Gamers who have been around for a few years have seen some Russian games ported over to us English-speaking users. Games like Cossacks and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are of particular note due to their widespread popularity and the unique concepts injected into their respective genres. Unfortunately, Russian made games also have a reputation for unforgiving difficulty, poor translations, and quite often, bugs.
So when a copy of Perimeter: Emperor's Testament was handed to me by my Editor at a staff event to review, the vodka in my system could not resist the call to play the fresh Russian-style RTS contained on the CD's. As an expansion to an already existing franchise, Emperor's Testament had some promise, or so I thought.
Firstly let me say that the manual is nearly useless. The grammar and syntax makes it nearly unreadable, and many of the units and buildings mentioned in the manual have different names in the game. Thank goodness there are pictures to fill in the gaps.
Upon playing the game I was simply overwhelmed by the strangeness before me. Superficially it is like any other RTS out there: build structures, units, and crush the enemy. The view is top down, and the camera can be rotated and zoomed in and out to extreme levels. The battlefield can be observed from the ground to get the perspective of the units on the ground or from high in the sky where almost the whole map can be seen.
The features that differentiate it from the rest of the RTS pack make it a unique experience, but not always enjoyable. The graphics will not impress you. They are a few years old but fully 3D and there's a unique sci-fi look to keep it interesting. The sound effects are unsurprising "pew pew pews" made from laser beams with no real punch to be found. If you can imagine the sound a sci-fi organ would make while a sleeping cat rolls around on its keys, that's the whole of Perimeter's music right there. The helpful voice that informs you when you are under attack and other helpful tips has a grating robotic sound to it. Another annoyance is a strange gameplay decision: there is no fog of war. The whole battlefield can be seen at all times, so neither you nor your opponent can ever have the element of surprise.
Let's cut to the single-player campaign. You are the artificial intelligence controlling a frame (base structure) under the command of the Emperor (goatee wearing bald guy with the robotic voice). By the Emperor's command you guide your frame through the multiverse and carry out his orders on the sponges that you land on. That's right sponges. The terrain in the game is sponge-like and completely formable by the player.
Flatten it, carve trenches, build it up, it's all possible with the sponge. The terrain is one of the primary resources, and obstacles of the game. By using your former units to flatten the terrain, your builder units can now erect buildings on the flat spaces. The twist is that you can only have a total of five formers or builders. So you can focus on clearing terrain or on building.
The buildings in Perimeter are for the most part familiar to the RTS genre. The main base structure, called the frame, is where the game starts. The frame can float until an appropriate site for a base is found, and then it can be installed. Once installed the frame gathers and provides energy in a radius but only on flattened terrain. Within the frame's power radius unit production buildings, static defences, and technology buildings can be placed.
The frame's power radius is not that large and any buildings or units built will quickly be draining your power reserves. However there are no collector units to scramble around the map to gather power crystals. Perimeter takes a unique approach to resource management. If your formers have flattened enough space, your builders can construct an energy core to gather energy from the flat ground and supply buildings with power. Once built, an energy core transmits a visible line of energy back to the frame or the next core in the chain leading back to the core.
Cores can also be used defensively or offensively. Besides building defensive lasers and rockets around them, cores can defend themselves by erecting an energy shield that protects everything within its power radius, but this quickly drains power reserves so it pays to be very selective when and where the shields are used. When used on the offence, cores can capture enemy structures. By interrupting your opponent's power network and inserting your own core in its place, you will capture all the buildings in the area and they now become part of your own power network.
In order to destroy your opponent's power cores and take control of their base you're going to need some offensive units. Unfortunately unit creation and management is Perimeter's weakest, and most annoying, feature. Bear with me as I try to guide you through the labyrinth that is Perimeter's unit creation and command.
First build a soldier factory and cue up a few soldiers. Some tiny little dudes with assault rifles will trundle out at a fast pace and all join up in the same squad. There are some roving creatures on the map so why not try some target practice on one of those giant ants over there? Alright your tiny little bullets took a good chunk of time to kill that big ant, try something with a little more firepower. Build a rocket laboratory and three soldiers and instruct them to transform into the sniper unit. The soldiers will "nanomorph" into a new rocket unit. You'll need more than one rocket to take out another ant though. Build twelve more soldiers and when they all join the existing rocket, click the nanomorph into rocket button again and add four more rockets to the squad. You now have five rockets and all it took was a minimum of sixteen mouse clicks.
Now to build a second squad of rockets you'll have to build a command center. For every squad beyond the first you want to create you'll have to build another command center, up to maximum of five squads.
Now let us build a unit that can do some serious damage. I found a middle tier unit that is useful is the scummer, it burrows underground and when it attacks it disrupts the terrain around it. The scummer is perfect for penetrating an enemy base and taking out defences and power cores, so let's build five of them. First you'll need the appropriate technology buildings. Build a laser laboratory, upgrade it to level two, and then build the subterra laboratory. We'll need to combine some more basic units to the soldiers who make up rockets we already have so build an officer plant and a technician plant.
Have all those buildings built? Great! Anybody can do that, and it was the easy part. Now start clicking and build thirty officers and ten technicians, and when they are complete, tell your first rocket squad to morph into five scummers. That didn't require too many clicks or too much of your attention did it? Okay now let's make that second squad of rockets into something else...
Building any sort of worthwhile unit is a time consuming process. This is very unfortunate since the building and terraforming portions of the game are so simple to grasp and perform. For all the effort that is put into building squads of units, the combat in the game is actually quite easy.
Units on wheels are joined by burrowing and flying units, and each type of unit is better at attacking either other flying/rolling/digging units or buildings. However, since the entire battlefield is always visible it is a simple task to spy on your opponent to see what kind of units he has and build to counter.
A typical game is slow to play, and sometimes seems more like a puzzle game than a strategy game, especially in the single-player campaign. After puzzling out a way to best reach your opponent through the twisted terrain separating you, you begin to terraform and build in that direction. Of course you'll have to fight off some enemy squads and counter enemy terraforming operations, which can lead to quite a frantic game. The frantic pace wears on too long, however, especially since the AI is quite dumb and becomes predictable.
Eventually you'll grind a power core close enough to the enemy base and start to spread defensive structures where ever you can find power. Using the long range artillery pieces or digging units at your disposal you will wear though the enemy buildings, eventually taking them over with your power cores.
So after the long terraforming journey to you opponent, and then wearing through the defences, the day is yours. That's how every game went for me. There was no way to rush your enemy and speed the process of winning. Defensive buildings are just too powerful and quick to build while units capable of destroying defensive buildings take too long to build.
The single player campaign has some challenging scenarios that do help ease the newer player into the game. Even on the easy setting some were difficult, but what's worse is that upon winning a scenario the game will often hang and crash, giving an error written in Russian. That happened to me three times on three separate levels and I only got to level six before giving up.
The bottom line is Perimeter: Emperor's Testament is a flawed diamond. At a glance it appears interesting, beautiful and full of promise. When inspected more closely the imbalances in the structure become known, and portions of the diamond appear dull next to others.