RTS Galore! Episode 3: Mega-Lo-Mania & Populous II

After trying its design philosophy in an entirely atheistic setting, Bullfrog returned to its god-game roots with a sequel to Populous, making the gamification of the ‘holy war’ concept more fun and ideologically safe. A couple of months earlier, another British developer, Sensible Software, also released a game about gods and their bloody conflicts. But Mega-Lo-Mania’s focus was more human-centered—even almost political, I’d say.

Populous II follows a typical sequel path—keeping the original game’s foundations intact, enriching somewhat the core mechanics, and putting a new graphical coat of paint.

Your god now has a name and a face. After each victory in the conquest mode, he gathers experience that you distribute among six forces of nature—earth, air, fire, water, vegetation, and people. Each of those forces has its set of spells (or Divine Intervention Effects, as they’re called in-game). That’s six times more spells than in original Populous.

There’s also some diversity in spells now—not all of them are destructive. Some divine interventions build walls and roads, renew lands after disasters, and even plant forests for followers’ popularity points (those enhance the mana accumulation).

Diversity engulfed even your followers—previously, in Populous, there were only middle-aged men. In Populous II, there are female and elderly aged walkers, which is always good. Heroes also received their portion of diversity—each magic category has its special hero with a unique trait. The vegetation category, for example, offers Adonis that divides after combat, creating the chain-effect of hero-warmongering; the Air category is represented by Odysseus, which is the fastest of heroes. Water category has Helen of Troy, «a woman of legendary beauty and grace who has lead many a men to their doom» (as stated in the manual)—she leads your opponent’s walkers to their death in the sea. For some reason.

Borrowing heroes’ names from Hellenic myths is not accidental—Populous II embraces the setting of Ancient Greek mythology. Trails of Olympian Gods is a fairly univocal subtitle of the game. You play as a demi-god whose mother was raped by Zeus (it’s in the manual!), and now his only way to enter the Pantheon is to defeat 32 gods and Zeus himself.

When I wrote about the original Populous, I’ve stated that the game never makes any artistic statement about religious intolerance, instead choosing to say, «look how fun it is to be Old Testament god!». Populous II takes an even easier way out—antique paganism. Its simplified stereotypical representation distances the game further from any sort of theological statement. In those stereotypical ancient times, every conflict was religious, and every war was carried on for the glory of some god. Without the complexity of historical reality, such a world is devoid of theological substance. Exactly like the original game, Populous II doesn’t want you to think much.

That’s why I can’t even fathom why its contemporary critics considered Sensible Software’s Mega-Lo-Mania Populous clone. Yes, Mega-Lo-Mania is about an interstellar conflict between four gods for total domination. But ‘gods’ and ‘conflict’ are the only things those games have in common. Moreover, Mega-Lo-Mania‘s usage of ‘gods’ is a mere superficial one—the game is actually about nationalism.

As stated in the game’s introduction, every time a new world is born, an interstellar contest between gods being held. The winner takes it all—enthroning himself as the total ruler of the planet. The contest goes on through the duration of ten epochs and takes place on 28 islands.

There are four gods in the contest to choose from. The only difference is the color of the followers’ clothes and the banner. Each epoch provides you with 100 followers, and every time you content over an island, you decide the number of followers that will fight for you there. After the hard-earned victory, those followers remain on that island to live peacefully. Followers that haven’t been appointed to an island by the end of the epoch will join you in the next one, so thoughtlessly spending your human assets is not a good idea.

Each island is divided into several sectors (as in Herzog Zwei that I considered covering for the series, but it hadn’t met my criteria). Conquering and exploiting those sectors’ resources and eventually destroying any enemy presence on the island is the way to win. You do this by appointing people to jobs—research, resource gathering, conquest. Those people that remain unappointed also keep themselves busy by multiplying (by conducting wild orgies in your fortress, apparently).

Now, research is the key to success. It is militaristic only—you can research new offense weapons, new defense weapons, or new shields. Each new weapon or shield your scientists discover brings the controlled sector closer to advancing a tech-level, thus allowing more weapons to research and additional buildings to build. Essentially, Mega-Lo-Mania is one of the first RTS games with a tech-tree, enabling you to beat an opponent with sticks at the start of the map and then drop a couple of nukes by the end.

Unlike Populous, Mega-Lo-Mania’s UI is as functional as it is simple and easy to grasp. Mechanics are also not particularly complicated, so nothing stands between you and your bloodthirsty fun unless you wish to think about what you are actually doing in this game.

All that gods’ contest cover-up wears pretty thin a moment you realize that none of those ‘gods’ have any divine powers. Remember columns of fire and plagues you could unleash onto the enemy in Populous? Nothing like that here. Mega-Lo-Mania is about researching new means of destruction, weaponizing some men, and sending them to kill.

You are not a god. You are a führer, conducting a total war with other nations and expanding your Lebensraum. Superficial divide between peoples, represented by different colors; fixation on militarism as the civilization’s moving force; and the statement that such is the natural order of things—these aspects make Mega-Lo-Mania pretty disturbing.

The game is fun, though. More fun than Populous, at least.

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