Release Date: September 15, 2006
Try to imagine how you'd feel if one day, you were suddenly warped to a wilderness that looked like something out of a National Geographic issue on prehistoric times. At first, you would be stunned and confused, then perhaps fascinated at the pristine might of what nature can do when untouched by technological progress. Just as your fear has given way to curiosity, a cat the size of a half-ton truck with foot-long incisors comes thunderously crashing out of a nearby tree line, and it's tearing straight at you. Even worse, there is a hulking sweaty guy in a tattered loincloth with insanely bulging eyes and throbbing neck-veins on this huge cat's back, and he's bellowing madly at you whilst brandishing an onyx-tipped spear that's twice as long as you are tall. Do you think your reaction would be intestine-churning terror, or would you throw down against the angry kitty? Thanks to the efforts of a development team called SEK, you might now be able to answer that question by playing their upcoming game, Paraworld.
Paraworld is a real-time strategy title, with a few hints of role-playing thrown in for spice. Its camera point-of-view is top-down isometric, it's entirely in 3D, and it uses all of the usual features that make up the genre. Worker units that gather resources like stone, wood, and food? Check. Various buildings that chain together, providing a pyramid of ever-escalating unit and technology improvements? Check. Armies of fighting units, with each troop-type serving different tactical purposes? Check. Hero units that function as generals and provide not only a focal point for the storyline but also contribute bonuses in war? Check. Basically, every ingredient to a successful RTS stew is present and accounted for, plus a few herbs and spices for the food critics.
This preview build that I have to noodle around in doesn't include any of Paraworld's pre-rendered cut scenes, which means that there are some pretty big holes in what I know of the storyline. From what I can gather, it has something to do with a guy named Anthony Cole, who, for reasons unknown, finds himself a stranger in a very strange land. His struggle to sort out why he's there, and how to get away, forms the backbone of the game's story. I think. In any case, Paraworld takes place in a "parallel world" (get it?) that never got past the Paleozoic or Mesozoic eras that our modern reality transcended when it shifted into the Cenozoic. As a result, warfare is still conducted using hand-to-hand instruments, with additional help from giant creatures such as velociraptors, huge elk, smilodons, and mammoths.
These gargantuan animals are Paraworld's trump card, the prime factor that SEK hopes will set apart this title from its contemporaries. The beasts are a huge part of the game; not only are they random wildcard encounters to be overcome, but they are also integral to the armies you build. Cultivation of these animals provides mobility in the form of chariots as well as heavy cavalry in the form of mammoths and rhinos. Infantry is good; infantry riding over-sized dinosaurs is better.
Paraworld has some other interesting ideas going for it as well; it's not all just giant house-pets. For starters, there is a smooth experience system in place that is one of the few nods to role-playing evident in this game. It works like this: Each kill reaps a certain number of "skulls," and each unit can be "promoted" by spending a certain number of skulls. Thus, for a regular fighter to go from level one to level two, you need to spend 25 skulls. Doing so toughens the trooper and increases his or her damage output.
If the unit you're promoting is a hero unit, there is often a special ability that comes along with the advancement. Some of these abilities are passive, like all other associated soldiers gain a hit-point advantage. Others are specific; one of the heroes gains the ability to hypnotize animals, putting them into a stasis that not even direct violence can interrupt. Keeping in mind how integral animals are to Paraworld, this is a powerful ability when used properly. Additionally, hero units can't ever really be "killed." They can be put out of action for some time, but as soon as you can build a tavern, they can be "re-recruited" and placed back in action. This is similar to how SpellForce (a game I can't help but feel had a large degree of influence on the development of this one) functions, only with a stronger hint of ale and serving wenches.
Paraworld has some extremely attractive eye-candy going for it, a full combination package of texture and model details that should please even the most jaded RTS fan. Also, there is some spectacular voice-acting included, which is in fact some of the best I've ever heard. In this day and age, when developers are increasingly relying on family, friends, and random strangers off the street to handle all voice-acting dialogue, it's a refreshing change of pace to actually enjoy the spoken components. Of course, the writing itself is pure comic-book cheese (I just can't take the word "bro" seriously in a fantasy setting), but who knows if it's meant to be that way or not? It's difficult to tell what the overall mood or intention is supposed to be, based on a three-level preview build.
There is much to be done to Paraworld before it's ready for retail shelf space, but from what I can see here, most of that work lies in bug-squashing for stability. Paraworld plays relatively smoothly, although there's room for improvement here as well. The biggest problem I've had so far is the frequency with which this game freezes. If I had to guess, I'd chalk it up to driver incompatibility. In other words, I fully expect this to be dealt with by the release date just shy of a month from now. The interesting mixture of Lost World, Turok, "Jurassic Park," and real-time strategy should put SEK and their publishers on the map. It's too unique not to notice.
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