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SummaryThe Molyneaux god-complex begins here, for better and for worse.
The GoodThe Molyneaux god-complex begins here, for the better.
The game concept is a very intriguing one: prove yourself the deity of deities by assuming godly powers and aiding the Good little computer people in their life-or-death struggle with the Evil little computer people. You do this across a large number of worlds with striking, and strikingly different-looking, terrain types: grassy, snowy, desert, lava, etc. In addition to raising and lowering the level of the terrain, you have the power to cause floods, earthquakes, and volcanoes. You can dub some of your "walkers" (the name for your constantly wandering little computer people) knights who will equip shield and sword and go forth and wreak much havoc against the enemy, killing them and burning their homes and castles. It can all be quite a lot of fun to watch…but only sort of, and only for a while (more on this later).
Populous is a technically well-executed, polished piece of software. For its day, the graphics and music/sound are quite nice. Actually, the background music gets annoying fast, but at least it is easily turned off.
The BadThe Molyneaux god-complex begins here, for the worse.
Populous laid the groundwork for a whole series of Molyneaux games released by Bullfrog and Lionhead, and undoubtedly influenced a lot of the god sims and real-time strategy games that followed it. This is really not such a good thing. Peter Molyneaux has himself often been lauded by the fawning gaming press as a "Game Design God." Personally, I'm not sure exactly how he ever earned such respect. From Populous to Black & White, it seems like none of his games has ever lived up to the hype.
There are many annoying things about Populous that make it a failure. I'll list just a few for now. First, the icon-based interface is obscure and difficult to get a hang of. Why they couldn't have included a few actual words in the game (in ANY language!) is beyond me, but it sure would have helped me out a lot. Now, once you get past the interface, you notice that the close-up view of the world you are currently playing is always restricted to a very small area. I suspect this was necessary, given technical limitations at the time, in order to display the large and colorful sprites that undoubtedly sold many copies of this game. Still, it's another annoyance. It also rudely reminds me that I am a mere mortal playing a game, and not, in fact, an omniscient deity.
But of course, how long can you feel like a deity if the awesome power you will use the most during the game is [drumroll]…raising and lowering land? Yes! That's right! You too can become an all-conquering, omnipotent deity through…um, better landscaping??? It's not only pitifully un-godlike work, but also very repetitive after just a short amount of time. Yet you will spend most of your time doing it, in every single level you play in the game. It isn't even very user-friendly, as at least some of the terrain types make it difficult (for me, anyway) to tell WHAT the level of the terrain is in a given area! Very frustrating stuff, indeed.
If there is all of this repetition, you must be wondering: At least it's wonderful that this game is in real-time, and you can watch the cool action unfold, right? Well, no, not really. You see, Populous suffers from the same problem that seemingly every real-time strategy title that followed it has. Because events are constantly unfolding in real time, prompting you to constantly act and react, you can never afford to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of it all. Granted, your walkers don't do much worth paying attention to most of the time (but that's just another shortcoming of the game!), but sometimes they do, like when you knight them and send them out to kill and burn the enemy. Do you get to watch? Well, no, not if you want to win the game. You'll just have to trust that those knights are out there doing their job while you tend to the important "godly" task of raising and lowering land so your little computer people can breed more strong, healthy walkers, who can later be knighted and then ignored by you while you…well, you get the idea.
Again, this problem isn't unique to Populous. It's a feature in countless real-time strategy games. Still, I've always considered this to be a fatal flaw with games of this genre. It's my game, and I paid hard-earned, legal tender money for it, so shouldn't I get to watch and take part in the action during the most crucial parts of the game? Give credit to Will Wright (SimCity) and Sid Meier (Civilization) for coming up with different yet equally effective solutions to the real-time god-game dilemma. (SimCity lets you act/react while the game is paused, so you can then afford to sit back and watch things unfold for a while in real-time; Civilization abandons real-time completely for a turn-based format.)
To recap: once you get over the hump of figuring out and memorizing what all the little icons mean, you find out that the actual gameplay is pretty shallow and that you will mainly do the same boring things over and over. The few cool things going on are missed by you because the "realism" loved by Molyneaux and his minions requires that every game be real-time. Some would call this fun. I call it a rip-off.