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Impossible Creatures Review

GAME INFO
publisher: Microsoft
developer: Relic Entertainment
genre: Strategy

MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS
PIII 500, 128MB RAM, 16MB Video Card , 1.5GB HD
ESRB rating: T
homepage:
www.relic.com/product/impossiblecreatures/descript

release date: Jan 05, 03
» All About Impossible Creatures on ActionTrip


When you think of the Real-Time Strategy genre, the mind wanders to games like WarCraft, Command & Conquer and Age of Empires. All three of these very excellent RTS games made by very excellent companies follow a very similar thread -- gather resources, build a base, and amass an army using a pre-set block of troops that are very carefully designed, balanced and approved for your use. In this vein, it is very difficult to innovate or create something truly original in the RTS genre.

Until Relic came along, that is.

Relic Entertainment is known as the creative mind behind Homeworld, a game that in many ways helped to shape the RTS genre and thread new paths for it, expanding it and keeping it exciting for gamers worldwide. In many ways, Relic is the opposite of Blizzard. Both companies make great strategy games, but Relic isn't afraid to break the mold, whereas Blizzard has always opts for the safer route. Many would argue that Blizzard is right in doing so, and the sales figures sure do prove it. Still, one cannot help but admire the creative talent and the courage of the people at Relic Entertainment. Without innovation, we would pretty-much just keep running around in circles, and with the "freeze frame" technology that has been brought on by the introduction of the Xbox there would be hardly any room left for originality.

The latest game by Relic Entertainment, Impossible Creatures, is not revolutionary in any true sense of the word. It is however quite original and brimming with novel ideas. The basic premise of this game is creature combining. Something I would call a hybrid of strategy gaming and LEGO blocks. The idea is to create a strategy game with heavy management elements that are reflected in the player's ability to combine numerous creatures and make a huge number of variations and different units. Let me break it down for ya real quick - there is a pre-defined number of animals in this game, and each of these animals has several body parts that are highlighted, like their hind legs, torso, or the head. I'm sure that any Bio 101 student knows that creatures on our planet can swim, fly, crawl, and run. Some of them can be considered as ranged units, as they can spit venom, or lash their long tongues, and I'm sure you've all seen monkeys toss a branch or two when they're angry. The player, using the "Sigma Technology" can take two animals and combine them to create a new animal, using whatever traits from either animal they he/she so chooses - for example, combining the powerful jaws of a Great White Shark with the fleet legs of a Cheetah can create the Great White Sheetah, an extremely fast attack animal that can close on its enemies and take a big 'ol bite out of them - then swim away like a shark. In other words, Impossible Creatures has it all: air, land, and sea combat, and a selection of melee as well as ranged units at your disposal. Each animal you create consists of several key body parts that you can mix in the creature combiner, making the number of possible unit variations truly staggering.

One other very important strategic element of IC is the introduction of tech levels. Level 5 is the hardest one to achieve of course, and it takes a bit of resource gathering (coal and electricity are the two main resources) to reach it, which means that early units will play an important role in base defending at the start of the game. One trick is to take some of the great abilities of Level 5 creatures and combine them with the good traits of Level 1 and 2 creatures, therefore making a relatively dangerous unit which will be accessible early in the game (which would in-turn give you a strategic advantage over your opponent).

The addition of levels not only helps to classify the creatures more easily, it also helps to balance out their usage, making sure that players won't simply stick with a few almighty Level 5 creatures, once they've found their perfect creature combos. This is oh-so true for the multiplayer, but it will also become quite evident in the single player as well (the AI is known to rush your base very early, like in mission 8 for example). And besides, talking about balancing units in a game like IC is an exercise in futility. I could say that I've found my perfect creature and that it owns in the game (like my croc/dragonfly hybrid), but that would only be my assumption, as someone could very well come up with a counter unit that works quite well against my "whore" unit. (Like my Spitting Cobra/Giraffe ranged/poison unit! - Six) Still, it is inevitable that many players will favor certain animals over others. For example, I found that the eagle-chameleon unit works really well. It's relatively resilient, it flies, it's very good in ranged combat, and it has decent melee abilities ... and the chameleon's head and tail offer special abilities like regeneration (extremely useful) and camouflage. The game makes the player think about what creatures are effective and which are not effective in certain situations, and create new animals to counter them in a pinch. It pits the players in a game of mental chess with one another - Attack with a creature, counter with a creature that plays upon the first creature's weakness, re-counter with a third creature, and so on and so on, using the creatures' special abilities to achieve maximum effect.

Oh yeah, did I mention the creatures' special abilities? Each creature has some kind of special abilities, although as I said, some are more useful than others. The introduction of so many factors to a strategy game is bound to give some headaches to the reviewers. There will be those who say that this and that animal is too powerful, but that's only natural, given the vast variety of options available. The important thing for the consumer to know is that all the game's features work VERY well in the game. The interface is quite easy to get into, and once you sink your teeth into the single-player campaign, you'll realize that a lot of thought has been put into making this game as fun and easy to use as possible, while still retaining all the complexity and depth made possible by the game's main features.

Relic is no doubt very good at making strategy games. The enemy AI is excellent and the gameplay difficulty has been so balanced, that it simply lures the player into completing one more mission. And then another one, and another one... The layout of the enemy structures, the resources and the timing of the enemy charges is perfectly balanced in terms of difficulty - it will never frustrate you, but it will give you plenty of incentive to finish the mission; truly and admirable job by the team at Relic Entertainment.

One other thing that will keep you going through the single-player campaign is of course the storyline, which is solid, but is hardly on the same level as some of the other design aspects of this game (for a more detailed account of the storyline, please read our hands-on preview of the game). The game world in IC is reminiscent somewhat of the one in Crimson Skies (another successful game published by MS), which had that sci-fi retro look about it, coupled with some swinging music from the 30's and bold Errol Flynn like action heroes.

In 1937, on a small chain of islands in the South Pacific a great scientist toils over his discovery: technology 30-years in the making known only as the Sigma Technology. Dr. Erik Chanikov has discovered a method to combine two normal animals you'd find in nature into new creatures that have the strengths of both, and the weaknesses of neither.

Upton Julius, a wealthy American industrialist, has been the sole backer of Dr. Chanikov's work, as well as his friend through the long years it has taken to develop the Sigma Technology. However, it seems that Upton's motives to see this project through aren't entirely altruistic. For reasons only known to his most trusted allies he's begun to look at Sigma not as an opportunity for knowledge and the betterment of humanity, but as a source of power. Together with his motley crew of evildoers they are hatching a plan to use Sigma to take over the world, but they're still missing one key element.

This is where you come in as Rex Chance, freelance war correspondent and adventurer down on his luck. A desperate letter and a call from the past will drop you smack in the middle of the struggle over the Sigma Technology, setting in motion events that could lead to the end of the world as we know it. Accompanying Rex in his adventures through the islands is Dr. Lucy Willing, an associate of Dr. Chanikov's who has seen through Upton's plans and is now trying to foil them with Rex's assistance.

The story itself is not too bad. What I disliked about it was its presentation. The cut scenes before each mission are represented in a Film Noir/Comic fashion - they are rather sinister in their appearance and the way they portray the events in the story. This is in sharp contrast with the rather off-beat nature of the in-game cut-scenes, which often have rather silly (and often lousy) attempts at humor and give a rather goofy appearance to the villains. The story has a lot of adult elements, and the characters aren't quite as shallow as they appear in the game. The cut-scenes only go to prove this, but it is quite obvious that Relic had to make some trade-offs in order to appeal to the younger audiences. Personally, I don't believe that this was a good move by the designers, as this implies that the writers and artists didn't fully understand each other.

One other thing that bothered me about the Impossible Creatures' fantasy world was that the creatures themselves weren't as appealing as brave knights, orcs and elves in a sense that the fantasy world might not appear as thrilling to the strategy gamers as something coming from Tolkien's novels or history classes. My fears were soon shattered however as I delved deeper into the game...

Luckily, the voice acting is topnotch, and so are the sound effects, so that will help a lot in generating a proper in-game atmosphere. Rex's voice is pretty good, but it's also overly dramatic at times, which goes in line with what I said about the rather silly nature of the in-game dialogue.

As for the game's graphics, all has been said about it in the hands-on preview already, so I would advise you to check it out again. The only actual drawback to the graphics is the rather uninventive terrain. Then again, more trees, and elaborate settings would mean that you'd need a beast of a system to run the game. As it is, the frame rate is rock solid even on mid-range PC's.

All in all, I'd say that Relic has done an excellent job on Impossible Creatures. For its gameplay depth, originality and excellent difficulty balancing, I give it the editor's choice award. The replay value of this game is very good, as I've found out that MP matches can be quite intense, and after all, this is where the truly creative players should sparkle. Impossible Creatures is a massive and a great all-around project. It's well worth your money, so I'd suggest you go out and buy it. After all, how often do you get a chance to lead an army of polar bears with dragonfly wings against an army of chimps with shark fins?

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ACTIONTRIP SCORE
9.0   Excellent


HIGHS
Original, deep and addictive. Very well polished, good AI and pathfinding, etc;

LOWS
Some flaky moments in the representation of the story. Some people may complain about the advantage of certain creatures over others. The terrain could've been a bit richer...

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