I recently had a bug of a niche side of the city building genre: colony building. But then I remember an old standby that I still think should be used as the yardstick for all colony building games. That game is Outpost 2: Divided Destiny.
What is Outpost 2?
Outpost 2 was a game developed by Dynamics and released by Sierra in 1997. It can be summarized as Sim City meets Command and Conquer. Well, loosely speaking.
The premise is that humans have left earth because an asteroid annihilates it. And in their time drifting, they reject planet after planet until they find one is close enough. In desperation due to running low on resources, they land and hope to start anew. So there's a colony building aspect.
But humans being humans have different ways of solving a problem of trying to survive. One side wants to terraform the planet. The other wants to adapt to it. And things get heated and point lasers at each other. There's the combat aspect of it.
What makes Outpost 2 great?
The first part has to do with the colony building aspect. Depending on the scenario, you start off with a central command center that is the heart of your colony: if it goes, the colony goes. But from thereon, you build, expand, get resources, make babies, research! Speaking of resources, there are plenty to manage, but most of the time you're not monitoring all of them constantly. The ones are metals to build stuff, food to feed the colonists, power to power structures, the colonists themselves (broken up into children, workers, and scientists), and the one you'll mostly be keeping an eye out, colony morale. The neat thing is a lot of the time you don't really have to actively manage them. You get regular reports both with a voice over and "pinging" if something needs attention or something happened.
The colony building itself is done by you. You put down the structures, layout the infrastructure, and generally make the colony. Speaking of which, there's only one infrastructure to worry about: tubes. And perhaps bizarrely, this is only to connect to the command center. Power is transmitted wirelessly. Food magically appears to colonists. Refined metals just teleport.
Here's a snippet of a colony from a scenario I'm playing:
There's a middle ground between macromanaging and micromanaging. You don't really need to tend to any single building or unit. The only time you do is because you want to use the building's function. But at the same time, you may need to juggle resources. If there's not enough workers to run a building, you may consider "idling" one until you get another worker. Morale may be the only one you really have to look out for, because there are many ways to influence it. Some directly, some indirectly.
The other part of the game is the lore. A whole novella was written and included in the game. It's something you have to read though after the mission briefing, but a surprising amount of backstory was available from the get-go. The game also came with an online manual (which was really just a large help file) and even the description of the units and structures get a blurb about what life is like for the people trying to survive. I mean, here's an example for a Vehicle Factory:
Kimberly Cole, Rashad's supervisor, waved to him from the landing outside the control room. “Come on, Rashad. The transport's waiting. We need to roll.”
Rashad didn't look up from the Vehicle Factory's master programming panel. He rotated the master schematic on his screen for one last check. Everything had to be right, as there would be nobody here to fix it if it went wrong. “Coming,” he said. “I just have to get this last vehicle assembly started.”
Cole took the last step into the control room. She looked curiously over his shoulder. “What vehicle? We're bugging out, Rashad. The Blight waits for no man or woman.” She studied the schematic more closely. “What in blazes is that thing? Did you design it?”
Rashad grinned. “I did the pattern and programming, but nope, I didn't design it. Found it in a book of Earth vehicles.”
She stared at him. “Rashad, we're leaving, bugging out. There won't be anyone left here when this thing is finished. You aren't planning on staying, I hope.”
“Good, because that thing will barely be finished before the Blight hits, and from the looks of it, I don't give you much chance of driving out in it. I don't suppose you expect it to autodrive out after us.”
He just laughed, even though she didn't get the joke. He tapped the “run” icon and climbed out of the chair. “That does it; let's go.”
Below them on the factory floor, the robotic machinery was already in motion, sparks flying as it fabricated parts from raw metal stock.
They walked down the stairs, along a corridor, and down a ramp to the tunnel toward the CC, where the Evac Transport was waiting.
She looked at him. “What was that all about?”
He shrugged. “Something I've wanted to build since I found it in that old database, but never had the chance. Well, the factory isn't doing anything now, and any resources that aren't on a truck are toast anyway, so I figured, why not?”
“You'll never see it.”
“I'll know it was built. That'll be something. Maybe it'll even survive the Blight, and somebody will find it someday.” He chuckled. “It'll make them crazy figuring it out.”
They said nothing for a while, but as they climbed the ramp to the CC, she finally asked the question. “What was that thing, anyway? I've never seen anything like it.”
He smiled. “It's called a 1957 Chevy.”
And this extends a bit further in game. I mentioned there's research, which was starting to become the next big feature in RTS games of the time with regards to the tech tree. But I don't recall an RTS around that time that went into a level of detail such as this:
I mean, most other games probably would've cut it off at the first paragraph. The second part though, makes the game feel more immersive. Instead of the what the research is providing, it's telling me the why. Why should I spend my valuable scientists on this research? And not only that, the level of science fiction used in this game could be closer to hard science fiction than not. Sure there are some implausible technologies thrown around like "cool fusion" and "boptronics" (a combination of biological, optical, and electrical gadgets), but take this for example:
For several years now, New Terra's magnetic field has been in a state of flux. This appears to be a natural process; it is believed to have happened a number of times in Earth's past, though not during recorded history. This is a fascinating opportunity to study a rare geologic phenomenon.
(What this results in)
Our studies of New Terra's shifting magnetic field have produced a serendipitous side benefit. We have discovered a way to harness the shifts through electromagnetic induction, producing a substantial amount of electrical power.
The outcome might be a bit of a stretch (they found a way to use conductive fluid to generate electricity due to the planet's shifting magnetosphere), but this research topic is a real thing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetohydrodynamics
This sort of thing tickled my imagination way back when I found it. It still sort of does. Either way, the amount of detail that went into this game, for an RTS that didn't deal with historical points or whatnot, is amazing.
What isn't so great about Outpost 2?
I may love this game, but that doesn't mean it's not without its faults.
A large part of it is RNG. This game is full of it. While you can control how much metal you have, how much power you generate, and how much food you can produce, anything involving the colonists are random. You can only influence them. This means that in the beginning, you'll be struggling to break even as you have to squeeze every bit of resources you can get. And what makes things worse, one resource, Scientists, do not automatically generate and require scientists to create (by way of a University... which needs a scientist). So you can doom your colony to failure.
In addition to the colonists, the planet the people settled on is active. It has its natural disasters. While most of the time they take place away from your colony, you still have a chance of say a tornado spawning in the middle of your colony and wrecking everything. Damage control will be extensive.
But hey, maybe this RNG is part of the charm. You are trying to survive after all. But if this is too much random chance, it might be best to skip this.
There's also the announcer. While it's helpful at times to give you periodic resource reports, later in the game it starts to get a bit too chatty. One thing it announces? Every natural disaster. You can also research early disaster warning systems... which the announcer also announces. Of course, you can turn it off and still get reports, but it also means you have to keep an eye out on the resources tab more often.
And lastly, but this is more of a preference, the game is slow paced. One complaint I saw in a review of it at the time is that the game is slow. Not that it ran slow, but it's slower than others. It can actually take a while for units to move a good distance of the map. But this was at a time when RTS games were compared to Command and Conquer and Warcraft.
You did mention a combat system...
I did! But part of me feels it was tacked on as an afterthought to make it try to compete with other RTS games at the time. It's not that it's bad and there's justification for it. But at the same time it feels slightly out of place.
In any case, combat is mostly relegated to robot vehicles (can't have the colonists risking their lives now). They shoot things. There's pros and cons. There's also guard posts that shoot things but they can't move.
But wait, this is a "2". Where's "Outpost"? (Or why Outpost 2 never really took off)
The original game had a similar idea: Earth is dead, so go find a planet and build a colony. But the problem is that the game was released lacking features that someone hyped, it was unpolished, and the worst sin that any game can commit: it was unstable. This left a bad taste in people's mouths. So when a sequel came out, not only was it facing the genre defining games that I mentioned, but people still looked at this as yet another soppy colony building game that couldn't pass muster.
How do I get a hold of this game?
So far it's being sold at Amazon from third party sellers for a fairly decent price: https://www.amazon.com/Outpost-2-Divided-Destiny-PC/dp/B0006OFKOQ/
I'd say if you like colony building games, this is one you should at least try. I feel this sets the bar for other colony building games. If not just for the game mechanics, but also how much they put into the lore and story.