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The Top 50: #20-16

#20 – Populous 2

Released: 1992
Developer: Bullfrog
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Strategy

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Playing as a demi-god and a son of Zeus, you must prove to your father that you are worthy of entering the Pantheon by defeating the Greek gods one-by-one in combat. You won’t be getting your hands dirty of course, that’s what your loyal followers are for.

Populous 2 offers many more ways to influence your people and their environment. This time around you have twenty-two divine powers (compared to the eight of the original) each split into six categories (with their own mana bars). Instead of ordaining knights as in the original, each category has a hero, and each hero has special abilities. For example: Perseus (human category) will pillage all in his path, while being intelligent enough to avoid malevolent obstacles; Adonis divides every time he fights; Hercules is very strong and Helen turns your enemies into love-sick puppies, following her to their watery doom.

Other new god powers include: plagues, tree-planting (I jest ye not), road and wall building, lightning storms, tsunamis, and baptismal fonts (these can convert followers’ allegiance from one deity to the other) and many more whose strategic value must be learned in order to ensure success.

In some ways, the extra godly powers you possess in Populous 2 upset the balance and as a result, multiplayer games aren’t always as enjoyable as in the original. It is much harder to pre-empt your opponents moves when there are many more different strategies they could adopt, so the Chess-like struggles and stalemates that made marathon matches so enjoyable is lost. This is countered, however, by the fact that there is loads more to do and more powers to experiment with, keeping the single player campaign interesting for longer.

Some reviewers criticised Populous 2 for being to similar to its predecessor, but at the end of the day, this is Populous – more variety, better sound and better visuals, and that can’t be a bad thing.

#19 – Civilization

Released: 1993
Developer: Sid Meier/MPS Labs
Publisher: Microprose
Genre: Strategy

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Sid Meier’s third solo project for Microprose (following Railroad Tycoon and Covert Action) was to make his name in the industry and spawn a franchise that spans three decades and is still going strong. It kick started a genre and opened up the strategy games market to a much wider audience.

The year is 4000bc and your normally barbaric and nomadic tribe have decided to stop clubbing each other on the head, put down their loin cloths and get their act together. You, as their leader, must guide them through this difficult period, shepherding them through the trials and tribulations of communal living, technological advances, cut-throat revolutions and encounters with other cultures.

Do you choose to develop technologies to ingratiate your populace and improve their standard of living in order to boost city growth, or do you concentrate on martial advances in order to build and train units of unequalled might to crush your enemies – taking their land and pillaging their gold? Each approach has its problems and benefits.

The game’s interface is sometimes a little slow and cumbersome, and there are some issues concerning the randomness of battle outcomes. For example, it is entirely possible for your heavily armoured tank to be defeated by a bloke in a tin hat carrying a spear (or a phalanx to you).

Despite the flaws, this game offered something truly unique at the time of release and is still eminently playable today. That ‘just one more turn’ addictive quality and huge variation of game styles and difficulties (no two games are ever the same) that are the hallmarks of the Civ series shine through in what is an essential experience for both strategy enthusiasts and curious onlookers.

#18 – Hunter

Released: 1991
Developer: Activision
Publisher: Activision
Genre: Action Adventure

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As mentioned before (see #29 – Damocles) open world games were once a rarity, and when one came along it really made you sit up and take notice. Hunter was no exception with its 3D filled vector graphics and sprawling world of island-hopping gameplay.

Each game starts at allied HQ with a very simple objective ranging from assassinating the president to destroying a variety of military targets. You are given a gun and a car and what you do next is totally up to you. OK, so you can’t decide to bake bread or sew yourself a nice elven doublet a la World Of Warcraft, but you are given complete freedom to explore the map, interact with NPCs, pilot/drive/sail/ride the game’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of vehicles, find a range of weaponry, fight enemy troops, catch ducks and so on.

This was the first game I ever played where it was so fun to be part of its world that I would often go off task, completely ignoring the objectives and exploring its rich world: old men in lighthouses, man-eating sharks, helicopters sabotaged with deliberately low amounts of fuel, enemy uniforms (when worn you would not be shot at by enemy forces), hidden areas, new vehicles. This game really did have the appeal of a proto-GTA: when the missions get boring, just go and find something more interesting to do.

To fit a game like this onto a 16-bit machine with just 512k of memory is astounding, and well deserving of its top 20 placing.

#17 – Deuteros: The Next Millennium

Released: 1991
Developer: Activision
Publisher: Activision
Genre: Strategy

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As a big fan of Millennium 2.2 I was delighted to discover that Deuteros, its sequel, has a very similar feel – its dystopian near-future setting side-stepping cliché and providing a superbly atmospheric backdrop to more resource-management strategy brilliance. (This game features a magnificent knowing nod to its prequel which I won’t spoil here)

Set a thousand years after Millennium 2.2, the Earth city has matured and its inhabitants are ready to expand into the solar system once more. To do so, materials must be collected, citizens trained and scientific theories researched. As before, tasks are allocated, then time can be advanced with a click of the appropriate icon. This time around, it is possible to build up to 16 factories, meaning that your job of task-juggling is made that much more tricky.

All tasks are easily accessed through an icon driven interface, and a little bit of experimenting during the gentle opening part of the game will soon see you well acclimatised. Everything is well drawn, and the sound – though minimal, it is space after all – adds to the atmosphere.

Unfortunately it is possible to miss key ‘trigger’ events in this game, leaving you with nothing to do to progress the game’s narrative and having to restart the game due to this happening is very frustrating. It can also be a little overwhelming at times, too many balls in the air as it where – if this grates then you may want to stick to Supremacy: more brain friendly, but not as deep and rewarding as this.

Several twists along the way will keep you enthralled and available building projects requiring exotic minerals will keep you exploring. More scripted events than its predecessor – including some genuinely shocking moments – keep you on tenterhooks, you can never rest on your laurels in this game.

#16 – Captain Blood

Released: 1988
Developer: Exxos
Publisher: Mindscape
Genre: Adventure

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From a game of exploration to a one of space strategy, now here is Captain Blood: a space exploration strategy game, and a very strange, metatextual dream-like odyssey it is too.

L’Arche du Capitaine Blood is the nickname of Bob Morlock, a games programmer inspired by the 1930s film of the same name. While alpha testing his latest sci-fi themed game, he is sucked into the very world he has just designed. Blood soon finds himself in a spot of bother – a hyperspace accident results in him being cloned several times over and left in a deteriorating state of health. If blood can find his clones and kill them, he can recover the vital fluids he needs to survive.

However, the last five clones have caught wind of Blood’s plan and have buggered off to the five corners of the known universe (the universe is pentagonal, you know). Finding them is going to be trickier than eating a jam doughnut without licking your lips. Luckily, you can get helpful info from aliens you meet on your travels.

To reach these Xenomorphs, you must remotely pilot a probe through a fractal landscape until you reach its location. Communicating with these aliens via the UPCOM (an icon driven interface) will reveal coordinates of other inhabited planets that you can hyperspace to in order to continue your search (cue 2001: A Space Odyssey style hyperspace colourshock).

Captain Blood offers something rarely seen in the world of video games: an experience that is truly unique. Captain Blood is like no other game made before or after it (We’ll gloss over the mediocre sequel, Commander Blood).

Hyperspace to sectors 15 through 11 ->

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