Real Time Strategy games aren't exactly a rare beast on the PC - in fact, the last few weeks alone have seen two massive releases in this field, namely the disappointing C&C Generals and the brilliant but niche American Conquest, and as for the last year, well, suffice it to say that it's been one of the best years ever for fans of strategy gaming. If you're releasing a game into this market, you'd want to be certain that it's either so stunningly good that nobody can afford to ignore it, or that it has a very unique and interesting new approach on offer.
Impossible Creatures goes for the latter approach, giving players the chance to build up their own army of unusual hybrid animals by combining body parts and attributes from different species. It's certainly an intriguing concept (if not an entirely original one), and going to war with a batch of vaguely cuddly genetic mutants makes a nice change from sleek jets, elven archers and phalanxes of cavalry. The setting of the game - the early 20th century - is also out of character for an RTS game, making Impossible Creatures into one of the most immediately interesting games to cross our desks in quite a while.
Out with the Old
These impressions continued when we first started up the game, and were greeted not with stirring martial music or a dramatic orchestral score, but instead with a rather catchy honky-tonk jazz style piece over the top of a slick menu system. In fact, the team at Relic seems to have been perfectly happy to throw out all of the stylistic conventions of the strategy genre, and we're glad they did; the presentation of Impossible Creatures is a joy to behold, and a hugely refreshing change from what we're used to in modern videogames.
For example, the strongly narrative-based single-player game is interspersed with comic book style cutscenes and amusing banter between the lead and incidental characters, and from the aforementioned jazz music on the menu system to the flying locomotive that serves as your base and the main character's ridiculously square-jawed design, the whole game simply feels light-hearted and fun.
The presentation of the game is almost flawless. In fact, and it's obvious that Relic spent a long time working on it to make sure that it was exactly right. The spirit of 1930's movies and music has been captured perfectly here, and despite this careful work and slick interface, the whole game never feels like it's taking itself too seriously - a trap which it's all too easy for Real Time Strategy titles to fall into, it seems.
Any game with such careful attention to its visual design could easily be let down by a sub-standard engine, but that's certainly not the case here. Impossible Creatures' visuals remind us a lot of WarCraft III, albeit with a fair bit more detail on many of the units and significantly more camera control (you can zoom out to a sensible level, or zoom right in to peer at your creatures close up, as well as all the usual panning and rotating controls). Comparisons with the recently released C&C Generals are inevitable but a bit unfair, as the games are trying to do radically different things with their graphics; however, Impossible Creatures doesn't ever feel like the inferior game in graphical terms, even though it doesn't have C&C's stunning explosions and whatnot.
Much of this is, again, down to the amount of effort which has gone into the presentation of the game. Every creature, every character, every building and every animation in the game has been crafted beautifully; even the animations where your workmen build new structures are fun to watch. The excellent graphics engine is only the picture frame to hold the remarkable work that's been done by the designers and artists who worked on Impossible Creatures, and once again we were struck by how utterly different the game is to almost every other RTS we've ever seen.
Mad Scientist at Work
The central plot of the game - which is amusing in a Saturday morning cartoon sort of way - revolves around our hero, Rex Chance, heading out to a remote chain of islands to search for his long lost father, a brilliant scientist. As it transpires, he's worked out how to combine the genetic information of animals to create ferocious fighting creatures, and lo and behold, a nasty man (the truly hamming-it-up Upton Julius) has captured him and is using the technology for his undoubtedly evil purposes. Guess what? You now have to breed creatures of your own, battle the evil forces, and rescue your Dad. More corn than an Odeon giant bucket, but it serves its purpose and the script is generally amusing and well-written, not to mention well acted.
The gameplay, then. This revolves around three elements; collecting genetic samples of wild animals, combining those samples to create deadly cross-breeds, and then battling it out RTS-style with these cross-breeds. Unfortunately, this is where Impossible Creatures starts to fall down a bit. Collecting the samples, in effect, involves sending Rex out with his gun to shoot animals with collecting darts at the start of each mission, although sometimes you may have to wait until you can build a few creatures to clear bad guys out of areas with valuable animal species in them first.
Next comes the meatier task of combining these animals to create an army. Sadly, this really isn't as much fun as it sounds. For a start, you can only combine two animals at a time, so any wilder combinations you have in mind are out the window; however, you do get the option of choosing which elements of each animal your new hybrid can use, so you might choose to combine a scorpion and a porcupine, giving it the spikes of the porcupine, the many legs and lethal tail of the scorpion, and the head of the porcupine for a biting attack. However, after a bit of amusement in messing around to see what these combinations look like, you'll often find that you discover that there's only one sensible way to combine creature attributes without making a creature that's fundamentally not very useful.
Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
This, then, is the fundamental problem with Impossible Creatures; as amusing as the concept itself is, the ability to create your own creatures doesn't actually change the gameplay much from that of a standard RTS game. You effectively end up making up your own versions of standard units from other games, and sticking with those - so there are animal close combat melee units, animal fast scout units, animal ranged attack units, animal naval units, animal air units... After a few hours, suddenly you discover that you're playing Command & Conquer with furry tanks and planes, and not a shockingly good version of Command & Conquer at that, when pure gameplay is taken into consideration.
In fact, the gameplay is almost entirely and unashamedly "tank rush" based; there aren't a lot of very clever strategies to be employed here, because despite the apparently vast range of creatures you could create, there aren't really all that many worth creating. A few have attacks which provide useful status effects, such as the skunk which can cause a stink that hampers enemy movement and attack speed; but in reality, you'll find yourself relying on units with lots of hit points and powerful attacks rather than anything even remotely subtle.
That said, it's not all bad, and multi-player games in particular can be quite good fun - but this is strictly lightweight stuff, with even large games generally ending in under an hour. The single-player is also a very engrossing experience even after you realise that the creatures aspect is something of a gimmick, simply because it's an amazingly well-presented and designed single-player game which has a beautifully tuned difficulty curve and plenty of incentive to keep on playing.
Style over substance
Do we like Impossible Creatures? Somewhat grudgingly, we'd have to say yes. While acknowledging that the gameplay of the title isn't going to be remotely interesting to hardcore strategy fans, the fact is that the game is extremely charming and (dare we say it again) beautifully presented, and will have massive appeal to more casual PC gamers who feel a bit left out in the cold by very hardcore RTS titles, or who want a fun game that won't tax their machine massively.
Ultimately, we were disappointed by the game's lack of depth, but we very much enjoyed playing it - and that, at the end of the day, is far more important than anything else. It may indeed be a case of style over substance, but in this instance, there's just enough gaming substance there to justify the style.