The ethical and moral questions posed by bioengineering may be too vast to tackle in the world of video games; however, the conjecture about a possible future dominated by rampant gene-splicing is fair game. In fact, it's the name of the game in Computer Artwork's upcoming Evolva on the PlayStation 2. Already released on the PC, the game is coming to the console, courtesy of Virgin Interactive. Evolva looks like it may be an intriguing amalgamation of genres, mixing elements of Quake, Starcraft, and even Gauntlet. More importantly, though, is the game's conception of characters that can adapt and evolve to combat potential enemies and environments. By killing the bad guys and analyzing their DNA, your characters gain new abilities, powers, and mutations.
Evolva is set in a future dominated by the science of biogenetics. Humankind has not only mastered the mystery of the human genome but has also managed to quiet the moral qualms surrounding its application to humanity. Science now wildly tinkers with human attributes, going beyond just changing hair color and height to actually perfecting a method of combining our DNA with other living creatures. The result is the Genohunter, an elite soldier that uses gene-splicing to adapt to any situation. In most cases, this involves collecting a sample of DNA from a living organism and analyzing it for quality attributes. Then, the Genohunter is able to physically mutate its body to emulate the ideal characteristic. The Genohunter is the perfect weapon--a warrior able to adapt to any situation.
Soon enough, the Genohunters are tested by a threat to humanity. As Evolva begins, an alien parasite and its minions have invaded Earth. You enter the picture as a decorated military commander, assigned to command a small force of the Genohunters. Your mission is simple: Seek and destroy the aliens, thereby ridding the planet of the parasite and its guardians. To effectively command the Genohunters, you're given a powerful communications ship in orbit around Earth. From here, you'll be able to dispatch and control your platoon of supersoldiers as they systematically seek out and destroy all varieties of alien baddies, culminating in a climactic battle against the alien parasite itself.
Evolva's gameplay is difficult to classify. On the one hand, it liberally borrows tactical elements from games like Starcraft and Command & Conquer; however, all the action takes place from a third-person perspective that's more reminiscent of games like the Quake-inspired, Hexen. Most levels feature an extraordinary amount of action going on at once, but since you only control one Genohunter at a time, the game's strategic aspects may become lost in heated firefights. Though you're fully capable of issuing group commands, Computer Artworks has provided a computer's partner AI to assume command in hairy combat situations. Think of Gauntlet Legends' hack-and-slash gameplay, where you can switch back and forth between the four characters at will, and you'll have a rudimentary idea of what Evolva's control and gameplay often boil down to.
Evolva's 12 levels are divided up into several smaller quests on each map. Locales vary from open plains and deserts to airy canyons, with occasional vegetation. While the sprawling environments make it easy to get lost exploring, each level's objectives are clearly identified, thanks to a Crazy Taxi-like arrow that will always keep you headed in the right direction. Typically, these objectives are set up around a simple premise: Seek out a specific enemy type, kill it, and acquire its unique gene for a mutation that lets you enter an otherwise impassable area of the map.
If the gameplay is straightforward, character development is not. The acquisition of new traits for your Genohunters is one of the more complex and unique features in Evolva. As you progress through the game, your Genohunters will be confronted with branching mutation paths based on what they've been mixing their DNA with. Like a game of Pokémon, Evolva uses a complex matrix to create unique forms of evolution, letting you effectively "breed" and develop each of your Genohunters in an individually tailored fashion. Over the course of the game, your warriors will begin to look very different from one another. Some may grow taller, others will grow more muscular and lean, and some may even sprout horns or other adornments. As they all progress, you'll also find each will become more proficient with a certain type of weapon. Weapons have five levels of mastery, and gaining a level represents an increase to your Genohunters' overall firepower. If you're smart about it, you'll control your platoon's development in such a way that each Genohunter develops unique traits that complement the group as a whole.
Computer Artwork has gone to great lengths to make Evolva's gene-bending evolution both visual and tangible. The engine is built from scratch and is fairly advanced, even by high-priced PC standards. The game can display a tremendous number of polygons (the developers claim between 50,000 and 100,000 triangles per character) on the screen at once and features some other neat graphical touches. Besides your main third-person display, you'll also have access to first-person cameras on each character, which let you see what they see. Also there are cool visual effects, like the subtle morphs caused when your Genohunter switches from one weapon to another. Even better, since no two mutations are alike, you'll be treated to a unique visual representation of your Genohunter every time it evolves. Enemies don't vary too much from the basic crustacean, spiderlike creatures; however, they are lavishly detailed and well animated. The levels themselves only look fair. The game currently has too much fog, and most of the environments are relatively barren. Even colored lighting and occasional (but highly detailed) trees and plant life don't prevent Evolva's world from looking somewhat plain.
If nothing else, Evolva proves that Computer Artwork is a development team with no shortage of innovative ideas. The hybridization of RTS games and FPS shooters is a worthy concept, and the idea of mutating your enemies' traits to bolster your own is an excellent solution for getting rid of unrealistic power-ups and weapons strewn haphazardly across levels. Still, the PC version suffered from less-than-ideal game partner AI, and fogging tricks on some levels are obviously to save processor power rather than to enhance the atmosphere. If the team can resolve some of these issues before the planned May 2001 release date, Evolva may prove to be a PlayStation 2 summer sleeper hit.