From Dust to Ashes

On August 19, 2011 by aquarion

I preordered From Dust.

In my defence, I didn’t realise it was an Ubisoft game, but when they announced that it wouldn’t have their DRM system that means you have to be connected to the internet all the time to play it, I figured it was fine, because I wish to reward such behavior.

Of course, they lied. The game forces authentication with their servers every time you start it, and reports state that if your connection goes during the game you’re screwed as well. On top of that, it’s locked to a low framerate and *still* chugs along occasionally. If it had been unplayable, I’d have asked for a refund, but if I’m willing to cope with The Witcher’s crashing, I can cope with this.

“This” in this case is a game descended from two interesting lineages. On the development side, you’ve got the bit where it’s by Eric Chahi, who made the classic Another World. On the other, you have the games most obvious and direct parentage: It’s the other side of Bullfrog’s Populous.

Bullfrog Productions, before they were swallowed and spat out by EA – who are still boiling the bones of Theme Park for new formats nearly fifteen years after original release – were partially famous for Populous, Populous 2 and Populous: The Beginning; a series of God Games which defined the genre. In them, you were a god who had to make people happy, and Black & White – formed by ex-bullfrog founder Peter Molyneux, who appears to have sold out to a different company who wish to drain the company for a single franchise – was clearly a descendant of these games.

From Dust has similarities. You control an abstract force, not able to interact directly with the people you control, but able to shape the land around them to help them achieve the goals that will keep them alive. You can drag earth to fill in lakes to cross islands to find spells to protect from tsunami. Part populous, Part Lemmings, with a dash of Darwinia thrown in for good measure.

The mechanics of the game are broadly that simple. Pick up clods of earth to build bridges and hills, douse fires by picking up water and flinging that. You can make more solid walls by dumping lava into water. The aim is to clear a path so that the Darwinians can get to another totem, around which they can build a village. Totems give you access to abilities to do things like temporarily douse all the fires, or turn some water into jelly for easier moulding.  Villages cause fertile areas to creep out from them. Fire trees follow that area of lush forest back to the village and burn it down. Water trees absorb water and flood the area if fire approaches. The mechanics are carefully balanced and introduced slowly over the campaign, sometimes never to be used again, apparently.

The controls are a bit twitchy, but solid and consistant. If I have a complaint, it’s that it’s hard to see when you’re going to be picking up earth and when you’re picking up the transparent layer of water over the earth you were looking at.

There are more ideas than fit in the game. Like World of Goo, it carefully introduces game concepts, teaches you how to use them, and then moves onto the next concept, never getting as far as the final exam. As such, it seems more like the start of a new set of games than a game in its own right.

Beyond the DRM, there are more technical problems. The locked framerate at 30fps isn’t great, but the inability to skip the level introduction when you restart due to a full wipe is close to unforgivable. Performing the optional objective of covering each map with foliage is inconsistant – sometimes you will do this accidentally while completing the objective, other times you can spend hours while the game is waiting for you to advance trying to work out why the foliage isn’t flowing to over here. The explanations are inconsistent, too. A freeze-frame and introduction to how fire trees work will happen in one place, but in another a new type of item that will create rivers until you cover it in mud is entirely unexplained.

Somewhere between a puzzle game and a god game, then, use the limited world-shaping powers at your command to advance the world of those who created you. For the price it was released at, it’s a worthy game, interesting and certainly worth the time. The launch, however, was ballsed up, the publisher lied outright, provaricated around actually explaining, and then went for the Orwellian “You have misunderstood what we said, here’s what we said” response, and I can’t recommend you reward this behavior. Which is a pity, because the developers do deserve it.

Buy it for the 360 instead.


One Response to “From Dust to Ashes”

  • Barry R

    >Buy it for the 360 instead.

    Not specific to this game, and more of a general approach that I’ve commented about before (last time you mentioned Ubisoft and their “Stupid Adventures in DRM Decision” in fact), but I’d rather not buy it at all.

    include standard_rant.c

    Why should I give money to a company that isn’t providing what I want?
    I won’t support a company by proxy via the method of switching platforms. My gaming platform of choice is the PC, and if publishers don’t provide games with Digital Restrictions Management that I find acceptable then I’m not going to buy them in any form. They chose that publisher, OK’d the DRM usage, and they’ll choose it all again too most likely. I won’t forgive them that decision and buy it in another format.

    If they change publishers and re-issue then I might buy from them, but until then they won’t get any money from me. If they change publishers on the next title and learn a lesson about the DRM then I’ll reconsider, but otherwise they’re out of luck. If they are twats like SouthPeak/TopWare then I’ll even stop buying from them outright. It’s a shame that Ubisoft went this way, as although they really impressed me with how they handled DRM for GRAW2 (which sits on my shelf because of that very consideration), their stupidity with AC2 returned them to a neutral state. With this stunt they’ve headed firmly in the direction of the blacklist.

    I agree that using internet-based DRM systems for local games is fscking stupid. It’s just another in the list of things that mean I avoid buying from that company. I mean, anyone who uses Starforce DRM gets an automatic no, every time, as do internet decryption systems such as HL2 had. I gave my copy of HL2 away, and shitcanned Valve forever for that bullshit. When it comes to a single-player game I’m playing just on my machine then needing me to have an internet connection to install/play the thing is not on. I do not want *any* internet-based shit with my gaming unless I’m actually playing online. For a local game, I want to take the game home, install it, and play it on my machine. No fucking internet activation, decryption, region checks, authentication, checking in, or other such crap. (See http://hobnobs.livejournal.com/94204.html for the last time I made a large scale consideration of games I fancied buying. The DRM-infested ones didn’t make the cut, surprisingly.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>