I used to play real-time strategy games a lot. It was my favorite genre. But then, gradually, the games started feeling more and more alike, and I grew restless. I knew I was in trouble when I played Rise of Nations, and while everybody else loved it, I was indifferent. These days, I only pick up a real-time strategy game if for some reason no other reviewer is available to deal with it, or if it looks like the game will be unique and different. ParaWorld, from German developer SEK, fits into the latter category.
ParaWorld involves a parallel world where electricity doesn't exist, but dinosaurs still roam free. Sometime in the early 19th century, a scientist named Jarvis discovered the world, but rather than share it with everybody (or even open it up as a tourist attraction), he decided to keep it for himself. To ensure that his world would remain secret, he formed an organization called the SEAS (Society of Exact Alternative Science), and he used it to kidnap any scientist who appeared to be getting close. Fast forward to the 1950's, and Jarvis decides to remove three international scientists -- Cole from America, Stina from Sweden, and Bela from Hungary -- by dropping them into the parallel world and letting nature take its course. But the scientists survive, and the campaign that comes with the game follows their exploits as they figure out what's going on, and decide to stop the SEAS.
The background story looks like a bunch of hokum to me, but that's ok, because it's just there to introduce a parallel world where dinosaurs still exist. The world also has some people on it, and of course they've grouped together to form three distinct factions: the Norsemen, who are slow but who have heavy fortifications; the Dustriders, who are quick and mobile; and the Dragon Clan, who have a Japanese theme and who get to use traps. The SEAS also appears to have a full complement of units and buildings, but you can't select them as a faction in skirmish games, and, obviously, they only appear as an enemy in the campaign.
Speaking of the campaign, it includes 17 missions including a short tutorial mission. The missions are very nicely designed, with required as well as optional objectives, not to mention loads of cut scenes, and they're challenging and interesting. My litmus test for campaign missions is always to ask if there's a lot of difference between them and skirmish mode, and if there isn't, then I'm probably not going to like the campaign very much. But ParaWorld has an old-school flavor to it. The missions require a variety of tactics, they give you different sorts of objectives (not just to destroy the enemy base each time), and there are even a couple of puzzle missions, like when the three heroes find themselves in an arena for a trial by combat.
Where ParaWorld starts to run into some problems is in its interface. Some parts of the interface I liked, such as how the game gives you options for things like how to sort your saved games and whether you want the minimap to rotate with the camera, but then there are some decisions that are just puzzling. For example, you can't configure your hotkeys, and some of the default mappings are strange, like having to use “V” for attack-move instead of “A.”. The mouse controls are also a little awkward, as developer SEK fell in love with ctrl- and alt- clicking for things, when simpler strategies would have worked just as well. For example, to rotate the camera, you either have to press the alt key and the left mouse button, or you have to press the middle and right mouse buttons at the same time. Just about every 3D game that comes out any more uses the middle or right mouse buttons for this, and it's strange that SEK decided to use something far more awkward.
Then there's the “army controller.” This is a part of the interface that shows your units, and it's both a good and helpful idea as well as being an annoying idea. On the good side, it clearly shows the status of your army, and it makes it easy to do things like check the health of your units and see which worker units are currently idle. But it also takes up a lot of space on the screen, and it severely limits the number of units you can control at once (52 including workers). Now, that being said, I always appreciate it when developers try new things, and, if nothing else, the army controller gives ParaWorld a unique look and feel.
ParaWorld also has an assortment of minor bugs -- and this even after SEK just recently released a patch. From time to time workers will stop working, units will refuse to enter transports, the loading screen won't load missions, and bypassing a cut scene will leave the screen black. It's easy enough to fix these problems (exiting the game, clearing the game's caches, and then restarting the game worked almost every time), but it's curious and sort of disappointing that the bugs exist at all, and they show SEK for what it is: a small developer trying to release a real-time strategy game for the first time.
But overall, despite some problems with a quirky interface, and despite a few small bugs here and there, I had a lot of fun with ParaWorld. I don't think it would be far wrong to call the game “DinoCraft” because it's clear that developer SEK studied the campaigns for WarCraft and StarCraft and recognized that fun missions revolve around a variety of objectives, and interesting campaigns require people rather than just factions. ParaWorld doesn't have the same production values as those Blizzard titles, but it still provides an enjoyable experience, and you can probably find it for under $30, and so it's an easy game to recommend.