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Premature Evaluation: RimWorld

A scifi Dwarf Fortress with a usable AI

Every week Brendan scours the wastes for an early access title to tame and take home with him. This time, the haphazard space colonies of RimWorld [official site].

Before I tell you about RimWorld, let me tell you a story that happened in RimWorld. It's about that girl up there, drinking a beer. If you're not convinced to jump in by the end of this tale, then we have nothing more to talk about. We can't be friends. Everyone else: we're still cool. So here it is, the story of Min, a pop star with a privileged upbringing, who is about to come crashing down to earth.

Min slept with all her animals around her. Since the crash, the 16-year-old pop idol was finding it hard to adjust. She would not help with heavy lifting, or farming, or pulling up weeds. The only thing she would do is take care of the colony's animals. Rabbits, dogs, tortoises. She loved them all. She even formed a close bond with a rat, whom she named 'Illness'.

But she wasn't alone. In this game, you can create your own scenario before crash-landing onto the planet's surface, adding or removing starter items (wood, steel, pelts, gold, widescreen TVs). You can also set the number of colonists and tweak dozens of other small rules, like compulsory character traits or rules about the planet's climate. The game let's you mould your scenario completely, right down to the flavour text.

As you can see, my five colonists had all escaped from a crashing party yacht. They were all rich, famous or both. A jeweler, a wealthy businessman, an ace fighter pilot, a star surgeon and (of course) Min the pop star. They all landed with severe hangovers. I am not kidding, this is a setting you can change.

Fast forward some weeks. The colonists had settled in. They had even survived their first few pirate raids. During one of these raids, they captured a large pirate with a low IQ called Ferdnand. This man was physically capable of nothing but sculpting statues and communing with animals. He was like Hodor with a paintbrush. FERDNAND! Eventually, we convinced him to join the colony.

I set him the task of taming a Megatherium - a huge and powerful ground sloth - so that the colony would have some extra muscle. But Min the pop idol was not having it. She had always been the colony's animal trainer, and she had little 'Illness' to prove it. Spurned, she decided to take on the job herself. She left the safety of the village walls and approached the huge beast with some corn in hand. It went mad.

Ferdnand was already on his way to train his new would-be pet when he saw Min being savaged. He took out his Uzi and started firing with surprising accuracy. FERDNAND! Every shot landed. But the Megatherium turned and charged. By the time Ferdnand started to run, it was too late. The animal ripped him to pieces and he died on the spot.

The other colonists formed up. They lured the beast into the walls, where they riddled it with bullets until dead. The colony's nudist surgeon (who weeks ago had experienced a mental breakdown and now did everything naked to keep himself happy) rushed out to rescue Min, who was lying in a bloody heap, writhing in unbearable pain. He took her to the clinic, wrapped her in bandages and made sure she got everything she needed - medicine, food and rest.

Well, maybe not rest.

You see, I had already scheduled the clinic's floor to be renovated during this time. And as Min slept (or tried to sleep) my other colonists were busy ripping up planks and replacing them with shiny while tiles, sending sparks and wood chips everywhere. The noise was unbearable. Min snapped.

Crazed with pain and lack of sleep, she went berserk and chased everyone out of the clinic. She terrorised the dinner guests in the common room, and pursued them into the garden, where she chased them around. When she couldn't catch the colonists, she turned on the animals - hares, pigs and rats - punching the poor creatures to death in her rage, ignoring the scratches and bites she got in return. Ignoring her old friends.

Finally, a colonist stepped up, walking up to the rampaging diva and knocking her out cold. When Min came to, she was back in the clinic. It was completely refurbished, clean and presentable. But the same could not be said for Min.

This once beautiful pop idol, who people would fall in love with before she even started to sing, was in tatters. She now had no nose, no left ear and no right arm.

Over the next two weeks she locked herself in her room and fell into terrible moods. She stopped handling the animals and was assigned to work only on sculptures. Her first work of art depicted a chicken vomiting on the shoes of a lawyer. I put it in the centre of her workshop.

One day, a ship appeared in orbit. They had items to trade. Among them was a prosthetic limb called a "power claw". After some thought, I decided it was better than nothing. And besides, these rich castaways could afford it. The nudist was scheduled to do the surgery. Min was getting her arm back, even if it was a claw.

When she woke this time, she went straight to her room and locked herself in. I wondered what was wrong. It wasn't until she was back at her post, carving new statues that I realised what had happened.

We had amputated the wrong arm.

Now, not only was Min a noseless, earless, armless monster, she also had a terrifying claw instead of her only remaining hand.

Welcome to RimWorld, where stories like this pointless tragedy are commonplace. It can probably best be summed up as: "the game for everyone who wanted to get into Dwarf Fortress but couldn't because ASCII." That's not say it doesn't have its own share of confusing menus. Supposedly there is a fluid teaching system but it seemed more to me like hints handed out at random. In the absence of a proper tutorial, it takes a lot of clicking and umming to understand why everything functions the way it does.

Let's look at the colonists, for instance. For the most part, they run around of their own volition but you can still take direct control in a number of ways. When I said that Ferdnand took out his gun, I meant that I clicked on Ferdnand and clicked the "draft" button, putting him into military mode - something you'll need to survive raids and attacks. But when I said he was already on his way to the gigantic animal, I meant he was heading to it autonomously, because it had been assigned to be "tamed" and he was a designated animal handler.

There's a task grid that gives some order to it all. You can select which jobs you want each individual colonist to do and which jobs you want them to ignore. An advanced version lets you organise these even further by priority, fiddling with the numbers until you have each person specialised in a strict set of tasks. This is hidden away under "manual" control but it is something that soon becomes essential to learn.

It looks far more complicated than it is. And at any time you can just click on a colonist and right-click on something you want "prioritised" to have them commit to this instead of their job. It's a bit fiddly but comes in useful in a pinch, for example, when someone insists on milking a cow in a burning barn instead of putting the fire out.

Building your settlement is a lot more straightforward. Prison Architect is the obvious inspiration for the way much of RimWorld's construction and furniture placement works. You drag lines of walls made of wood, steel or stone until you have what you want, filling it with nice floors, beds, billiards tables, lamps and so on. Power is supplied by solar panels, windmills, wood-burning generators. And electricity is stored in batteries and disseminated by carefully laid power conduits. Sometimes these power cables like to explode, sending your whole colony into darkness and spoiling all the food in your freezer. Sometimes the batteries get wet and go on fire. Sometimes that fire spreads to your sleeping quarters and burns everybody to death. How whimsical!

It's these accidents and mistakes that make it much more than just another management sim. And coupled with the finer details of the simulation, it makes for some great examples of 'losing being fun'. Once, I had a doctor set up a bunch of wooden traps by our fort's only entrance, only to have one of the traps go off in his face. The wound got infected, spread to his torso and killed him. There was only one other person in the colony and since he was exhausted and couldn't haul the body away (some colonists can't or won't do certain jobs), he had to sleep in the same room as the corpse. The next day, when a group of travelling traders came to visit, they found a ruin - a gateway covered in blood, wooden splinters everywhere, a dead body in the only bedroom, and the sole surviving member of the colony wandering around naked in the potato patch, undergoing a post-traumatic episode.

These visitors from other tribes are among the more regular events thrown at you by the "storyteller AIs" - the three personalities that govern the game. There's the laid-back Phoebe who gives you time between disasters, Cassandra who ramps things up on an exponential curve, and Randy, who just throws stuff at you willy-nilly. I recommend going with 'Cassandra' on 'Rough' for the best introduction - you will die smiling.

Having played an earlier version, I'm also happy to see how free of bugs this latest build is. There's also a bunch of new stuff. Animal taming - the job of Min the claw-armed pop star - would have been unthinkable when I last played. But this time I raised a whole barn full of hens, with roosters and little chicks. I fed them too much corn and they vomited everywhere. The cows vomited too. Basically I could not move for vomit. Then I accidentally sold all the grown-up chickens to a visiting psychopath who travelled everywhere with three trained arctic foxes. We ate rice that night.

I have lived through so many other small incidents, it pains me not to be able to recite them all. Even the story of Min and Ferdnand has details I can't include without boring you into oblivion but which were nonetheless hugely fun for me. Even looking back at these screenshots makes it look rubbish. It's probably better to watch the trailer to get a better sense of just how eventful this game can be. In only 18 hours of game time I have suffered kidnappings, dry thunderstorms, muscle parasites, monstrous fires, countless infections, and mental breakdowns. I have had my PRICELESS JADE CHESSBOARD stolen. And I know from last year that there are still robot attacks, psychic storms and much more hidden away. There's also the potential for relationships to blossom. Or so I've heard, because I saw no smooching in my colonies (although the jeweler's brother did show up at one point). [Update: It turns out that a whole bunch of events that were meant to be in this build were broken but have just been fixed - heatwaves, animal insanity, crop blights, eclipses, infestations... crikey]

As far as I'm concerned RimWorld is already worth the entry fee. And it was probably worth it last year too. If its creators can muster even a fraction of the stamina that the Adams brothers have with its ASCII ancestor, we can all look forward to a PC classic.

RimWorld is available on Steam for £22.99/$29.99. These impressions were based on build 1226962

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