicated real-time strategy player. If you appreciate its ultra hi-tech scenario, you'll find plenty of enjoyment here.
The Choices Stop When The Mission Is Over
Perimeter is set in the Psychosphere, a system of worlds connected like a complicated atomic structure. Each completed mission in the campaign game enables you to progress to the next world - but you have no choice as to which one. The design of the Psychosphere is excellent, and each world has more than one link to others, so it's a shame you don't even get to make the most elementary choices between missions. This campaign is linear with a capital L'.
A lot of EA's output is fiercely commercial - stuff like football and snowboarding. If it tries its hand at an RTS then you can bet it will be accompanied by a mega-liceqpe like The Lord of the Rings. What it would never do is take an obscure and relatively impenetrable Eastern-European RTS set in The Psychosphere' and put its massive v marketing spend behind it.
Which is a shame. Because while Perimeter might not have changed the world (or sold by the skipload), it's a diverse and technically excellent RTS that tries something different and pulls it off with aplomb.
The concept hinges around the w eponymous shields that every base in the game can project, as well as unit morphing, which switches the emphasis from victory through numbers to a far subtler blend of strategies. C&C it ain't, and clearly this is a very good thing.
If you're sick of the standard RTS approach pumped out by everyone and his dog, buy Perimeter and see for yourself that innovation isn't quite dead in the world of videogames.