Dark Planet: Battle for Natrolis Review

Many of Dark Planet's problems have been solved in other real-time strategy games, so it's disappointing to find them marring what should have been a better game.

Dark Planet has several things going for it: a clever atmosphere, even if it is pretty derivative; a good-looking engine, even if it is an egregious example of 3D for 3D's sake; and a good variety of multiplayer options, even if they aren't anything new or surprising. Unfortunately, it also has an interface that seems designed to shield you from actually playing the game. Because of this, Dark Planet is like a blast from the past, when real-time strategy clones were cranked out with no regard for how good--or even playable--they were.

Following the time-honored Starcraft school of RTS design, Dark Planet features three very different races. There are the Terrans and the Zerg, except here they're called the Colonists and the Dreil. There are also the Sorin, a society of samurai lizards. These races are nicely differentiated, with separate resource requirements, distinct artwork, and entirely unique units and special abilities.

One way the sides are distinguished is through Dark Planet's resource model. There are four resources on the map, but some of them are unnecessary for some races. For instance, the Sorin have no use for crystal, but the Colonists and Dreil will have to compete for it. In addition to two basic resources for building structures and units, each race has a third resource that powers research, spell abilities, and advanced buildings. The Colonists get this by gathering energy from thermal vents, and the Sorin get it by stationing their worker units at an altar to pray. But the Dreil can get it only by attacking enemy units with spitting bugs that wrap their victims in cocoons. The cocoons then have to be carried back to base with special beetles. This forces the Dreil to be aggressive if they want to develop their more advanced units and technologies.

The Colonists are the vanilla race, but they have some nifty-looking robots and troops in armored exoskeletons. Since they're all about firepower, they're simple to play as. The Dreil are your standard-issue crablike slimy bug aliens. One of Dark Planet's cleverest touches is the Dreil worm wrangler, a unit that can plant worms in the ground to help with combat and resource collection. There's even a giant worm unit that can transport other units underground, rippling the terrain above while it burrows toward its destination.

The Sorin samurai lizards are the most imaginative race. They build structures in the style of feudal Japan, wear ornate outfits, and can float observation balloons over the battlefield. They are also the most complex race, with more units, upgrades, and special abilities than their opponents. They have priests who can cast spells to attack units, protect their own armies, destroy enemy resources, and enhance their own resources.

In fact, the Sorin would be the race of choice if the actual game in Dark Planet weren't so upstaged by its own interface. Rather than play the game, you'll spend most of your time playing the interface, which seems to have learned very little from any real-time strategy game this side of Warcraft. There are plenty of minor problems, such as tooltips popping up directly under your cursor--since so many of the icons are indistinct and coarse, you'll spend a lot of time peering around your cursor to read about what you're looking at. To see a unit's statistics, you have to hover the cursor over it and wait for a box of text to pop up in a window. This is especially complicated when the unit is moving. There is no alert for completed research, so it's hard to spend your resources efficiently. Only numbers 1 through 6 on the keyboard are available for unit groups, which isn't nearly enough for the kinds of armies you build in Dark Planet. It's as if the game is taunting you when you realize it doesn't even use numbers 7 through 0 for anything. The default map scrolling is a weird jerky routine, and the two minimaps are confusing. One is noninteractive, and the other shows you only a tiny portion of the map. A single minimap that serves both functions would have made more sense.

These issues might have been more tolerable if there weren't so many major problems. The kind of gameplay Dark Planet offers--there are lots of units with specific roles and abilities--requires hotkeys to work well in real time. And if not hotkeys, it at least needs a consistent and accessible interface with big obvious buttons. Dark Planet has neither. There are only a handful of hotkeys available, and the buttons are small and indistinct, often buried in submenus. A lot of learning to play is learning to distinguish 20 different lizard heads, bug heads, or marine helmets from each other so you can identify buttons and unit icons when you select an army. It doesn't help that the interface is so cluttered and the backgrounds are so busy. There are no commands for quickly selecting certain types of units, such as all flying units, all ranged attackers, or all noncombatants.

Again, some of these problems might not be so bad if the graphics weren't so confusing. This is not a game you can play adequately by watching the map and interacting with it. Although Dark Planet sports a flexible and at times attractive graphics engine, it's poorly suited to the demands of real-time strategy. You have the option to put the camera wherever you want, but this means you have to choose from a zoomed-out view in which it's hard to distinguish units or a zoomed-in view in which it's hard to keep up with what's going on. Tilting the camera gives you an attractive view of the action, but it also means things get hidden behind buildings, trees, and rocks. Even when you're viewing from directly overhead, the detailed units get lost against the busy terrain textures, so they're marked by colored bases that only serve to clutter up the screen even more. The graphics are dark until units start fighting each other, at which point pitched battles become almost psychedelic jumbles of colored polygons and lighting effects.

The single-player game has a campaign for each race, complete with some frustrating puzzle-based missions. There's a flexible skirmish mode and multiplayer support for domination and capture-the-flag games. You can even play cooperative multiplayer missions against the computer. There are only a handful of multiplayer maps to choose from.

Many of Dark Planet's problems have been solved in other real-time strategy games, so it's disappointing to find them marring what should have been a better game. With a more manageable interface and a more functional graphics engine, Dark Planet could have been a nice world to visit. At it is, it's just another arid moon in a galaxy of real-time strategy games.

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Dark Planet: Battle for Natrolis More Info

  • First Released Mar 20, 2002
    • PC
    Many of Dark Planet's problems have been solved in other real-time strategy games, so it's disappointing to find them marring what should have been a better game.
    Average Rating46 Rating(s)
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    Developed by:
    Creative Edge Software
    Published by:
    Real-Time, Strategy
    Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
    Blood and Gore, Violence