Netstorm is a real time strategy game with a twist- it was designed from the outset for multiple players across networks, and even more incredibly, to run in a satisfactory manner with 14.4 Kbps modems. Whilst I can’t claim to have tried that, I have happily run it under 33.6Kbps with pretty much no lag.

The other hardware requirements are similarly modest, making it great for LAN parties as successful running is pretty much guaranteed; and it gives the older machines on your network something to do. I picked it up on budget release (under the Activision Essential Collection range) cheaply and was pretty much hooked from the start. Each CD supports 2 players.

Unlike most RTS games, units are not built in factories and amassed until you send everything towards the opponent- in fact, the majority of Netstorm units cannot move! The action is set on floating islands, the catch being that they float in the air, not water. Each player has a high priest, and the aim is to capture your opponents’ priests, bring them to your island and fend off counter-attacks long enough to complete a sacrifice to the furies- the three elemental powers that grant knowledge.

The resource is storm power- found in storm geysers which may exist on your island but tend to be some distance away, floating in mid-air. One of the challenges of netstorm is in building bridges to things such as geysers- rather than being straight, you are offered a random selection of tetris-like blocks to link together, and should bridges be left unattached they tend to crumble away rendering further building off of them impossible.

In addition to storm power, which finances the creation of units and buildings, Energy is required. There are three flavours of energy- wind, rain and thunder. Some units are energy specific, whereas others don’t care about the type, just the quantity (these are known as sun units). Energy is generated continuously by the relevant temple, but its range is restricted, and so generators need to be deployed which further extend the range.

Of most interest are the Battle Units, which as the name suggests engage in attacking or defending. As hinted earlier, these are generally static emplacements built directly on islands or off of bridges, within range of the appropriate quantity and type of energy and for a certain storm cost. Although power is important, the key decision when building units is their positioning. The simplest example is of the sun cannon and sun disc thrower. The cannon is the more powerful of the two, but once placed can only fire directly north, south, east or west (and can’t move). By contrast, the disc thrower is weaker and has a shorter range, but its field of fire is circular and hence if placed diagonally adjacent to a sun cannon, can destroy that weapon without being targeted itself. Once deployed weapons fire automatically and require no further storm power or energy input. The wide assortment of ranges, fire-arcs and (in)vulnerabilities creates what is in effect a highly complex version of scissors-paper-stone.

Although battle units cannot move, mobility is required to harvest storm power or to collect captured priests or use spells, and these tasks are carried out by transports. Moving units that stray into the fire-arc of battle units will be attacked and destroyed (or in the case of Priests, immobilised, ready for capture and sacrifice).

Although there are over 30 units, players start with very few of these. Each time you sacrifice an enemy priest the knowledge of a new unit can be acquired- but rather than being a preset unit, any can be selected (according to the level of the temple- to learn the knowledge of level 2 unit requires a level 2 altar, but this requires the sacrifice of an enemy priest simply to build the altar, then a second sacrifice to get the new unit) As a result, until everyone has access to all units, very different games will emerge depending on what units your opponent has chosen to use. Once knowledge has been acquired it can be used in all future net games (meaning that if you happen to have your own network, you can tool up before venturing out onto the internet servers). If playing across a LAN, I recommend having all players at the same knowledge level at the start, preferably the minimum to introduce the further challenge of deciding which units to get first.

The main advantage of Netstorm as a network game is that it won’t die if a player’s connection if dropped. Given the static nature and automatic firing of battle units, your side can carry on fighting and collecting storm power whilst you try to reconnect- you just can’t build new units until you return. The main advantages of this is that players cannot be denied the kill simply by their opponent disconnecting, and if one player drops 3 hours in the other still has to work through formidable defences to capture the priest- apart from the quiet of the chat box, a disconnected opponent might not even be noticed.

The downside of Netstorm now is that given its age most online players have all the units, making success for a newbie difficult. Many also engage in the questionable tactic of rapidly surrounding the opponent’s island with bridges, hence preventing them from building their own bridges out to storm geysers. As bridges have to start at your home island, the only solution to this generally is choosing big maps, or engaging in a similar arms race to build bridges. Hence new players would be best in a LAN environment where everyone can be set back to the beginning. There is a single player mode, but this is effectively just training and units learnt there do not transfer to multiplayer – so the best way to learn really is in the heat of battle.

Unit Summary

What follows is notes on the Battle Units and transports in Netstorm. I haven’t included full stats as these exist in the wonderful Book of Nimbus (one of the best game manuals I’ve seen) and can be called up in game, but instead give some hints on their usefulness for those who want to put their sacrifices to good use.

Sun Units
These don’t require specific energy and so are ideal for beginners- once you’ve learnt any energy’s generator, you can generate enough energy to build all the sun units. As a result, they aren’t as potent but tend to be cheap.

Golem – A level one transport unit that can be built from the start to harvest storm crystals, leaving your priest safe at home. Just like virtually all RTS games, the resource is key, so don’t be afraid to build lots and rapidly empty the storm geysers.

Balloon- the aerial golem, same toughness but requiring 50% more storm power and a generator to be in place before they can be produced, and a level 2 altar to learn. Personally I find them flimsy in the face of even the simple sun disc thrower, but being airborne means they can save you if an opponent has blocked you from building bridges out, or they can be sent on wide detours to avoid battle units that ground transports have to trek past.

Sun Disc thrower- your antidote to powerful but restricted range units such as the earlier mentioned sun-cannon. Their circular arc also makes them useful for attacking mobile targets that can be positioned out of the reach of a recently-built cannon.

Whirlibase- Once built, this will produce a Whirligig, a flying attacker that only attacks battle units. They do however do this with ruthless efficiency, as very little can hit them and they don’t need bridges. What they do need is to refuel, causing them to return to the Whirlibase every 60 seconds, but fortunately should a Whirligig be destroyed the base churns out a new one for no extra cost. The whirligig is therefore great for wearing down defences and defending your home island alike.

Stone Tower- quite simply, it gets in the way. Weapons that fire in straight line arcs have no choice but to plug away at the tower if its placed between the weapon and it’s target: however, circular-arc weapons such as the disc thrower will continue to target the original battle unit even if you build a tower closer unless the tower is in place before the attack begins. Probably your best pick for your first sacrifice, as you can render your base impenetrable to other beginners for long enough to continue your winning streak.

Sun Cannon- your standard siege weapon, deploy in mass (cannons in a straight line can fire through each other without damaging the ones in front) to knock out temples, workshops or other battle units. Without mastery of this and the disc thrower (and an understanding of when to use each), your progress will be limited.

Sun Barricade- the level 3 sun unit, two barricade stations positioned in a collinear fashion will create a force field that blocks incoming fire yet allows your units to shoot out. Generally enough range to surround your entire island, but bear in mind that the stations themselves are vulnerable to attack as the beam does not cover them, so the ultra paranoid should cap these with Stone Towers. Bear in mind that aerial units simply soar over the barricade, so when faced with this unit Whirligigs and the like are your best friends- especially if they go for the barricade generators.

Wind Units
These represent the quickest units and are suited for creating early pressure. Although the units lack the punch of other furies, the speed with which they can be set in motion is enough to catch slower players or those who have over-extended on expensive offensive weapons without setting up adequate defence first.

Sail Skater- Twice as tough as the golem but only 50% more expensive, and with the added bonus of being the quickest ground transport about, it is still only a ground unit. Once you have sufficient storm power, these are best used as assault troops by finding a spell for them on the various obelisks dotted about.

Air Ship- 16 times the toughness of a balloon and sharing all its aerial advantages, the Air Ship is the stylish way to collect storm power. It is however a level 3 unit, so you’ll have to resist some incredible stuff to get a unit that the simple golem emulates sufficiently well in my book. Save for later in your career.

Devil Maker- Let’s face it, if you’ve worked all the way up to a level 3 altar and have decided that the forces of wind are for you, this is what you want. An improved whirlibase, The Dust Devils generated are invulnerable and deal twice the damage, certainly enough to make up for the fact that they burn out after 10 seconds (given that a new one is launched from the devil maker 20 seconds later). They also have the unusual ability of cracking bridges, meaning that should they stray over a partially unattached bridge, both bridge and anything using it risks dropping into oblivion.

Crossbow- A level two offensive weapon perfect for lightning strikes. With a 600 fire arc they can victimise priests who can otherwise be sidestepped out of the range of sun cannons and the high fire rate puts the other player immediately on the defensive. Attack from multiple angles with these to leave the opponent in disarray, or guard the approach to storm geysers with them to pick off transports. The most effective countermeasure is a barricade, or get a high power weapon round the back out of their fire-arc.

Wind Tower- a Stone Tower with an edge- an invulnerable one! 3 sides take regular damage but can still take a pounding, whilst the curved front will stop cannon fire forever. Against Wind Towers, attack from the air.

Rain Units
The Rain units are designed to grind the opponent into oblivion. Neither fast nor incredibly powerful, they are extremely persistent due to regeneration. Never leave a rain-aligned player to last in multiplayer: you’ll struggle to ever overwhelm them once their units are in place.

Cloud Floater- Another aerial transport, and the best against opponents that try to swarm you with cheap units such as disc throwers to pick off the transports and force your priest out into dangerous territory, for only 5% of attacks even strike the Cloud Floater. Also great for deploying spells in the heart of enemy territory or plucking well defended but immobilised priests out. The only real downside is cost and its level 3 status.

Ice Cannon- the solution to densely packed attacking units or depressing levels of fortifications, as the ice cannon slings out icicles at a formidable rate and the shrapnel generated on impact also damages nearby units.

Man o’ War Pool- the Man o’ War is another perpetual aerial attacker in the style of Whirligigs. It lasts a minute and crucially gains another minute of life for every unit it destroys. It has a preference for attacking ground transports which makes it perfect for denying access to storm power, but can still be devastating against battle units.

Acid Barricade- an ideal choice from your first sacrifice, a pair of acid barricade posts will string a barrier between them that literally dissolves enemy units that stray across it. Great for placing a stranglehold on access to the storm geysers, given their toughness the best bet is to simply fly around the barricade.

Ice Tower- Less tough than the stone tower, but able to regenerate and hence can only be removed completely by destroying the island on which it resides- impossible if it’s a home island, and difficult even if it’s just floating in space. Beginners are probably better off with the tougher stone or wind tower given its level 2 status, but still a desirable structure for surrounding your workshops and temples.

Crystal Crab- This level transport is unique in its ability to attack- it will stun enemy transports, leaving them vulnerable to battle units, whilst scuttling away with that transport’s cargo. Perfect for ruling the bridges to the storm geysers but most experienced players will be able to work around it by use of aerial transports.

Thunder Units
Thunder’s battle units are best measured in terms of brute force. They don’t do subtle, but they are the ultimate in aggression. All the units are expensive, so newer players, once they’ve got their hands on thunder cannons, would be best advised to focus on the other furies.

Bulf- a transport unit with no redeeming factors other than bulk. 24 times tougher than a golem and only level one, but I’d prefer the evasive capabilities of aerial transports rather than running into the line of fire with a bulf.

Bulwark- Quite simply the toughest defensive building around. A wind tower is invulnerable on one side, but this is so tough it might as well be on all sides. It doesn’t come cheap, but if you’re protecting thunder cannons or the like the investment is still worth it. Against the Bulwark, aerial units are useless, so swarming it with crossbows and ice cannons is the only way to drop it quickly enough to get to what’s behind.

Thunder Cannon- the level 2 cannon outranges the sun cannon and packs almost 3 times its strength, but only fires in a single direction requiring careful placement. The disc thrower trick still works, but generally it’s easier to stick a set of cannons around its blind sides. When using the Cannons, stagger them so that their sides are covered.

Vander Tower- the anti-air weapon, it’s value is minimal to a beginner if the opponents are similarly lacking in aerial units and as most regenerate, are rebuilt or just can’t be hurt it seems a bit much for level 3. That said, against certain players it can win games on its own…

Arc Spire- another barricade style weapon, with the lowest range but conveniently only damaging enemy units that try to pass between towers. I’ve rarely played against these as thunder players are generally too busy building cannons, but in a large game these prove more versatile as you build up arc networks.

Netstorm – Islands at War was released by Activision / Titanic Entertainment in 1997 and afaik is only available for the windows environment. This reminds me just how long I’ve been playing games now, and also illustrates how titles with particularly innovative game play stand the test of time. If you brought it way back and have forgotten it, dig it out like I did – especially if you’ve since acquired un-metered internet access or a network of your own. One for LAN parties that can’t handle the latest and greatest as its hardware demands are minimal but it supports big games very nicely. Is it better than the original Command and Conquer? Probably not, but chances are most people have played C&C, whereas Netstorm is probably going to be a new challenge.

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