Reviewed: April 11, 2007
Released: March 20, 2007
I’m sure Al Gore would love the future envisioned in Genesis Rising: Universal Crusade. Three thousand years from now, starships no longer guzzle rocket fuel – instead they run on eco-friendly blood. Humans have mastered genetic engineering and created monster “organid” ships for galactic travel. But of course there’s a catch – aliens called the Defiance wants to destroy humanity by sucking dry the blood of one ship at a time. I guess even in 5000 AD, it’s not easy being green.
All global warming jokes aside, the new RTS title by developer Metamorf Studios and publisher DreamCatcher brings some interesting new ideas to the genre. Instead of worrying about multiple resources, players can concentrate on collecting blood to fuel their fleet. Tech upgrades are represented by new gene strains, which can be swapped out on the fly. So if you find your fighters have too little speed, with a few clicks you can swap out some weapons for a warp gene. The best part is you can drain blood and steal genes from enemy ships.
Of course, the million red blood cell question is whether this surprisingly original game is also fun. Unfortunately, the developers have created a Frankenstein’s monster in Genesis Rising, throwing together role-playing and strategy elements that never really mesh. A clunky interface makes it hard to keep up with the breakneck speed of combat, unless of course you’re a Korean StarCraft champion. The campaign setting may be inspired but the actual missions offer too much challenge and not enough interesting objectives.
Genesis Rising is supposedly based on an obscure European comic book, and the game setting reflects that. Human empire bent on universal domination? Check. Bloodthirsty alien hordes determined to wipe out humanity? Check. Badass hero who’s a mix between Captain Kirk and a space marine from Warhammer 40K? Check. Lots of well-endowed alien chicks who fawn all over said hero? Check.
You play the role of Captain Iconah, the military’s finest commander who sets off into unexplored space searching for the Universal Heart. The leaders of the empire believe that by finding the giant Heart, humanity will become all-powerful and immortal. The main obstacle to finding the Heart is the Defiance, aliens who’ve been pushed around a few too many times by humans and are now looking for payback. There’s a third major faction called the Inquisition, brutal religious zealots who have their own agenda regarding Iconah’s mission.
All three of the main factions have access to living ships and gene technology. The most important part of your fleet is the mothership, which both creates new units and serves as a powerful flagship. You’ll also have light, medium, and heavy fighters at your disposal. Larger ships carry more slots for gene strains, which translates into heavier weaponry, better armor, etc.
I basically love two gameplay aspects: the streamlined economy and gene system. Gathering resources couldn’t be easier – send out harvesters to collect blood and then spend that blood to purchase new ships or upgrade genes. You’ll begin with a large reservoir of blood at your base, but as the game progresses you’ll have to cannibalize destroyed ships to keep your economy running. I love any economic system that forces players to go out and fight for resources, rather than allowing for defensive “turtling.”
The gene tech system is also interesting. Genes control everything from a ship’s armor to weapons to engine speed. In addition to beam and missile weapons, you can also employ “crippler” weapons that disable and confuse enemy ships. Each ship has a limited number of gene slots (three for a small fighter, five for a mothership), so you need to make careful choices about what upgrades to make. The system rewards players who create ships for specialized roles. A light fighter might be used to zoom in and use cripplers on an enemy ship, while heavier fighters sit back and fire missiles from a distance.
With the good points of gameplay addressed, it’s time to talk about the many bad and ugly aspects of Genesis: Rising – and I’m not talking about bloodsucking Defiance cruisers. First of all, there are some annoying bugs that should have kept the game from shipping in the first place, including sound that cuts out, painfully long load times, and the occasional crash to desktop. Secondly, the AI is rather stupid. Harvesters have a bad habit of just sitting there instead of collecting blood. You cannot set the AI behavior of ships to act defensively or aggressively, which means you have to manually baby-sit every unit.
But the real clincher for me is just how incredibly clunky the user interface is to use. The ship radar screen is too fuzzy to offer any useful battlefield info. If you want to add new genes to a ship, you must open up the gene laboratory menu and then click and drag genes into their proper slots. Since Genesis: Rising lacks anyway for you to create templates for mass ship production, you’ll have to take time out of conducting the war to simply make sure each unit has the latest tech.
What I hate most about the interface is the lack of good unit controls and hotkeys. Things aren’t so bad when you’re issuing basic orders such as guard, attack, harvest resources, etc. But if you want to fire a missile barrage or activate shields, you must first press the space bar to bring up a list of special power icons above your ship. You must then click on the icon you want to use, and finally click on a target. Yes, this means you must manually self-target a ship just to raise shields. There are no hotkeys for special powers, which makes it a major pain to coordinate attacks among a squadron of several fighters. My recommendation is to leave the camera zoomed out to even have a chance at targeting.
Perhaps all of these problems wouldn’t be so annoying if you could pause the game or slow things down while issuing orders. But there is no way to adjust time in the middle of a fight. Not only are you expected to issue orders at blinding speed, but you must also keep your units moving to dodge deadly missiles. I consider myself decent at micromanaging units, but time after time I would just barely get off a plasma shot before a barrage of enemy fire destroyed my fighters. I found my only effective strategy was swarming the enemy and madly pressing power icons until something died. Adding insult to injury, you also cannot speed up game time while traveling great distances just to engage the enemy fleet. Combat therefore consists of minutes of pure boredom marked by seconds of sheer terror.
According to the website, the single player campaign offers both RPG elements and a strong diplomacy system. During cutscenes you can either elect to “play nice” to NPC commanders or select the sarcastic/and or hostile response. In theory, you should be able to influence the storyline based on your decisions. Yet for the most part I only found slight benefits in adopting the “we come in peace” stance.
For example, in one mission I could choose to either ally with the cyborg race called the Cy-Breeds or threaten to blow up their space station. If I allied with them, they provided me with explosives to ambush a Defiance patrol. If I threatened them, the only difference was destroying the patrol became slightly tougher. Later in the game, I decided to be the bad guy and kill a trader who double-crossed me. This had no apparent affect when I met the trader’s brother a few missions later. In other words, don’t expect an RPG experience to rival Oblivion. On the plus side, the diplomacy feature makes it easy to trade ships and genes with neutral races. You can even sign alliances with certain sides against the Defiance, but I found that allied units rarely provide enough assistance to make things worthwhile.
Multiplayer offers several different map options, ranging from a two-player duel above a moon to a 12-player battle royale for the sanctuary system. There is also a co-op mode that allows two players to split control of a fleet. While you must choose between the three main factions of Human military, Human Inquisition, and Defiance, you can still trade with or attack several neutral factions. Games tend to start off slow as human players level up by attacking pirates and neutral factions, but things heat up very quickly as soon as players have enough forces built up to take on each other.
It’s extremely important to capture new genes early on, as there is no research ability that will give you an edge on your enemy. It’s also a good idea to either ally with or destroy the minor factions, as your opponent will otherwise use them against you. Overall, I enjoyed multiplayer more than the campaign because of better game balancing and more interesting objectives. That being said, it’s hard for any player to make a comeback once they start losing.
Genesis Rising does shine in the graphics department, with extremely detailed ships and amazingly beautiful planets and nebulae. The three main factions and even neutral races have a very unique feel. You can choose from the “Star Trek meets Warhammer 40K” look of the Military fleet, the alien swarm look of the Defiance, or the creepy gothic appearance of the Inquisition. Special effects tend to be visceral, with living ships exploding in a cloud of blood when destroyed. Cutscenes are decently rendered, if a little too long in most cases.
My only complaint is that because ships move along a flat 2D plane, all the cool 3D planets, asteroids, and ancient artifacts end up as little more than decoration.
On the plus side, I found the musical score to be very haunting and completely appropriate for the game’s space opera setting. Unfortunately, sound effects are blah and the voice acting tends to be of barely average quality. At least you’ll be entertained by such voiceover gems as “God’s wish, man’s command!” or “they will suffer” when you give a human unit an attack order.
The single player campaign will take some time to complete – but that doesn’t mean the 30 missions contain entertaining content. Some missions are ridiculously easy while others are insanely hard, and a lack of save options ensures that you’ll be experiencing the same frustrating moments over and over. It doesn’t help that most campaign missions entail the same boring objectives that you played to death back in the heyday of StarCraft.
Multiplayer gives you a bit more replay value, with maps that are far more balanced and interesting than campaign missions. But be warned the Genesis Rising community is very small and servers are often ghost towns. Also, the three multiplayer factions are practically clones of each other, with the same ship types and similar starting abilities. With so many excellent Sci-Fi strategy titles on the market right now, I just can’t recommend Genesis Rising to anyone except the most hardcore RTS fan.
Genesis Rising makes a small leap forward in terms of an interesting tech system based on genetics, but then takes two huge leaps back in terms of playability and user experience. The game never finds a sweet spot between being challenging but still offering fun. No doubt some hardcore RTS commanders will love the insane micromanagement the combat interface requires. The rest of us will find the experience too frustrating to be worth the effort. Worse yet, the developers took what could have been a fresh game setting and ruined it with bad comic book plotting and cliché mission design.
While the game may make a good bargain title several months from now, don’t let Genesis Rising suck your gaming budget dry at full retail price.