With NetStorm: Islands at War, Titanic Entertainment has entered into two incredibly saturated fields at once: It is both a real-time strategy game and a game intended for online play. But despite the seeming me-too-ness of it all, NetStorm actually tackles both fields with some nice innovations. It's certainly not just another Command & Conquer clone, and Titanic has done a great job of overcoming the inherent problems of playing on the Internet. But despite its numerous strengths, the game just doesn't have much longevity.
Gameplay is a very different affair and somewhat difficult to describe. You control an island watched over by a priest who resides there. Your basic goal is to capture your opponents' priests and sacrifice them to one of the four elemental furies - Sun, Rain, Wind, and Thunder. To do this, you must build a temple, a workshop, and an altar. With the exception of the altar, the buildings are aligned with one of the furies and determine which type of technology will be available to you during the game. To actually capture an enemy priest, you must build bridges from your island to your opponent's (a strange, Tetris-style process that sounds out of place but actually adds some interesting strategic elements), then render the priest immobile with your weapons (more on those later). After he's transported back to your island and tied up to your altar, you choose a new technology from a menu. Your chosen technology will be available to you once the sacrifice is complete.
War in NetStorm is waged with stationary weapons, and the most interesting aspect of the game is the balance of these artillery weapons. Each of the elemental alignments has a number of weapons of varying strengths. The basic balance is such: The stronger a weapon is, the less versatile it is. Weaker weapons (such as the sun-disc thrower) can fire in any direction, while powerful weapons (the thunder cannon) can only fire in a straight line in a predetermined direction. This balance makes for some interesting moments, as the strongest, most expensive weapon in the game can be destroyed by a cheap, weak weapon in its blind spot.
NetStorm does have a single-player mode, but it plays more like practice for the online arena. The game can be played with up to eight players on Activision's free server. There are some interesting twists to Internet play. For one, you don't immediately have access to all technological levels. You have to win them by sacrificing priests, and your new technologies carry over from one game to the next. Titanic's promise of no lag is almost completely true, and if a server disconnects in midgame, the game is saved, someone else is declared the server, and an attempt is made to reconnect everyone and resume. While it doesn't always work, it's effective when it does.
There are a few problems with NetStorm, enough that the game suffers a bit in the longevity department. The research tree lacks a little depth, and there aren't enough technology levels to really inspire you to move beyond a certain level. There's also the issue of the game's inherent design - while it is fun, it assumes that it will be easy to find players of your own skill level,. If there aren't that many players on a given server (and there haven't been many players at all during the first few weeks), finding someone even within a five-level range of you can be tricky. There's also the problem of not encouraging evenly matched games; you get the same reward for sacrificing a Level 1 priest as a Level 31 priest. So there's no real point - apart from honor - in playing against higher levels opponents and every incentive for playing those at lower levels.
NetStorm's innovations make it a solid game, especially if you need a diversion from the typical real-timer. With a deeper technology tree and some encouragement for evenly matched battles (as well as some means of discouraging the rampant cheating), it would have received an unqualified recommendation. Let's just hope NetStorm is successful enough to warrant a sequel.