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.