By 1998, Bullfrog Productions were one of the most successful, innovative and respected games development studios in the world. With games like Syndicate (1993), Theme Park (1994) and Dungeon Keeper (1997), the British studio had built a reputation for creative and original releases, known for their humour and novel game mechanics. However, dark times lay ahead. The company’s acquisition by Electronic Arts and the departure of co-founder Peter Molyneux to found his own studio would endanger the company. Within a few years numerous projects would be cancelled, and Bullfrog would be gone, absorbed to become just another cog in the EA machine.
Despite these ominous signs, 1998 saw the release of one of Bullfrog’s most important, and sadly underrated games: Populous: The Beginning. The game is a unique hybrid of two distinct gameplay styles: the god game, which Bullfrog had pioneered with the original Populous in 1989; and the real-time strategy, which was then enjoying its first major boom of popularity in the mid- to late-1990s. While The Beginning is primarily an RTS, it draws significantly from the Populous series, to which it serves as a loose prequel. While the earlier games put players in the role of a mighty god overseeing the advancement of a human civilisation, The Beginning has them guide a powerful shaman struggling to achieve godhood. While at the time critics were muted in their response to the game - frankly confused by its radical new gameplay style - Populous: The Beginning is an extraordinary strategy game, easily one of the most unique and engaging ever made.
The superb opening cutscene deftly introduces the game’s minimalist story. The player controls a shaman who, alone in her tribe, is sensitive to the magic flowing through the universe and who possesses the gift of second sight. In a vision, she sees that her world is just one of many and that other tribes exist, each led by their own formidable shaman. The game’s campaign sees the player taking control of the nameless shaman’s blue tribe, and battling the green Matak, the yellow Chumara, and the fearsome red Dakini over 25 worlds each with their own terrain and characteristics. The reward for victory is an ascension to godhood, and dominion over the whole solar system.
While the story is simple, the game’s focus on mystical tribal warfare is one of the more novel settings for a 1990s RTS. It presents a pleasing contrast with the fairly ordinary fantasy of WarCraft or the familiar modern battles of Command & Conquer. Just as the mana of the gods flows through the shaman, the distinctive atmosphere of Populous: The Beginning flows through all aspects of its design and presentation - its gameplay, graphics, and sound.
One of the first things players will notice upon playing The Beginning for the first time is that its levels are not flat but instead tiny, spherical planets. The camera can be rotated around these miniature worlds, and even zoomed out to a more strategic view in which units are replaced with icons. Based on a similar system devised for Bullfrog’s earlier game Magic Carpet (1994), this is a remarkable technical achievement which anticipates games like Supreme Commander (2007) and Planetary Annihilation (2014) by many years. Bullfrog achieved this by way of a kind of technical illusion, locally projecting the game’s topology - which is actually shaped like a torus - onto a sphere. This is far from just a visual novelty, but affects the gameplay in a profound way not least because attacks can come from any direction.
In most single-player missions, the player’s goal is to eliminate every rival tribe from the planet. This means gradually building up a sizeable group of followers, using wood to construct buildings, and eventually using armies and magic spells to scour the enemy from the world. The ability to build and capture boats and balloons spreads the battle onto the sea and into the air, while powerful spells can transform the landscape - another of Bullfrog’s technical accomplishments which is as stunning now as it was in 1998.
With their groundbreaking game Dune II (1992), the U.S. developer Westwood had solidified an enduring model for the 2D RTS. Both Westwood and their many imitators became rigidly attached to this design philosophy and barely strayed from it for years. As impressive and entertaining as these games are, Bullfrog had a much more ambitious and innovative approach to Populous: The Beginning. Put simply, they observed the prevailing model of RTS design and threw most of it away.
A striking feature of the game is its rejection of numbers. Buildings and units have no cost, as such. Hit points are not displayed, and while out of combat units regain health over time. There is no formal unit cap, or resources in the conventional sense. The only two resources are wood and mana, and both regenerate automatically - trees that are cut down regrow, and mana streams into the shaman from workers, called braves, resting in huts. Even more striking is that there is no tech tree, the four factions are functionally identical and that there are just five unit types - braves, warriors, preachers, fire warriors, and spies. This radically streamlined design makes the game feel hugely different to other games, and provides for a much more creative and freeform style of play.
While the unit types are few in number, they are carefully designed with their own strengths and weaknesses. Warriors will easily outfight braves, but are susceptible to being converted to a rival tribe by preachers. These in turn are vulnerable to the ranged attacks of fire warriors. Spies can disguise themselves and sabotage enemy buildings, but can be unmasked by rival spies. Towers, boats and balloons alter the abilities of units. For example, a preacher in a tower can convert raiders with only words, and two fire warriors in a balloon creates a kind of impromptu stone age gunship.
One reason the game’s design can excel with so small a number of units is the inclusion of the fantastic magic system, one of Populous: The Beginning’s main elements taken from god games. When the campaign begins, the player’s shaman can cast just two basic spells but as the game progresses many more can be acquired either temporarily (by having followers pray at a stone head) or permanently (by having the shaman enter a vault of knowledge). This growing arsenal of spells is at the core of the game’s gripping gameplay. Used individually or in combination, the shaman’s magic powers can strengthen her followers, strike fear into the enemy, reshape the land, and unleash the power of the elements.
Many spells have multiple uses. Landbridge, for example, is most commonly used to connect separate land masses to access new locations or to mount surprise attacks. However, cast carefully it can be employed to build fortresses from stone, increase the player’s buildable area, or even tear enemy structures apart. Erode can destroy cliffs to enable new invasion routes, or cause enemy bases to collapse into the sea. Swarm and hypnotise can sow confusion into the ranks of other tribes, while top-tier powers like Volcano, Earthquake, and Angel of Death are awesome acts of destruction, a wonder to behold.
The mission “Middle Ground”, a late entry in the campaign, sees all four tribes fighting over a single stone head. Whichever tribe worships it first gains the right to cast Armageddon. This spell reshapes the land, producing a circular arena into which all tribesmen of every faction are magically transported for a final battle to the death. This highlight of the brilliant magic system is a thrilling and unique event and easily one of the most unforgettable in all strategy games.
Much had changed since the release of Populous II back in 1991 and this is reflected in the graphics of Populous: The Beginning. The game uses 3D for its environment, while units are 2D sprites - an inversion of the approach used in Total Annihilation (1997). The overall visual presentation was stunning for 1998, and in many ways superior to the prevailing fully 2D strategies on the market at the time. In keeping with Bullfrog’s approach, the units are full of life and personality. Followers assigned to guideposts run around it in a circle; in larger numbers, they augment this with a rhythmic hop like a Mexican wave. When missions are completed, braves pour out of their houses and sprint around, jumping and yelling in celebration. Other visual details include tracks in the ground left by followers, and the permanent scars on the landscape left by powerful spells.
The soundtrack for Populous: The Beginning was composed by Mark Knight and is another of the game’s most memorable features. Outside of the battle music, the score is fairly ambient but rich with an otherworldly, tribal atmosphere. The game uses an invented language spoken by units, an example of worldbuilding with audio which makes up for the thin nature of the story. Other sounds, like the rocking of stone heads, the noises made by unaffiliated “wildmen”, and the gurgling of the deadly Swamp spell create the sense of being transported to one new world after another.
The mixed reception received by Populous: The Beginning upon its release in November 1998 seems hard to understand today. The game’s mechanics, graphics, and particularly the ability to reshape the landscape were very advanced compared to most of the strategies that hit the shelves at around the same time. Sadly, the shock of the new seemed too much to take. A port to the original PlayStation emerged in 1999, complete with new briefing dialogues voiced by the actor Robert Ashby. Also in 1999, the PC version received an expansion, Undiscovered Worlds, which added twelve new levels but which was only released in the UK and the US - everywhere else, the worlds remained undiscovered, at least until the game was made available via GOG.com.
It is tempting to imagine a world in which Populous, and not StarCraft, became the most influential RTS of 1998. In the event, the game’s innovations went undervalued and terrain deformation in particular is vanishingly rare even today. A small community keeps the game alive, releasing new campaigns and taking the battle for godhood online. It may take a remake or a belated successor to the game for its importance to be properly recognised. This may seem a long shot - but if Populous teaches us anything, it is that it’s good to have faith.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.