Outpost 2: Divided Destiny – PC
“Extinction is not an option.”
Publisher: Sierra On-Line
Release Date: 1997
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
If there’s one big complaint that I have about real-time strategy games, it’s this: All that the so-called “strategy” boils down to is churning out military units like there’s a fire sale and throwing them en masse at the other players before they’re even ready to put up some kind of resistance. It smothers any chance at a fair fight, but those e-sports professionals in their Mountain Dew baseball caps who get money every time they eat Spicy Nacho Doritos on camera act like they’re just better gamers than anyone else for these mean and underhanded tactics. Now, I know I’m not the most effective RTS gamer out there. I may not have studied the top five best buildings and units to start off with for every faction, and tagging unit groups to a number key is the height of my hotkeying sophistication, but I do feel like the early-rusher picks the pocket of the late-gamer every time. And in my opinion, the people who enjoy running over defenseless players with their giant tanks should get a crash course in what it’s really like to struggle for survival against all odds. Thankfully, a game like that exists, and it’s called Outpost 2: Divided Destiny.
Published by Sierra On-Line in 1997, Outpost 2: Divided Destiny requires a bit of backstory on its predecessor to really be appreciated. The original Outpost was released in 1994 to critical acclaim, with its hard science approach to extraterrestrial colony management getting a lot of attention from gaming magazines of the day. However, Sierra promised a lot more to their reviewers than they could deliver, and rushed out an unfinished game with a lot of missing content and more than its fair share of bugs. While the original Outpost still has a cult following today (of which I’m a part of), its flaws and false promises made a lot of people angry, and so it was probably a wise choice to pass the development duties over to Dynamix. What resulted from this was a game that’s not only completely playable, but introduces you to a different approach to real-time strategy that I don’t think has really been done since. Put on your spacesuit and follow me out the airlock as we survey the structure and careful planning behind Outpost 2: Divided Destiny.
A massive asteroid called “Vulcan’s Hammer” is headed for a direct impact course with Earth, and once all of the other options prove fruitless, humankind whips up a crash starship program in a desperate attempt to keep the species alive once Earth’s population is wiped out. After many long years, the Conestoga starship fails to find a planet that’s deemed suitable for human existence, and the humans aboard are told to pick the most likely-looking one from their local region of space. This is what brings them to New Terra, still a very harsh world, but with enough resources to make continuous habitation possible. The colonists decide to settle two colonies to better their chances of survival, and the colonies of Eden and Plymouth build and thrive for some time.
However, as time passes, relations deteriorate between the twin colonies. Eden’s controversial experiments are seen as a danger to both colonies by Plymouth, and when Eden refuses to halt their projects, Plymouth cuts communications with them in a gesture of disgust. From that point on, both colonies can only rely on themselves to stay alive, and a global threat quickly arises to test both factions’ will to survive: Eden’s ultimate plan for making New Terra habitable backfires, releasing a terraforming bioagent that can destroy computers and humans alike. This bioagent’s uncontrolled expansion, known as “The Blight”, not only threatens to wipe out all human existence on New Terra, but renews the planet’s arrested seismological and meteorological activity, causing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, devastating lightning storms and even tornadoes. Add the fact that New Terra doesn’t have enough of an atmosphere to burn down meteors before they impact the surface, and you can see that this new world is quickly going to doom humanity unless they can leave it in time. New Terra only holds enough essential resources for one spaceship program to succeed, meaning that confrontation between the two colonies is inevitable as both factions fight to save themselves from death at the hands of this cold, alien planet.
The story of a good game should do more than serve as fun background, it should also help define the gameplay, and Outpost 2: Divided Destiny does an excellent job at keeping them both connected. The campaign for each colony keeps the tense, desperate atmosphere high, with mission briefings, research descriptions, and even chapters of a novella written specifically for the game, all building toward a climactic finish should your colony management skills be sharp enough to see the campaign through to its final missions. Even if you choose to play the “colony missions”, which don’t follow the plot of the main campaign, you still get a sense for the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with living on a harsh and dangerous planet. Given the circumstances, you may be pushed to extreme measures to ensure your colony’s survival, and that’s exactly what the developers had in mind.
Outpost 2: Divided Destiny is an exceptional piece of work to look at, and you can tell this simply from the amount of detail put into the units. As with many of the strategy games of its era, the game’s structures, units, even the terrain that makes the planet are all built upon sprites. Each vehicle can face eight different directions, perform its functions in between four to eight directions (depending on what it is), military units of different classes can face their turrets to aim many different directions and the weapons they fire have a variety of appearances that makes each of them recognizable. Cargo trucks in particular deserve credit for demonstrating the graphical strengths of this game, able to carry raw materials, processed materials, food, salvage, all kinds of things, and each cargo has its own distinct look and building where it can be dropped off at. Eden and Plymouth both have a unique style that comes out in their units and especially their buildings. It really helps to distinguish the technologically-minded Eden from the morale-conscious Plymouth and set both factions apart from each other in more ways than just what color’s splashed upon their buildings.
The level of depth is staggering not only in just how the units and buildings look, but how they act. Building construction shows the structure as a writhing hulk of metal girders being put into place by cranes and such, and after the building is built, the building has animations to show the life in it, with factory bays unloading structure kits and smelters venting gases from materials processing. This makes the colony feel more like a living thing than a means to a military end, such as the case would be in other RTS games. New Terra’s day and night cycle passes naturally, putting the land around your colony’s lights in darkness and making it very difficult to see units without their lights on (a very good strategy to hide your units on the mini-map from other players, actually). And even though you don’t want to see natural disasters happening, the ones that inevitably will are well-animated and the remnants they leave behind, whether it’s an oozing lake of lava or a blackened crater where your earthmover used to be, don’t leave anything to be desired. On the whole, an impressive amount of effort that gives this game a unique and lively look even to this day.
Of course, as I’ve said before, one of the most distinctive features about Outpost 2: Divided Destiny is its unique approach to real-time strategy. Your colony is a precious and vulnerable thing, in danger practically all of the time from many different stressors. The colonists need food and shelter, which means you need enough agridomes (hydroponic farms) and residential buildings to accommodate them. Those will need power, so you need enough Tokamaks (power stations) ready to keep them powered up, but those Tokamaks slowly deteriorate and need constant maintenance to keep from exploding. You’d best dedicate a vehicle or two to keep them in top shape, but those are precious when you don’t have a vehicle factory yet! Time to follow the research thread that lets you build them, but wait! The colony morale is starting to drop because there’s not enough advance warning systems in place after last week’s earthquake! Two scientists just died, you need to get more or have very slow research, but it takes them so long to train! A meteor just blew up one of your cargo trucks! Power levels are insufficient, people are eating more food than they make, there’s not enough resources to fix anything, and you’re tearing your hair out because it was all going well just a minute ago! Yep, this game’s definitely Sierra’s handiwork!
Needless to say, you’ll have your hands full very quick if you don’t start planning ahead. Redundant agridomes, extra tokamaks, perhaps even a backup command center in case your original comes under fire or gets taken out by a very persistent vortex, you’ll be thinking in terms of minimizing loss in crisis situations and keeping things stable. Planning for anything becomes the order of the day, and you’ll be researching ways to predict natural disasters to give yourself time to prepare for their arrival (so you can deactivate buildings in the path of the storm, move units out of the area, etc.) and researching weapons in case you happen to have someone else on the map who doesn’t like what you’re doing. If you’re Eden, your technological superiority will make you more adept at defense against the exterior threat, making you a more formidable opponent to your enemies. If you’re Plymouth, you’re better at handling the interior stress of keeping your colony’s morale positive.
But as Eden knows, there’s a dark side to technological prowess. If you research any structure that improves the morale of the colony, the colony will demand it and morale will suffer if you don’t provide. Disaster warning systems seem to encourage natural disasters to happen more often than they would without it, and researching weapons gives the enemy incentive to attack. The difficulty scales dynamically with your readiness level, as if to test you every step of the way, and it can be rather jarring to the uninitiated. But if you learn to predict and plan around your colony’s fickle morale changes, you’ll have mastered one of the most complicated and crucial elements of Outpost 2: Divided Destiny, and from there, all other challenges will be made easier, even defending against your enemies. Who knows? The space program that you had in mind from the start might not be so far out of reach after all!
Music and Sound Effects
As I say with any game I review, the music and sound have to be on point even if they’re just meant for background, otherwise the whole effect falls apart and the whole game suffers for it, much like your colony will need a reclamation plant as soon as you research it or it will start freaking out. Outpost 2: Divided Destiny has a soundtrack made up mostly of ambient tracks that fare well in most occasions. Some of them are relaxing and inspiring with a promise toward the future to match those moments when the morale is good and the resources are flowing as well as the tech pace is, and some are fast-paced and heart-pounding to go with those moments in the game where you’re sweating bullets and trying to piece everything together just before The Blight takes it all away from you. It can be difficult to appreciate the simplistic beauty of this score in the heat of the moment, but the memory by association value works to its advantage and helps keep the frantic game alive in our minds long after we leave the action behind.
While the sound effect quality is as good as you would expect a game that got everything else right to be (i.e. I have no complaints to that regard), Outpost 2: Divided Destiny has something especially noteworthy in regards to what you hear in-game. That would be the Savant computer, the game’s notification system that keeps you up to date on events effecting your colony. It’s vital that you stay abreast of what happens, even when it’s not an immediate threat, and informs you of the running status of your power levels, food supplies, and colony morale. The Savant computer informs you vocally of every important event sequentially to the best of its ability, often leading to an interesting and sometimes foreboding string of messages. “Food production in surplus, power levels optimal, morale is good” is a very nice thing to hear, while “Caution: Power levels marginal, Warning: Volcanic eruption imminent, Morale is terrible” is not nice to hear at all, and occasionally good and bad news happen in the same breath. For many veterans, the Savant computer is not only an indispensable tool to keeping their colony alive, but one of the most memorable elements of the game, and deserves credit as such.
In my opinion, Outpost 2: Divided Destiny is a triumph of unconventional real-time strategy gaming and should be re-examined by today’s game designers. It improves upon its legacy by putting in many times the amount of effort than the original Outpost, giving the property a new lease on life and a new market of popularity. It makes players adapt to the hostile and desperate environment of New Terra and the management nightmares that come with it. The graphics are stunning, the music is exceptional, the sounds are memorable, and it’s a wonder that nobody has tried to make a strategy game to try and top this, given that the characteristic elements it uses are still rather unique today. Then again, maybe I answered my own curiosity. Maybe this game broke the mold like so many of the other games that I used to play, subjecting itself to obscurity simply because it’s so different from the rest of the market.
Regardless, if you’re looking for an RTS that can challenge you in a way that the other ones can’t, or you’re just a hungry glutton for punishment with a side order of hard science, Outpost 2: Divided Destiny will see you sink or swim, and you owe it to yourself to take the test and see how far you get with either colony at least once. Good Old Games sadly doesn’t carry it, but there’s a fansite with the long name “New Terran Command Site” that should be able to hook you up with a downloadable copy patched to work on modern systems. And even if you’re a purist, there’s probably a few copies still floating around on the Internet somewhere, waiting to reach that ideal player. Start it up, give it a go, and remember: Boredom is not an option.
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