Monday, February 23, 2009

Perimeter 2: New Earth Review

Perimeter 2: New Earth, developed by KDV Games and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Terrain modification impacts gameplay, interface lists all units for easy access, capable skirmish AI, some Providence powers are cool
The Not So Good: Horribly balanced undersized campaign, elementary resource collection, tactically uninteresting units with unfair reinforcement and iffy pathfinding, confusing Providence controls, sloppy sprawling bases reduce significance of the defensive perimeter, lacks online matchmaking
What say you? Another follow-up that lacks the depth of the original: 5/8

Every once in a while, a game comes along that tries something different. One of those games was Perimeter, a strategy title that featured stout base defenses and terraforming new land. Developer KDV Games took that formula and went in a slightly different direction with Maelstrom, and the result was disappointing. Well, they are back with a true sequel to that classic game: Perimeter 2. Now that New Earth has been found, you aren’t restricted to that giant Frame for your base building needs, for better or for worse (I’ll let you guess which one it is). Perimeter 2 eliminates the old unit production model, electing to provide a more streamlined experience for less veteran players. Does Perimeter 2: New Earth bring the strategic goods?

Perimeter 2: New Earth looks a lot like Maelstrom, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The game is certainly not at the same level as top-notch RTS titles, but it holds its own thanks to the deformable terrain. The units in the game are very generic sci-fi armored units with repetitive animations and less-than-powerful weaponry. Water, a primary tactical aspect of the game, looks good, although it can be difficult to tell shallow submerged areas from those above sea level. I'm not sure if it's having a computer two years more advanced running essentially the same graphics or not, but Perimeter 2 runs a heck of a lot smoother than Maelstrom ever did. Other than the shallow water thing, the graphics never negatively impact the gameplay, and while they will never look “great,” they get the job done. The sound design features computerized voices that are not terrible, but the weapon effects and especially the music are both repetitive. Sound notifications are also very subtle, taking a back seat to the unit effects, which can cause you to miss some important events. While not great, Perimeter 2 is good enough in terms of graphics and sound.

This time around, there are two rival factions battling for control of New Earth: one that loves land and another than loves water. Obviously, they can't simply just avoid each other and live happily in their niche, so out come the guns! Perimeter 2 is pretty light on the features: there are two ten-mission campaigns that can be completed in a matter of hours, assuming you can scale the intense difficulty of the game. Perimeter 2 relies heavily on outnumbering you: for example, the second mission pits your one squad against three complete enemy installations. Not fun, and that's on “easy.” Most of the missions in the game run along those lines and there isn't anything innovative in the completely linear campaign to note. The objectives almost always consist of “destroy everything” objectives given along the way. While I like the lack of cut scenes, please do not rotate the camera and reset my view when a new objective is added. Please. The campaign gradually introduces new game concepts to you along the way, but there is also a poorly-written tutorial. I failed the tutorial (yep!) thanks to vague instructions (using the Providence to raise the ground, for the record).

After you are done with the campaign, you get limited multiplayer features with skirmish and “online” matches. I say “online” with “quotes” because Perimeter 2 doesn't have any Internet matchmaking, either in the game or using a 3rd party source: you have to know IP addresses in advance. What is this, 1993? It's just as well, though, as Perimeter 2 only has five (5!) maps total on which to play. None of these maps are particularly interesting, either, as they range from “circular submerged area” to “another circular submerged area.” With the simplicity of the map design, the lack of a map editor is curious. I will say that the skirmish AI puts up quite a challenge and you can play with a living map mode that introduces random earthquakes and meteor showers as an interesting twist. Unfortunately, the living map mode is the only innovation found in Perimeter 2's outdated list of features.

With increased screen resolutions, strategy games have started to put all of your units and structures on the main screen for easy access. This trend made Sins of a Solar Empire playable and has continued with Dawn of War II. Perimeter 2 also exhibits the ability to evaluate your entire army from the main screen, and it's the most notable aspect of the user interface. The rest of the interface has standard features for the genre, although the build menu's location at the top of the screen (away from all of the other panels) is questionable at best. Perimeter 2 lacks fog of war, a feature missing with any real explanation, which takes the whole aspect of stealth and surprise out of the game entirely. Pathfinding, while a significant step up from the travesty that was Maelstrom, still has some issues, particularly with builder units that, more often than not, stop well short of the destination you clicked.

One of the two memorable features of Perimeter (the perimeter itself doesn't count because it's in the game title) was terrain modification, and this feature is mostly intact in Perimeter 2. Instead of everyone having to flatten the terrain, one side is trying to put everything under water while the other is making dry land. This dichotomy would result in some interesting border clashes if the maps weren't large enough to support two fully-functioning bases. Terraforming can be done automatically by your energy cores (the only structure that produces resources) or done manually using the Providence, although I've ever gotten it to work well using the second method (thanks a lot, bad tutorial). Terraforming can be a defensive maneuver (like the walls of a fort), but since units can turn into flying craft at any time, this strategy is pointless. Your base will consist of a whole heck of a lot of energy cores, since they can be built anywhere and they always make more power to construct more energy cores. Since there is no population cap for the builder units that morph into energy cores, you can just spam them all over the map, increasing your resource income essentially to infinity since cores can gather power from any location. Balancing your energy is very easy as long as you have a copious number of energy cores. Any power shortage gives you time to construct more builder units and subsequent energy cores before resources run out; the game clearly indicates a negative energy flow, but does not specify where in the system energy is being drained.

The other memorable feature of Perimeter was the ability to morph units on the battlefield and how units were actually comprised of three sub-units (soldiers, officers, and technicians) that could be tactically arranged. Unlike the terrain, this aspect of the game has essentially been completely removed, much to my disappointment. In Perimeter 2, we get three pathetically generic units: light, medium, and heavy. They can morph, but only into a “flying” or “ground” arrangement that can be easily countered with other flying or ground units. This aspect of Perimeter 2 has been streamlined into meaninglessness. There used to be real strategy in dealing with counters and what you could change your units into, but all of that has been removed in favor of this dull, outdated selection. Since you can morph units anywhere on the battlefield instantly, it’s a completely useless convention, as both sides will just keep switching back and forth with no repercussions. Add in squad reinforcement and we have a very uninteresting aspect to the game: this is a really cheap maneuver that can be done anywhere on the battlefield, keeping your squad alive for infinity, as long as you aren't greatly outnumbered. The buildings feature the same level of limitation: a research building for upgrades, one building each for light, medium, and heavy units, and one usually ineffective turret used against light, medium, and heavy units. And that's it. In addition, you need one entire factory to support one squad of units; this is a ridiculous relationship that only leads to more building spam and longer matches at it takes you half and hour just to decimate the enemy base. You can capture enemy buildings, but it's easier just to blow up the enemy cores and render the structures useless, especially since your high amount of power income from all of those cores you built will never deplete unless you are significantly attacked.

Since Perimeter 2 has done away with the Frame, you are now given the Providence (bow before the awesome power of Rhode Island!). Essentially, this allows you to move terrain around or use some powerful weapon. Abilities are unlocked by excavating psy-crystals scattered around the map and highlighted with a ring. Once unearthed, you can unleash tornadoes, blasts, meteor showers, and healing from afar. The providence is almost awesome if Dawn of War II didn't do it better. Terraforming with the Providence needs to be a lot more straightforward. In addition to using the same button to select terraforming as toggling the type of terraforming, the icons need work: is making mountains the icon with the arrow coming out of the cylinder or going into it? Look: just make a hill with an arrow pointing up or a valley with an arrow pointing down and be done with it.

The key to winning at Perimeter 2 is destroying the enemy energy cores. This is more difficult than it sounds, since there can be a whole lot of them (remember: they can be placed anywhere, will automatically terraform on their own, and will produce plenty of resources). There’s nothing preventing you from plunking down tens (hundreds?) of energy cores in quick succession, making a sprawling and impenetrable base surrounded by higher-level turrets that cannot be countered. The elimination of the giant frame you had to connect everything to before makes Perimeter 2 a much messier and unorganized affair, and the perimeter itself is almost totally useless. Playing Perimeter 2 is almost a hyperactive affair, as you must place core after core and factory after factory to keep up with the ridiculous pace set by the AI. There is almost no strategy involved in the game, as the unit and building selection is so limited. There are also some balance issues, as level 1 turrets can only attack land units so rushers will always opt for flying models (unless they want to lose). Perimeter 2 shows how a series of questionable core design decisions can ruin a potentially interesting concept.

Perimeter 2 comes with features that sound great in theory but are poorly executed. This is doubly confusing since they were executed much more convincingly in the original game, and KDV Games has taken two steps back with Maelstrom and now Perimeter 2. This iteration isn’t quite as bad as its predecessor, but it still suffers from a host of significant gameplay problems. Perimeter 2 comes with very limited buildings and units, a very surprising tactic since the original game contained so much depth in these areas. About the only option you are given with respect to the units is researching upgrades, and even then your choices are limited at best. Units can only switch between the air and the ground, a far cry from the more complex but ultimately more enjoyable options in the original game. This tactical decision is not interesting at all, since the enemy can quickly switch between the two options just as easily, so Perimeter 2 quickly devolves into a silly game of chicken. Having one building per squad and allowing unlimited base construction leads to some undesirable results. You can always afford more cores since they are low-cost and will gather power from anywhere (as you can terraform automatically), so the bases quickly grow out of control. I'm not sure how the same game can justify having one factory required for every unit on the battlefield, but allow you to reinforce anywhere with little cost. The Providence powers could have been more interesting if the terraforming was more intuitive. Perimeter 2 is also very light in the features department: twenty poorly balanced campaign missions and only five maps for skirmish and online matches using known-in-advance IP addresses. In the end, Perimeter 2 is too bland: a limited number of units, a limited number of buildings, a limited number of maps, unlimited base size, unlimited resource collection, and limited multiplayer combine for a very disappointing strategy game.