RimWorld First Impressions: Dwarf Fortress Meets Firefly

On the heels of my coming to grips with what I wanted in a game, I went ahead and bought into the RimWorld alpha to see how close it came to realizing my desires.   Bear in mind that this is just the "Alpha 1" version I'm playing, so it's far from the release state version.  I'm basically commenting on having played a solid foundation, but little else.

RimWorld is a game that caused me pause when I first heard about it because it's something I started to create myself in the past, somewhat "Dwarf Fortress if it were focused on a space colony instead."  But having an idea is easy, it's the plethora of smaller details that truly make it yours.  Tynan Sylvester (developer of RimWorld) did many things quite differently than I would, and I am very impressed with his choices.

The particular type of Sci-Fi he chose to represent RimWorld is somewhat reminiscent of Firefly.  While there are occasional references to high technology, it feels much more like a Western.  This colony is basically scraping out a living along a prairie that is lousy with cantankerous varmints and bloodthirsty bandits, using actual Lee-Enfield rifles and archaic handguns before better hardware becomes available.  This is a great balance for a story-driven game, as it calls to the familiar while evoking a sense of adventure.

The choice to anthropomorphize his storytelling AI was also a good call because it makes them a lot more relatable to the players.  Currently, there's a choice of three kinds of AI that are basically three different approaches to the kinds of challenges the players will encounter.  
  • There's a standard gamut of well-balanced trials, of three available difficulty levels, in "Cassandra Classic" and her two sisters.   
  • There's a relatively-peaceful colony-building AI in "Phoebe Friendly."  
  • Finally, there's the choice for players who would rather the game be as unpredictable as life itself in "Randy Random."
It has already been mentioned that the developer is considering adding additional kinds of AI.  In a way, each type of AI is essentially another mode of play, which enhances potential replay value.

One critique I will level about the AI storytelling mechanism is that it seems to currently be geared to try to keep your colony within a certain population level.  The more colonists you have, the harder the AI will try to kill some off.  This likely will be treated by players as punishment for having larger colonies, resulting in self-limiting behavior instead of trying to make a great colony.  Perhaps the focus is different from other games in the genre, and the goal is to create a close knit batch of survivors?  If so, the game should try to communicate this clearer.

In terms of how it plays, RimWorld is firmly a game in the vein of Dwarf Fortress, and in the current version this is perhaps a little more evident than it should be:
  • While you can build above ground, it's far more desirable to build your home by tunneling into the side of a mountain, because rocks generally aren't flammable and you will likely uncover minerals while hollowing out your living area.  That makes less sense in RimWorld than it does in Dwarf Fortress because your units are space colonists, not dwarves.
  • When it comes time to beautify the environment, the most attractive decoration option at this time is to "smooth [the] stone," which can only be done in rocky terrain such as the interior of a mountain and is, again, an action I'd be more inclined to attribute to a dwarf, not a space colonist.
  • You designate zones for your colonists to drag things, whether to store them or to get junk out of your way.  This is not a bad mechanism, and is implemented in a far more user-friendly method here versus Dwarf Fortress.  What's wrong with this?  Well, so much time is spent dragging that it drags down the gameplay with it, this is a problem I have seen in other games of the genre.  I'm not saying that I know of a better solution, but I am saying that importing this mechanic literally might not be ideal.
Again, this is still a fairly early version of RimWorld, and it could very well be that the developer just started with the tried and true as placeholders before implementing a cool deviation of his own.
I would say his implementation of the task management amongst the units in the game is a bit improved from Dwarf Fortress.  There's simply a scale of "most important" to "least important" tasks along with checkmarks beside each colonist to divide up who does what.  It's much cleaner than Dwarf Fortress's job-assignment implementation, and a bit more user friendly than similar mechanisms I've seen in Towns and Gnomoria.  Very well done, indeed.

An important deviation from Dwarf Fortress is that RimWorld has a great combat engine.  Cover is important, and your colonists can be directed to ideal positions to defend themselves.  A simple mouse over popup will tell you their odds of hitting enemies, with a great breakdown of everything influencing your overall percentage of a chance to hit.  To an extent, it's a somewhat rudimentary kind of combat, very much something that X-Com/Laser Squad/Jagged Alliance already perfected, but there's nothing wrong with that.  I think this combat engine alone should put RimWorld head and shoulders above its competition in the genre (although Dwarf Fortress is a lot more explicit with its combat narrative and consequences to combat, it's also much harder for the player to feel as though they are a participant of than in RimWorld).

In terms of being a storytelling device, I think RimWorld does the best job of any game in the genre that I've seen since Dwarf Fortress itself.  The characters' backstories and traits lend a lot to this, but the actual in-game significance of having to knock out and capture one of your units who is trying to abandon the colony is quite powerful.  Beating back wildfires, repelling bandits, burying bodies... it feels stronger in RimWorld for some reason, meaning that the implementation of the emergent storytelling is quite good.  It's exciting to know that the various props and plot devices are far from completely implemented yet, so the stories can only get better from here!

Overall, this early Alpha 1 of RimWorld is looking extremely promising, and is even a fairly decent game in its skeletal state.  If the developer sees through his promises to realize a game with far more content than this before releasing it, RimWorld will be a gem of many people's hard drives for years to come.

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