Populous II was released by Bullfrog Productions in 1993, as the follow-up to their earlier hit Populous. It was followed in 1998 by Populous: The Beginning, which saw the series move to a fully 3D environment changed its focus to a much smaller population, while vastly improving the storyline, but somehow losing some indefinable element of its predecessors' charm.
As the game's introduction (which fails to achieve the levels of humour we've all come to expect from Peter Molyneux) explains, the player takes on the role of a demigod, one of Zeus' many children by a mortal woman. The ultimate aim of the game is to defeat Zeus himself, thereby earning a place in the pantheon of true gods. Along the way you will face myriad lesser deities, beginning with titans and demigods like yourself and later progressing to other famous Greek gods like Poseidon and Minerva. Each opponent has their own personality, which is reflected in their actions on the battlefield - for instance, Poseidon, being the god of the sea, is extremely proficient in the use of water-based abilities. There are a total of 1000 levels available in the Conquest mode, but you will not have to complete all of them - the better your performance on a level, the further you are allowed to advance before meeting another challenge.
Before beginning the game, you must create your deity. You can select a name for yourself, and choose your appearance. In a clever, and rarely-seen, twist, your appearance has an impact on the gameplay - if you choose a warlike, angry appearance, your battles will be fought in an aggressive manner, while choosing a more scholarly look will lead to a more subtle game requiring greater finesse. You can even select an avatar with some mixture of these attributes; you can select your eyes, facial shape and headgear in a manner reminiscent of those children's books with a person on each page which is then cut into several pieces.
You also begin the game with a certain amount of experience to allocate, allowing you to influence your proficiencies with the 8 different kinds of abilities in the game. You will also earn more experience after each battle, increasing your power as the game progresses.
Populous II is a real-time strategy game; the isometric battlefield is viewed from a bird's-eye perspective which occupies much of the screen, with a mini-map and the game's control buttons arrayed around it. It can also be viewed in a full-screen mode, which allows you to view a lot more of the terrain at one time, but shows you the controls in a little less detail. The battles take place on a map, which contains terrain surrounded by water in varying proportions. This world is inhabited by two tribes - those who follow you (the Good player) and those worshipping your opponent (Evil). They usually start out living in a few huts scattered around a hilly area. Your immediate priority is to make more farmland available to them in order to increase your population, and hence the reserves of mana (or divine power) which you require in order to use the abilities at your command. These abilities are called 'effects', and range from the default (and most used) Raise/Lower Land to the powerful (if not subtle) Armageddon, which converts the entire world's population into mighty heroes, who then head towards the centre of the map for a pitched battle which is a sight to behold. Between these extremes you'll be granted the opportunity to summon magical creatures, blast the enemy with a simple lightning bolt, create tidal waves and cover the land in deadly swamps, along with many more - the range of effects is certainly one of the game's strengths. In addition to your divine effects, you have the ability to influence your individual followers' behaviour (although you never get to control an individual directly), telling them to spread out and settle, to group up behind your leader and head towards your Icon (which you can move around if you have sufficient mana) or to be more agressive and head towards enemy territory. Through a combination of these ablities and your followers' efforts in hand-to-hand combat, you then attempt to achieve victory by wiping out your opponent's worshippers.
As you'd imagine, over the course of 1000 levels, all this has the potential to become very repetitive. Luckily, the game varies the challenges you'll face between levels, by limiting the effects at your disposal (your opponent's will often differ from those available to you, so keep your eyes open!) and by altering the game rules, for instance by restricting your ability to raise and lower land. The initial layout of the map's terrain also has a surprisingly large impact on your tactics - a level with lots of open ocean is a prime place to use tidal waves and whirlpools, whereas a flatter, higher landscape will maximise the impact of your earthquakes and volcanoes. It's also possible to play in bite-sized chunks, as rarely will a level take more than half an hour to complete.
The game's interface is certainly a bit daunting at first, particularly if you don't have access to the manual, but I found that once you get used to it it all becomes fairly natural. The relatively shallow start to the game's learning curve also gives you plenty of time to get used to the control system (which is entirely mouse-driven) - the game introduces new effects one-at-a-time, along with a basic description of their effects. Your first few opponents are very passive and present almost no challenge, but this changes as the game goes on - Populous II will offer sufficient challenge to all but the most hardcore of RTS players, and the way your progress depends on performance should prevent you from getting bored early on.
Graphics and Sound:
The graphics are not Populous II's strongpoint, but neither do they distract from play. They are very similar to those of the original - functional but not attractive; about average for 12 years ago. The terrain comes in a handful of varieties, ranging from verdant green grass to icy, wintry landscapes and some sort of green-brown sludge, presumably in an effort to avoid monotony. The type of terrain does have some impact on the game (for instance, your population increases more slowly in the cold) but it's mainly for show.
It's a simliar story when it comes to the sound. I've not discovered any music in the game (although it may be a problem with my settings) but there are a few sound effects. They're very low-quality, but serve an important purpose - you will hear a sound corresponding to your own effects when they're happening within the area you're viewing, but those caused by your opponent trigger a sound wherever they are in the world, alerting you to the danger. While you won't be particularly impressed with the game's effects, you will quickly find yourself getting used to them.
Technical Notes and Hints:
Populous II requires only a very low-spec computer to run - a 486 is more than enough. In order to prevent it from running overly fast, the game does contain a tool for slowing it down. I found the best method was simply to run it in DOSBox with far fewer CPU cycles than I normally use, and run the game in its fullscreen mode (as well as slowing everything down, this allows you to see much more of the play area).
The game gives you the opportunity to save your deity between levels, but you can only have one savegame at a time (although it would be perfectly possible to back up the file and swap between two or more deities). You can also access any of the pre-made levels later by typing its name into a box on the level select screen, so you may wish to take note of the levels' names and numbers.
When using the Tidal Wave effect, it's more powerful if you start it a long way out at sea and let it build up, and with area effects like Storm and Rain of Fire you need to place them slightly above where you want to centre the effect.
The larger the area of flat land around your followers' dwellings, the larger the dwelling will be, and the faster its population will grow. The flipside is that the inhabitants will tend to leave the dwelling to settle elsewhere less frequently, but you can get around this by 'sprogging' - clicking the RMB on the centre of the building will cause a settler to leave it.
The game has a few other features which serve to round out the experience - you can create (and export/import) custom levels with the not-overcomplicated editing tool, which allows you to select any effects you've already seen in Conquest mode, change the game rules and so on to your heart's content, and there's a two-player option via serial or network connection.
Overall, Populous II is a high-quality title which helped Peter Molyneux to build his reputation. It's not much of a looker, but below the surface the gameplay is compelling and there's plenty of longevity. A must-play for any strategy fan, and certainly worth an hour or two of everyone else's time.