posted 8/18/2004 by Tyler Sager
other articles by Tyler Sager
Perimeter is one of those games that are really difficult to describe. It’s an RTS, in that there is the typical “build up an army and destroy the enemy” play, but are a lot of twists on that RTS theme. First, the story behind it all is just a bit…um…weird. Seems the world, or universe, or whatever has fragmented into several different dimensions. These fragments are connected to each other via portals, and the entire chain of worlds is knows as, well, the Chain. People now live in huge Frames, a sort of cross between a mothership and a floating city. Technology is quite impressive, as everyone has access to some pretty nifty nano-technology, including morphing nano-robotics. Humans, being human, have divided themselves into different ideological factions, the Exodus, the Harkback, and the Empire. These factions don’t tend to get along very well, to say the least. In addition, there are strange creatures, called Scourge, populating many of the Chain worlds and generally wreaking havoc whenever they come across a Frame.

The Frame is home to five construction units, which can be either builders (“buildmasters”) or terraformers (“brigadiers”). These units can be swapped out throughout the game as the need for quicker building or faster land reformation comes about, but there are never more than five available in whichever combination is best at a given time. Unfortunately, buildings can’t be placed just anywhere, so the land needs to be flattened out to allow proper construction. Buildings require “zero level” land, which can only be accomplished through the work of the brigadier unit. These units send out an army of tiny little ant-like nano-drones which tear down or fill in the land as necessary to smooth everything out. Not only is this a neat game mechanic that adds an extra level of complexity, it also looks really cool. Once a bit of land is flattened out, it’s time to start the actual building. The buildmasters are straightforward units—these guys build stuff. They send out little nanobot packages to the building site, and when enough of these packages get together, the structure is finished.

Usually the first order of business is to set out a few core generators. These are the backbone of the entire infrastructure, and they are also the key components for the titular Perimeter field. Core generators draw energy from zero-level ground in a small radius around them. Energy is the only resource in the Perimeter world, and it’s vital for constructing buildings, forming combat units, and powering the various defenses. Core generators also power the various buildings and defensive weapons (such as laser turrets or rocket launchers). No building, other than the Frame itself, can function outside the influence of the core generator. Linking core generators is the primary method of claiming territory. Only generators that are linked directly to the Frame are capable of gathering energy or powering the buildings. In fact, generators (and the surrounding buildings) that are not connected to a Frame can be captured by anyone who gets a link back to their Frame. In this way it’s possible to attack an enemy’s power system at a weak point, breaking their hold on a large number of buildings/generators, and with some quick building link the system to one’s own side.

The final, and most impressive, trait of the core generators is their ability to project an invulnerable energy shield Perimeter. This shield envelops the radius around the core generator, protecting the buildings and units inside, and if several linked generators are all projecting the shields, the entire base can be covered. While this shield offers protection from most attacks, it is terribly draining on the base’s energy supply. Learning how to use the Perimeter field effectively takes a bit of learning.

The units themselves add another unique twist to Perimeter. There are three basic unit types, Officers, Soldiers, and Technicians. These units are pretty much useless by themselves, but when combined in certain ratios, they have the ability to morph into much more powerful units. As neat as this is, there are a few quirks to get used to. Basic units are grouped as squads, and only one squad is initially available for control (additional squads can be formed by building “command centers”). The entire squad has to morph into the same kind of advanced unit, so it’s difficult to create a diverse assault force. In addition, there is a population cap of 250 basic units. Since some of the more impressive advanced units are comprised of more than 60 basic units, it doesn’t take long to fill up to the limit. So instead of immense waves of forces, attacks usually consist of quick strikes of specialty units, sometimes morphing those units as needed. It’s quite cool to create a pack of powerful laser tanks, pummel the enemy, and when attacked by those pesky aircraft, morph into rocket tanks and take care of the problem. Getting the basic unit combinations set up for the various morphings is quite an entertaining challenge.

Each faction also sports 4 unique advanced units, most of which are very impressive. The Exodus has the ability to control the elements themselves, and so it has units able to generate building-destroying earthquakes and tornadoes. The Harkback can control the vile Scourge, as their unique units can bring forth Scourge Spiders, Sharks, and even the havoc-causing Scourge Dragon. The Empire has one of the most devastating unique units, the Piercer, an underground missile that can completely tear through the enemy base in a single pass. These units are quite costly to research and use a very large number of basic units, but they are often game-turning when brought into play.

The single player campaign is quite good, if a bit confusing. The scenarios jump from faction to faction throughout the game, telling the story of the various Frames on their journey through the fragmented Chain. It’s actually not a bad story, but it does get a little fuzzy at times as it tries to explain just why the universe is in its current, rather disjointed condition. Most of the missions feel distinct, and many feel more like a puzzle than a conquest. This is not a bad thing, but it does limit the replayability since it’s possible to “solve” most of the missions. Very few of the missions are actually Frame vs. Frame, and even fewer end in the destruction of the enemy. Most goals involve holding off the enemy, be it Scourge or Frame, while trying to find and activate a portal to continue the journey to another of the fragmented worlds. I found this puzzle-oriented campaign to be very entertaining, but it may not be for everyone. The campaign as a whole is quite a bit more difficult than those of many of the more recent RTS games. That, when combined with a rather steep learning curve, may turn some players off. Perimeter is not a quick game to “jump right in”. That being said, the single-player campaign takes players through that learning curve at a good pace, never overwhelming as it focuses on a new aspect of the game. After that, a skirmish mode is available both against the AI and against other human opponents.

Perimeter looks great. Just watching the brigadiers terraform the land is a treat, as the little antlike robots scurry around and change the face of the map. The landscape itself is completely alterable, either through terraforming or through the destruction brought about from fighting. The units all look unique, although the basic units are quite small and difficult to distinguish from each other. Since they’re usually grouped in various squads, however, this isn’t much of a problem. Buildings are also easily recognizable, so it’s a simple matter to target and destroy the enemy’s anti-grav lab so they can’t keep sending out those pesky bombers. Everything sounds good as well, although the constant unit confirmation chatter gets annoying at times. Control is typical RTS fare, which is serviceable but not outstanding. A word of warning: all of these great graphics come at a price, as Perimeter can be quite a resource hog. On my aging computer, things got a bit chuggy at times, even at the lower resolutions. Take a good look at the system requirements before trying this out.

Perimeter is just one of those games that you’ll either really enjoy or you won’t care for much at all. I enjoyed all the unique aspects of terraforming, unit transformation, and using the Perimeter field, but for some this may just be too much complexity in an RTS. It’s definitely worth a look, and those wanting another fresh and innovative RTS will be in for a treat.

An innovative RTS with some unique and complex gameplay. Those looking for something new and different will certainly find it here.