Every so often in the Real Time Strategy Genre, a game other than the Command and Conquer Series moves gameplay and presentation up a notch. In the late 1990s it was the Total Annihilation and the Warcraft series, and although Warzone 2100 flopped, it paved the way for the free flowing partially mouse-controlled camera of Ground Control. Z: Steel Soldiers was also a major improvement on its first game and got the best sales that were expected up against Emperor: Battle for Dune, but was outsold again.
Codemasters seemed to take the view to differ from Generals as much as possible and return to Sci-Fi, and here we find Perimeter developed by KD-Labs. In addition to being the first RTS game where you can shape the landscape like clay with terraforming abilities, it’s only the third RTS where the units themselves can transform to suit the combat or practical task required, like Evolva and Impossible Creatures before it. Add to the fact that your central base (known as a frame) needs energy pylons to link to it if you wish to move, and the energy required to power the eponymous bright blue perimeter, and you can imagine the scale of the task ahead of you.
In fact you don’t need to imagine it because the ludicrously overwrought voiceover will TELL you JUST how IMPORTANT your quest is TO YOUR PEOPLE. It’s cringingly funny although never borders into the downright irritating like Breed’s actors. The story about Mankind getting trapped by its future dependency on the frame and needing to move throughout the universe, under attack by the Scourge, is rubbish. Thankfully that doesn’t detract from the gameplay quality nor the retro electronica soundtack which wouldn’t have been out of place on an Amiga game- no bad thing. There’s little call for the unit rush here, just because the perimeter can be fired up for one attack and not recharge in time for the next. This leads to a frenzy of terraforming for power more than simple real estate so your factories can continue unit production, as well as giving your frame a flexible means of movement- if you can keep those energy tower links active.
The lessons of Ground Control have been learned and re-applied well: the mouse wheel is the “rostrum camera”, allowing the view to pan up and down while moving in a quarter circle in and out of the action, and holding down the middle mouse button gives other movement in addition to Delete and PageDown spinning the camera. In other words it can almost all be done with the mouse depending on the intensity of the battle, another big plus in its favour.
The officers, technicians and soldiers are your basic combination of unit and currency, usually ordered in blocks of ten from the Z/X/C keys. Different amounts of each group assist the creation of different units and it’s safe to assume the more lethal weaponry costs more units, meaning an increase in terraforming for power, and the cycle continues. The Scourge is similarly free-flowing, attacks in packs and the central defence system in the name of the game can result in a false sense of security - there’s no sitting around hitting the perimeter button like a light switch. Your units have to be sent out to carry out the mission, which will allow progress and preservation of the all-important frame. Lose the frame, you lose the game.
It becomes a frantic war of attrition especially on the deliberately smaller maps and the game is worth investing some time to learn the combat system. It’s best to interpret the naff voices in the style of Saturday morning kids’ cartoons you used to watch. My chief complaint is the fact that the units become pig-ugly below the default 1024 x 768 resolution. The game’s a system vampire as well. Even though the looks took a nosedive, the 768Mb of RAM in the test system kept the action at the same speed and the perimeter stayed pretty. The scalability allowed satisfactory visuals at the default resolution even with a 1.5GHz Athlon XP 1800+ but this was partly thanks to a cleaned up system, particularly a defragmented hard drive.
Ahead of the big Sci-Fi sequel to Ground Control, Perimeter sneaks out and proves a welcome surprise for RTS fans after a year of ultra-real urban action from the C & C Series. Just like C & C you can skip that campaign and minimise the booming voiceover and skirmish away to your heart's content for instant fun, or masochistic learning the hard way. There's also LAN or internet play for four players at a time when you outgrow the AI.
This RTS game has a new aspect to it that's out of the ordinary, so play the demo to make sure you can accept the non-linear learning curve. If it grabs you then give it a go. It'll certainly keep you occupied before Ground Control: Operation Exodus arrives on the scene this summer. That game is now with us as well but it'll be interesting to see what you can do in future rival real time strategy titles now the terraforming tactic has arrived. Even if you remain a C & C or Warcraft junkie, we'd still only knock one point from the score for the game's visual quality drop below the default resolution.