Populous: The Beginning
Mystics. Shamen. Obelisks. Reincarnation. Magical energy. It sounds like the stuff of a mid-seventies concept album, one of those preposterous Crock operas' excreted by overpaid acid casualties with too much time on their hands. A 60-minute guided tour through a universe of pretension, with occasional breaks for timpani rolls, guitar solos and sword-and-chainmail sound effects, accompanied by echoing vocals, and ending with a fey medieval folk tune about a little man performing a jig atop a toadstool. Recorded over a six-month period in a farmhouse studio in the Brecon Beacons, with a trough full of hallucinogenic drugs in one corner of the room and a docile goat tied to a post in the other. You know, the sort of thing they cover in Mojo.
But that isn't what we're looking at here. All these things -shamen, obelisks etc - are part of Populous: The Beginning, a new virtual reality computer game designed to enliven your eyes, hands and brain. And it's good.
Quick history lesson: Populous: The Beginning is a Cprequel' to Populous 1 and 2, both wildly successful games, the first of which appeared I back in oooooh... 1968 or SO (1989, actually - Ed). The original Populous is treated with reverence by self-styled computer game Chistorians' for several reasons:
1) It was the first god game'
God games. Familiar with them? Sim City was a god game. So, in a way, is Creatures 2. But Populous is widely regarded as the first. As the name implies, Cgod games' cast you as an almighty, omnipotent entity shaping the destiny of the onscreen world. This is precisely what Populous did, granting everyone the ability to move mountains and destroy entire civilisations with apocalyptic curses. Since the majority of computer game fans are craven, powerless outcasts harbouring violent revenge fantasies, the game was a runaway success.
2) It had about ten billion levels
Okay, more like a thousand. But the fact remains that Populous was huge. No one ever completed it. Well, apparently one person claims to have completed it, but they were probably just being silly. Still, a thousand or so levels was a lot, especially back then, when most games had about six stages, four of them crap. The perceived Cendless lifespan' did wonders for the game's Cvalue for money' rating at the hands of the reviewers, who dribbled in awe at the sheer number of stages, never once reasoning that playing a game with a thousand levels soon becomes tiresome, in the same way that watching a 73-hour war movie would eventually drive you genuinely insane.
3) It was weird, but in a cerebral sort of way
Back then, there were loads of surreal games available, but they tended to be strange in a Czany' sense - gigantic humanoid lemons riding penny-farthings around the rings of Saturn, that kind of thing. Populous, with its abstract gameplay, geographical manipulation and extensive use of religious iconography, was just the sort of thing highbrow gamers could discuss at length without feeling stupid. After all, it's impossible to deliver a persuasive and considered narrative discourse regarding the pros and cons of Fat Worm Blows A Sparky without inviting loud snorts of derision from your audience.
So, there you go: the original Populous was a legend among games. Which is why it's surprising that Bullfrog have decided to do away with the traditional Populous basics for this, the third entry in the series.
If It Ain't Broke... Make It Better
Populous: The Beginning owes a debt not only to the original Populous, but also to real-time wargames like Command & Conquer and most significantly, Total Annihiliation. In the original Populous titles, you could shape the landscape, but had little direct control over the populace itself. Populous: The Beginning reverses this: you're forever ordering minions around, while reshaping the land itself is a rare treat. A cynic might argue -not altogether unreasonably -that this seismic shift in game design reduces Populous to the level of just another real-time strategy game. A valid point - but one that ignores something rather more significant: all the changes Bullfrog have made actually serve to improve the game. This is a better play than Populous 1. Permit us to illuminate.
As we mentioned earlier, Populous: The Beginning is a Cprequel' to the previous games. This is a nifty way of explaining one of the game's major departures: the fact that you, the player, are actually playing one of the characters on-screen. Not just any old character, mind. You're a mystical shaman, blessed with magical powers. Oh, and you're a woman as well. You know, a woman. With knockers and a fanny and everything. Anyway, your ultimate goal is to become a god (try telling that to your careers advisor). Achieving these herculean ambitions requires help in the form of followers - ordinary humans who just happen to worship the ground you walk on. The more followers you have, the more magical energy you get to play with. As each level begins, you're granted a set number of followers; acquiring more requires the use of a conversion spell (which turns savage wildmen into willing minions), or, most often, via the traditional method - mating.
Yes, mating. You want your followers to breed and create more followers. To do this you need to get them to build huts to shag in. But in order to build huts, they first need to go and chop down trees, of which there is a finite supply. Thus begins the familiar resource management merry-go-round.
Once they're successfully breeding like rabbits, you can start training them. Send a few to become warriors and build yourself an army, or ordain others as priests who will attempt to convert the enemy hordes to your way of thinking. Later in the game, other options present themselves: you can have Cfire warriors' (who can shoot balls of fire - quelle surprise) and spies (who can disguise themselves, all the better for cunning invasion plans), or send followers to sail boats and pilot balloons. And that's just the people. It's in the range of spells that the real fun lies.
Your quest to become a deity isn't just plain sailing. Each stage takes place on a different planet, and each planet is home to at least one other religious movement other than your own. And as we all know, opposing religious factions have a tendency to, well, destroy one another. In the early stages, it's you versus a single other tribe; as you progress further you'll be pitted against up to three others. However many you're fighting, you're going to need some high-faluting magical tricks if you're going to make any real headway.
These spells start out as fairly weedy spangly effects (such as the ability to build yourself a wickle bridge of soil across inconvenient stretches of water), and eventually graduate to full-on apoc-a-licious cataclysms (such as impromptu volcanic eruptions or flaming meteoric downpours). Gaining new entries into your mystical arsenal is a slow but steady process, and a great incentive to carry on playing, even when things get mighty tough -which starts happening some time around level five. Which brings us neatly on to level design, and sensible use of the learning curve. It's often been a failing of Bullfrog games - they start out with tons of features, incredible graphics and innovative gameplay, but tend to play their hands too early. Magic Carpet, Theme Park, Syndicate - all superb games, but ones which tended to become very 'samey' very quickly. In recent years they've been improving the balance -Theme Hospital, for instance, retains your interest for far longer than Theme Park. But with Populous: The Beginning they've excelled themselves. Although obviously the basic motives remain the same, every level seems to pose a new threat, demand fresh tactics and provide a plethora of exciting extra spells and features. Of course, you'd expect this of any game, but with Populous it feels... well, it just feels right, that's all. You want to keep on hammering away until you've finished it. And when you've done that, you can take on your friends - the game includes loads of carefully thought-out multiplayer options, enabling you and three fellow omnipotent deity wannabes to go head to head to head to head in an orgy of spell-casting, mountain-shaking violence.
I Wanna Reach Out And Grab Ya
On to the building blocks: sound and graphics. The visuals really are quite astonishing. The action all takes place on a 'proper' globe: that is, the interface bungs you an entire three-dimensional planet to play with. You can spin the thing around, zoom in and out, and rotate the viewpoint to whichever angle serves you best. it's so dang neat it's one of those games that makes passers-by stop in their tracks and start gawping. It even runs smoothly without an accelerator - well, it does if you've got a fairly hefty system, anyway.
A special tip of the hat has to go to the use of colour in the game. It really is superb. Clearly Bullfrog's 'Mister Pallette' is a talented individual. There are elements from previous Bullfrog titles at work in the game: the interface which enables you to select different types of follower is a direct lift from Dungeon Keeper, and elements of the landscape and structure design are strongly reminiscent of Magic Carpet.
Sonically it's not bad, although the pan-pipey New Age music grates a little. Mind you, at least it's in keeping with the theme -and let's face it, what else could they have used? B'witched? R Kelly? Chas and Dave? Actually, that last one isn't a bad idea -future games developers make a mental note.
And so we come to the big question: should you buy it? Short answer: yes. Long answer: Populous: The Beginning may be 'just another real-time strategy game' in some respects, but it also happens to have the best interface, the best engine, the most finely-balanced gameplay, and the most original and distinctive underlying concept.
And another thing: this is an important game for Bullfrog. When co-founder Peter Molyneux left to form Lionhead, many doubted whether the company he left behind would be able to maintain the high standards it had achieved under his command. On this showing, they're capable of surpassing them.
Now That's Magic!
When it comes to flash Ctricks', the shamen's it
Today's magicians are rubbish. Paul Daniels? He may be able to saw Debbie McGee In half, but he hasn't managed to put his disjointed career back together again, has he? David Copperfield? If he's such a shit-hot sorcerer, why can't he make all those pernicious rumours regarding the nature of his marriage to Claudia Schiffer simply disappear in a puff of smoke? Eh? In case you need further proof that the mystic men of the Nineties are mere tuppeny tricksters compared to the Populous shaman, check out some of these in-game spells. Rope tricks? Table-top card magic? Disappearing coins? Piss off. This is hard-core.
Comin' On Strong Like A Seventh Sense
Could The Shamen be the shaman's favourite band?
Okay, let's get the Mister C jokes out of the way. The shaman in Populous has nothing to do with the early '90s New Age technopop outfit The Shamen. But there are three striking parallels.
First, the musical Shamen claimed to possess the ability to move, move, move any mountain", yet were never called upon to prove this in a court of law. The Populous shaman can demonstrably cause mountain ranges to disappear (when equipped with the correct spell).
Second, the followers of the Populous shaman start out as savage tribesmen, then go on to become respected priests, cunning spies or fearsome, muscle-bound warriors. The followers of the musical Shamen started out as crushes, and went on to work as website consultants, independent TV producers, and as organisers of the International Festival of Contemporary Dance. Well, the ones that needed jobs did, anyhow. The rest are still living off daddy's trust fund. Bastards.
Third, In Populous it's best to keep an eye on your shaman each time she wanders near an expanse of water, since she can't swim and can easily drown - a lesson the musical Shamen had to learn the hard way.
Download Populous: The Beginning
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode