As of late, Gene Wars' more famous sibling, Dungeon Keeper, has been hogging the limelight. The latter game's notorious delays have caused it to become even more hyped than in the past - and have made many fans overlook the fact that Bullfrog Productions has a few other games in store for the year. And while those on watch for Dungeon Keeper keep their eyes firmly fixed on its ever-changing release date, Bullfrog may just, with Gene Wars, release one of the year's most engaging strategy games - completely unnoticed.
First impressions may cause many to dismiss Gene Wars as just another Command & Conquer clone, to cast it aside as yet another real-time strategy game in which your goal is to build a base and destroy your opponents. While this sort of genre-lumping can be tempting, such comparisons are inaccurate for two major reasons. First, Gene Wars has a lot more originality and depth than your average real-time strategy game. (More on that in a minute.) Second - and this is a little history lesson for all of you who think a Pentium 90 is "low-end" - Bullfrog Productions kicked off the whole real-time strategy craze with Populous and Powermonger, so even if Gene Wars was just a generic C&C clone you'd have no right to complain, bub.
Luckily, Gene Wars isn't just another build-up-and-tear-down war game. What it is is almost inexplicable (this is the "originality and depth" part, for those keeping track). The premise goes loosely thus: A group of powerful, but peaceful, alien beings (the Ethereals) has imprisoned four races (the Earthlings, the Bohemians, the Saurians, and the Schnozzoids) who've obliterated their home worlds after years of unrelenting war. Like a group of intimidating interstellar peaceniks, the Ethereals confiscate all of their prisoners' weaponry and return the captives to their homes with strict orders to rebuild the devastated worlds. The race that best succeeds in creating a nature-loving la-la land wins its eternal freedom. Sound like a bunch of new age, dolphin-hugging nonsense? Well, it's not.
Acting like the war-like beings they are, the races instantly set out in search of new ways to annihilate each other. In addition to building the necessities for survival, your immediate goal is to send scientists into the field to begin researching the local fauna for information about the various beasts' genetic structures. This knowledge can then be combined and tweaked in your genetic engineering lab to create new, hideous mutants which do your bidding. These new creatures become your weapons, which you use to impair the other races' progress and earn your freedom.
Rounding out this unique experience are the audio and visual elements, which (and I know you've heard this a thousand times before, but you've got to believe me) are unparalleled, drawing upon 50's sci-fi concepts to create a truly original atmosphere. The graphics are simply beautiful - with lush green hills, incredibly detailed characters, and water effects that include waves and little ripples which follow behind your minions as they wade around. The Ethereals themselves, who observe your progress while zooming around on what literally look like flying saucers, appear to be a cross between the typical gray-skinned, almond-eyed extraterrestrials and Casper the Friendly Ghost. The music sounds like something straight out of Forbidden Planet, with circuit sounds and Theremins creating a truly loopy aural environment. Top this off with the hilarious voices and exclamations of your workers ("The Ethereals have landed!"), and you'll be hard-pressed to call Gene Wars a clone of any game.
If nothing else, Gene Wars will be a great distraction from the interminable wait for Dungeon Keeper. If first impressions are correct, however, it may prove to be among the best strategy games of the year. Gene Wars will include multi-player options for up to four players, and will be published later this fall by Electronic Arts.