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Highlight of the Gods

Populous: The Third Coming Has What It Takes to Be a Religious Experience

by Scott A. May

Time sure does fly when you're busy ruling the universe. Populous: The Third Coming, the long-awaited, third installment in Bullfrog's breakthrough franchise, is finally nearing completion. And not a moment too soon. While veteran gamers grow misty-eyed just thinking about the beloved original, a new generation of players is clueless to the whole phenomenon. For those unfortunate souls, here's a brief history lesson.

Populous 101

Originally released in 1989 and since ported to 20 different formats, Populous sold more than three million copies worldwide and launched the career of then-fledgling British developer Bullfrog. The title also introduced a brand-new gaming genre: the god-sim. Its premise, both simple and ingeniously clever, cast players in the role of gods, nurturing a primitive race of mere mortals. As gods, gamers could raise or lower land, and trigger earthquakes, floods, and volcanoes; all with a single click of their mighty mouse.

Lead by programming virtuoso Peter Molyneux, Bullfrog followed the success of Populous with PowerMonger, arguably the forerunner of today's real-time multiplayer strategy games. A year later, Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods, appeared. It attempted to merge the best elements of the two previous titles. Despite strong sales, neither game captured the imaginative qualities of the original Populous.

In recent years, Bullfrog has emerged as one of the leaders in cutting-edge game design, with titles such as Syndicate, Magic Carpet, and Dungeon Keeper. Molyneux recently split with the company to form LionHead with Steve Jackson. Does this mean an end to the Bullfrog we know and love? Not hardly.

Populous: The Third Coming, the first Bullfrog game since Molyneux's departure, promises to recapture the flavor and simple purity that made the original such a ground-breaking hit.

Theologically Speaking

In Populous III, gamers are cast in the role of gods, each competing for control of a single planet. Your alter ego on this mortal coil is the Shaman, a spiritual leader through whom you cast all spells. Upon entering the world, the Shaman creates a Reincarnation Site. This stone circle provides magical powers and cannot be destroyed. Elsewhere on the globe, a rival god's Shaman has created a similar structure. The race to conquer the world has begun.

Wildmen also populate this world. In their primitive state, they are simple pagans found roaming about the landscape, drinking from streams and eating fruit from trees. Your first task is to send the Shaman into a trance. While in this state, she converts Wildmen into Braves-devoted followers of your cause. You can then use Braves to gather wood, construct houses, guard bases, and fight rival factions.

You can also create special training facilities to turn Braves into new characters, including Disciples and Warriors. Disciples can be sent to mingle among enemy ranks and preach to their Braves, distracting them from their work and (hopefully) converting them to your cause. Warriors behave like Braves, but are much stronger in battle. Until weapons technology evolves, all battles are fought hand-to-hand.

Another vital character class is the Super Warrior, who has the ability to hurl magical fireballs at the enemy. The most intriguing character, however, is the Infiltrator. Trained in the art of subversion, he can disguise himself as a native of an enemy camp and spy inside the settlement. From there he can report on the enemy's forces and building advancements. Infiltrators can also be ordered to dismantle enemy buildings and burn wood supplies.

Religious Foundation

The game features a wide variety of building types that fall into three categories: training, construction, and defense. Much of the game's early strategy involves completing training exercises while avoiding attacks from rival tribes. If you are interrupted (to defend your homestead, for example), you must start training again from scratch. To minimize enemy intrusion, construct your buildings near impassable terrain (water, steep cliffs) or behind man-made walls.

Much of the land separating your tribe from others (both enemy and uncommitted Wildmen) is impassable. To expand beyond your borders and convert new tribes of Wildmen, you need to cross the mountains, oceans, and rivers blocking you from the rest of the world. Braves can help in that respect by building boats for navigating bodies of water and balloons for crossing mountain ranges. Once these vehicles are at your disposal, you'll delight in discovering the size, scope, and reality of the game world.

God-Given Powers

Sounds good? And we haven't even explored the realm of spell-casting yet. Unlike those in the original game, gods here can't simply cast spells on a whim. Instead, you must channel spells through the Shaman, so she needs to be carefully maneuvered to within spell range and then guarded well. Besides incantations to raise or lower land masses, her spell repertoire includes Burn (for destroying your enemy's wood resources), Blast (for nuking all enemies within a certain radius), Lightning Bolt, Volcano, Earthquake, Whirlwind, Erosion, Plague, Firestorm, Invisibility, Hypnotism, Ghost Army, and Angel of Death.

Spells don't come cheap, however. Each spell costs a specific amount of Mana, the game's spiritual currency, and you obtain Mana only by converting Wildmen and keeping your people busy and happy. Should your Shaman die, she can be reborn at the Reincarnation Site, though at a high cost to Mana. If no followers exist at the time of her death, the game is over. When the enemy is completely wiped out or converted to your side, the Shaman enters a special portal, which transports her to another world to conquer.

What Renders A World?

Graphically, the game is spectacular, playable in 10 different resolutions, from 320x200 to 1280x1024, although you'll need an oversized monitor and a surgeon's eyesight to appreciate the latter. Whereas the first two games in the series featured a three-quarter isometric view of flat terrain maps, Pop3 offers full, spherical rotation of its 3D game world, spun along multiple axes. As players shift locations on the globe, mountains, valleys, oceans, and inlets unfold in 3D topographic glory, along a curved horizon line. Bullfrog used this same technique in Magic Carpet, but here the textures and colors are much more vibrant and nearly photorealistic.

Pop3 features a series of icon bars on the left and bottom of the screen with which you cast spells, issue commands, construct buildings, and track your characters' activities. A scanner in the bottom-left corner provides a quick overview of the planet. Although most of the game is played from slightly above ground level, you can also switch to god-view, which provides a fully playable global perspective. Gamers can use this view in the final version to plot long-range strategies, especially when equipped with boat or balloon travel.

As of this writing, Pop3 doesn't support 3D accelerated video cards, although it does employ DirectX components for sound and multiplayer games. Up to four gods can duke it out using modem, LAN, or TCP/IP connections. One of the game's best features, however, is the computer intelligence model used in single-player mode. It's so good, in fact, that lead programmer Alan Wright touts Pop3's computer AI as the project's crowning achievement. The AI was designed to incorporate the same variety of play strategies found in human multiplayer games, in order to provide the utmost challenge for solo gamers.

Overall, Populous: The Third Coming has all the ingredients to become Bullfrog's biggest hit to date. We shall see when it releases in early 1998, but given its source of inspiration and the talented gods who created it, its success really wouldn't be much of a surprise at all.

The Gods Must Be Vengeful

CONGREGATION Religion isn't all it's cracked up to be in Pop III. Those with faith are good guys. Pagans are evil. At least that's the message here.

Blame it on centuries of human misery, but the gods that created us-or vice versa-are not a happy lot. Faced with the two-fisted powers of salvation and retribution, lowly humans must either go with the flow or be drowned in a flood of vengeance. Free will simply will not be tolerated.

What's this? Theology in a computer game?

Outwardly, Populous: The Third Coming skirts the issue of religion, but you can bet your pagan deity it's there, and it's not shown in the most favorable light. The game's basic premise follows the fundamental nature of the human species: Join us or die. Believe what we believe or die. Convert to our way of life or die. Not much of a choice.

Are gods, by their very nature, vengeful? Why do they create life, only to exterminate it? While its doubtful that players of Bullfrog's latest masterpiece will find divine insight, they are unconsciously dabbling in the meaning of life: Destroy all who are not like you. It's inescapable. It's in your nature as a god. Left unattended, the lifeforms in Pop3 might starve or freeze or become bored to death, but they won't intrinsically create weapons or lunge at each other's throats. It's up to us gods to command them to act, well, more human.

Sounds outrageous, but think about it. Nearly all action- and strategy-oriented computer games involve violence and killing. And in each one, the player is a god, because he controls the process of creation, destruction, and eventual absorption of his enemies. We justify this, of course, by labeling the other side as evil. And the only way good can defeat evil is by scratching, clawing, or blasting evil to smithereens. Pop3 simply devolves these actions down to their most primitive level.

Would anyone buy Pop3 if the object of the game were to foster a harmonious civilization that worships you, the godlike player? Not bloody likely. No more than they would buy a dungeon exploration game without monsters to slay, or a space game without hostile aliens. As gods, we need murder and mayhem.

The bottom line, for computer gaming gods, is that it's more fun to kill than create. It's more challenging to wipe out civilizations than build them. Because of this, Populous: The Third Coming might be the ultimate reflection of life, in all its primal glory. But don't feel bad-it's in our nature.


Populous: The Third Coming

Target Release Date:
Early 1998
Electronic Arts

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