A real-time strategy title that taps into genetics and enables you to combine different animal DNA strains into fearsome battle units - that's the pitch that Relic Entertainment, the makers behind Homeworld, are trying to bring to the real time strategy genre through Impossible Creatures. By default, you don't start off with any combat units. You have to make them. If that sounds interesting, it certainly is, but in considering the entire Impossible Creatures premise, the innovation gets side tracked by the less than revolutionary components that make up the rest of the title.
Impossible Creatures takes place in 1937, a few short years before war begins to ravage the entire world. Set in an enclosed South American setting, we meet two elderly characters in Dr. Erik Chanikov and Upton Julius. Chanikov is the unwitting scientist backed by the philanthropist Julius and he's responsible, along with assistant Dr. Lucy Willing, for creating Sigma technology; a method for combining the DNA strains of two creatures, carrying the strengths of both but eliminating the weaknesses from the original hosts.
Julius, however, has other plans for Sigma. He's into things like world domination, which makes him not unlike Stalin or Hitler, except he's a few years premature. When Julius makes life difficult for the research team and Chanikov disappears, Willing has to rely on her mobile laboratory and to get to the bottom of Julius' plans. That's where the protagonist, a freelance war correspondent, Rex Chance comes in. Struggling to make a living amongst Chamberlain's "peace in our time" era, he makes the trip to South America and gets himself completely wrapped up in Sigma.
The campaign and the various skirmish maps will take you over four different types of terrain. That's also where creature modifications will be needed. If you're isolated on an island, the horde of land-based monsters you carry will be of no use to you. Better to go back to the drawing board and create some marine inspired creatures.
Besides the creatures, theres precious few other units available in Impossible Creatures. Henchmen do double duty sometimes and there's a primitive gyrocopter they can man during the game but these can't be built to any great numbers. Furthermore, the henchmen are unable to amount to much during combat. The fact that Chance and Willing aren't anywhere close to prize fighters puts the combat squarely on the creatures themselves.
Unfortunately, the battles are messy sordid affairs at best. Despite the fact that each creature is a product of so much sweat and time, you'll simply click them into the general vicinity of the enemy and hope your numerical superiority will overtake the enemy's. In short, there's little tactical value. That's a pity, though, considering the number of stances (patrol, territorial, etc.) and the sheer amount of orders you can issue to your units. None of them help in making fights more manageable. In multiplayer fests, it works more or less like Warcraft where you simply pit all your creatures into the fray of the battle and hope your unit mix will come out for the better. The lack of support units (healers, spell casters) or hero units makes it less in-depth from a tactical standpoint.
Because the combat is so blasι and the other components so standard, it detracts from what novelty Impossible Creatures brings to the real time strategy genre. Here's a game with an interesting concept, but while the rest of the game is solid in production value, it's uninspiring. Chance's campaign lacks the emotion and involvement that Homeworld had. Ultimately, we develop less sympathy for these human beings, than we do for the alien ones in Homeworld.
Some of this is due to the voice acting. The good doctor Willing is nicely cast but Chance lacks the frontiersman bravado and charm we would expect from an adventurer of the time. Luckily, the rest of the audio is quite good. Supporting the latest EAX standards, there's definitely an element of surround to the overall game and the title is able to generate some decent period music to go along with the story events.
Little effort was made to capitalize on this era. You've got coal driven trains here. Lightning rods are used as power generators. A train engine constitutes as your mobile base of operations. There's potential good in further exploiting this theme.
It would have also been nice to see henchmen arm themselves during combat or the Sigma technology used against Nazis, Stalinists or some traditional military units. Unlike the creatures on the Island of Dr. Moreau, these ones simply like to claw each other to death. Some weapons would have made the combat mix a little more interesting.
In terms of visuals, Impossible Creatures does not falter. No doubt benefiting from the close ties to Microsoft, Relic has a solid 3D real time strategy title here. Camera control is simple and easy to control. Textures are crisp, water effects are convincing and the wide-ranging terrain of South America is nicely presented. Animation, key to portraying those 3D creatures you are crafting, is fluid and natural. Detailed models and the ability to zoom enable Relic to distinguish one creature from another; even with so many subtle changes.
I do recall Homeworld being a title that was loved. But others did hate it for being overly complex a real time strategy title. Here, Relic has made its utmost effort to introduce simple real time strategy conventions. Few resources are used. A comprehensive tutorial is made, in addition to tutorial-like missions within the campaign itself. For all practical intents and purposes, you don't even have to adjust the camera during the course of the game. Building queues are available to minimize micromanagement. Notification is displayed to remind you that heroes or builders are idled, creatures are attacked, so on and so forth. Henchmen look and almost sound exactly like the peasants and peons from other popular titles.
The campaign in Impossible Creatures is told primarily in first person narration by Chance and he's also in the game as well, including Willing. In fact, Willing serves as your first hero "worker" while Chance serves as the first hero "unit". They aren't heroes at fighting, though, but the game eventually eases you into using Sigma against Julius' army.
Each mission usually entails a few main objectives. You might be helping some natives out. You might have to access some resources for the mobile laboratory to keep running. Bonus objectives are included to encourage Rex (or later on, underlings) to tag different creatures and collect new DNA for use in assembling your combat units.
Resources are kept pretty simple. You accumulate either electricity or coal. Electricity is powered by period technology like steam geysers or wacky sci-fi contraptions of the time like a lightning rod. Coal is simply harvested by henchmen (peasant or peons for the rest of you) and these two resources are all that's needed to wage war. There aren't a lot of buildings in Impossible Creatures. Aside from the defensive walls, air and surface defense mechanisms, as well as a few research workshops, much of the money you make will be spent in making upgrades.
The ultimate upgrade you'll make is in research levels to access new creatures and in improving the genetic coding of your existing creations. Other upgrades like making your henchman faster or structures stronger are available but the real upgrades will come from improving your creatures. Here, you'll have choice. You might want to improve the defense of a fast scouting unit or improve the speed for a lumbering ranged creature. The choices are up to you but you can't upgrade any and everything available for a creature.
Almost all bases built with Sigma will revolve around the creature chamber. This is where your creatures will be built. As I mentioned before, when you start off you won't have any units available for building. You'll have to gather DNA samples and assemble creatures by mixing two animals together. When you're not in the campaign, you'll have all the DNA samples available to you. This is where the fun is and Relic has provided an interface on the main menu that allows you to tweak a pre-made army for multiplayer/skirmish combat.
The creatures you can create can be pretty complex. Each creature has some attributes and special attacks that you can combine with others to carry over. You might have a ferocious melee fighter who is slow to move to the battlefield. Why not take a low level scout's hind legs and combine it with the higher level fighter? Or perhaps a set of wings from a bird will help. The possibilities are quite literally endless and aren't necessarily restricted to pairing the head of an animal with the trunk of another. You can pair heads, torsos and even tails together. Typically, your creations will fall into scouts, melee or ranged categories. Because of this, Relic encourages experimenting to fit your own playing style.
In terms of multiplayer, Impossible Creatures features some regular skirmish modes on a good number of maps that take advantage of the terrain diversity displayed in the single player campaign. Currently, there's only one objective: destroy the opposing base. It's simple to match up with other players through IC Online though. LAN Play options are abundant and AI players, taking the form of characters found in the single player campaign (Chance, Willing, Julius, et al) with their own unique armies can be thrown into the mix. A few more game modes would have made the multiplayer portion outstanding.
Finally, an online matching service similar to Battle.net is arranged. All of this definitely makes Impossible Creatures more accessible to the casual gamer, but unfortunately, it also makes it hard to distinguish this product from others. Take away the creature building and you've got a straight up strategy title.
I don't want to characterize Impossible Creatures as a one trick pony. On the one hand, we've seen customizable units before. We just haven't seen it in organic form. I've built spaceships piecemeal before and combining the head and torso of a crocodile with a lobster is about the same as combining ship propulsion at level two with ship hull at level four. Although, I must admit, there is a sublime artistic value to the creatures -- the same sublime fascination our ancestors had with anthropomorphism.
On the other hand, its less than revolutionary portions are actually very well polished and executed. Newcomers to the genre will not find an easier real time strategy title to take on. But I feel like there's a chance (pardon my pun) squandered here to fully take advantage of the source material. The innovation is novel and great but Impossible Creatures lacks the certain swagger that befits a confident winner.
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