Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Perimeter: Emperor's Testament Review

Perimeter: Emperor's Testament, developed by K-D Lab and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Unique RTS mechanics, challenging AI, excellent user interface
The Not So Good: Not much different from the original, AI skirmish maps need to be unlocked, emphasis on defense results in a lot of stalemates, very difficult
What say you? Still a distinctive strategy game, but the new features are few and far between: 6/8

Everyone loves original games, titles that breathe new life into a stale genre. Game developers are always looking for that something extra that will make their game rise above the rest of the pack. One of these games was Perimeter, which contained enough new mechanics (terraforming, energy shields, transforming units) to make it a very distinctive title when it was released two years ago. The developer of that game has now made a stand-alone expansion pack with the addition title of Emperor’s Testament. This stand-alone game includes a new campaign and some additional units. Will this be enough for current owners of Perimeter to make a new purchase? Is the solid gameplay from the original still intact for newcomers? What’s with all the questions?

The graphics of Perimeter: Emperor's Testament are exactly the same as the original game: a very distinctive visual style. If you see a screenshot of Perimeter, you know it’s a screenshot of Perimeter; the game looks that unique. From the irregular mountainous terrain to the shiny, reflective powered landscapes to the beams of light streaming out from energy cores, Perimeter: Emperor's Testament features a believable furturistic living environment. My only complaint about the graphics is that the units are too small and you can’t zoom in to see them close up. The weapon effects are generally pretty good, especially when beamed weapons start to wreck havoc on the landscape. The game also seems to feature support for dual-core processors (unless the setup utility is lying to me), which makes the graphics even smoother. The sound mostly consists of genre-specific background music coupled with campy digitized voices with odd pronunciations you’d expect from a foreign-developed title. Still, the sound is not generally awful, and even though the game is essentially two years old, the graphics still hold up against more recent titles.

So, what’s new in Perimeter: Emperor's Testament? Not much: just a campaign and a couple of units. Owners of the original game won’t find much to warrant purchasing this expansion, but people new to the series (which is mostly everyone, since Perimeter isn’t exactly well-known) will find a lot to enjoy. As I stated before, Perimeter: Emperor's Testament features a linear campaign that follows a storyline that’s conveyed before each mission. Most of the missions consist of building a base and either attacking the enemy or surviving for a period of time. You can also engage in single player battles against the AI or in a survival-type mode. For some reason, you are only allowed to play on maps you’ve beaten in the campaign against the AI; this is very odd to have this kind of restrictions in place for a real time strategy game. Of course, you can play against real human competition using any of the maps through multiplayer. The manual states you can use TCP/IP or Gamespy from within the game, but the Gamespy option is nowhere to be found. I’m not sure if it’s a last minute deletion, an oversight, or intended for a future patch, but we’re stuck with typing in IP addresses in the mean time. The game does not come with an explicit tutorial in the campaign or otherwise, and assumes you are familiar with the basic mechanics of the game. This is fine for a strict expansion pack that requires the original game, but not for a stand-alone title like Perimeter: Emperor's Testament. There are some odd points to the gameplay that really needs to be shown to new players in a tutorial, but no direct instruction is to be found.

Perimeter: Emperor's Testament follows the tradition real time strategy mechanics of base-building, army raising, and attacking, but adds some wrinkles to the equation that makes the title unique. The first is terraforming: you must flatten the surrounding terrain in order to build on it. Terraforming is performed by specific units (that can be in a terraforming or structure building mode) and it takes time, so careful base planning is a must. Your headquarters in the game is the large pyramidal frame. The frame can be moved to better, flatter locations if you wish, but it moves very slowly and makes for an easy target along the way. The only resource in the game is energy, and it is collected by placing energy cores around the map that draw energy from the ground beneath them. They must be within range of the frame or another energy core in order to relay the energy to the frame, so this limits placing structures all over the map and makes for a more concentrated base. Buildings can be placed anywhere that is powered by an energy core and has been flattened by your workers. The buildings are either unit-producing (or upgrading), energy transferring, or defensive in nature. The units you produce are either soldiers, officers, or technicians, and these are morphed into better units. For example, if you combine 2 soldiers, 6 officers, and 12 technicians, you get a bomber. Your units are assigned into squads and all members of a single squad are the same unit at the same time, so you’ll need to create a specific combination of basic units to produce your desired results. Because of this nanomorphing, you can change units from a land type to an air type on the fly, depending on the current strategy you intend to use. This makes for some very interesting tactics and it means that exploiting a certain enemy unit deficiency is usually impossible, because they can just morph their units if need be. Perimeter: Emperor's Testament features some robust defenses as well, from gun emplacements to the Perimeter itself. The Perimeter is a defensive shield that emcompasses all of area surrounding your power cores. It can be active as long as you have the energy to keep it up, protecting your base while your defense slaughters the enemy.

All of these new features makes for some unique successful strategies in the game. In other RTS games, you’re stuck with your units, but in Perimeter: Emperor's Testament, you can alter your strategy once you see what your enemy is doing. The AI in the game is very competitive and very tough, almost too tough. Because of the defensive nature of the game, it can be extremely difficult to finish off an enemy unless you have an overwhelming advantage on them. Building defenses is cheap and easy, and the game doesn’t prevent spamming your base with them. And these is also the perimeter itself, which makes invading an enemy base impossible. Not helping matters is the individual unit AI, as friendly units will routinely slam into a visible perimeter, destroying themselves in the process. The tactical AI is not that good, as enemy units will be ignored on occasion if they move unpredictably. The user interface is very good, as units are organized automatically and you’ll never have lost, unassigned troops roaming about the map. The energy usage is also clearly indicated in the game, showing the player whether they need to build additional power cores. The gameplay of Perimeter: Emperor's Testament is solid, I just wish the matches ended faster instead of the stalemate that plagues most real time strategy games.

While veteran players of Perimeter won’t find anything new that’s worth purchasing, new players to the game will find a lot to enjoy in Perimeter: Emperor's Testament. The game certainly has interesting game mechanics, from the terraforming to the morphing units, but it’s very difficult to win a scenario because of the emphasis on defense and the ease of building defensive structures. The game is also extremely difficult at all difficulty levels, and you’ll rarely be able to defeat and enemy AI outright, because you need to dominate them in order to take down their defenses. There are some strategies to eliminating enemy bases, but because defenses are so numerous, it is very difficult to do so. The multiplayer component of the game falls short of the expectations of the manual and there is a strange restriction on the number of maps available for skirmish games against the AI, but the core gameplay of Perimeter: Emperor's Testament is still unique and different enough to stand out. People who are tired of the game strategy game over and over again should check out Perimeter: Emperor's Testament if you haven’t before, especially for a budget price: the graphics remain good and the unique gameplay still resonates throughout the game.