Bugs are the big story in Genesis Rising: The Universal Crusade, an action real-time strategy game with a twist from Metamorf Studios. But it's not quite what you might think. The game has some serious performance issues, like sound drops and crashes to the desktop, but in addition to these technical bugs, the game itself is all about space bugs. Unfortunately, the technical issues will stop you from enjoying your time with the space bugs, since the game not only has performance problems, it also has a flawed interface. You'll probably end up wanting to exterminate Genesis Rising from your hard drive like it was an infestation of cockroaches.
The setting and storyline are just a teensy bit offbeat here (the plot is based on an obscure European comic, so make of that what you will). Although you play the usual intrepid sci-fi captain and spend the solo campaign scrounging around the galaxy for a MacGuffin called the Universal Heart, you boldly go where no man has gone before in organic ships called organids, which look and act a lot like giant space ticks and other creepy crawlies. There is a creepy religious vibe to everything, too, which gives the game a Warhammer 40,000 feel. There is one big new angle here, though, as instead of the usual RTS conventions of blowing stuff up and scavenging for resources, the idea is to disable enemy vessels and suck them dry of their blood and the genes that give them traits and attributes.
But the other, non-blood-sucking bugs are more attention grabbing. Metamorf and publisher DreamCatcher Games kicked this one out the door way too early. Crashes frequently occur, usually during level and save loads, or when you're simply trying to go back to the main menu or leave the game. Everything seems fine, the game runs on perfectly in the background, but an error message pops up and the game goes down as soon as you click on abort, retry, or ignore. Sound drops are another issue, in that the game loads up and remains dead silent on a regular basis. Neither problem could be resolved over the course of this review, and other intermittent issues like ships refusing to respond to commands and occasional graphical corruption also reared their ugly heads. Your mileage may vary, but you might want to hold off on your sucking of blood until DreamCatcher gets out a patch.
On the occasions when everything works, the space-bugs angle is a neat conceit. The blood idea is just a fresh take on the resources and health bars present in almost every other RTS, but it does introduce a welcome yuck factor. This is particularly noticeable when you take an enemy out with too much firepower and it explodes in geysers of gore or when you send out reservoir ships to lap up the blood needed to build and repair ships and buy genes from traders. The gene concept is even more intriguing. Every vessel has specific genes that can be stripped at the conclusion of battles and added to a laboratory that serves as Genesis Rising's take on a tech tree. From there, you can mutate vessels with these genes, which provides them with dozens of on-the-fly power-ups, ranging from long- and short-range weapons to warp drives and other special abilities.
Genes also add verve to battles. The genes possessed by each ship are displayed in small icons on the main view screen, so you can home in on key ships and try to take them out early to get some buffs for the rest of the fight. In some ways, this isn't much of a change from the usual RTS. Battles are always small-scale affairs, so chances are good that you'd be targeting the same ships in the same order even without their gene rewards. But the feature does add some options and makes you consider strategic planning beyond the standard action-oriented tank rush...even if you end up mostly rushing the bad guys anyhow.
And that really is what you do most of the time in Genesis Rising. Battles take place on 2D map grids as flat as the lone prairie, and the combat never seems to involve more than a dozen or so ships, but the interface is so unadorned that it's hard to arrange coherent attacks. The minimap is a worthless collection of tiny dots on a black background. Units can't be organized into formations, and they always take the long way getting to enemy ships, complete with lots of pretty, yet extremely irritating, turns and loops. This makes fighting with certain gene powers like long-range weapons a pain because they sometimes have to be manually aimed and you never really know how your ships are going to get from point A to point B.
Worst of all, there is no way to adjust the game's speed. You're stuck constantly veering between way-too-fast combat and way-too-slow travel to engage enemies and explore maps. The gene laboratory interface is also so clunky that it's just about impossible to use during combat. Battles continue to rage on when you're in this menu, and the gene icons are haphazardly illustrated so you're forever fumbling about trying to drag and drop the correct ones into place to load up a huge cannon or something equally devastating that you just acquired during the fight. Too often you'll futz around, get everything into place, and head back to the main screen just in time to see your mothership go boom. Even though battles generally involve a small number of units by RTS standards, even single enemy ships are pretty tough, forcing you to scramble around so much that you might as well be commanding the Spanish Armada.
Genesis Rising has a distinctive look, at least. Metamorf does a fantastic job with ship design, essentially taking all sorts of real-world insects and magnifying them to rather disturbing proportions. The game has a unique appearance reminiscent of commercials that try to shame people into buying better vacuums by showing magnified images of dust mites and other critters living in your carpets and bed sheets. Cutscenes are gorgeous, too, with dramatic, sharply drawn and animated characters, and over-the-top art and armor designs straight out of Warhammer 40,000. A sprinkling of traditional sci-fi ships and old-school weapons do keep things grounded, but this is still one of the most striking games thus far this year. The audio is far more generic. Units respond to orders by repeating the same old vaguely fascistic RTS lines like "Strength through unity!" and dialogue in cutscenes is chewed up and spat out in typically cheesy game fashion. Only an odd (and not entirely PG-13) comment like "Suck them dry!" and a great soundtrack comprised mainly of epic choral odes give the game a unique audio identity.
Multiplayer is a bit more palatable than solo play. Direct battles against human opponents eliminates the painful cutscenes and the many slow moments before battles in the single-player campaign missions. Still, the multiplayer revolves around a lot of exploration and resource collection, so it isn't exactly speedy.
Interesting concepts mean nothing without good implementation, and unfortunately the implementation here is so poor that Genesis Rising is nearly unplayable at times. So, good ideas, shame about the terrible execution.