Review: Populous

Populous

Check out that box art – it’s a cut above the standard of the time and really helps the game stand out on the shelf. EA had a budget and could really splash out on quality artwork and marketing.

The ad looks pretty damn cool too. It’s all in keeping with the EA house style of course but does such a good job of selling the experience of playing Populous.

ST Amiga Format Review

My Review

So, just to get it out there, I’m cheating a little by using a cracked version that comes with the Promised Lands expansion – this means there may be some small differences with the game released in early 1989 but it ought to be close enough. The manual is pretty essential as I couldn’t remember what the various icons did – I got mine at http://macintoshgarden.org/sites/macintoshgarden.org/files/manuals/Populous_Manual_Amiga.pdf and while that is the Amiga version it’s perfectly applicable here.

If you’re reading this it’s likely that you already know about Populous, but just in case you don’t I’ll provide a bit of backstory and discuss the game. So Bullfrog at this point had put out a couple of fairly mediocre games, one being Druid 2 and the other being Fusion. It seems those were just quick projects to pay the bills until their true passion project came out, and that project was Populous. Populous was the first god game and Bullfrog would use the same isometric style for Powermonger (one of my favourites) and Populous 2. Later Bullfrog would go on to create Syndicate, Magic Carpet, Theme Park and Theme Hospital, all of which were enormously successful, the latter two being huge favourites of mine, though it must be said that the years between Theme Park and Theme Hospital were low on quality. Dungeon Keeper would follow after Theme Hospital however, with Populous The Beginning and various iterations of Theme Park rounding up the releases. One can see a decline after Dungeon Keeper as Molyneux departed to form Lionhead Studios and release the bat-shit insane Black And White, where he would make outlandish promises which would only half make it into the game, setting a pattern that would see him eventually create the awful Godus and Cube games and that cunt from RockPaperShotgun calling him a liar.

The objective is to defeat the other god. You don’t have any direct control of your people however, so it’s not an RTS in the traditional sense. What you can do is set off earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters in the opposition’s land to disrupt their population until such a point as you can invade. You also need to grow your own population, and the best way to achieve this is to flatten the land so they can build more. Bigger houses take longer to fill but have more defensive value, so you will want to bugger up a bit of land to push your people to go and look for somewhere else to build, before returning the flattened land to make for easy building.

Sound is not particularly exciting, but the visuals are excellent. The 3D landscape looks fantastic, the simplicity of its shape rendering it readable, the book on which the worldmap sits looks gorgeous, the houses and castles look great, and the little people wander around doing their thing. It’s not quite as refined as it would become in their later work but for the time it’s quite extraordinary. In a way Populous is one of the first games to truly showcase what 16-bit computing could really achieve, moving beyond the arcade conversions that were the vast majority of releases at that time. The game even allows you to connect two STs together for a two-player game (which was a rarity at the time).

The game isn’t without its flaws. It doesn’t run super-quickly or super-smoothly despite limiting the playable area to a small window, and the view is so zoomed in that it’s hard to get a wider picture of what’s going on, something they fixed in Powermonger by having zoom levels. Also, the icons aren’t that obvious and the game does a poor job at times of telling you why you can’t do something (in that it just doesn’t tell you anything).

Despite its flaws, his game has an important place in history, showing you don’t need a high score, you don’t need rapid reflexes, you can make a game that requires thought. It paved the way for games like Sim City later on to offer more direct control and its lineage can be quite clearly seen to Black And White far later. It’s a fun game in its own right but it’s also an important game.

As to whether it’s worth playing today, I would argue that it’s probably better to play Populous 2 instead, but Populous 1 is still pretty awesome and you’ll have fun playing it.

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