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  1. Episode 430: Classic Year in Review: 1998

    There are times when the gaps in the collective knowledge pool here just melt my brain. Commandos, for instance, spawned an entire genre. Not a long-lived one, sadly, but all those games of the same type Troy mentioned? Those are Commandos clones. I'm not certain it's ever really appreciated just how closely Shadow Tactics recreates those old games, either- right down to the visual language of the vision cones. I really hope one of the crew checks out Commandos 2 between now and the 2001 retrospective, at least far enough to comment in passing. Missing Populous: the Beginning is more understandable, because I don't think that one ever got much attention- but it still hurts me to hear it mentioned and then dismissed. It's such an odd duck that it deserves some consideration. The first two Populous games had been god games- 3 really wasn't. It was too fast, too twitchy, too immediately violent. It is probably most usefully described as an RTS, though that's not the greatest fit either. There are only 6 unit types- the buildy one, the fighty one, the shooty one, the sneaky one, the converter and the hero/mage. The battles are chaotic, and impossible to micro- once they're fighting, everyone pairs off into individual duals and stops following orders until they're done. The violence is kinetic almost to the point of absurdity, with warriors kicking each other off cliffs and fire warriors juggling people in the air. There are no formations- not in Starcraft, either, but here it feels like a statement of intent. In Pop 3 you don't so much have an army as a crew of likely lads out looking for a rumble. What you can micro is your shaman and her vast arsenal of arcane might. Warcraft 3's hero units and Sacrifice's wizards pale in comparison- one fully armed and appropriately managed shaman can level bases in less than a minute and put an entire faction out of the game. For all of that, though, they're as fragile as anyone else. It's a delicate art, dancing the lady around, trying to lay waste to as much as possible while avoiding reprisal. Most battles open with a frantic exchange of lightnings, likely to kill one shaman and doom their army to violent magical annihilation. It's almost like Dominions: the RTS. The interface gives you just enough rope to hang yourself. The minimap is so blurry and low res that the incursion of an enemy force seems to be signalled by a sudden blooming of algae. Zooming out lets you see the whole map (which is a globe, for some reason) in perfect clarity, a very early rendition of what Supreme Commander would do eight years later- but you couldn't issue any commands from there. It will happily tell you all about your two most important resources- population and spell charges- but entirely omits wood, vital for the buildings which produce them. Wood is a silent resource, automatically harvested from trees during the construction process. It is so silent the player could be forgiven for not realising it's a resource at all- right up until the point where suddenly they've overharvested, and all the trees have despawned, and now they're screwed. Flat land is also a resource- a limiting factor is most base builders, but not one you'd usually dignify with the title- except that one thing Pop 3 did inherit from its forebears was a suite of landscaping spells. They can be used offensively, too- a building that suddenly finds itself in an illegal position will violently explode, scattering wood and people across the landscape. And there's all the little things. The little animations for idle units. The way a warrior that spots an enemy will take a moment to pray before running into battle. The battlecries that announce a fight and the soft groans that accompany a death. The constant mumbling chanting that accompanies the priests- and gives them away when they're under the invisibility spell. The way you learn to recognise all the spells by their incantations, and the icy spike of terror that hits you when you hear an unexpected shoka. There's a surprising amount of care and attention to all the ways the game communicates with you. It's not exactly one of those roads not taken for the RTS genre. I can hardly imagine what that would have looked like. But I would have loved to have seen a sequel, a refinement on this template.