Dark Planet: Battle for Natrolis, from Scottish developer Creative Edge Software (aka “Edgies”), is one of those games that probably sounded good when it was on the drawing table. I mean, I can picture a project manager saying, “Hey, we’ll have these three races fighting for a planet, and we’ll do interesting things with the units and resources, and we’ll wrap it up with a snazzy 3D engine. What do you think?” And then the money person might have responded, “Sounds great! Go for it!” But then something went horribly, terribly wrong during production, and, as a result, Dark Planet is one of the worst real-time strategy games I’ve ever played.
Actually, what Dark Planet does is answer the question: can an interface totally kill a game, even if the game has some interesting ideas behind it? The answer is yes -- and then some. Dark Planet’s interface is just excruciatingly bad, and it’s not like it’s bad because it doesn’t work right. It’s bad because, as far as I can tell, Edgies created it to be thoroughly annoying.
Consider the mini-map, or, rather, the two mini-maps. One mini-map is part of the interface, and it works just like the mini-maps in other real-time strategy games. You can click on it to move the camera or to move your units. But it only shows a small section of the mission map, and so it’s only a mini-mini-map. To see the entire map, there’s an optional mini-map that covers part of the playing area, but you can’t interact with it. So there are two mini-maps, and each does half of what you’d like a mini-map to do, and together they prevent you from doing anything useful, like, oh, quickly moving between points on the mission map. You either have to scroll the map there (slow) or make numerous clicks on the mini-mini-map (annoying).
Or consider group aliases. Just like in other games, you can select some units and then alias them to a hotkey. But for some reason Dark Planet only allows you to use 1-6 for the hotkeys rather than 1-0. Why? I have no idea. 7-0 aren’t used for anything. It’s like Edgies just wanted to see what they could get away with. Of course, 1-6 is probably more than enough because the alias hotkeys are really annoying. Instead of just selecting the units, they also -- usually, but not always -- center the camera on them. And then if you’re really lucky, using the hotkeys will also sometimes zoom in the camera. (Randomness is fun!) And so if you try to coordinate multiple groups of units, it’s almost impossible because the camera keeps jumping all over the place, and the mini-maps are messed up so it’s not easy to jump back where you want to be.
Want more? Units are given four stances: one where they flee if they’re attacked, another where they stand their ground, a third where they behave “normally,” and a last one where they act aggressively. The problem is that the normal stance works just like the aggressive stance, and so you have a choice of either letting your units run all over the entire map or forcing them to stand their ground. Regardless, you have to micromanage your units, which, remember, is really exciting if you’re trying to attack in one place and defend in another.
I could go on about the interface for another couple paragraphs, but you get the idea. The interface is just plain bad, and it makes the game absolutely no fun to play. And it doesn’t help that the computer AI is terrible, that there aren’t any difficulty settings, that there isn’t any voice acting, and that the three campaigns included with the game share not only the same maps, but also many of the same objectives. And so the single player experience is boring, and good luck trying to find other people who have the game so you can try multiplayer. Anybody unlucky enough to buy it will probably return it the next day.
And it’s too bad because Dark Planet has some interesting ideas. For example, the three races are varied and distinct, although the human Colonists, the bug-like Dreil, and the lizard-like Sorin bear more than a little resemblance to the Terrans, Zerg, and Protoss from Starcraft. But Dark Planet’s races have many more units, with lots of things to research, and so there are more choices for you to make. Plus, with the Dreil you get to control worms, which is sort of cool.
And even the resources are great. There are three main resources -- wood, stone, and crystal --which are about as familiar as resources get, but then each race also requires energy. However, for the humans it’s mechanical energy, and they get it from hot air vents on the surface of the planet. For the Dreil it’s living energy, and they get it from “cocooning” and then harvesting their enemies. And for the Sorin it’s spiritual energy, and they get it either from praying at a temple or by killing enemies and stealing their spirit. If only the rest of the game was that creative.
But it’s not, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because the interface is just that bad. So don’t buy Dark Planet. Don’t go anywhere near it. And you might even want to avoid the games next to it on the store shelves, just in case they’ve become tainted by its presence.