Netstorm (PC) Review – Battle in the Skies of Nimbus in one of the best games ever!

In addition to the recently posted Mega Man in Dr. Wily’s Revenge, the other review I posted on the internet in 2001 was this one, for the classic 1997 PC real-time strategy game Netstorm.  I first played Netstorm from PC Gamer’s December 1997 demo disc, and immediately fell in love and bought the game the next month, because it seemed good and to give me something to play while I waited for Starcraft.  After Starcraft released some months later I played NS less, but it is a game I return to regularly, and still play once in a while to this day — in fact, I’ve gotten back into Netstorm recently, and have played four or five games of NS in the past week.   It’s still an amazing game, one of the best RTS games ever made.  Netstorm is my favorite RTS not made by Blizzard, there’s no question about it. Netstorm is utterly original and is unlike any other game other than its spiritual sequel, if that game ever actually gets completed; so far that’s looking quite iffy.  The game is an innovative and great mixture of (tower-focused) RTS, puzzle, and RPG elements, and it’s a challenging and highly strategic game that requires both great skill, speed, and strategy to be successful at.  Netstorm sold only 25,000 copies at retail, but I own one of those copies, and it was one of my best purchases ever!

After the original review, I will update it with some additions, based on some things I don’t mention enough in the original review, and also changes that have happened to the game since the last time I updated it in 2004.  I could edit this in to the review, but for now I have not done that; I might go back and do this in the future.  I kind of like this layout, with the old 2001/2004 review first and then my new additions (longer than the original) second, but perhaps a merged version would be good too.   I put short notes about the most important updates in [brackets] in the text, with longer explanations at the end.

 

Netstorm:Islands At War

 

  • System: PC
  • Released in late 1997
  • Review in February 2004 (original review Spring 2001)
  • Developed by Titanic Entertainment
  • Published by Activision

 

Game Overview: Netstorm: Islands At War, developed by Titanic (Netstorm was its only game) and published by Activison, is a Real-Time Strategy game released in late 1997. Its main focus was on its quite good internet play mode.  While the game failed to sell, it is actually quite a good game, despite some problems.  Netstorm is unique in that it is a RTS game where the only units that can move are the resource gathers– military and support units are stationary towers with specific functions and attack areas. This adds to the strategy because placement of the towers is a major part of the game. There is a wide variety of units.  They are not balanced all that well, but all players can get all of the units eventually so it works well enough.  These units are placed in the sky on floating islands.  A (multiplayer) map will have a few large base islands around the edges, scattered resource geysers floating out in the air, and a field of small floating islands in the center.  To get to geysers or islands or to build units (towers) of an island, you must build bridges.  This is the game’s most unique element.  It is most similar to Tetris, actually, as the pieces are in many different shapes that you have to link together as you try to expand around the map. Skill at quickly and efficiently laying bridges is vital to being able to win, for if you are blocked off by bridges you will probably eventually lose.  This is a problem for new players because quick bridge building takes time to learn. As such, new players lose most all the time to a good or even mediocre player.  It takes time before you become good enough to compete with better players in the game, and this definitely would turn some people off of the game. Since geysers are all over the map, being cut off is devastating.  And since geysers don’t have too much gas in them, and randomly appear around the map, the more territory you have the more money you will make, given enough workers.  The key to victory, though, isn’t annihilating your enemy’s units.  It is sacrificing their High Priest.  A Priest can be captured when damaged enough, and once captured, brought to a Altar where the victor’s High Priest will sacrifice it.  Once a person’s priest is dead, they lose the game. It is a very unique game. This is probably its greatest strength and greatest curse, as the game is unique and there is nothing like it, but so different that many people will not like how different it is from every other RTS they have played.  New players are also slowed down a lot by the structure of the multiplayer system, where at the start you only have a couple of basic units and actually have to unlock the better units in the game by winning matches and sacrificing enemy priests — this means your enemies, if they are better, will not just be better but will have better units too.  Clearly the game is designed so it is best to play against people of a similar skill level and rank, and played in that way it is fun.  9 of 10.

Single Player: Because Netstorm was clearly designed for its internet play, the single player mode leaves a lot to be desired. With no in-mission saving, a fairly long and tedious campaign, and more boring gameplay because there are only large islands and geysers in single player, the single player mode is clearly in the game just so they have one. It will take a while to get through, if you really want to, but probably isn’t worth the effort. The poor story doesn’t really make you want to progress, either. There are some better campaigns made by fans available for download, however, and if you want a good single player experience you should get them. They have things the main campaign doesn’t like branching missions as well.  6/10.

Multi Player: This is where Netstorm is at its best. It was an early online RTS, coming out in demo form in fall 1997, and was probably ahead of its time. With free internet play built into the game, it is very easy to play online. Even here the game is unique — instead of the average online interface, chatroom, and list of games, it has a ”sky” where your island — a small representation of the island you actually have in the game — flies around, to where your mouse clicks, and joins a game when you click on a spot on a battle ring. That spot is the point (of the 8 start locations around the edge) where you actually start the game. Here, games from one to eight players are played on a map with large islands around the outside and a field of small ones in the middle with the geysers. Though there some problems online because of the fact that almost all players are either very good or no good, because of the small (though steady and probably slowly growing now that it is more available) number of people that play, it is still fun and even now, three years after this poorly selling game released, people are usually playing online [Update: fewer now, but the game still plays online; read the new section for more].  There was even a fanmade patch released late 2003. It broke single player mode, in some ways, but as I have said that does not matter [Update: This was fixed in another fan patch.].  It added some great features to multiplay like different colored islands and bridges on the minimap for each player.  The only real problems with online play are how many people cheat. Because of how the game was designed, cheating is fairly easy and lots of people cheat. Even with this latest patch, cheating is too easy [Update: The latest patch does what it can to tamp down on cheating, but it’s probably impossible to get rid of all of it in NS; the game simply was not designed for good security.]. When past the cheating, though, the game is a lot of fun. But like many other things about this game its uniqueness is a weakness as well. I like the level progression where you unlock more characters as you win more games, but it does hurt new players chances of completing against good ones even more, or even against not so good ones who have more units. However, just getting a file with all the units isn’t a good solution because you will then be thrown into playing against people who are far better than you, so following the rank tree is needed if you want to get good. It adds to replay value, though, because unlike most online games it actually gives you a tangible award for winning games (which is something I like about this). I like that.  10/10.

Graphics: Netstorm’s graphics are clearly out of date, even though they get the job done.  They are old, though, and may make some people not really try the game.  This area is, because of the game’s age and the fact that the graphics were just OK then, at best, one of the weakest areas of the game.  It will even still slow down on a fast computer if you have a huge number of moving units on the screen — a game limitation, clearly.  That doesn’t hurt the gameplay much though because again, only resource gatherers, not military units, move.  If you can ignore the graphics, there is a good game behind them.  6/10.

Sound/Music: The music and sound in Netstorm is ok. While it won’t stand out, it is decent and doesn’t seem to repeat too often. [Update: I was crazy in 2001 or something, because Netstorm’s music is exceptional!]  Each resource gatherer will make some sound when you click on them, and they are good.  The battle sounds are good as well.  Overall, a little above average in this category. Nothing special really, but appropriate for the game.  8/10.

Other Info: While not immediately apparent, Netstorm does have a map editor for single player levels.  However, to make a map you must both place the units and islands in the in-game editor you can get and create a text file to go with that map that tells the game everything from what units are enabled in the level for what players start with (it must be listed), and what the alliances and computer player scripts are.  This is more complex than it sounds because this file is a text file and figuring out the syntax takes some time. For most people it probably isn’t worth it and it would just be better to download some of the good campaigns that other users made.  A few are good.  The result is few maps made and fewer that are actually good. It is good that it has it, though.

Overall, it is a great and unique RTS, but has some definite flaws and limitations and a relatively high learning curve that probably keeps many new players from fully appreciating the game.  Still, it is a good game and there is still nothing like it out there. Until there is, it will still be worth playing.  One of my favorite RTSes, but I recognize that it is not for everyone.

Gameplay – 9/10
Single Player – 6/10
Multi Player – 10/10
Graphics – 6/10
Sound – 8/10
Total – 39/50 or 78% (average)

Final Score – 88% – B (not an average, but what I think the game deserves).  Still a great game despite some problems.

2014 Updated Review Addition:

For the most part this is an okay review, though now I’d make it longer and more detailed on exactly how the gameplay and interface work. So, I will do that now.  The units (towers and resource gatherers) are shown on the left side of the screen, in a somewhat Command & Conquer-building-style list.  Click on a unit and drag it on to the field to place it.  Remember that all towers are immobile, so think carefully about each one, and place it accordingly!  Right click to rotate a tower; once placed, it can only attack or interact in the direction shown, for towers with single-direction focuses.  Yes, Netstorm is sort of like a hybrid of Chess and Go, except with more different types of pieces.  Once placed, towers work entirely on their own; you cannot control them.  The strategy is in the placement, and the bridging, which I describe in the original review.  Towers must be built off of bridge ends or on islands.  Using the bridge hotkeys (QWASZX) is vital, and much faster than going to the bridge buttons.  Bridging is great fun and one of the most unique things about Netstorm — no other RTS has anything quite like it.  Fast bridging is key to fast expansion.  As for the units, units are divided into four trees, for the Furies of Sun, Wind, Rain, and Thunder.  Units must be built within range of enough Generator units in order to build, and once you lay out a unit location, a little bit of power has to go along the bridges from your nearest outpost or temple (described below) to the unit’s location.  So, they do not build immediately, and the game encourages you to push forward with more outposts.  Sun units can use any type of energy and do not have their own Generator, but Wind, Rain, and Thunder require their own, so many players stick with one of the three in each game; otherwise you have to juggle more Workshops, and also more Generators.

So, the High Priest builds buildings.  First, you need a temple, then some workshops and maybe an altar (for sacrificing on).  Workshops allow you to add limited numbers of units into production, so in Netstorm you CANNOT have everything at once — you are limited to the number of units addable on the workshops you can squeeze onto your island.  Workshops by default add two units, but upgrading them can add two more, though each one added costs as much as a workshop.  Of course, with the space limits, just building more workshops might not be an option.  The other major type of building is Outposts, which are essentially mini Temples, which you can build on the small islands in the central field.  Temples and Outposts are the only buildings which can be built on non-controlled islands, an they give you control of the island, provided that there isn’t someone else with an outpost or temple on the island of course; in that case, the person with more of them controls it.  If you control an island, no one else can build on it, and you can bridge of of it, and your resource gatherers can return to it, so controlling islands in the central field is critical.  As I say in the original review, control of space is absolutely vital in this game, and you do this through a combination of bridges, units (towers), and outposts.

The main categories of units are:

  • The High Priest, who can cast spells, collect resources, and is the only one who can create buildings — do this through his right-click menu.  You also add units into production (add them to the left bar) through buildings’ right-click menus.
  • Gatherer units, who gather resources.  These can also get spells, if they have been enabled (many players prefer spells disabled).  Otherwise these gatherers cannot attack.  They come in various types, flying or walking; walking ones need bridges, but flying ones are either more expensive, or more fragile.
  • Generators — Generators allow you to build the other unit types.  As described above, there are three kinds, for Rain, Wind, or Thunder.  Get the type you want.  You can also blow up a Generator unless it is low on health, and destroy bridges adjacent to it.  This can be useful for breaking through an enemy line.
  • Direct Attack units — these attack enemies within the marked range, through a variety of means.  Each of the four Furies have one or two attack unit types.  My, and many other peoples’, favorite is the Crossbow (Wind).  These are usually the core of your forces.
  • Spawn Attack units — these spawn little flying mini-units, which you cannot control, and which travel out towards any enemy within their marked circular range.  Sun, Wind, and Rain each have one of these; Thunder does not.  These are great support units.
  • Defensive Towers — These block incoming attacks from Direct Attack units.  Each one has different properties, so Ice Towers regenerate, while Wind Towers are invulnerable from the front and must be attacked from the air, sides, or back.  Protect more fragile towers with these — attackers must attack the first thing they see, and these before other tower types, not the best target.
  • Barricades — These create various types of barricades.  Sun Barricades, when lined up, create a wall between them which blocks direct-attack projectiles.  Acid (rain) barricades destroy any unit which passes between them.  Thunder has a unique single barricade tower which destroy any flying units that get near them; Sun or Rain barricades need to be lined up in pairs or more to work.

And that’s Netstorm.  Place your buildings on your island, build a network of bridges, collect storm power, expand out, take territory, place units to hold off or defeat the enemy, and try to force them to give up, or capture and sacrifice their priest.  That is how the game plays, and it’s one of the best games ever.  There is a reason why people are still playing and supporting this game so long after its release, and that is because of how unique and how great the game is.

 

So, I needed to do a better job explaining the gameplay, but the basics of what I did cover in the old review were mostly good, except for one thing: the music!  Yes, the biggest flaw I notice in the old review, though, is that I do not praise the music here, which is crazy because Netstrom has an exceptional soundtrack from Mark Morgan, the same person behind the Planescape: Torment soundtrack.  In fact, he didn’t have much time to compose Torment, so many major themes from Torment’s acclaimed soundtrack are copied straight out of Netstorm’s incredibly under-rated one.  Listen to both soundtracks and the similarities will become obvious.  Netstorm’s music is some of the best computer game music around, and fits the game absolutely perfectly.  Outstanding work.

One other thing to note is the online chat formatting.  In the online server, if you type .format and then the modifiers, you can change your chat color and format.  This will save to that player file.  If you type the modifiers without .format, it won’t save and will just change for one line.  ~E, ~I, and ~B Emboss, Italicize, and Bold your text.  Lowercase letters change text color, such as ~g for green or ~l for light (aqua) blue.  You can add a tag before your name as well, which is nice.  I forget how to change your name itself, though, but it is possible to, for instance, have your name display in one color but your chat text in another one.  You can also make various NS-related icons appear.  Cool stuff.  NS chat commands are fun.  Of course, since there is absolutely no protections on usernames anyone can pretend to be someone else, and doing exactly that was long a common NS practice, but that was just part of the fun!

The other notes mostly regard changes to the online game thanks to another fan patch and the passage of time.  Player populations in mid 2014 are much lower than they were in 2001, no question about it.  People do still play the game online, though, and a dedicated fan is still running a Netstorm server, fantastically enough!  Netstorm hasn’t died yet, and I hope it never does.  Download the version of the game from Netstormworld (or some other source, but right now it is the main one), and the Windows 7 color patch if necessary; this version contains all the fan patches, up to the current final version 10.78, and the game still can be played online — thanks to Fleet_Admiral a fan-run server still exists, and people do still use it.  You may have to wait a while sometimes to find a game, but people do play.  For new players, I would recommend play some single player campaigns first to get better, or else you’ll be destroyed by the longtime players even worse than if you try to start from scratch.  The online game is more fun, but single player isn’t horrible, it’s just nowhere near as good as online — but it does provide for a decent starter in how to play the game, which is important.  Either that, or find a friend to play it with, and spread the love of Netstorm!

That 10.78 patch, the current final version of Netstorm with all fan patches, did fix single player mode, I believe, but more importantly, it added some great new features to the online game!  But also, I didn’t explain some of the game systems the patch changed.  I mention that in multiplayer, the way you get units is by sacrificing priests.  When you sac a priest at your altar, you can either get a unit, upgrade your altar, or get 5000 storm power (money).   If you have all the units, though, you can go up a rank at this point.  Originally, the game boosted your damage by 10% for each rank, giving the online game a strong RPG element.  However, many fans didn’t like this design, and hackers often used max-rank (rank 255) files which were near-impossible to beat.  So, the fan patches get rid of the advantage of rank.  Now, in NS’s online mode the only reason to go up in rank is bragging rights that few care about.  Indeed, the most common way people end Netstorm games is by agreeing to a draw when it is clear that one person is going to lose.  The only ways to end a Netstorm game are for the winner/winners (in a team game) to sacrifice all of their enemies’ priests, or the players to agree to a draw.  It would be better if there was a way for losing players to concede and give the other person a win, but you can’t.  This is too bad because the Victory and Defeat screens after a battle are a lot more interesting than the Draw screen.  Ah well; at least if you want you could do a 5000 storm power sac win, that doesn’t increase your rank.  Another thing to know is that using a Fort Maker program allows old or new players to easily create a rank 1 level 43 file with all the units.  Getting the units one at a time is more fun, but with player populations where they are today, it’s an important option to be aware of. 

The other major change in the fan patches that I did not mention are the additional game options and map types.  Now you can not only play the standard map type with a ring of player islands surrounding a central field of small islands, but also a variety of other interesting game types.  They’re worth trying, but honestly, the main mode is the most fun one.  Still, all the added options are great, and worth checking out!  There’s a smaller map, a larger map, a map with just one giant central island, and more.  Also more game options were added, to give greater customization to the rules of each match.  I still like the basic, original game the best, though; the others are cool to have, but the basic game is the best.  It’s different every time, too, because the islands in the central block are randomly generated, so you will never see the exact same map twice.  This mixture of the randomly generated central field, with the persistent player islands, makes Netstorm unique.

In conclusion, playing the game again, yes, I still love Netstorm, about as much as ever!  You won’t find a more unique game than this one, and it’s hard to find one that is more fun either.  The game has some issues, clearly did not have much of a budget and was made on the cheap, and has a small player base today, but ignore those faults and play this amazing classic!  With the 10.78 patch, I might even bump the score up to an A-; there is less cheating now than there used to be, and additions like bridges and islands being colored your color on the game and minimap, additional options and map types, bug fixes, and more are fantastic and help the game a lot.

Get the game at http://www.netstormworld.com/news.php?item.122.1 (download the FLEET’s fix [10.78] version from the link provided, and the Win7 patch if needed)
A fort-maker and some user-made downloadable campaigns can be found at http://nsplanet.tripod.com/downloads.html (note that the “full version” download here is the original 10.37 version straight from the CD.  Ignore this and use the updated 10.78 version at the link above.  Use this page for the campaign and fort maker downloads.)

Hopefully the better community Netstorm site, Netstorm HQ, or some replacement for it is brought back online.  The site vanished earlier this year, and its absence is sorely missed!

Finally, there is a 3d spiritual sequel, or sequel, to Netstorm in development, Disciples of the Storm.  The game may or may not ever be completed, but I very much hope that it is completed eventually!  Here is their site: http://www.stormisleproductions.com/ Back the kickstarter, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/525138512/disciples-of-the-storm too.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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