From Dust by Ubisoft review

Play God in the hit strategy game whose PC release has been dogged by DRM controversy
Photo of From Dust by Ubisoft
£10.20

Ubisoft’s latest offering is a downloadable strategy god game with a shamanic (or some might say hippy) vibe – but controversy surrounding Ubisoft’s promise not to employ digital rights management (DRM) anti-piracy protection on the title has meant that the PC port of this Xbox game has been met in some quarters with somethign less than peace and love. More of that below.

From Dust sees you control the ‘breath’ of the land, so it’s probably a good job that From Dust is set in an idyllic-looking fantasy world, and not ours. We shudder to think what the breath of the Earth would be like, but given pollution levels on our planet, we suspect it would require at least a bottle of Listerine and two full packets of extra-strong mints to ensure it didn’t strip Saturn of its rings.

Breath of fresh air
The breath in Ubisoft’s game is a far more gentle wispy tendril that swirls across the landscape, but despite its airy appearance, this spirit can shape the terrain (on the Xbox) via a squeeze of the Xbox controller’s left trigger. This enables it to suck up earth, water or even lava into a floating sphere, which can then be moved around and deposited using the right trigger.

This micromanagement style of terraforming is the basic method by which the player must guide his or her tribe of people to a series of totems. The natives build villages around these totems, and a world is completed when they’re all captured. As a bonus, the worship of a totem also confers extra power to the player.

From Dust by Ubisoft


River deep, mountain high

At heart, this is a very simplistic game. Highlighting a totem tells the tribe to make their way over to it, but there may be obstacles in the way. To take a simple example, a river could block your people’s passage. While a smaller stream might be bridged merely by dumping a couple of piles of earth on top of it, a wider, faster flowing river isn’t so easy to deal with.

You’ll dump your first couple of skip-fulls of earth next to the riverbank, only to come back with the third and find most of your efforts have already been eroded by the raging waters. So how is this watery problem solved? With a little thinking, looking towards the source of the river, and some clever diverting of the flow further upstream. The surging torrent is then slowed so you can successfully bridge it.

The interaction of the elements and the game’s physics are impressively implemented – even more so when it comes to the natural disasters that the tribe must be protected from. Using molten lava (which hardens to rock) to swiftly shore up holes in a mountain range as a tsunami roars into sight certainly builds a sense of pressure. The swelling flood waters and erupting volcanoes flow authentically, and are a visual treat.

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God with a small ‘g’

But despite the game’s epic scale, early on there’s a distinct feeling you’re not really very god-like for a game-influencing deity. Scrabbling about moving small piles of earth around to reshape the world can feel sluggish and sometimes plain fiddly.

Particularly when you’re trying to get the tribe to a new totem up a steep slope – they get stuck easily and it can be tricky to tell exactly where the ground needs to be built up in order to assure their passage. It doesn’t help that earth dumping can be an imprecise science, between the circling breath icon and the game’s set camera angle. Compounding these issues, the basic path-finding skills of the tribe are below-par at times.

It’s true that in later levels, your powers grow to become more truly god-like, with the ability to place unlimited amounts of earth (albeit for a short time only). The game’s terrain-based puzzles also become more complex, with the addition of novel elements such as fire trees which periodically burst into flames, setting hugely dangerous brush blazes. Fortunately, water trees can be uprooted and planted nearby to guard against their fiery cousins, expelling a gush of H2O when they detect heat.

From Dust by Ubisoft


Pathing and puzzles

From Dust is more of a pathing and puzzle game, really. The range of godly powers is fairly narrow and the freedom of choice similarly so, with your people’s progress pretty much being mapped out from totem to totem. Yet there’s a range of different tactics and clever tricks that can be pulled off with the terrain – and using your cunning to turn back the rage and fury of mother nature can be a satisfying experience.

DRM drama
One final note: that controversy regarding DRM when it comes to the PC version. Prior to release, Ubisoft had said the game would come with a one-time-only activation process. In actual fact, From Dust authenticates itself online every time its run. Many PC gamers were not amused, which has led to Ubi doing a U-turn. Apparently a patch is incoming in a couple of weeks to remove the authentication procedure and allow offline play.

Verdict
The strategic elements of From Dust can seem rather shallow, with a degree of tedium in the repeated earth shifting, and a dose of aggravation when it comes to directing your tribe around the map. Still, the scale, physics and interaction of elements are beautifully presented, and at the ten pound price point we can more readily forgive its faults.

Company: UbiSoft

Website: http://from-dust.ubi.com/

Positives
  • Physics of the lava and water; authentic interaction of elements.
Negative
  • Terrain management can be overly fiddly; poor AI path-finding.