|Molyneux, 2010. Game designer, sheep herder|
The followup game to Populous, released in 1990, wasn't quite as successful at cementing itself as a timeless classic. PowerMonger reduces the scope from all-seeing deity to power-hungry army general, but in my mind this helps to make things a bit more intimate. Directly picking up arms and taking it to the enemy on the ground is much more viscerally satisfying than merely influencing your flock from above.
|Gentlemen, we have located their sheep flocks.|
PowerMonger's elaborate opening cinematic definitely gets the blood boiling and ready for battle. The player, however, might give pause when he sees the task at hand after choosing a name for himself: a giant scrolling map that represents the 195 lands he must conquer in order to win the game. From top left all the way down to bottom right, he must spread his influence across the entire world.
A game typically plays out thusly: there are many smaller villages scattered throughout each land. The player must take over these smaller towns as quickly as possible, recruit fighters to his cause, raid the village and surrounding sheep flock to feed his growing army, build whatever weapons he can at the workshop, and then move on to the next. It's rinse and repeat, building his force up to a size that can take on the larger towns, culminating in a battle-royale at the city that inevitably remains. One land conquered, dozens upon dozens remaining.
|C'mon men! Those sheep ain't gonna slaughter themselves!|
PowerMonger's graphics are a mixed blessing. On one hand, polygonal landscapes make for dramatic zooming and 360 degree rotational abilities for gamers. However, the villagers and soldiers are reduced to nearly indistinct blobs, especially considering the larger, more distinct populace from Populous. But as they say, the devil is in the details, and the amount of detail contained in the worlds of PowerMonger is nothing short of enchanting. Villagers roam the lands around their communities, chopping wood and setting sail in their little bowl boats to fish. Flocks of birds burst from the trees as your army marches across the land. The seasons pass visibly, with springs rains giving way to summer giving way to orange leaves in the trees in fall giving way to blizzards in winter. The seasonal impact on the game is not only visual; when the snow flies you can expect villages to cease production and take shelter in their houses, burning through their stockpiles of food.
|The battle for sheep rages on|
Contributing greatly to the feel of the world is the game's wonderful sound design. Troops mumble and whisper as they huddle around the crackling campfire. There is the constant blatting of sheep, annoying enough to have you relishing ordering your army to descend upon the helpless buggers, slaughtering them to help feed the mass for the next battle. The hammers and sawing drifting up from the workshop as your men concoct new implements of destruction. The clash and clang as the fighting rages. The belch of acknowledgement from your general as you issue commands is a common audio cue, and one that shows early on Molyneux's obsession with providing the player with organic feedback on how they are playing; the enthusiasm with which the general replies to commands indicates whether or not he thinks it's a good idea. Also of note is the rousing score that accompanies the epic opening, done by prolific video game music composer Tim Wright.
|"Psst! How does one sheep feed all of us?" "Shhhh!"|
The downside to all this is the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the proceedings. Once you get the rhythm to beating the lands, it's more and more of the same. Most people probably didn't make it all the way down to the bottom of the world map; not because of difficulty, but by giving up out of sheer boredom. Another issue is the confusing litany of buttons on the screen, taking up nearly 1/3 of the gamefield real-estate. The profusion of buttons needed in his increasingly complex games would continue to haunt Molyneux, until his not-entirely-successful attempt to do away with them completely in his magnum opus, Black & White (2001).
|You may take our sheep, but you will never take our freeedoooom!!!|
However, is it really a bad thing to repeat battles that are so enjoyable? PowerMonger is a marvelously fun game, that also provides some respite from the predictable AI by offering online multiplayer, something exceedingly rare in 1990. The game was also given a WWI themed add-on pack the next year. Molyneux would go on to create even more elaborate and responsive worlds with games such as the aforementioned Black & White, and Fable (2004), but some of the first steps in the march towards his amazing and amazingly hyped career were made here, with PowerMonger.