Until recently, British company Computer Artworks was known for developing evolutionary art programs rather than games.
Their Organic Art packages created a seed and then produced several random mutations based on it. The user would then select one or more of the mutated forms that popped out, breed them to produce another generation, and so on. The end result of this un-natural selection was a kind of living digital sculpture that looked like some bizarre prehistoric life-form.
The basic idea behind their first game, Evolva, is much the same. You start with a squad of four "genohunters", warriors capable of absorbing DNA from their enemies to gain their abilities. To do this you simply absorb the meaty "gibs" that are left behind when you have dismembered the carcass of another creature, and then go to the mutator screen.
Here you will see the current abilities of the selected genohunter. Hit the "mutate" button and two random variations are created, increasing some of their abilities while reducing others. Once you have found a combination that you are happy with, select it and the hunter will mutate to match it.
You can mutate each of your characters hundreds of times during the course of the game, and the sheer wealth of possibilities is incredible - you can create literally millions of different variations, and no two players will end the game with the same team of genohunters.
You can mutate genohunters to make them run faster, jump higher, become invisible for short periods of time, develop thicker hides, hurl explosive spores, grow savage claws, breathe fire, discharge electricity, and drop little creatures that scurry along the ground and throw themselves at the nearest enemy, somewhat reminiscent of the headcrabs from Half-Life...
At its heart though, Evolva is a squad combat game. The single player campaign consists of a series of twelve missions, most of them with two or three different objectives.
That might not sound like a lot to the uniniated, but the missions are set in vast sprawling levels full of tunnels and caves, cliffs, canyons, vast open spaces, bizarre alien vegetation, and hordes of hostile life forms just waiting to rip you to pieces. Most of the missions will take you an hour or more to complete, and the game should keep you busy for a week or two at least.
At any particular time you control one of your genohunters from a third person perspective, and the rest can then be ordered to either stay where they are or follow you around and assist you in combat. To help you keep track of where everybody is, you can see the view from each of your squad mates in a line of little windows along the bottom of the screen.
There is also an easy to use command system that lets you order other members of your squad to recover items, attack a particular creature, or move to another location. In the heat of combat it can be hard to keep things under control though, as you are often jumped by dozens of hostiles at once.
Battle scenes look like something out of Starship Troopers, and by the end of the game hordes of aliens will be flocking towards you, while others lob explosive spores at you from a distance, or send plumes of flame billowing towards you.
Under The Bonnet
When you do find time to catch your breath and admire the scenery though, you will find that Evolva is one of the most beautiful games released so far this year.
The alien parasite which you are fighting looks like it has escaped from an HR Giger painting, made up of vast tentacles that penetrate the surface of the planet and spread over entire continents. Combined with the colourful and curvaceous landscape, bizarre indigenous life-forms, and towering alien plant life, it makes an unique setting for the game.
The creatures that inhabit it are also highly detailed, well animated, and imaginatively designed. The game's graphics engine does well to keep entire herds of them in view at once while fire, lightning, and vast explosions light the scene. Even on a relatively lowly Pentium II the game runs fairly smoothly, and my new Pentium III 600 handles even the highest detail setting almost effortlessly.
For those of you with the latest graphics hardware though, Evolva supports transform and lighting acceleration, and a patch will soon be available to add support for the new GeForce 2 GTS and its per-pixel effects, which will make the game look even more detailed.
Of course, without solid gameplay you just have a fancy graphics demo, and luckily Evolva scores highly here as well, although there are a few slight niggles...
The artificial intelligence is mostly excellent, and you get a real feeling of being in a living world as you watch your enemies flock and hunt the indigenous life forms. Sometimes your squad mates will get stuck on the terrain, wander into the line of fire of an enemy, or fall off a ledge into some lava and die, but generally they do a good job of following you wherever you go and helping you out in combat.
The mutation system is basically just a replacement for the traditional experience points, ability scores and skills, but the way it is integrated into the game and its plot helps make the game that bit more involving, and there is something strangely enjoyable about mutating your characters and watching as their attributes and appearances change throughout the game.
The missions mostly devolve into "kill all the bad guys, blow stuff up, and get to the exit", but there is enough variation here to keep things interesting most of the time. For example, in one of the early missions you have to defend the indigenous life forms and make sure that a certain percentage of them survive an alien attack.
Some of the missions can get a little tedious though, mostly because the levels are a little too vast and sprawling at times. Without a map it is easy to lose track of where you are, and the sheer scale of the levels can be intimidating, although there is a compass to show you the way to your main objective and your squad mates.
Often you can take advantage of this expansive terrain to help you in battle though, and it pays to use your brain. You can lure enemies into the line of fire of some of the more dangerous native plants, hold them off in a narrow tunnel or canyon, or get them to chase you across a slippery surface and then watch as they slide helplessly over the edge of a cliff.
Even so, the game is still damned hard! If you are a hardcore action gamer looking for a new challenge, this is obviously a good thing. But for the casual gamer it makes for a pretty daunting experience, as even on "Easy" skill level you will find yourself dying regularly. A "Really Easy" skill level would have been welcome...
Thanks to its difficulty, Evolva gets a little frustrating at times, and can devolve into rapid fire use of the quick save and quick load buttons if you are feeling impatient.
But there's no denying that this is a classic game, marrying beautiful graphics and an imaginative alien setting with solid gameplay and some unique new ideas. Not for the faint of heart, but highly recommended if you have the patience and skill to take it on...
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