Treasure Planet is Disney's ticket this year to dominating the crucial
Thanksgiving opening; a period when Disney never has trouble in ruling
the box office charts. What ails the media conglomerate is when it
comes to creating compelling games to support its movies. Treasure
Planet: Battle at Procyon is more like a sequel to a movie that hasn't
been released yet. Confusing as that may be, it takes place in events
after the movie, when the protagonist, Jim Hawkins, has left the life of
piracy under the tutelage of John Silver and has taken up on earning his
officer's bars through the naval academy. The ties to the movie are
apparent but Treasure Planet has the strength to stand on its own as a
refreshing and enjoyable real time strategy game. Barking Dog Studios,
now Rockstar Vancouver, ably displays flashes of excellence working with
Disney material - excellence that has not been seen by me since the days
of Aladdin and The Lion King.
Before I get into the actual mechanics of Treasure Planet, something
must be said about the backdrop of this game. Both film and game are
loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, a novel
released originally in 1883, arguably near the height of the British
Empire. Combining imperial jingoism in the 19th century and sci-fi
elements of space-faring futurism, Treasure Planet is a dialectic mix of
the two, filling the universe with oddities like solar sail boats, laser
cannon balls and space-roving whale pods. It may seem odd to see people
rigging sails on their ships in space at first but what a glorious
backdrop this is. It reminded me a lot of the ill-fated SSI classic,
Spelljammer, where galleons and longboats sailed across the stars.
In its fundamentals, Treasure Planet plays not unlike Starfleet Command
or Star Trek Armada. Restricting z-axis movement, its 3D engine is easy
to grasp and the camera system is simple to control. The mouse wheel
lets you zoom in and out while holding down the right mouse button will
let you pan around the ship. Furthermore, there's an option to move
your camera to track other items (the ships you escort might be a good
idea) and you can move back to your own flagship with ease.
Like most naval strategy titles, there is a great emphasis by Treasure
Planet on Newtonian mechanics of inertia. Frigates and Man-O-Wars may
dwarf or menace smaller craft but their maneuverability is suspect,
unless you slow down their speed, making you vulnerable to enemy fire.
Consider this: a bigger frigate chasing a torpedo boat has to spend ten
times the distance to make a 180 degree turn while something diminutive
can jinx, juke and dodge without any such penalty.
Treasure Planet's developers have kept everything relatively simple.
There are four speed settings: full, cruising, slow and stop. Giving
orders to your crew to repair and put out fires are done automatically
and targeting enemies is as simple as point and click. But that doesn't
mean Treasure Planet merely hands each enemy ship to you on a silver
platter. In any battle, there's a significant amount of strategy
involved to maximize your weapons fire on the enemy by keeping yourself
in motion and keeping your boat positioned to make the most devastating
strikes. Not all ships are configured in the same manner. Typically,
most of your most potent weapons (cannons) face sideways, thereby
forcing you to maneuver yourself along the sides of other ships for
maximum effect. The smart naval commander will also find a way to
utilize weapons on the other side of the ship while the others are
As you progress throughout the game, Hawkins will come under command of
newer ships and you'll even be able to customize ships to a degree.
Recruiting specialized crew members will help improve the statistics of
ships. Gunners, for example, will help make better shots. A skilled
engineer can help improve the maneuverability of your craft. Skilled
fighters on board will help prevent your ship from being boarded and
captured. Victory points allotted at the end of each mission
effectively serve as the currency needed to outfit your naval squadron.
With multiple ships, you're allowed to assign fleet formations and
direct other ships to concentrate fire on specific targets. While the
fleet command is much simplified compared to a full-fledged title like
Starfleet Command, Treasure Planet's modicum of depth helps reinforce a
mantra that you'll repeat to yourself battle after battle. If the cry
of bricks and mortars marketing is "Location, Location, Location", the
cry for the Royal Navy is position, position, position.
Treasure Planet begins with simple missions that help you get a grasp of
this. The missions themselves are wonderfully crafted and linked
together with an overall storyline. Not all is safe within the Empire.
Imperial interests are threatened when strange ironclad ships,
impervious to small arms fire, appear on the frontiers but the Royal
Navy also has threats at home as an uneasy ceasefire exists with the
feline Procyons. The ensuing drama and action has Hawkins rise through
the ranks as he tries to unravel the mystery of the ironclad presence,
as well as whether his longtime friend, the pirate king John Silver, has
anything to do with it.
Save for the prolonged second mission, most of the tasks Hawkins is
given to carry out are fun and interesting. He is joined by a cast of
memorable characters, including his first officer, a cyborg named Mr.
Onyx who reminds the ambitious captain that his first priority is duty
to the Royal Navy. The British accents, cannon balls crashing and cries
of 'Fire!' are particularly well done. Because of the writing and the
voiceover work, even the most prosaic missions, like resolving fishing
rights between two villages, are entertaining. No mission is unrelated
to the ongoing plot either as the developers try to work the ironclad
and pirate menace into every one.
Unfortunately, the game can be completed in one sitting. If not for the
long travel times, it might even be less. The second mission, for
example, has you locating lost ships in a backwater quadrant. It's
prolonged by the fact that even on full speed your ship won't be
traveling as fast as you want. I often wish there was a way to
accelerate time because moving from one point to another can take a good
five minutes. However, the subsequent missions are better paced and
during battles, the speed isn't too slow at all. In fact, with larger
ships that need slower speeds to turn on a dime, you'll think
developer's default speed is just right.
Treasure Planet even has a competent multiplayer component. There are
about half a dozen historical maps that simulate conflicts between
pirates, Procyons and the Royal Navy. While these don't possess the
story elements found in the single player campaign, they're interesting
nonetheless. More enticing for multiplayer are the 'open' multiplayer
maps. These ones have fewer scenario restrictions and can let up to
eight players duke it out with each other. The whole multiplayer
interface looks like it was lifted straight from Starcraft and that's a
good thing too because it enables computer AI to take over roles where
humans aren't available.
The multiplayer maps are typically skirmishes between one side or
another. But they aren't purely exercises in deathmatch. Sometimes,
there are bases you must defend. Other times, resupply stations are
available for you to cast your anchor at for repairs. Some ships, like
the Tenders, are mobile resupply ships. And others, like the weapons
barge, are stationary platforms that need to be towed.
Besides implementing different interface motifs for each side (Procyon,
pirate and Royal Navy), you also have the choice of customizing your
fleet by loading and saving personal configurations. Similar to what
happens in the single player campaign, you can use victory points
(allotted at the beginning of each 'open' multiplayer map) to
personalize your fighting fleet. It's also one of the few places where
you'll get access to all the different ships in the single player
The most wonderful thing Treasure Planet did was infuse life into its
universe with the Stevenson novel. Terms like the Admiralty,
Parliament, Imperial citizens, Home Territories and the Empire are the
terms of Victorian jingoism, par excellence. The story, perhaps
numbering only a few pages of text, is written and narrated so well that
it draws you into the Royal Navy and never lets go afterwards. It
actually made me look forward to watching the movie, which, alas, I
learnt was more about Hawkins living the life of a rogue than the Royal
With the recent release of the third Starfleet Command title, Treasure
Planet is stacked up against stiff competition this holiday season.
While it may be strange to see fishing grounds next to gorgeous looking
black holes, there's a je ne sais quoi factor about Treasure Planet that
makes it work. The quirky combination of stars and sails creates a
magnificent backdrop for naval strategy. Throw Hawkins' story in it and
it becomes an unexpectedly charming title through and through - one of
the most surprising titles that I've had the pleasure of coming across