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
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
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
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%
Pentium 4, 2 Ghz
512 Mb RAM
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