IGF 2002: Hands-onImpossible Creatures

We take a look at Relic's wacky real-time strategy game, which looks surprisingly polished.

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"Basically, Impossible Creatures has been done for about two months," confessed Relic founder Alex Garden. "We've just been honing it and honing it and honing it." With a game that features a total number of possible units that reaches well into the hundreds of thousands, Relic probably still has a hefty amount of honing to do. However, you couldn't tell that from playing the latest build of Relic and Microsoft's forthcoming Impossible Creatures at the International Games Festival, as this wacky real-time strategy game looked surprisingly polished and, for an RTS with so many units, surprisingly focused.

Since its inception, Impossible Creatures has gone through two name changes (it was originally called Sigma), but its premise of building your own units by genetically crossbreeding a variety of animals has remained unchanged. Despite what you may have heard about the game, Impossible Creatures is actually a fairly straightforward RTS at its core. Its setting is quite unusual in that it takes place in an alternate 1937, and everything about the game, from the interface to the splash screens, is done in a style that's reminiscent of the pulp fiction from that decade--you'll even spot several elements in the game, like the logo, that are directly influenced by the likes of Indiana Jones. And the game's units, all of which are based on combinations of 52 real-world animals, are certainly unusual. But the core gameplay elements of Impossible Creatures all adhere to the basic RTS conventions of resource gathering, technology upgrading, and combat.

Like most real-time strategy games, Impossible Creatures has a single-player campaign and a multiplayer skirmish mode that you can play from the outset. In the campaign, you assume the role of a young adventurer named Rex Chance, who has recently discovered the whereabouts of his long-lost father. Chance learns that his father had been doing experimental research with a fellow scientist named Upton Julius. Their research was being conducted on Isla Variatas, which is part of a remote chain of islands off the South American coast. Chance sets off to reunite with his father, and the game begins soon afterward. This introductory sequence is presented using a series of stylized black-and-white graphic-novel stills that Garden refers to as "animatics," though the remainder of the game's cutscenes are all rendered using Impossible Creatures' 3D engine. We saw the game's intro cinematic, which featured a very lifelike Rex Chance narrowly escaping with his life from the apparently deranged Dr. Julius.

In the game, you'll be tasked with rounding up a variety of creatures that inhabit the island and using them to create unnatural combinations, like tiger-monkeys or vulture-rhinos. There are all kinds of different animals inhabiting the chain of islands, and you can meld any two that you capture together--there are no incompatible creatures in the game. You'll also employ burly henchmen who basically perform like workers in other RTS games--they construct all your structures and collect all the resources.

Impossible Creatures has two resources, to be precise: coal, which is mined, and electricity, which can be harnessed either by building electrical towers or by placing geothermal power plants on top of the many natural gas vents you'll find scattered around every island. You'll research your creatures in your science laboratory, and then you'll "generate" them in one of three structures: the land chamber for land creatures, the water chamber for aquatic creatures, and the aviary for flying creatures. Every creature costs a certain amount of coal and electricity to build, and at first, you'll only be able to research simple, relatively weak creatures. However, there are a total of five technology levels that you can eventually upgrade to, and each will give you access to successively more-powerful creatures.

An interesting feature of Impossible Creatures is the ability to issue orders to your units while the game is paused--at least in the single-player mode. In fact, you can give your creatures a long list of commands and specify the exact order that they need to be carried out in. This should remove some of the stress involved in micromanaging battles, and it keeps with Relic's desire to make the game accessible to players of all skill levels. Interestingly enough, Garden says that Relic had originally wanted to include this feature in his first game, Homeworld, but it was dropped late in the game's development.

Impossible Creatures also has a noteworthy supplement to the multiplayer skirmish mode that'll let you construct your own unique army. Called the army builder, this tool will let you piece together nine creatures that fit your exact specifications, save them, and then use them whenever you enter a skirmish match. The army builder's interface is extremely intuitive, and experimenting with all the possibilities seems like a lot of fun. In multiplayer, you can also choose to play as one of the game's six other notable characters, each of which has his or her own custom-tailored army of nine types of units with their own specific strengths and advantages. For instance, one of the character's army is classified as an "economic juggernaut," while another boasts sea and air superiority.

Impossible Creatures' 3D engine is impressive, and like in most other 3D RTS games, you can zoom the camera in and out and rotate it 360 degrees. The units in the game hold up very nicely at any angle and depth.

Garden assured us that Impossible Creatures will be released this year, though he refused to give any specifics beyond that. Judging from the build at Microsoft's event, however, the game can't be farther than three or four months away from completion. We'll update you on this distinctive game's development in the coming weeks.

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