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Xbox Live Arcade / PC/ PSN
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Cost: 1200 MS Points
The second title available from the Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade is From Dust. Ubisoft's latest arcade title is for those archaeological strategy enthusiasts...all six of you.
On the face of it, From Dust is a strategy game. Yet it is much more about controlling the elements than the actual villagers you seek to flourish. You assume the role of a god-like sphere entity that must guide villagers to establishing a civilization.
It only takes a level or two to truly appreciate the look and physics of the game. It never gets old to pick up a pile of sand and redistribute it, as the swirling vortex of particles is hypnotizing to behold. It was when a tsunami was thwarted by my villagers that I truly saw the level of detail shine through, as a wall of water cascaded around my village and trickled to the valley behind me. Materials behave as they normally would, with water slowly eroding insufficient barricades and fire spreading as it would among brush. It is like watching a Discovery channel special in HD, and being able to pick up parts of the erupting volcano.
The early civilization influence is apparent as your villagers perform tribal dances and speak in a language similar to an ancient ancestor of the Sims. Each tribe member is adorned with a single expression mask that gives the game a cartoonish feel. The only true story is narrated by a tribal leader, but holds no real interest or emotional attachment to the villagers...which is good because when they die from your accidental removal of a sand barrier, you do no feel so bad about it.
The Power to Move Mountains
The gameplay works from a typical overhead view of the terrain. The basic goal is to get your villagers from totem to totem, establishing a village and populating the area with vegetation. There are also additional side missions you can attempt such as getting vegetation to spread throughout the region and discovering small "memories" that are essentially text logs. The beauty of the game is that there is no one method to completing a map. You can sit there for hours building a sand maze if it gets the job done.
You control the snake like cursor that is able to pick up and place various elements around the area. You can pick up sand and redirect a river's stream for your tribesman to cross, pick up lava to form new mountains to protect from tsunamis, etc. You can also have villagers retrieve knowledge and memories from certain waypoints to repel certain hazards.
You are not restricted to just picking up and placing elements, as various powers are in place to assist you as you progress. With each totem populated, you gain one power. These can range from turning elements to jelly, thus freezing the water, to being able to place infinite amounts of earth at one time.
In addition to a story mode, there are a slew of challenge maps unlocked as you progress. These mini-maps give simple challenges like escorting villagers through a series of rivers, to dousing out a fire before it burns down a village. No real medals are given, just a time record to beat.They still add some interesting scenarios and can be pretty fun to attempt.
A Tsunami of Troubles
What starts as a simple pull and place soon becomes a frantic race against mother nature. The problem with this is the simplistic controls of the console eventually give way. There is no real way to jump the camera from totem to totem. You must sluggishly glide along the map, only realizing your village is in trouble by the frantic screams and panic of villagers. The camera is either too far in or way too far out most of the time.
Villagers in this game are very....very...stupid. This is not helped by the fact that you cannot set them waypoints like, "Hey wait here, I'll clear this out for you." Once you assign them a task they will become drunk with purpose and strive headfirst toward their target. They consider lava a mere twig in the road, and laugh as you try to desperately clear their path until they vanish in a puff of smoke. Villager waypoints can constantly shift, and on some occasions your villager will not go down a desired route. It's a much bigger issue on the later levels, and led to much frustration.
Other smaller nuances hold From Dust back from greatness. The maps feel limited in size due to console constraints, and you always feel like you are emerging into another box world with the same parts moved around. The Challenge maps, though interesting to tackle, prove short-lived with only a "fast time" to flaunt. Potential for a level editor is great in this game, and oddly absent.
From Dust delivered a decent strategy game experience for an Arcade title. If you can get past the basic feel of the game, it truly is one of the more visually appealing arcade games to play. The potential was there for greatness, but nothing was delivered but the basics.
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