NetStorm: Islands at War Preview

Activision plans a new take on real-time with its upcoming multiplayer strategy game


The real-time strategy genre is getting mighty crowded. The flurry of clones following the success of Warcraft II and Command & Conquer is unlike anything since the flood of first-person shooters that followed in the wake of Doom. While most of these games are simply adding one or two unique elements to the tried and true formula, a few upcoming games - such as StarCraft, Dominion, and Dark Reign - promise to add new levels of complexity while sticking to the popular framework. Add to this list Activision's upcoming NetStorm, a real-timer under development by Titanic Entertainment that seems familiar on the surface but relies on a completely different type of strategy than its build-and-raze brethren.

Much of the action will seem familiar - you must harvest resources and build buildings. Combat, on the other hand, will be a decidedly different affair. What makes NetStorm unique is the fact that there are no military units in the traditional sense. Instead, players have access to a wide variety of stationary cannons, each with different properties. With these cannons, you slowly bring the territory under you control. As Jonathon Knight, NetStorm's producer, explains: "The strategies have more to do with the placement of semi-intelligent pieces, rather than the micromanagement of unintelligent pieces. All the pieces have strengths and weaknesses and can attack or defend in unique ways. Good NetStorm strategies come from knowing where to put a piece, based upon its attack strength, attack range, or attack trajectory."

Instead of relying on your typical warring factions storyline, NetStorm uses a quasi-mystical theme. The game takes place on a series of islands floating in the sky, one of which is under your control. You choose one of four Furies to worship by building a Temple on your island, and this determines the technology that will be available during the game. The four technology types are Sun, Rain, Thunder, and Wind. Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages. For instance, Thunder technology is extremely powerful but not very versatile - the basic Thunder cannon is extremely strong, but it will only fire in one direction. Rain pieces sacrifice power for versatility, and Wind pieces rely on their speed.

Your end goal is to capture an opposing player's High Priest, one of only two humanoid units in the game. To do this, you must build bridges from your island and connect it to the other islands in the region, finally taking control of your opponent's island and pummeling the resident High Priest into submission. This is done via Tetris-like piece matching - a small selection of bridge pieces is available to you at any time, and you must carefully plan which pieces to use where. Along these bridges, you can build generators, which expand your base of influence and build weapons farther from your Vortex (the center of your power). You must also build bridges to floating storm geysers and send Golems (the other humanoid unit) to harvest their power. This resource management wasn't in the earliest incarnation of NetStorm, and Knight explains why Titanic decided to include it: "The Golems and storm geysers offer players the familiarity of harvesting a main resource. While the game is incredibly unique, it also gives strategy gamers recognition of a few basic concepts that exist in the most successful games of the genre."

NetStorm will offer single-player campaigns, but it's being built from the ground up as a multiplayer game, with the Internet in mind as its primary battlefield. As a result, the game will offer some interesting innovations in online playing - Titanic is promising that there will be effortless player matching and no lag. In addition to player matching in the traditional sense, NetStorm will also make it easy for participants to match up with players of equal skill. In the multiplayer arena, when you capture an opponent's High Priest, you then sacrifice this Priest to your chosen Fury. In reward for this sacrifice, you are granted knowledge of new technologies. As you gain knowledge, your level increases - which not only gives you access to more stuff, but also has the secondary benefit of making it easy to find players in the same experience range.

NetStorm promises to combine familiar elements in a new way. If all goes as planned, the end result should be a slower-paced real-time strategy game, with an emphasis on logistics and positioning as opposed to the sheer brute force required in most games of its kind. Watch the skies for NetStorm this fall.

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