From Dust: First Impressions

The game formerly known as Project Dust takes shape and reveals more of its god game mechanics.

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If you saw the Project Dust--now called From Dust--trailer at E3, you were probably left scratching your head wondering what exactly it was that you were looking at. It was evident that the game had roots in the god game genre, but to what extent wasn’t exactly clear until our demo of the game at this year’s Gamescom. We’ve seen how you’ll be able to manipulate the environment by grabbing and transplanting different elements of land, water, and fire scattered across an island. We’ve seen how indigenous tribes factor into the game and how you can use your powers to help, or seemingly hinder, them. But most importantly, we’ve seen what the ultimate goal is for this downloadable god game that will be released on XBLA, PSN, and other downloadable gaming services like Steam in March 2011.

Save the villager by freezing water.
Save the villager by freezing water.

Our demo started with a look at some of your basic abilities as a powerful entity capable of manipulating the very earth that people walk on in a tropical-like setting. By simply moving a circular icon over a stretch of sand and pressing the trigger on an Xbox 360 controller, producer Guillame Brunier picked up a massive ball of sand and moved it around the environment by pressing the analog stick in various directions. He did the same with water (where he glided over the ocean with a massive ball of sea water) and with lava (by venturing to a nearby volcano). Later, we got to see him pick up some vegetation and then coat a nearby barren hillside with trees and bushes. The point of all of this was to show us how actions can physically change the environment. If you were to pick up a ball of sand near an area that was acting as a small dam between two bodies of water, then the water in the higher area would come spilling out. If you take a ball of lava and drop it in the water, it cools and becomes rock. Likewise, if you take lava and drop it on some vegetation, then nearby trees will catch on fire.

There seems to be some great fun in just messing around with the world in From Dust, figuring out how to change the landscape with a few button presses. But it all becomes a bit more serious when we see a message on the screen that tells us a shaman in a nearby tribe predicts the arrival of a tsunami. The only way this particular tribe can save itself from the massive tsunami is by sending someone to a shrine that will protect this particular village--the only problem is, the tsunami is close (as indicated by a meter at the bottom right side of the screen that’s getting shorter), and the human running to the shrine may have trouble getting there.

This is where the god game aspects of From Dust really come into play. You can make it easier for the island resident to get to the shrine by creating small land bridges out of sand that you can take from the dunes. On her way back from the shrine (as the tsunami draws even closer), it’s possible to speed things up even further by basically flooding the land underneath the islander and having her float her way back down to the main village. Of course, doing so seems to risk potential catastrophe with the islander drowning and then the tsunami taking out the entire village, but for the purposes of this demo, she happens to make it.

Once she’s back, the islanders place the shrine down in the center of town as they begin playing musical instruments and start dancing in place. Just as it seems the massive tsunami is about to obliterate the entire village, it begins to circle around, avoiding it entirely, but causing massive ripples of water throughout the rest of the environment. The village is spared and you’re allowed to mess around with a new power--one that gives you the ability to freeze water. Every time you discover and save a shrine, you’re granted a new ability in From Dust, but just what those other abilities are at this point isn’t entirely clear. Shrines (and other objects) can also be found by digging for them in the sands or uncovering them through other methods.

Ultimately, any powers you earn will come as a result of engaging in the game's main objective--the safe migration of tribes to other islands and their survival when faced with natural disasters. But it’s worth pointing out that natural disasters aren’t necessarily a bad thing in From Dust. That tsunami that nearly wiped out an entire village would prove useful against a massive fire that might appear later in the game. Similarly, animals you come across in the game might prove useful to the villagers, but then again, they might start attacking them too.

Their survival is of utmost importance.
Their survival is of utmost importance.

Clearly, there’s more to From Dust than what we’ve seen so far, but what we’ve seen has already roused fond memories of games like Populous. Ubisoft says the game is essentially a simulation of life and therefore little changes can affect things in profound ways, but we’ll be interested to see just how nonlinear that makes the experience. We’ll have more on From Dust in the coming months before its March 2011 release.

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