Get Your Mouse To Mars – A Dark Colony Retrospective

From the RTS Golden Age, a forgotten title left an unsung legacy.

Blizzard’s Starcraft, upon release and still to this day, cast a very large shadow in the real-time strategy genre.  One title that preceded Blizzard’s sci-fi strategy opus by less than a year – though originally sharing similar release dates if not for Starcraft’s graphical overhaul post-1996 E3 – was Dark Colony, a similarly-themed gritty title set on Mars.  A two faction game, it told the story of human colonisation and terraforming project being thwarted by the Tarr; Roswell-esque aliens, deified by pop-culture.  Thus ensued a battle for survival that affected not only the planet of Mars, but the human homeworld as well.

Developed by Gametek and published initially by Strategic Simulations Inc.,  Dark Colony was a beautiful game to behold; largely due to having some of the largest unit sprites of any RTS game at that time. The game featured a variety of generally stark Martian landscapes, with limited elevation plains that – like most RTS titles of the day – did not provide advantageous positional opportunities.  Gametek’s science fiction warzone painted a semi-terraformed Mars; from humid swamps to Martian deserts.  The tilesets themselves were not as expertly rendered as Starcraft, but they were decent in that they complemented the units that strode, crawled, hovered and flew over them.  Dark Colony was governed by a no-nonsense approach to providing a non-invasive tile palette upon which to operate; units were never lost amongst the background – dually based on their size and the colour selection of their surroundings.

While the genre stalwart of base-building continued on with most of the games released during this time – and continuously so – Dark Colony featured preset plates upon which to have necessary buildings dropped onto via the orbital transport.  This was perhaps a divisive move by the developers, as many fans of genre enjoyed the idea of creating and defending bases in the manner that they choose.  Creating a base in Dark Colony was simply a case of selecting the  building in the side menu and deploying it via the transport.  Placement was predetermined, thus ensuring a “fire and forget” attitude towards base construction.

One criticism of Dark Colony came as a result of factional unit comparison.  All units from one faction were simply mirrored in the other, differing only in the sprites.  This had been a common issue of most RTS titles up until Starcraft, who garnered success in offering uniqueness to factions, thus offering strengths and weaknesses inherent to specific units and tactics.  Dark Colony could have offered asymmetry, but it chose the oft-trod path by offering the same load-out to each faction; the standard of the day in the genre.  It can be argued that this offered completely balanced experiences, both for the campaign and multiplayer, but any affiliation formed by the player was not warranted on the basis of factional unit or tactic-specifics, more a simplistic aesthetic appeal.

The units themselves ran through low-tier soldiers to high-end cyborgs and psychokinetic entities.  Ubiquitous flying and heavy barrage units were present, as were fast-moving shock troops – in the form of biped Reaper walkers and bladed Sy Demons, human and alien factions respectively.  The only field-deployable units were Extractors and their alien counterpart, who harvested the games’ credits in the form of an extraterrestrial gas known as Petra-7; as well as landmines and anti-aircraft batteries.  The mines themselves had a three detonation limit, after which, they destroyed themselves.  Mines were the only static defensive unit capable of stopping ground-based opponents, which defied a majority of titles of the time who utilised defenses such as turrets and walls.

A selection of alien artifacts scattered across the Martian landscape were able to be commandeered and have their powers used against opponent forces during specific campaign missions, adding an entertaining element to the relatively featureless terrain.  Gravity vortexes were a popular artifact to trap and destroy enemy units within.

While Dark Colony itself was nothing more than a flavour of the moment for many pundits in 1997, it did bring with it some featured innovations that have survived to this day within contemporary titles.

It was one of the first RTS games to feature units who could level their combat experience up to veteran status;  allowing for an upgrade in speed and rate of fire.

Every mission, both in the campaign and multiplayer, the player controlled a Commander unit; a soldier class unit with high defense and offense statistics as well as the ability to inspire troops in the immediate vicinity, an ability that raised surrounding friendlies’ offensive capabilities for a limited time.  The Commander unit itself could level up through four tiers.

A groundbreaking addition in retrospect was the way a perpetual day/night cycle was instituted into Dark Colony to provide tactical advantages to either faction dependant on light.  The Tarr faction were better night-fighters, with a greater range in the dark; vice versa for humans during the day.  A battle could tip in favour of a faction who chose to engage when they were at an advantage, hence selecting the right time to mount an assault was something perhaps not imperative, but at least emphasised.

Despite Starcraft being released 8 months after Dark Colony, the two titles shared the same development time.  It was only after the aforementioned lukewarm reception at an alpha-build of Starcraft at E3 during 1996 that a redesign occurred.  While there were few big science fiction RTS titles prior to Starcraft, Westwood’s Dune 2 notwithstanding, Gametek had  developed a credible canon prior to Dark Colony in the form of the War Wind series.  Dark Colony, while not sharing anything of the aforementioned franchise, had good pedigree nonetheless.

In summary, Dark Colony, and its campaign-only expansion pack, Dark Colony: The Council Wars, provided purist action in the form of a well-developed old-school real-time strategy title.  It was bloody, brutal and pulled no punches, and whilst it failed to set the genre alight with its relatively simplistic symmetry, Dark Colony did provide some innovations that have lived on.