The Discovery Channel Multimedia has packed 360 million years of history onto a single CD strategy game aptly called Evolution. And just as Charles Darwin described evolution or natural selection as "an advance in organization," you'd better be organized, intelligent, and packing an ironclad attention span to survive and thrive in this title.
Evolution comes off more like a computerized version of a board game you played in anthropology class than your average strategy game, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The concept is incredibly intriguing: exploring the theory of evolution by supplying you with animated lesser life-forms based on factual scientific data. Once you're assigned a starter creature or two, it's your responsibility to drive the beasts toward successful adaptability, procreation, and ultimately, intelligence - which we humans tend to equate with earthly dominance - before your opponents do. But it's not that simple. In the beginning, you select to play a complete game, consisting of Earth's entire history from the Carboniferous to the evolution of intelligent life (360 million years of play), or you can play shorter scenarios such as the Paleozoic, consisting of the earliest land animals to the arrival of the first dinosaur (about 110 million years of play); the Mesozoic, including the age of dinosaurs to the beginning of the Cretaceous (about 185 million years of play); or the Cenozoic, comprising the age of mammals (65 million years of play).
You compete against up to five computerized opponents with names such as Darwin, Huxley, Mendel, and Marsh, in an attempt to become the first species to evolve to intelligence or to reach the beginning point of the subsequent period. You can also compete against humans over a LAN or on the Net, but you will have to play the entire game in one sitting as opposed to saving and resuming later - which can take up to six hours. Other options include playing a random or historical earth model, with various degrees of land coverage from 30 to 60 percent, continental drift speeds from slow to moderate to fast, and your choice of disasters such as ice ages and earthquakes, randomly generated or based on actual history. No surprise, global warming is an issue as well.
During gameplay, sorting and managing all of this information, not to mention the specific species' dossiers, is somewhat of a hassle. Mostly because sorting and managing all this information is the gameplay - and as they say, the devil is in the details. You can (and are advised to) customize the interface to suit your needs, but figuring this out isn't so easy either. You have one window that gives you commands to prompt your clade, or your groups of various species, to move, attack, or stay put, and a short sheet of that animal's optimal conditions such as prime climate, temperature, and feeding pattern. Another window is the live playing field, or the world, as it were. You also have a globe window that allows you to look at the entire planet as a whole, monitoring the changing conditions as time passes, which by the way, is in increments of about 30,000 years per second. Within each of these windows, you have more menus and layers of information you need to incorporate into the gameplay.
At the onset, your creatures begin foraging and checking out their territory. You click on each to reveal its specific command window and guide the animal toward better resources should it not be in an optimal environment. But you don't have to be entirely active at first. You can leave these creatures totally alone, if you choose, letting them search out their own feeding radii, better climes, and such. But eventually they will need guidance, especially when the earth's plates start shifting, resulting in glaciers covering woodlands and mountains popping up where swamps used to be. You have to guide your animals to other continents, and fortunately, developer Crossover Technologies thought to include a "tracking" option; otherwise, it'd be nearly impossible considering the huge number of animals you can end up with toward the end of a game. You also have to watch for predatory opponents driving your animals out of prime dining locations as desirable, lush land fades into the geological record.
But perhaps the biggest challenge is choosing what evolutionary path you want your creature to take. For example, it'd be wise to evolve a prehistoric Tulerpeton one level up to a stronger, predatory creature known as the Seymouria. But since you and your competitors all start on the same level, that desirable animal is likely going to be everyone's target, and only one species can evolve into it - everyone else will have to choose another species to aim toward and move faster next time. And changing the evolutionary direction midstream is not always favorable, especially when your creatures have spent, respectively, at least 30 millions years heading in that direction. However, beyond the goal of becoming the first smart being, you also garner points by accumulating a biomass, or large population of creatures, evolving new species, evolving special types of animals, and, of course, creating the first intelligent being.
While there is a great deal of information and a brilliant concept at play here, the actual experience of Evolution drains your enthusiasm rather quickly. Of course it's cool to watch your spindly amphibian who is one step up from an amino acid make a leap up the chain of being. But the payoff wears thin fast, and eventually you feel as if the animals run the show, breed and die as they please, with you just along for the ride, anxiously clicking as if you're making a difference. Visually, the graphics are slightly better than average, but you'll probably be more impressed with the audio. The animal noises are innovative, clear sounding, and, strangely enough, the feature that seems to pull you into the mood of the game most.
What Evolution lacks in play it makes up for in the area of charm and research. The 150-page bestiary that comes with the game is both informative and interesting. Each of the 170 creatures is listed in detail with adjoining images and a list of "further reading" resources at the end. And the creatures are very cool.
So in the end, the game is a great idea, attractive package, and intelligent application. Yet you will likely feel a bit confused, out of control, and probably more stupid than you felt when you first started playing the game (a healthy Phenacodus took me about ten minutes to drive into extinction). Evolution does, ironically, make "playing God" much less appealing.