While we toot the horn of genre aloofness here at Tactical Tuesday — and, to quote one Troy Goodfellow, “strategy gamers like to think they’re more intelligent than they really are” — you’ve got to face facts: sometimes, it just calls for dinosaurs. (At LAST! — Pete.)
The terrifically-named German studio Spieleentwicklungskombinat, conveniently shorted to SEK, released a delightful dino-themed real-time strategy game in 2006 called ParaWorld. While a mechanically conventional game, this remains to this day one of those lavish and unsung strategy games that don’t so much tax the mind as they do tickle the fancy of anyone who grew up with a love of our extinct reptilian forebears.
I’ve always gravitated to these types of games — ones where the mindshare odds are heavily stacked against them. While I enjoyed Warcraft 3 to a certain extent, Liquid Entertainment’s Battle Realms was more my bag. Such is the same here. While it’s harder to find something to cast a shadow over ParaWorld in the RTS doldrums of the mid 2000s, the small innovations of SEK’s fantastical title coupled with the gorgeous art and saurian fan service never quite got the traction it deserved. However, since the game goes for a song these days, I figure it’d be worth a shot massaging ParaWorld into the brainpan of anyone walking by and hope they make a cursory investigation for the cost of a Hadrosaur foot-long.
There’s also another reason why ParaWorld should be played, which you’ll find wedged in the spiked reptilian tail of this column.
Perhaps there’s some comfort to be taken in ParaWorld‘s conventional approach to the RTS genre. This is no great evolution, but then again, Blizzard seem to have been running on incremental changes to their established franchises for years to little detriment. In ParaWorld, we have a tri-factional approach, and factional differentiation that is actually quite distinct in detail. We have base-building, we have resource collection and management. ParaWorld is a comfortable fit for anyone who grew up playing strategy games. If you know Warcraft, you know ParaWorld.
But that said, and before we get into the mechanical nuances, I just want to adulate the aesthetic merits of this game. Drawing from elements of Victorian steampunk, the pulpier side of 20th century adventure fiction and undoubtedly two and a half cups of James Gurney, the ParaWorld experience is a richer one that most. I’m perhaps biased, because while Blizzard and company have been proffering the same old tired fantasy clichés for years, this one presents both saurian player and free range units but also the curious megafauna of the Pleistocene. Incidentally, there are around forty species of dinosaur and mammal that roam about the various maps of ParaWorld — not counting the ones under a player’s command. Forty-odd magnificent species, ranging from the submerged Bothriolepsis and Kronosaurus to the airborne Quetzalcoatlus and Sordes, with a land contingent featuring Smilodons and Baryonyx and all manner of beast; theropod, sauropod and beyond. Each is wonderfully rendered in the plucky custom engine cooked up in Berlin eight years ago.
Herbivore herds move about verdant plains, with lithe meat eaters stalking the thick, misty jungles. Prehistoric sharks and other marine life patrol the brackish rivers and shallow estuaries. This is further invigorated with a real-time day and night cycle; the ancient Lilliputian landscape soaked in the light from a blazing sun turns gold at sunset and a chilled nocturnal blue as night takes hold. Many strategy games have their mechanics scrutinized, lauded or maligned before all else, but scenes such as those within ParaWorld make me think that some of the best visual conceptions created in the medium have been in this particular genre.
To the game itself, ParaWorld‘s initial flaw is a unit cap of fifty. For a fellow spoiled on the outrageous unit numbers found in Supreme Commander or Sins of a Solar Empire, the comparatively minute force limit seems somewhat wasteful, given that worker units will further slim the offensive capabilities of a player’s army.
But, the subsequent intimacy granted by such a thin population is actually one of its stronger aspects. The emphasis on special attributes and skills that unlock for research purposes with each epoch — an approach akin to that seen in Age of Empires — has an almost RPG-like quality to it. There are the basic statistical buffs for both civil and martial capabilities, but then come hero units and their proximity abilities. Stacking also unit-specific skills and recoverable artifacts for army-wide bonuses; you’ve got quite an interesting array of tools at your disposal. While there isn’t so much a tech tree to climb — it’s all a very linear upward swing — the units themselves can be quite flexible once their capabilities are realized.
Another intriguing aspect of ParaWorld relates that aforementioned mish-mash of styles. We have armored steampunk dreadnoughts plying the coastal waters, primitive jetpack troops arcing over the jungles, hulking exoskeletons amidst hordes of rampaging saurians and mammals. A veritable fever-dream of pulp. The most impressive part is that it all fits tactically. There are no egregious disparities within the combined forces, with a rivulet of strategic interconnectedness weaving a subtle yet effect web of player-created options. Archers or healers stowed aboard a transport dinosaur can create a mobile ranged weapon or support platform. Alternatively, fast-moving scouts can similarly be equipped and operate as a vanguard. Some wonderful unit combinations exist in ParaWorld and they’re all worth experimenting with.
The main campaign is mildly entertaining, but like most titles, I find myself gravitating to the skirmish side of things to simply have the full swathe of options at one’s fingertips. There’s simply too much to enjoy on a mechanical and aesthetic level to leash up the goodies behind the usual pedestrian mission-based progression. Why keep yourself from dinosaurs?! Why keep yourself from not only dinosaurs, but dinosaurs adorned with torsion siege engines and archers atop? Prehistoric boars and their lancers. Velociraptors and their handlers?
You can see why ParaWorld stands out, and it is this endearing feature of combining giddy fantasy with mechanical comfort that makes me wonder why there’s such little imagination in the fanciful strategy sphere. And this is the reason I had to bring ParaWorld to your attention.
In the last few years, we’ve not really had visually creative titles — at least not on par with something like ParaWorld. We’ve had Universe At War, which would undoubtedly fall into the same mechanical efficacy as ParaWorld, but also sharing an aesthetic pomp and bombastic grandeur. Big alien striders stomping across the map, at scale. There was also the maligned Rise of Nations spin-off in Rise of Legends, seen below. Now, gameplay aside — which I actually quite enjoyed — it had magnificent unit and city design! The strange da Vincian machinery. Bizarre bronzed tanks and shimmering craft seemingly from the time of the Pharaohs. And the cities. Those gorgeous cities.
In our chase of fantasy in the strategy genre, we’ve settled for weekday hamburger. You need only cast an eye over the MOBA games and their endless churn of tired old tropes and designs to literally wilt at the visual softballs being thrown. My beloved Endless Space was a shot in the arm from a visual standpoint when it came to fleet designs, and even then, it erred on the side of caution. If only the aesthetics and design of strategy gaming received the same exuberance as the mechanics they sit atop. Mentioning MOBA, DOTA and the rest of that markedly popular sub-genre makes me mourn for Gas Powered Games’ Demigod, pictured below.
Demigod. Now there was a game with a sense of grandeur about it. Outrageously creative designs. Nothing plucked from the post-Tolkien book of snooze-inducing unit designs, no cheese fondue-dipped elves. Here, we had titans battling on celestial planes; ornate seraphs wheeling across the skies and thunderous armoured hordes trampling their way to the opposing citadel. We had units like the Unclean Beast and the Rook; both unsung hallmarks of semiotic conveyance. These are the stars we should be reaching for. Instead, I feel everything outside of military wargames — which should rightfully be as visually accurate as possible — has been focus-tested and beveled to an unacceptably banal level. A level devoid of character, where unit stylization, mere stylization, is seen as pressing the creative boundaries.
And I won’t protect my children, either. ParaWorld is a great example of the point I’m arguing, but it could be more. Here’s a secret. Lean close. If you want a true spectacle of magnificent visual design and animation, I implore you to investigate the maligned Supreme Commander 2, pictured below. The old strategy bores and grumbling veterans can whinge and pontificate on the simplification of the franchise in the second iteration, but what these insufferable people don’t understand or appreciate is the value and intricacy of flavor through animation. The experience emphasized through design. I’ll save Supreme Commander 2 for another time, but suffice to say, it is one of the shining examples of sheer visual enthusiasm. It knows it can play big and play boisterous.
While this argument might seem superfluous and trite, especially considering the incredible popularity of the MOBA scene, I do believe strategy games can proffer some of the medium’s most creative and intricate in visual design. Why settle for just another comfortable been-there-done-that? Thus, ParaWorld is a beacon in the conceptual darkness of strategy game unit design, one of the very few who can confidently put themselves out there as something truly satisfying.
As a game, ParaWorld more than gets the job done. But as a piece of intricate ocular satisfaction? It blows a lot of the competition away from its quiet place in the shadows of the genre.
Did I mention dinosaurs?
Tactical Tuesday is Games Are Evil’s bi-monthly deep dive into the compelling and complex world of strategy games, hosted by our own Alex Connolly. Follow Alex on Twitter here.