Impossible Creatures impressions

Microsoft confirms that Relic's real-time strategy game is complete, and we have a hands-on look at the game

It's been a little more than three years since Relic shipped Homeworld, and in that time the Vancouver-based developer has been quite busy with Impossible Creatures. Relic's Alex Garden recently told us that it's one thing to ship a game and quite another to ship a platform, by which he meant the game's open engine, which is designed to allow the mod-making community to make radically new content. Naturally, Impossible Creatures' success will mainly be judged on the quality of its single-player campaign and its multiplayer, and it won't be long before the public can judge the game for itself. Microsoft has announced that the game has gone gold and that it will hit the January 7 release date that was 2879733revealed months ago.

We recently received a final review copy of the game, and we've had the chance to try out the story-based campaign and play a number of multiplayer matches. It's not immediately obvious how the game differs from preview builds that were available earlier in the year. The game looked quite good when we saw it at Microsoft's 2851632IGF event last spring, so it's no surprise that it's even more polished now, after Relic took an extra six months to balance the game.

Impossible Creatures' single-player campaign starts out with the main character, Rex Chance, learning of the death of his father, who, he is surprised to discover, was the inventor of a device that can combine the best genetic material from two different animals to create a giant, powerful creature. The story is set in an alternate 1937 and has the flavor of an old sci-fi flick. In fact the mutant creature premise has a strong resemblance to H.G. Wells' novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. As Chance pursues the treacherous Dr. Julius who killed his father, the game will progress through a series of islands in an archipelago off South America. While there are a number of interesting cutscenes during the missions to drive the story along, the initial missions primarily focus on finding new animals to use in the creature chamber and building a large army of such creatures to wipe the enemy from each island.

There's no doubt that Relic has put much effort into trying to balance the game's multiplayer to make it a top-notch competitive RTS. The game can be very fast-paced, particularly on the smaller maps, as you rush to grab valuable resource locations and pump out midtier units for continuous attacks. There are two resources: coal and electricity. Coal is located in clumps around the map, and electricity can be obtained in small amounts from lightning rods that can be placed anywhere or in much larger amounts from generators that are placed over the limited number of steam fissures on each map. Some of the steam fissures are located in water, either off the shores of islands or in lakes in the middle of some maps. The way to get at these choice locations is to have henchmen swim to them or, much later in a match, use a helicopter to get to hard-to-reach locations more quickly. In either case, henchmen can be at the mercy of creatures that specialize in either swimming or flying.

There are quite a few animals to pair up in the creature chamber, and the resulting creatures get the intuitive abilities of their parents. The better the stats of a creature, the more it will cost in terms of resources and the higher its required research level. The process of creating new creature combinations isn't difficult, but it can be fairly time consuming to find optimal combinations. As a result, you don't actually design creatures in multiplayer matches at all. There's an offline army-building mode that lets you build nine-creature armies.

Much like decks in collectible card games, these armies represent all the creatures available to you over the course of a match, so ideally each army will include a variety of creatures with complementary abilities that can be built in the early, mid, and late parts of a game. Fortunately, the army builder has an analysis function that tells you if there are obvious gaps in your selections. For those just starting the game, there are a bunch of preset armies that correspond to the major characters in the game, as well as a number of themed armies, but before long, serious players will want to painstakingly create creatures to suit their style of play. It's almost too bad that it isn't possible to build creatures on the fly during a match as a wildcard counter to an opponent's army choices.

Combat itself is a fairly messy affair. The mix of air, land, and amphibious creatures means that in some ways, there's a rock-scissors-paper balance, and a battle can turn into a vicious rout if you don't have the right counter. Some units have special abilities, like stink cloud or quill burst, which will be used automatically or can be selected manually, and some creatures have abilities that render them immune to poison or venom. Given the pace of the game and the dramatic impact that creature choices have, it's hard to spend much time worrying about neat battle tactics. The game doesn't have formation support.

Impossible Creatures' graphics are highly detailed, and when the game is played on a fast system, there's even the option to turn on dynamic shadows, which make the game look even better. The combinations of various animals often look quite stylized and interesting, but it's not particularly easy to tell what they're composed of. The game installs Microsoft's brand-new DirectX 9 when it loads up, making it likely the first game to require DX9.

Relic's new game has an interesting concept, and the extra months it's been in development mean it's as polished as any PC game can get. Now that the game has gone gold, it's sure to be out on time, on January 7.

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