Reviewed: May 21, 2003
Released: January 7, 2003
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes a game that not only breathes new life into an increasingly stagnant genre; it just might reinvent that very same genre. The genre is real-time strategy (RTS) and the game is Impossible Creatures, the latest innovative strategy title from Relic Entertainment and Microsoft Games.
At its core, Impossible Creatures plays by all the same rules and conventions that have been governing the genre for years now. You mine resources, build units, explore maps, engage in combat, and complete various objectives to satisfy the requirements for each campaign. But aside from these primary elements the game diverges into a wild and totally original concept that will captivate even the most jaded RTS gamer.
The compelling backstory is set in a post-depression 1937, but features a futuristic Jules Vern element that combines mechanical technology and genetic sciences that aren’t even possible in 2003. It is a world where you fly in a steam-powered train and can genetically blend more than 50 real-world creatures into thousands of freakishly clever and deadly combinations. If you’ve ever seen the Island of Dr. Moreau then you have an idea of what to expect, only vivisection has been replaced with DNA splicing.
You play as freelance journalist, Rex Chance who has teamed up with Dr. Lucy Willing to stop the evil Upton Julius who is bent on world domination using the revolutionary (and still experimental) Sigma Technology. This technology allows you to combine the various body parts of two individual creatures to create an entirely new species.
And this is where the fun really begins. Most RTS games give you a predetermined selection of units, but Impossible Creatures gives you the genetic blueprints for 50 creatures. Each creature is broken down into several main parts (head, torso, tail, etc.) and you are free to mix and match these at will. As you might imagine, the possibilities are nearly endless. Imagine putting a skunk tail on the body of a mountain lion that can now emit a stink cloud, or how about a deadly baboon head on the fast body of a cheetah.
Of course, before you can create your mutant army you need to stock your genetic zoo with DNA. This requires sending Rex out into the field with his rifle to collect various DNA samples from the indigenous life forms. While Rex is exploring for new genetic material you also get to manage Lucy, assorted henchmen, and the creation and deployment of your armies. Each person and building has a critical function to the overall operation and success of each mission.
Impossible Creatures comes with a killer tutorial that will give you complete mastery over the interface and seemingly complex task of genetically engineering thousands of new species. Even if the game didn’t walk you through your first few creations the excellent interface makes it totally intuitive to figure out even the most complicated tasks. Combining creatures is as easy as picking a DNA sample for each side of the “equation” then toggling the various body parts to create the perfect warrior.
As you toggle the various body parts you can watch the new hybrid creature’s image and stats update in real-time along with the cost to build this unit. Some body parts have special abilities. These are listed in a separate column and can give your new creature additional fighting abilities beyond the normal physical attacks. Skunk tails create stink clouds, porcupine bodies can launch deadly quill attacks, electric eels can shock enemies, and the list goes on.
Once you create your creature you get to take a snapshot of it for the database then give it a name. You can either name it yourself or pick the default name, which is usually a clever combination of the two contributing creatures’ names. As the game progresses and your army increases in size and diversity you can use the handy army analyzer to find any weak spots in your troops and create new units to meet those specific needs.
Impossible Creatures plays like any other RTS game as far as the controls are concerned. You can double-click a creature to select all of that type, you can group units then access them by hotkeys, and there is an intuitive icon menu interface that gives you total control over you units. Usually, right-clicking on the terrain, building, or creature will trigger the desired action, and there are keyboard shortcuts for just about everything.
Creature AI is pretty good when it comes to pathfinding and combat. Creatures with range abilities (like the porcupine hybrids) will hang back and fire their quills while other creatures will move in for bite and claw attacks. Other creatures with area attacks (like the skunk) will rush into the fray and release their gaseous cloud. You can issue attack and guard orders or initiate special attacks using the various menu buttons. Idle creatures are surprisingly good about reacting to enemy presence when they get within their area of “awareness”, especially if you have them in "guard" mode.
Some of the more complex creatures and buildings require advanced levels of technology. Lucy can research these tech levels when the opportunity arises giving you access to additional and often more powerful units. Other than tech levels, the only other requirements to build creatures and buildings are resources such as coal and electricity. You can erect lightning rods to collect electricity, harness steam from geysers, and hire henchmen to mine coal deposits.
The single-player campaign is cleverly woven together with cutscenes that further the story and create the background for the 15 missions that span 14 distinct islands, each with their own landscape, wildlife, and resources. You’ll often have several primary objectives and a few optional secondary goals for each mission. These might range from collecting DNA samples to stealing enemy technology or destroying an enemy outpost.
Impossible Creatures is one of those games that is just as fun playing online as it is by yourself. You can take your custom collection of creatures from the main game and create some of the most twisted battles ever seen in an online RTS. With tens of thousands of possible creatures per player, the potential for interesting and competitive combat is endless, limited only by your imagination.
Impossible Creatures is one sweet looking game. I had it running flawlessly at 1280x1024x32 on my 1.4GHz system with a Ti500 video card and the terrain modeling, textures, foliage, water (complete with crashing surf) was all amazing. The creatures look fabulous and since you can zoom clear down to ground level every speck of detail you see in the combination screen is present in the in-game creature models.
Buildings and other structures like the lighting rods, and creature chambers are all wonderfully modeled and animated. The creature chamber features an armature that spins around in 360-degrees depositing creatures in a circular pattern around the device. Your flying locomotive belches smoke from the stack and casts realistic shadows as it flies above the terrain.
The movies and various cutscenes are created using the game graphics and are quite pleasing. These movies seamlessly blend into flyovers across the island that show your objectives and possible routes. You have full pan, zoom, and rotation ability and the min-map at the bottom of the HUD shows all explored territory and the location of any friendly and hostile units.
The rest of the interface is clean and large enough to be functional while not obscuring too much of the playing area. The other menus and interface screens are all very intuitive and extremely well designed with colorful icons and easy-to-read numbers that are often color coded to indicate positive or negative changes in creature attributes.
The music in Impossible Creatures is wonderful, although it is limited mainly to the menu screens. It’s a great mix of classic jazz and swing tunes that will have you tapping your toes and missing it when it finally fades away leaving you only with speech, environmental and creatures sounds. It does reappear from time to time during movies or exciting scripted events.
The sound effects fit the game perfectly whether it be the tink…tink of the henchmen picking away at the piles of coal or the various screeches, roars, and cries of the unique assortment of creatures in your army. Once you learn the sounds your creatures make you can actually identify them by that sound when selecting them using group hotkeys.
There is an abundance of speech and not only is it very good quality but often quite hilarious. Listening to the PA announcement for the guards to be on the lookout for a “flying train” then listening to their comments is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. There are also plenty of other conversations between Rex and Lucy or Rex and the henchmen that are just as funny. All of the voice actors are very good and have authentic accents that suit their characters perfectly.
My one and only complaint with the entire sound system is the frequent warnings about my creatures being under attack. While I certainly need to know when my buildings are under assault, I don’t need to constantly be reminded that my army is engaged in combat, especially when I ordered them into it. I did appreciate the custom messages that tell you when henchmen, Lucy, or Rex is specifically under attack.
Impossible Creatures is quite challenging and it took me nearly 30 hours to finish the single-player campaign. I died often but kept experimenting with new hybrids to see which ones worked best against the enemy forces. This game is all about innovation and trying new things, which makes it one of the most enduring games in the RTS genre.
Once you have mastered the Sigma Technology you can go online and seek out new mutant armies to test your forces on. Impossible Creatures even comes with a mission editor that allows you to create you own island with the same level of detail and complexity as any found in the main game. The editor can be a bit challenging to figure out and may be more than the casual RTS gamer is ready to tackle. Hopefully, we will see a good mod community build up around this title that will keep it going for many more months to come.
It’s very rare when I find an RTS game that is original and compelling enough that I actually finish it. Most entries in the RTS genre get boring, repetitive, or both, but with the massive selection of primary creatures and the ability to create thousands of unique units, the potential for creative gameplay opportunities exceeds the actual content of the singe-player experience.
Whether you are looking for a good 25-30 hour RTS campaign, or just the next big online RTS in the tradition of Magic the Gathering, Impossible Creatures has something inventive and fun for everyone.