PC fans of God games had plenty to be excited about when publisher Ubisoft announced From Dust for PC last year. The game's designer, Eric Chani, is well known for his abstract early 90's masterpiece Another World, so the project seemed in capable hands. Moreover, he cited Peter Molyneux's classics Populous and Black & White as his primary influences, so the provenance couldn't be better.
After a successful console release, it seemed little could go wrong. Unfortunately, that's not what happened. The PC port was badly botched with low framerates, no anti-aliasing support, video card compatibility issues and an overzealous DRM system riddled with bugs that plague users to this day. There's an alternative to the console version if you want to play frustration-free, however. Just fire up Chrome and play right in your browser, courtesy of From Dust in Chrome's Web Store (£11.99).
From Dust is the second high-profile game title ported to Chrome using Google's Native Client technology; the first was Bastion. Native Client allows legacy software to run inside the highly secure browser framework at near-native speeds with virtually no porting required.
With support for hardware-accelerated 3D graphics, mouse capture, fullscreen modes and more, it's a natural fit for resource-intensive games which see little performance degradation compared to their native, traditionally installed counterparts. What's more, the nature of this cloud-based gaming model eliminates issues arising from Ubisoft's disastrous UPlay DRM scheme. There is no need to install special software or make players jump through verification hoops. You just fire it up and play. It even works on both Linux and Mac OSX.
The game itself is a slickly executed take on the genre's classics. You play a god-like presence guiding a race of people to success and happiness via environmental manipulation, using a ball-shaped manifestation of force called "the breath." Using that ball as a cursor, you raise and lower land, redirect the flow of rivers and lakes, create paths for your people to follow to safety and more.
The action is smooth, satisfying and easy to pick up. As your power grows, so do the effects you can create, which include the ability to manipulate lava, smother fires and redirect deadly floods to help your villagers thrive. Be careful, however, as performing miracles is tricky work. An imprecise wiggle of the mouse can wind up incinerating or drowning your villagers instead of saving them. When you're a god, there's a fine line between saving and smiting.
Since From Dust's code has been transported largely intact, some of the original's problems remain. Foremost of these is the absence of an actual sandbox mode, a baffling omission given the near-requirement of such an option for this type of game. Related to this is a creeping feeling of pointlessness as each stage's goal becomes the reason for play, rather than the simple, open-ended enjoyment of developing your people to their full potential.
The various level challenges play out like RTS puzzles, and while this is fun at first, it's easy to become detached enough from the proceedings that they start feeling like busywork. Populous had the novelty of a new idea and Black & White had its giant avatars to provide personality and a sense of occasion. From Dust is devoid of such flourishes, and while this doesn't ruin gameplay, it does prevent an otherwise good game from becoming a great one. On a more mundane note, anti-aliasing is also absent in this version and remains implementable only via FXAA injection tricks with Nvidia graphics cards.