Monday, February 02, 2009

ParaWorld Gold Edition Review

ParaWorld Gold Edition, developed by SEK and published by Sunflowers and Deep Silver on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Unique unit organization and upgrades, many heroes with varied skills, hostile and friendly NPC dinosaurs, custom starting troops for skirmish and multiplayer games, three online modes
The Not So Good: Overly strong unlimited defenses, derivative mechanics, can’t select buildings with ease, uninteresting linear campaign
What say you? A solid real-time strategy game highlighted by streamlined unit organization: 6/8

As a trained geophysicist, I took a couple of classes on paleontology and found it mildly interesting. The courses focused more on boring invertebrates instead of the real attention-grabber of the field: dinosaurs. Those lumbering beasts used to dominate the Earth, until it got too cold for those sissies. We’ve previously encountered the noble sport of killing dinosaurs, so now it’s time to make them do our bidding in the real-time strategy game ParaWorld. This game actually came out in 2006, but I never reviewed it (although I requested a copy multiple times) and only sampled the demo, so it’s new to me. Plus, this is the gold edition, which means it must be super-mega-awesome (or it comes with some new units and maps). Let’s take a field trip 65 million years into the past (remember to pack a bag lunch!) and see where ParaWorld stacks up in the strategy game lineup.

For a game that came out 2 ½ years ago, ParaWorld holds up well. From a zoomed out perspective, the game looks nice: the landscape does evoke a prehistoric feel, with lots of tropical plants and rustic terrain. The dinosaur models are good: it’s fairly easy to identity a species based on looks alone. Up close, though, the game loses out to more modern RTS games, as the textures are very blurry and the models could use more detail. ParaWorld is also one of the only games I can remember that actually uses fog for a fog of war, blanketing the unknown landscape and giving a creepy, primitive feel to the game. I obviously wasn’t impressed by the graphics, but they look like a upper-echelon game from two years ago, and that’s enough for me. The sound design isn’t as impressive. There aren’t enough dinosaur sounds, as the battles consist of a bunch of grunting and metal clashing effects. The voice acting is also sub-par: the main character uses “cool” dialogue like “bro” and “peeps.” Yes, he actually says “peeps.” The background music is generic at best, rounding out disappointing auditory effects. Still, though, for a game that’s been around for a couple of years, ParaWorld is definitely bearable, and it obviously runs well on modern hardware.

How do you put modern people in a setting with dinosaurs? Well, the whole experimental island has been done before, so the next logical step is….time portal! Or something like that; I usually skipped the cut scenes. I mean, who cares? It’s freakin’ dinosaurs! The single player campaign follows the main storyline, where you align with three native tribes and fight the evil corporation (of course there is an evil corporation). It is completely linear and typically involves the same objective: destroy the enemy base. The campaign awards points for getting main and side quests, and if you accumulate enough points, you unlock the next mission. That’s kind of cool, but since the sequence is linear, it’s mostly meaningless other than giving you some sort of motivation to complete side quests. There’s nothing too innovative here in the campaign, so it’s time to move on to multiplayer. Eight players can engage in three modes: deathmatch, defender (one versus all), and domination (control a single point for ten minutes straight). You can also play the same game modes against the AI in skirmish play. Unfortunately, there is absolutely nobody playing online (the game comes with GameSpy Arcade integrated), but I suppose that’s not terribly surprising considering how old the game is. There is a nice selection of maps to choose from (around 30), and ParaWorld allows you to select your starting units with the army builder. This is about the only innovative aspect to the skirmish/multiplayer modes: you can opt for a bunch of low-level builders, high-level heroes and mounted units, or a mix of both. The server can impose a credit limit to prevent super-power combinations or make everyone use the same setup. I like the army builder and I’m surprised other games haven’t stolen the idea.

Oh, before I forget: you may have noticed that this is the “gold” version of ParaWorld. So what makes it gold? New units (two) and heroes (two), buildings (one), and maps (seven). That sounds about right for a “gold” edition, which is typically more of a patch than a full-fledged expansion. If you have the original ParaWorld, there is absolutely no reason to upgrade to the gold edition of the game, but if you missed out on the title the first time around (like I did), then go right ahead and go for the gold.

Easily the most innovative feature of ParaWorld is the army controller. All of your units are listed in the bottom-left corner of the screen and organized according to level. You can click and drag units around to organize them more effectively. Unit icons in the army organizer display an icon showing what they are doing (attacking, collecting a specific resource, idle) and their health. It’s a great tool, and while other games are now incorporating this bit of technology, the army controller is still a great feature and it makes managing your forces a piece of cake. Of course, sticking your forces in a set hierarchy means you are limited in the maximum number of units allowed: you are given twenty-five level 1 units, fifteen level 2, eight level 3, three level 4, and one level 5. This fifty-two unit limit is as big as your army will get, and with typically ten worker units to keep your economy humming, your army will never reach large levels. This would be fine if the enemy defenses weren’t so strong. Units are promoted to the next level by spending skulls earned by attacking neutral and enemy troops; you can promote a unit by simply right-clicking on them in the army controller. Since units automatically reheal when they level up, it’s better to wait until units are almost defeated before upgrading them. With the awesome army manager, it is quite surprising that buildings are not organized in the same way: it can be very difficult to find unit-producing buildings (or anything else, for that matter) because they are not displayed in a “building controller” or even accessible with hotkeys. I’m used to pressing “TAB” or “X” or something along those lines (as in Rise of Nations) to access buildings, but ParaWorld requires you to actually move the camera back there (blasphemy!). It’s really an odd missing feature considering how well the unit management works.

In addition to regular troops, there are ten heroes with unique abilities to choose from. The hero abilities get better as they level up and the variety is very nice: there is essentially a hero for every play style and unit, and it’s just a matter of reading the manual and figuring out which hero is right for you. For some examples, James Warden is strong against animals and provides an animal production bonus, while the Governor is strong against buildings and can allow worker units to cause more damage. They are well balanced and support every play style that comes to mind.

There are three friendly sides in ParaWorld, each of which is best for a slightly different strategy: there is the defensive side, the ranged side, and the fast side. ParaWorld is at its heart a very conventional strategy game: you collect resources with workers (wood, stone, food), construct buildings, raise an army, and go raise some hell! There are a couple of wrinkles added to the equation, such as food being collected from killed neutral dinosaurs roaming around. Resources are finite, so you will normally have two or three functional bases scattered around the map (another reason why the lack of a “building controller” is troubling) to keep collecting at a maximum. You have both a resources and population cap, and both can be increased by constructing the appropriate buildings. New epochs can be researched to unlock higher-level units (and allow for units to become higher-level). There are also artifacts scattered around the map that can give small bonuses to the troops that carry them. The setting is a cheap hook, as the dinosaurs don’t add as much innovation as they should: they are really just a simple replacement for horses or tanks seen in other games. The neutral dinosaurs do add another element to the game, however, as you can be fighting environmental dinosaurs for food and skulls and then the enemy shows up and chaos becomes the rule. The AI seems to be quite solid, putting up a good fight on higher difficulty settings in both the campaign and in skirmish modes. I am not sure if this is due to any increased resource gathering rates to compensate for truly higher intelligence, but a challenge is always welcome. Probably the biggest issue with ParaWorld has to do with the strong defenses in the game. While there is a unit cap, there is not a defenses cap, so ParaWorld can devolve into a stalemate where neither side can break through the enemy stronghold. The defenses should just be a deterrent and not be that effective against a large, organized army, but even strong, higher-level troops will become commonly defeated, and damaged defenses can be cheaply resurrected before you can raise another set of troops. Sigh.

While there isn’t anything fundamentally different from other real-time strategy games in ParaWorld, the setting hooks you and the unit management makes it stand out. I like how the units are organized; although it limits the number of troops, it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make for a vast reduction in micromanagement. Upgrading units and the numerous hero units is a simple affair and a significant strategic element to the game. The units, despite the exotic setting, are standard fare: dinosaurs simply replace the tanks or horses or other mounted troops you find in any typical strategy game. I do like the NPC dinosaurs roaming the landscape that can be harvested for food, though. The three online game modes and customized starting troops would be a great feature if people actually still played ParaWorld online, but the skirmish AI does a competent enough job. There are a couple of shortcomings in the game: the campaign is bland (not that I play campaigns in strategy games very much), building selection doesn’t incorporate the army organization tool, and (most importantly) defenses are way too powerful and effective. Defenses should be a deterrant, not something capable of eliminating an entire army as they (as little as four concentrated arrow towers) can certainly do in ParaWorld. Still, ParaWorld is one of those games that I intend on keeping installed after I am done with the review, which is the highest accolade a game can receive.