Release Date: September 27, 2006
Everyone worth their weight in murlocs knows the basic premise behind every cheesy sci-fi B-movie: Take a handful of cardboard characters to which you can loosely relate, thrust them into preposterous surroundings, add a little dorky dialogue and an extremely tenuous link to actual scientific fact, and voila! You've got yourself a hit … or at least something that will get its recognition via Mystery Science Theater 3000 mockery.
Such is the life of ParaWorld, an RTS game that gets maligned at every turn for having formulaic gameplay and a silly premise, but you know what? I had fun playing this for several days straight, and I plan to go back for more.
You begin your adventure with three heroes sent to check out a scientific anomaly and wind up thrust into a world where dinosaurs, Norsemen, nomads, pirates, and ninjas co-exist and electricity does not. This parallel world might be mistaken for a dumping ground of ancient game clichés. Remember when all those things were cool individually?
As three lost souls in an unfamiliar world, they set out to get back home and settle the score with the guy who stranded them here. But first there's getting to know the natives, and hopefully befriending them. In short order, you've got their workers building your bases and harvesting resources toward some common good (a "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" setup). Before you know it, you'll have an army built and are ready to go "questing." Wait, what?
In a move to break up the rote nature of RTS gathering, building, and annihilating, ParaWorld throws in specific quests and sub-quests to accomplish on your way to bashing in the enemies' heads. These often optional tasks can lead you to parts of the maps you might not have seen otherwise, some of which can only be reached by developing a special unit like a sea-borne transport vessel. The quests keep things interesting and busy, and while you can get stretched thin trying to manage a war on several fronts simply trying to complete one of these quests, the rewards and relics earned are usually worth it. Some give you a permanent stat boost in battle (greater ranged damage, more skulls from kills, higher HP for surrounding units), while others modify performance back on the home front (repairs without consuming resources, workers can carry more, increased production rates).
One solid perk to get your paws on — either via relic acquisition or research — is faster resource collection. Each race does things a little differently, but they all need the same basic amenities to get and keep things going. Stone, timber, food, and skulls are the four basic needs here, the former for building and the latter for troop building and promotion.
The skulls figure the most into promotion, which can do several things. For one, it can boost the max hit points of the character and unlock new abilities for him and the rest of the army. For another, promoting him just as he's about to buy the farm restores his entire HP to max. Picking the one guy getting clobbered out of a crowd isn't easy, which is where ParaWorld's one main innovation comes in very handy: the Army Controller.
This tool that fills the left quarter of the screen (but can be minimized, thankfully) displays everything in your control, be it vehicles, beasts, infantry, or workers, as well as their health, what they're doing or harvesting, and stance (offensive, defensive, hold). Click to select, double-click to move to their position, and you can even drag-select a box around multiple avatars on the Controller as you would on the battlefield. Faces can be rearranged however you like, or auto-sorted by right-clicking the left bar on each pane. This tool makes it really simple to monitor health, select groups that aren't all on-screen, and pre-set groupings and assign them to the number keys for hot-selection. Wrangling your army has never been easier.
The downside to the Army Controller is that it only gives you a maximum of a 52-man/vehicle/beast/worker army, since every unit has to fit into that pane, not to mention their individual promotion levels. The bottom rank has 25 slots, the one above has 15, and they gradually diminish upwards. You need to have room above the current rank to promote someone to the next echelon. This creates something of a juggling act between who needs what, and which unlockable-via-promotion abilities you need most for a particular mission, as well as how or if you can promote that character to where they need to be. It also prevents you from simply making an entire army of all high-level units and rampaging unstoppably across the map. The nice thing is that resources are plentiful enough that if you get into a bind with promotions, you can always send a group of troops off to their death, taking as many enemies with them as they can. This frees up slots as well as earning you some more skulls. Then you can do whatever needs to be done.
Beyond that, the controls in ParaWorld are basically on par with what you'd expect from a modern RTS. They don't reinvent the wheel, and camera control is fairly free, allowing you to zoom, rotate, and drag the world with the mouse. The one camera quirk that I despised was the one-way zooming. You can't place it just anywhere; you have to zoom in at some predefined angle each step of the zoom. Company of Heroes and several other RTSes lately have done this better, so I don't know what led SEK to do it this way. Just don't zoom in, and you'll be fine.
It's a bit of a shame that the camera wasn't more zoom-friendly since I wanted a closer look at these luscious visuals. Trees and grass sway in the breeze, resources react accordingly as they're being consumed, animals wander this way and that. Whitecaps on the oceans roll with accurate contours in relation to the shore, fire light glows out of windows, and smoke puffs up from chimneys. Perhaps my favorite effect was the glowy aura around the temples where you can heal your wounded. It looks great all around, though at the highest detail settings, the game ran at 25 frames per second normally on my rig, and sometimes chugged down to seven or eight fps when things really heated up. That was at max detail, though; just tone down some settings or pick up the newest video card, and you'll be fine.
The sound department is no slouch, either. While the voice acting is hit and miss (the overly-frat boy Cole said "Bro" so many times I started to feel related to him), it's more than made up for by the orchestral soundtrack. Every area and situation has a different variation on a theme. Desert areas have a musical flair akin to the Mummy movies, jungles keep the conga beat bumping, and even the title screen tune reminded me a lot of the Morrowind front-end track. That's good company to be in, and I'm glad they did the soundtrack in straight .mp3 format so I can listen to it outside of the game as well.
The A.I. in ParaWorld stumbles every now and then. I had a guy wander into a forest and get stuck there forever. Sometimes I'd have to click a target or resource a few times before interaction would be triggered. I have mixed feelings about how workers will just stop when the resource cap is reached; it's nice that they don't just wander off looking for more work and get themselves killed, but it'd be nice if they found something useful to do on their own. At least they are smart enough to look for similar things in the immediate area to do, like finish or repair other buildings, or start on the next closest batch of trees that need chopping.
Replayability is solid, giving you the chance to revisit any of the campaign missions at different difficulties and try for better outcomes. The skirmish and multiplayer (LAN or Internet) modes sport a dozen or so different-sized maps on which to play around. The Army Controller's limitations on army size and number of high-level units nicely balance out multiplayer games.
ParaWorld is a joy to look at and listen to, and the twist of dinosaurs going head-to-head with modern-day human heroes is reminiscent of Ash bringing his shotgun and Cadillac to medieval Europe in Army of Darkness. It sticks closely to the RTS formula, making it instantly familiar and accessible to RTS vets, but the peculiar universe and potential of the Army Controller interface could spark some interest in a well-worn genre.
More articles about Paraworld