Blog 610: Post Mortem: The Islands in the Sky

Considering I’m now making a real game for real, maybe this is a good moment to go back to my roots and examine what went right… and what went wrong… with my previous development efforts: my Warcraft III maps.

Today: the Islands in the Sky series

Islands in the Sky

The first Islands in the Sky map, aptly dated 2004 though I’m pretty sure I released it in 2003, was born of the same pressures that eventually led to When the Freedom Slips Away — an interest in AoSes thwarted by limited ability to play online and a rough computer that couldn’t handle large maps.

The premise of the maps is simple enough: satellite defence weapons unloaded for various reasons and blasted the planet to pieces, leaving the only landmasses as floating chunks suspended in the air. Now you’re a mercenary hero in “the Empire” which is trying to expand its borders against “the Orcs”, and only you can help them break through some orcish defences.

In other words: there are constant waves of allied and enemy soliders forging towards each other, and you have to help your lot win through.

They are islands and they are in the sky. I went into my figurative-titles phase much later.

They are islands and they are in the sky. I went into my figurative-titles phase much later.

I think the only thing I enjoy about the Islands in the Sky maps is their… youthful exuberance. There’s no deep and connected lore here — there is just endless banter shoehorned in wherever it would fit. Elves and magic? Sure. Robots and plasma bolts? Deffo. Nuclear missile strikes? Absolutely. Bad jokes? Sign me up!

I was always proud, however, of labelling the forces “Us” and “Them” in the game selection screen. Even as a teenager I was playfully cynical.

The original Feral Machines didn't have spikes because I was rubbish at modeling/editing at this point.

The original Feral Machines didn’t have spikes because I was rubbish at modeling/editing at this point.

Islands in the Sky 2004

Where can I even begin to analyse the gameplay of IitS2004, let alone its successors? The combination of being able to choose a race and a class meant that, before I learned of the Engineering Upgrade hack, I had to make the hero “level up” manually. (Because the concept of making every possible combination manually was obviously unthinkable — good to know nothing changes!)

The characters were also weak. 300 hit points seemed reasonable for a hero back then, but they don’t go very far against spawned units that are pretty much equivalent.

That all amounts to making it basically a game of hanging back until you’ve saved up the money for a Satellite Uplink (to get nukes) or an Übermech (to punch the Citadel into oblivion), or both. As with all AoSes, the ranged characters are the winners, but there are only melee heroes here…

So for all I was trying to create a high-action warzone, I ended up creating a game of lurking and sniping from the sidelines. Your hero is little more than an accessory to the waves of cannon fodder until you get to the end-game, at which point you become an unstoppable juggernaut.

The best way to win is to be a summoner. Those Spirit Wyverns ain't half bad.

The best way to win is to be a summoner. Those Spirit Wyverns ain’t half bad.

Islands in the Sky 2004 Omega: Special Edition

Then I made a festive version with the islands coated in ice and snow, because that’s just the sort of thing I did back then.

I also upgraded the original version of the game so that three players can take part — one as the Empire, one as the Orcs, and one as the mercenary hero. Let’s not even think about the balance of that mode.

Festive fun!

Festive fun!

Islands in the Sky 2005

The IitS maps were always about secrets, yes, but they’re pretty lame secrets. The setting of the islands being floating in the sky allowed for first the Wyvern, then its replacement the Eagle and finally the Phoenix in 2006. These didn’t enable true flight, but disabled WC3’s collision detection for the next best thing — a crunchy and annoying mechanism that, yes, did allow you to traverse the unpathable Abyss, but required constant clicking lest the pathing system direct you straight back to open ground.

The reward? Tomes and runes, just lying around. At least by 2005 you controlled a real hero, so once you became hideously overpowered, you stayed hideously overpowered — unlike in 2004 when you’d hoover up all the tomes and waste them with a careless death.

If you can't stand the heat, jump off the edge of the world.

If you can’t stand the heat, jump off the edge of the world.

… Except then I went ahead and offset that by giving the Orcs hideously overpowered Blademaster-style heroes. What on earth was I thinking? Everybody knows Blademaster-based heroes are always imbalanced. Well, maybe I hadn’t enough experience to realise that back then, but it’s still 100% true and always has been. If you’re playing any AoS, any AoS at all, pick the Blademaster hero. Even the posh ones that claim to be balanced and give him a custom skin — still broken. Always broken.

Not much has otherwise changed in the map, though; a few new heroes, a few new classes, some new features, but basically the same old formula. It’s still a game of occasionally helping out your spawnies while exploring the rest of the map for scattered tomes and saving up money for the nukes.

There's no kill like overkill!

There’s no kill like overkill!

Islands in the Sky 2006

Okay, so by 2006 there are some glimmers of competence. Abilities are finally bounds to QWER rather than splashed randomly across the keyboard. There is proper co-op in the form of two heroes, one controlled by some rudimentary AI triggers if you don’t have a pal to play with. The AI won’t buy units to help himself, but he will contribute to upgrading the Empire’s weapons and armour… occasionally.

Not that the abilities are better balanced. Powerful race abilities for pitiful mana costs rub shoulders with underpowered class ultimates that empty your reserves. At the time, did I argue that this was a built-in difficulty level? Quite possibly.

It's funny because it's a hotel that sells world-ending war machinery.

It’s funny because it’s a hotel that sells world-ending war machinery.

The environment is better structured, though, and without too much reliance on flight. There’s a bonus tiny orc barracks just east of the Empire camp with some weak creeps to get you a few levels up before you take on the main battle, with a path that twists back onto the primary lane for easy access. There is even a regeneration station just outside the main orc base so you don’t have to fly all the way home.

Of course, if you thought that the Blademaster heroes of 2005 were bad, then you never saw that Greater Feral Machine hero of 2006. Oh me oh my. I’m not even sure it’s possible to win the game anymore, even with nukes and an Übermech. At least you can buy mercenary streams of spawns to bolster your forces, hoping that the Dragons will take down the Citadel before the Feral Machine carves a bloody path into the Commander’s Tent…

As soon as the Greater Feral Machine is unleashed, you have to focus fire on it -- once it gets a few levels up, the game is over.

As soon as the Greater Feral Machine is unleashed, you have to focus fire on it — once it gets a few levels up, the game is over.

The Verdict

Dead on arrival, I suspect.

I mean, there’s definitely a core of fast-paced action-packed hilarity here, but it gets bogged down in shonky mechanics and completely broken balance. I know, I know, I don’t like things overbalanced, but I think we can all agree the numbers here are just a bit on the silly side.

Of course, it was some time after 2006 that I discovered the remnants of RDZ’s All-In-One Micro Map X lurking in my dad’s My Documents folder (his account was the only one that could connect to the internet), and that story found its ending…

Say It With Nukes™

Say It With Nukes™

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5 thoughts on “Blog 610: Post Mortem: The Islands in the Sky

  1. post mortem = prae resurrectione. I read this artircle an downloaded the 2006 version. I tried it in single player and it was good fun. So i will try it now with my relict (=old last wc3 playing friend). Ty for remembering an never noticed map!!
    Gerrtings, gwy

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  2. Hooray Islands in the Sky. I love them all unconditionally!
    With NEHZ here about only really remembering the 2006 version though. I mean, I played them all, but if I ever feel the itch to replay the game I of course go with the latest version. So I’ve beaten that variant multiple times. It really makes for a great killing of a couple hours. Just good solid fun.

    The 2006 version is pretty cool because, the game model encourages you to leave your creeps to kill themselves while you explore the rest of the world, picking up useful trinkets. But if you ignore them too long the Orcs will wipe you out on their own, so you need to keep checking in with them.

    It’s actually a pretty clean system.

    I also don’t really remember using a whole lot of nukes, but I do tend to drop a lot of healing wards with the uplink.
    Ubermech is flat out broken though, so it ‘s a pretty great wincard when you’re finished exploring and it’s time to wrap things up.

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    • Yeah, 2006 definitely holds up the best. I guess being able to leave the troops to their own devices, at least in the early game, is pretty necessary since there’s only one of you. Not like a real AoS where you can do some exploring while your friends hold the line.

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  3. I don’t remember using a lot of nukes… but I think I don’t really remember the ones other than 2006 anyway. I did beat that one. Enough tomes will get you anywhere.
    The blademasters are always overpowered because agility is the best scaling attribute in wc3. Characters that go way past lvl 10? Go full agi! Also, passives scale better than fixed damage abilities.
    They actually kept the int/agi/str in dota2, so after trying that game for a bit after the insistence of a friend… I uninstalled it rather quickly.

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    • I wonder if Blood Mage/Blademaster derivatives are still as offensively present across all modern AoS games? You basically couldn’t make an AoS without both by the end. My two least favourite WC3 models. :<

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