Project Earth


Developer:    Lemon Interactive

Publisher:    Dreamcatcher

Released:   2002

PC Requirements:    Windows 98/ME/XP: Pentium II 700 MHz (1000 MHz recommended), 256 MB RAM ( 384 MB RAM recommended), 32 MB open GL GeForce video card, DirectX 8.0, DirectSound 3D compatible sound card.




by Singer

I’ve been putting an awful lot of mileage on my hyperdrive lately, courtesy of DreamCatcher, who seems intent on single-handedly filling the void of 3D space RTS (real time strategy) games.  Project Earth was the company’s initial foray into the genre, and it proved to be a tentative first step. 

Developed by newcomers Lemon Interactive, Project Earth borrows unashamedly from the tried and true conventions of earlier RTS games, adding its own touches in relatively minor ways. In this case, the main inspiration was the groundbreaking epic Homeworld, although aside from the fully 3D space aspect, it shares much in common with any standard RTS.  I have no problem at all with a product standing on the shoulders of giants, but if a game is going to do that, it had better end up improving on its predecessors.   Did Project Earth manage to accomplish that feat?  Well… yes and mostly no.

The game is set in the distant future, when Earth has succeeded in colonizing another habitable planet and discovering a third.  The gameplay premise centers around several giant ships sent from Earth to the new planet, powered by the minds of single individuals called Sundivers.  On the way, of course, plans are blown all to space smithereens by the appearance of violent alien ships on a direct route to Earth. 

I point out this backstory, because the manual deemed it worthy of three tiny paragraphs.  In the actual game, campaigns for both the humans and aliens are offered, playable in either order, and each has its own narrative designed to make you sympathetic to your chosen race.  From that perspective, it makes little sense why they provided a human background and not an alien one.  Then again, given the quality of the storytelling, perhaps the less said the better.  I don’t want to come down on the writing too much – it certainly TRIES hard, and although clichéd, it was fairly interesting.  My gripe is simply that it is presented in such a second rate, unimaginative manner. 

The story unfolds between missions through dreadful cutscenes.  Using the in-game engine, they rarely show anything more than closeups of the respective mothership and a small picture of the speaker while you listen to dialogue between ship captains.  The main failing here is that there are LENGTHY gaps between new lines of speech.  This made the already slow-paced scenes drag ridiculously.   Throw in some poor voice acting, and engine noises that occasionally drown out the voices, and you have plenty of temptation to skip the story entirely and move straight to the next mission.

The playable aliens are called Daemons, and their ships all have underworld-related names like Succubus, Fiend, and Hellhound.  They’re red-skinned, have red ships, and speak in creepy garbled English.  Gee, anyone see a pattern developing here?  Could these be the “bad guys”?  (well, yeah - at least until it’s time to PLAY them).

The whole notion of the Sundivers is completely irrelevant.  I can only guess that the purpose was to make us more attached to them, but since the only time we “see” them is in mugshots during the cutscenes, they could just as easily have been captains of conventionally run ships, and we would’ve cared no less (or more).  I think Lemon wasted an opportunity to incorporate this aspect into the human campaign – it would have been so much more interesting for the humans to protect a small individual sized Sundiver craft in the heat of battle, rather than the same type of giant motherships as the aliens.

During each campaign, you’ll encounter a third, mysterious alien race.  This new race, the Vitechy, is a threat to both humans and the Daemons, so hostility becomes a three way affair.  While this adds a much needed third party, there is almost nothing to distinguish any of the races technologically.  The Vitechy are acknowledged by both sides to be highly advanced, but  I saw no practical evidence of their superiority during missions.  The few variations between the three races have no real impact on gameplay, so if not for looking different, the units would all essentially be the same.   As a result, the campaigns play out almost identically.  Moreover, the missions themselves are formulaic and repetitive.  Although they may have slightly different objectives, they all end up requiring the same procedure – build up resources early, survive enemy attacks, and finally launch an all-out offensive to wipe out the opponent.  Unlike many current RTS titles, units gain no combat experience , and are not carried over from one mission to the next, which is odd, since missions are supposedly sequential.  With relatively few ships and research options to choose from, the result is fairly monotonous after a while, as you’re forced to start from scratch in each scenario. This may help with the early learning curve, but it doesn’t fit with the game’s continuous narrative, and it certainly won’t hold one’s interest for long.

Fortunately, Project Earth looks fairly good.  While space is, by nature, pretty dull to look at (at least when you’re surrounded by it), the game has a nice array of asteroids, gases, planets and comets to really spruce up the place. There are some nice effects, like ship engine trails and explosions, and when you fly too close to radioactive asteroids, your camera starts showing static until you move back out of range.  The ship models are done well, and each has distinct animations that add to the realism.  It’s too bad that much of this detail is lost by the (inescapable) need to play from a strategically distant viewpoint.

I must also note that the newer Hegemonia, also a DreamCatcher title, blows Project Earth out of the er… spacewater visually.  If I’d played the games in the order of their release, I’d have praised the graphics without reservation, but now I have seen the best of the genre, and Project Earth isn’t it. 

Unlike Homeworld (but like Hegemonia), the camera in Project Earth is completely free roaming. Using a keyboard/mouse combination, you can pan, scan, rotate, and zoom to your heart’s content, or hit any number of hotkeys to affix your sight to a unit of choice.  I know this is touted as a highlight, but to me it’s a mixed blessing.  First of all, space is big – DARN big… and it has that confounding Z axis, too.  It can be incredibly difficult to locate units, particularly during battle, or become disoriented while moving around.  To make matters worse, the default view when you attach the camera to a unit is ALWAYS too close to be of any use.  It gives you a nice view of the spiffy ships, but that’s not much help when a Succubus is firing lasers up your tailpipe.  The controls certainly become more manageable as time goes on, but I continually felt like I was fighting them. 

There are two separate mini-maps which are moderately helpful, one for radar and one a 2D overhead view.  Unfortunately, yet again the designers undermine their own efforts by requiring power sources to operate them.  If you run low on power, you lose your mini-maps.  Lost in space with fuzz for radar.  Woo hoo!! – what fun….  Lemon claims they favoured a simplistic RTS model over a realistic simulation, and yet they’ve arbitrarily included some elements like this that might frustrate some players.

The rest of the game’s interface is clean, if not entirely intuitive.  All available information is presented on the main screen.  In order to access strategic commands, the screen can be “locked” by holding down the Control key, freeing the cursor for use on the menus.  Again, I got used to this, but forcing players to use two hands simultaneously to issue basic orders is overly cumbersome.  A toggle key would have been much more friendly.  On the plus side, the game offers a reasonably comprehensive tutorial which will give you a decent feel for the controls before you begin your missions.

Sound in the game is entirely mediocre.  Apart from the previously mentioned voice acting, sound effects are minimal but functional, and the music is a synthesized techno soundtrack that some may enjoy but I quickly tired of and turned completely down.   

Another “feature” of Project Earth is multiple battlefields.  Several missions have you playing on separate fronts, connected (in the story) by warp gates.  This was another needless complication to me.  There was no way to even partially monitor the events in one while you tended to the other, so it was necessary to constantly switch back and forth and micromanage both planes.  That certainly added to the tension, but not the entertainment value.  Heaven forbid you’d start having trouble finding units in TWO different places!  I’m not completely opposed to the idea of multiple fronts, but at the very least there needs to be a better system for managing them.

Ship AI is another hit or miss reality.  I was thrilled to see that when I created units to gather resources, they immediately headed to the (presumably) nearest asteroid for mining.  On the other hand, I occasionally found an entire GROUP of fighter craft just sitting around with their feet up while my base got hammered right beside them. Not only that, but I think the developers REALLY should have spent 5 minutes with an actual fighter pilot to understand formations and dogfighting.  My ships were so intent on flying in perfect air-show formation that they’d often move repeatedly through massive attacks just so they could re-group neatly for a strafing run.  Argh!!!!  No wonder they didn’t carry over from mission to mission – they were probably all FIRED for being so stupid.

One of the most inexplicable (and to me inexcusable) aspects of Project Earth is the lack of pause and mid-mission saves in the retail version in North America.  I waited until now to mention it, because a patch WAS released that provided these options.  Even so, the patched save function is limited to a single “quicksave” slot, which isn’t enough.  On several occasions, I saved my game thinking I was in a good position, only to discover I was woefully unprepared to survive the next attack, and since I’d overwritten my earlier save, I was forced to start again from the beginning.  Combined with the lack of difficulty settings, this meant I replayed parts or all of more missions than I care to remember.  Still, I credit the company for at least listening to the wishes of the fans by including these features after the fact.  Nevertheless, NOTE TO DREAMCATCHER: absolutely insist on save-anywhere features in your PC titles, or you’ll alienate the vast majority of gamers.

Another curious omission is the random map option, although perhaps this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, since the campaign missions themselves play out like traditional stand-alone scenarios, and there’s only so much “randomness” you can assign to outer space.  The game does offer a multiplayer mode for up to 8 players for those looking to extend gameplay beyond the campaigns. 

If it seems I’m being overly critical, it’s not because Project Earth is a BAD game.  Since it borrows so many elements of other RTS’s, it was almost guaranteed a certain degree of playability.  Aside from adjusting to the freeform camera, the game will be accessible to anyone remotely familiar with the genre.   The storyline is well developed (if poorly executed), the missions are simple and streamlined without being easy, and the graphics are sharp. 

Still, this game will be judged primarily on what it does better than Homeworld, and the easiest answer to that is “not much”, or perhaps more accurately, what it does better is countered by what it does worse.  It’s a solid but unspectacular title that I’d recommend only to those who truly enjoy the challenges of 3D space wars. 

Final score:  63%

Played on:

Win XP

Pentium 4, 2 Ghz

512 Mb RAM

GeForce 4

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Please write to: Singer

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