Between present-day nostalgia and the school playgrounds of yesteryear rests every boy's fascination with all things dinosaur. At least one bookshelf from my second to fifth grade years grew a stalwart collection of dinosaur books. Coloring books, pop-up books, and especially those thin, oversized, and gorgeously-illustrated children's encyclopedias packed with fossil hunters' findings of allosaurus teeth, stegosaurus plates, and brontosaurus vertebrae. The Tyrannosaurus is the once and future king of the Jurassic jungle, of course, but I always harbored a liking for the versatile triceratops. I loved the parry-thrust capabilities of its oversized neck-armor and bleak horn formation. And I loved the barely-any-missing-link between it and a modern day rhinoceros (the word "rhinoceros" even sounds like it could live comfortably among its ancient herbivorous brethren). I owned herds of dinosaur toys, those foot-tall ones made of polyurethane so sharp they could impale a horse; I collected all five Transformer Dinobots; and even the Flintstones ruled my after-school television time.
Paraworld is more of an RTS version of the 1974 Land of the Lost TV series (sorry, didn't catch the early 90's remake). Paraworld is a timeless, parallel dimension utilizing the childhood-fantasy hook of tossing humans and dinosaurs into the same temporal procession and seeing what happens. In expected exchanges across the map, carnivorous dinosaurs stalk the landscape, feeding on leaf-eaters and other smaller cold-blooded creatures, while those same herbivores rummage through the lush flora, grinding down on the shrubbery throughout their nesting grounds. Don't worry, warm-blooded lovers, the Norsemen tribe allows the woolly mammoth its fair share of screen time.
Anchoring the plotline is a collective of three heroes; scientists from our Earth that are vindictively dropped into this Jurassic-Park-turned-global-reality. There's Bela Andras Benedek, the archery-champion, theoretical physicist from Hungary. Stina Holmlund, the whip-wielding, animal health specialist, buxom blonde from Sweden (rowr!). And Anthony Cole, the loud-mouthed American geologist packing enough boomstick and one-liners to earn a Bruce Campbell award. (Rap fans will be ecstatic when they hear Anthony yell out "Big Pac!" as he lets off his special shotgun blast attack.)
In the interest of getting home to the 'real' Earth, Bela, Stina, and Anthony negotiate the various climates and dino ranges with the copious aid of local tribes. The hammer- and axe-wielding Norsemen form a safe introduction into Paraworld, with units donning heavy armor and dishing heavy damage. They certainly fill in the straightforward fighting category with their warriors performing within recognizable hard-hitting parameters, and their tamers handling thick, rugged beasts like giant boars, the aforementioned mammoths, and even a viciously-armored triceratops, the Norsemen tribe's top-of-the-line Titan unit. In a game full of punishment-soaking units, these barbarians raise many of the toughest to bring down.
Particular tribes of Norsemen are helpful in your initial search for a dimensional portal -- they at least point you in the right direction -- but loyalties shift as dramatically as Paraworld's soaring, orchestral soundtrack. The music sprinkles on some Middle Eastern spice as our heroes move into the Dustriders' jurisdiction: All scarf-clad Bedouin broadsword swingers with nomadic societal mores and wicked-horned architectural aesthetic. From their tent-sprawled bases to their Tyrannosaurus Rex Titan, the Dustriders epitomize the feel and flair of a ferocious and mobile warrior caste. You spend more than your fair share of time within the Dustrider tribe, but it becomes worth it when you roll out itinerant command centers, catapult-packing brontosauruses and, of course, that incredible T-Rex Titan, the hands-down Oscar winner for Most Intimidating Performance on a multiplayer skirmish map.
But even with the T-Rex, Paraworld's crown jewel, the intimidation is only relatively speaking. While dressed to the nines in bandages, borrowed tusks, and exoskeletal fittings, the T-Rex (along with the other tribes' biggest and baddest Titans) doesn't feel like it's allowed to fully unleash its Inner Beast. Sure, size matters, and its bite is nothing to shrug at, but its bark is borderline domestic. And in a game being viewed from 100 feet in the air, injecting that visceral, gut-wrenching, we're all gonna die feeling into combat is an inarguable must if the battles are to reach any fevered pitch. Instead, the 52-unit maximum (including heroes and workers) keeps the scale comfortably manageable: A plus for minimalist strategy hounds, but a minus for that conspicuously missing Big Huge Epic Dinosaur Battle feeling one would hope to walk away with from this 'thunder lizard' title.
Even as Bela, Stina, and Anthony are called upon to free a holy city from the shackles of brigands, the emancipation amounts to little more than fighting off roving bands of pirates … when it could be as grandiose as defending the Kingdom of Heaven with a stubbly Orlando Bloom at your side shouting orders to his burning crusaders. That's a real bummer of an "instead" statement. And several of the mission objectives paint themselves out in similar, unmotivated strokes.
But the chapter interludes are voiced-over with fantastically-written, character-building narratives, making up in nuance what the game lacks in flamboyance. The cutscenes thrill in a pitch-perfect campiness as well, despite their unflattering low-res presentation. While some reviewers are downright baffling in their critique of this campy style, the pulpy, fictitious blend of corny one-liners and 'what if' science make for some of Paraworld's most entertaining moments. More than one of our heroes questions whether they're not really in some white-padded room somewhere, imagining the entire journey. Another tackles the topic of manifest destiny when they're informed that they're fulfilling part of a long-awaited scripture: "What am I to think of this prophesy? It's probably the same as with a horoscope: If you believe it, it's all true." A villainous character feels betrayed when a long-time ally aids our heroes in a late-night escape, saying, "Now I know how Lord Mountbatten must have felt when he lost India."
Don't be ashamed if you didn't recognize that reference to the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Viceroy of India from March to August of 1947 (I have Wikipedia to thank for cluing me in on that one, too). But it's this controlled blend of existentialism, scientific theory, and historical trivia that layers some topography onto an otherwise two-dimensional plot.
Were Paraworld a strictly-speaking adventure game, those kinds of quips would be a solid foundation to build upon. But the meat-and-potatoes part of an RTS comes down to, of course, strategy and the artificial intelligence in place to make strategizing a worthwhile pursuit. When the enemy AI forms a tunnel-vision plan of attack on workers and healers, you have to shrug at the complete disregard for the Geneva Convention. But this is an RTS, and units that are capable of sustaining other units (and buildings, in the case of workers) have to die first. Fine. But the AI has a very poor sense of self-preservation, all things considered, and consigns itself to all manner of silly acts: Individual units barrel into a barrage of arrows, swords, and dinosaurs so thick that the only word coming out of their mouth should be a slurring, Pat Morita-induced "Banzai!" Some enemy rushers run up to a wall or a gate and suddenly forget how to attack in any concerted fashion -- as your defensive towers chew the confused soldiers to pieces and spit them out onto the jungle floor. If they give up laying siege to a gate, they sometimes shift to Plan B and run on treadmills against impassable cliffs. Units within visible fog-of-war boundaries are frequently oblivious to your position and obvious intentions. Poorly-scripted events or enemy-placed waypoints might send the bad guys strolling past your own attacking army, paying no attention to you whatsoever.
This suicidal behavior is unbecoming in any fashion, but slightly more upsetting is the lack of a self-destruct button for your own units. With Paraworld's innovatively-crafted Army Controller, a panel on the left-hand side displays all of your units (up to 52, housing and epoch advancements willing, a la Age of Empires). This Army Controller makes locating particular units a breeze, and promotions a snap as characters quickly add a star to their rank, benefit from instantaneous healing, gain overall hit points, deal out increased damage, and move a healthy step up in the pyramid layout. Only one unit can hold the top-tier fifth-rank position, while successively more and more units fill up the fourth, third, second, and first ranks, respectively. Powerfully-constructed units, like the Titans, introduce themselves higher up in the pyramid; and no unit is able to suffer a demotion. Your heroes -- the cast extends beyond your core scientists as the storyline allows -- gain special, tide-turning abilities with their moves up in rank.
The rigid setup of the Army Controller brilliantly dodges the possibility of camping out for hours in the name of amassing an endless blob of units to (eventually) sweep the map of all life as we know it. It doesn't, however, perform as hoped when glass ceilings are imposed by the designers on certain scenarios.
Example: When I was first introduced into the Dragon Clan, the undisputed feng shui architects and steam-powered Far Eastern tribe, the scenario dropped me in the middle of a village with units that overextended their housing capabilities (I had 25 units but only enough housing for 20). The designers thought it would be an appropriate challenge if my workers couldn't build anymore housing, keeping my units capped at 20. Very well. But I wasn't going down without a fight either, and the ceaseless waves of barbarian raiders were testing my mettle. I built insurmountable rows of spike traps along the beaches and plenty of defensive towers in hard-to-reach locales. I used my sparse fighting units to engage in calculated, focused-fire tactics. I pulled near-death units out of the fray (using the Army Controller) and retreated them to the temple for some healing before shipping them back to the frontlines. And before I knew it, the Norsemen were consistently incapable of killing off any of my fighters. I'd fortified my position so well that I still had every one of my 25 without-a-home units.
I was prepared to press on, but the beach was as far as I could go. I needed at least one transport ship (taking up one space on my Army Controller) to cross the channel to the enemy isle, but I still had to kill off six of my units in order to make room. Alas, no self-destruct button for any of them. So I spread out six of my people on the beach (four of them workers!), hoping they'd die a quick death at the hands of the barbarians. Long story short, this took over 45 minutes and more than a dozen waves of invaders. I've never been so frustrated with the efficiency of my own defensive structures. And I've never shook my fist at the sky more, begging in vain for that self-destruct button. Even my samurai refused to do the honorable thing by committing seppuku.
So while resources (wood, stone, and food, you know the drill) typically fill your storehouses to overflowing, building an army is an exercise in restraint. Since you also want to leave high-ranked positions open for building those larger dino units -- and Titans! -- you often have to hold off that promotion your first-tier archer has been itching for during the last few hours. The plodding pace of your units (dinosaurs and foot soldiers alike) keep the game moving at a leisurely speed, especially for the breakneck pacing most RTSes employ nowadays. And for the sheer sense of accomplishment, it's not unreasonable to want to set up a self-sufficient camp advanced enough to build those bigger units. But without a visible tech tree, not to mention plenty of never-explained barriers erected by the level designers, who knows whether your time investment will pay off?
The entire Jurassic-Modern theme will, no doubt, succeed for the entirety of your visit to Paraworld. It's guns. It's dinosaurs. 'Nuff said, as far as thematic elements are concerned. But there are risks to taking the sexy route: You've got to ensure that the basic, tried-and-true, bread-and-butter elements of a solidly-functioning RTS are in place. Instead, Paraworld takes some (solidly-functioning) whimsy, some dramatically ironic storytelling, some camp style direction, some delightfully simple-to-grasp scientific theory … and treats game mechanics like an after-dinner mint. Much like archeologists project entire dinosaur skeletons from tiny bone fragments, Paraworld projects a lush dino-infested Earth from tiny, poorly-constructed RTS fragments.
Companies: Aspyr Media
Dinos and samurai and feeble AI, oh my! There's finally a non-WW2 and non-fantasy (sorta) RTS on the shelves, but Paraworld could've benefited from taking notes on previous genre entrants' successes and missteps. The theme is finger-lickin' good from its campy standpoint, but the deliberately-paced action, puzzled AI, glass-ceiling scenarios, and sometimes-brilliant/always-limiting Army Controller will leave any Kid at Heart hoping for better functionality of all the small things.