Relic Entertainment, the developer of Impossible Creatures, earned widespread recognition in 1999 with the release of its first product, the sci-fi-themed real-time strategy game Homeworld. Homeworld was unlike any other game in the genre before it, due to its effective, stylish use of a fully 3D perspective. An excellent single-player campaign, impressive visuals, and solid multiplayer helped make Homeworld an outstanding game, and though several games have attempted to surpass its accomplishments these past few years, arguably none have truly succeeded. Now Homeworld's creators have finally completed their second real-time strategy game, which was more than three years in the making, no doubt because play-balancing the game's open-ended army building system must have been a nightmare. Impossible Creatures is superficially as different as can be from Relic's first game, eschewing Homeworld's serious tone for one that's much more lighthearted, and taking place along a small, fictitious South American archipelago, circa 1937. In the game, you create your armies by combining pairs of real-life creatures to form bizarre, powerful hybrids: The tiger-headed scorpion depicted on the game's box is a perfect example. And though the actual battles in Impossible Creatures aren't all that great, the game's offbeat premise, good looks, enjoyable campaign, and open-ended design make it both distinctive and recommendable.
During the game's protracted development cycle, it actually underwent no fewer than two official name changes, first from just plain Sigma to the obligatorily subtitled Sigma: The Adventures of Rex Chance and then finally to Impossible Creatures. The game's original titles remain significant to the story: Rex Chance is the Indiana Jones-like main character, and Sigma is the mysterious The Island of Dr. Moreau-like technology that Rex uses to fuse animals together to create hybrids. Rex Chance's adventures begin when he receives a letter from his long-lost father, urging him to visit a little-known South American island where Sigma research is being conducted. Not long after his arrival, Rex has a bad run-in with some hybrid creatures bent on having him for dinner, but he's saved by the talented young Doctor Lucy Willing, who whisks him away in her hovertrain laboratory. Thus begins Rex's quest to discover his father's fate and defeat the villainous Upton Julius, a man who would use the Sigma technology to rule the world. Of course, Rex and Lucy will have to get through several of Julius' cohorts before they can get to him.
The single-player campaign that tells this story is lengthy, challenging, and engaging, offering a variety of objectives within most every mission, a good number of surprises, and plenty of amusing cutscenes. The campaign is probably the best part of the game. Your average RTS campaign always starts you off with weak units and limited technology and then gives you access to more powerful stuff as the missions wear on; Impossible Creatures is no different, but the way you acquire new and better stuff over the course of the missions is pretty novel. Specifically, you'll need to use Rex and his tranquilizer rifle to "tag" new animals for their genetic material, and you'll need to use Lucy to steal plans for new technology from your enemies. Since you'll usually get several new creatures per mission, you'll always be looking forward to which of the game's 50 or so stock creatures you'll find next and what sorts of bizarre yet effective hybrids you can make as a result.
A thorough tutorial is available before you begin the campaign, though if you've played any other recent real-time strategy game, most all of it will be familiar territory. However, Impossible Creatures' army building system is decidedly unusual. You pair up two creatures at a time and then mix and match their torsos and appendages to produce various types of combat units. The game includes a number of prepackaged armies, though you'll certainly want to experiment with making your own, since much of your enjoyment of Impossible Creatures will come from thinking up strategies and creating armies around them. Part of what makes the campaign fun is that you can edit your armies on the fly, whenever you want, though you need to preassemble armies in advance for use in multiplayer matches or skirmishes. Either way, the interface for the creature combiner is very clean and simple--almost too much so, as none of the humor, personality, or style of the game really comes across when you're building units, and you don't actually get to see the process of two creatures getting hybridized, only the end result.
At any rate, it won't be long before you're combining elephants, dragonflies, killer whales, panthers, spitting cobras, grizzly bears, snowy owls, piranhas, and more, each time examining how your new combination affects the resulting hybrid's core attributes like health, speed, attack, and defense. The system is about as intuitive as can be expected; put a snapping turtle's legs on a cheetah and it's going to slow down. Put an eagle's head on an elephant and it'll see farther. The resulting hybrid creatures may look silly, but in practice they're not so different from what you'd find in a typical real-time strategy game. Think of the fast creatures as your infantry, the slow and tough creatures as your tanks, and the ranged attack creatures as your artillery, and you'll find that Impossible Creatures' battles play out pretty much just like those of an old Command & Conquer game. You can create swimming, amphibious, or flying creatures, and some have one or more special abilities--but despite all the possible combinations, none of the beasts you can concoct in Impossible Creatures is really all that different from the typical sorts of units you'd find in any real-time strategy game.
The dozens of stock animals are divided across a five-tier hierarchy of "research levels," which are like the four ages in Ensemble's Age of Empires series. Lower-level animals are basically smaller and weaker than higher-level ones, but hybrids based on these are less expensive and available sooner into a battle. It's possible and often preferable to create hybrids from animals of different research levels, and the game intelligently recognizes the hybrids' key strengths in these cases and weights their research costs accordingly. For instance, a mighty crocodile with the swift legs of a zebra will have a higher research level than a zebra with the stubby legs of a crocodile. Actually, you'll find that many of the stock creatures in Impossible Creatures just aren't very useful, since similar but better alternatives are available at a relatively small additional cost. Meanwhile, a small number of stock creatures are highly useful for their specific combinations of innate abilities and will certainly find their way into most players' armies sooner or later. For instance, the lobster can swim, automatically regenerates its health, and has pincers that are effective against enemy structures--traits that seriously enhance most other types of creatures. So, in reality, the army building system isn't quite as open-ended as it may initially appear.
You can have up to nine hybrid units in a given army, which doesn't sound like a lot, but you'll actually find that combinations of just two or three types of units are extremely effective. In addition, Impossible Creatures has a handy army analyzer tool that specifically points out the strengths and weaknesses of your armies, once you've created them. You'll probably want to have units from all five research levels in a given army, but it isn't necessary. A typical match of Impossible Creatures is very fast-paced, so within minutes you'll have gathered enough coal and electricity--the game's two resources--to access the higher research levels. And, despite whatever strange shapes or special abilities your hybrid units possess, it's their research levels that are overwhelmingly important. Lower-level creatures stand little chance against higher-level ones, no matter what they are, and that fact along with the relatively small differences in resource costs and production times between building stronger units or weaker ones means you'll naturally want to research your stronger units as soon as you can, and you'll rarely have reason to build lower-tier units if you can build higher-tier ones.
All this underscores the sense that the actual combat in Impossible Creatures just isn't very satisfying. Basically, your clump of weird units plows into the opponent's clump of weird units, and you cross your fingers and hope for the best. Even if you're running the game at a high resolution, often you can't readily tell what sorts of creatures you're up against, and while you can zoom in the camera perspective or click on an enemy creature to check its stats, there's no time for this sort of thing in a typical Impossible Creatures match. Perhaps it's understandable that the game doesn't allow you to organize your units into formations, given that they're all wild beasts. Still, what matters is you have very few real tactical options in commanding your forces, short of having to micromanage units with some marginally useful special abilities. So really, what's surprising about Impossible Creatures is that the brunt of the game's underlying strategy occurs before a match, in the army builder, rather than during one. There are no different factions to speak of in Impossible Creatures as there are in other games, so there's basically just one "right" way to most efficiently build up your base and get your resources piling in fast, and then it's just a matter of cranking out as many powerful units as possible.
Otherwise, Impossible Creatures looks great, though it would have looked much more striking had it shipped before last year's real-time strategy blockbusters Warcraft III and Age of Mythology. Colorful, realistic-looking tropical environments, smooth animations, and stylized, often funny creatures make the game enjoyable to look at, while the well-produced 3D-animated cutscenes between the campaign's missions add to Impossible Creatures' polish. Great voice-over work brings the characters of the story to life, and the game is accompanied by an upbeat, jazzy soundtrack with plenty of safari sounds thrown in. The creatures themselves don't sound very interesting, however, and mostly just grunt and growl, and your henchmen will incessantly report that your "critters are under attack" when you're in battle, as if you didn't know.
Impossible Creatures is playable over a LAN or online via direct IP connection or through a built-in player-matching service called IC Online. It's a bare-bones service, and it's not nearly as convenient to use as the systems incorporated in Warcraft III and Age of Mythology. We experienced considerable amounts of lag playing in online matches, even over a broadband connection and in matches with fewer total players than the game's maximum of six. Alternatively, a skirmish mode is available if you want to set up a custom game against a computer-controlled opponent, and here the AI provides a worthwhile challenge, countering your forces seemingly as best it can. The game features a good number of skirmish maps, many of which are quite large, and Impossible Creatures also ships with a mission editor utility that lets you build your own scenarios. It's a complex program, as these tend to be, but it fortunately is fully documented and theoretically lets you make significant modifications to the core game.
Relic's second game is an inventive, full-featured real-time strategy game that has a lot of good qualities. It also arrives on the heels of two of the best real-time strategy games ever made, and while its concept may seem very different from those games, the core of the gameplay is not, yet those games handle the fundamentals of real-time strategy combat a lot better than Impossible Creatures does. On its own merits, Impossible Creatures is certainly enjoyable and interesting, and it's worthwhile for the campaign alone, whose story will motivate you to slog through some fights that aren't always all that fun. In the end, you'll find yourself having a better time dreaming up and tweaking your custom armies than actually sending your creatures into the fray.