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Do you ever sit around wondering if there's intelligent life on other planets (or this one, for that matter)? How humans would react to running into another sentient race? I do, and so, apparently, does Bullfrog, as evidenced by their newest offering: GeneWars. In the tradition of Warcraft and Command & Conquer, GeneWars asks (and answers) the question of how we would deal with not being top carving on the galactic totem pole.
The premise of GeneWars is that at some point in our future, we stumble across three other starfaring races in the universe, and true to our scientific and peace-loving nature, we immediately pick a fight with them. The battle rages from planet to planet, leaving big, smoking craters to mark our passage, as we generally destroy everything we touch. What a ludicrous notion!
Anyway, at some point, one of the warring races stumbles across a giant obelisk floating in deep space. Being paranoid, as big-brained creatures are wont to do, he lets fly with a nuclear missile or two, which pretty much seals his fate as galactic lunchmeat. A huge glowing spaceship appears and wipes him out, then, perhaps sensing that all is not right with the universe, begins to survey the mess humans and the other races have created in the various solar systems.
These new players call themselves 'Ethereals' and quickly establish themselves as the true leaders of the pack. They inform us, in no uncertain terms, that we and the other races are to go back and restore those planets we have destroyed, repopulating them and generally righting our wrongs. If we don't do this, they're going to lobotomize every last one of us, and then we'll be sent to restore the planets anyway. Not much of a choice.
But y'know, there's nothing worse than having a war with no discernible winner, I always say. The four races figure out that the Ethereals won't fry their minds if they at least look like they're doing what they're told. The war goes covert. Competing teams of 'Restoration Technicians' move from planet to planet, taking the indigenous species, cloning them, and sending them off to kill the other teams. War at its ecologically soundest.
Now I ask you, with a premise like that, how can you go wrong?
The basic setup of GeneWars is nothing new: 1) collect resources, 2) establish your base, 3) build an army, 4) kill the other guys. An oldie, but a goodie. The charm of this game lies in all the details and new twists Bullfrog has spun into this old theme.
You start the game with a team of up to five specialists, of which there are four varieties: Engineers, who build and upgrade your equipment; Geneticists, who study new creatures so you can clone them; Rangers, who manage your creature herds; and Botanists, who study new plants for cultivation and grow crops for the recycler, and as creature fodder.
Your tasks on each world vary from re-populating, to search and destroy, to just plain surviving. As you move from planet to planet, you run into new species of creatures. There are five in all: Mule, Crab, Frog, Bird and Dinosaur. Like your specialists, each have special abilities and purposes (i.e. the Mule harvests, the Crab upgrades buildings, the Dinosaur eats things, etc.).
Your Geneticist then studies the creatures, enabling you to 'clone-your-own' in a machine called a 'genepod'. Your Ranger can then encourage your genetic constructs to interbreed, which results in mixes. From one inter-species breeding pair, there are four possible outcomes; a pure example of the mother or the father, or a crossbreed with dominance in one species or the other. Therefore, if a crab and a mule choose to have a liaison, they could make a baby crab, a baby mule, a 'Crab-o-Mule,' or a 'Mule-o-Crab'. What a great concept! You can create up to 20 different crossbreeds, each with its own special skill.
There's so much to do in this game, it often gets a little frantic. Besides all the fun with DNA, you also must continuously expand and upgrade your base, and grow crops to feed your hordes and your recyclers, while exploring to find new seeds and plants. Not only that, but you must simultaneously create an offensive army, a defensive army, a harvesting crew (of mules and mule related creatures), and keep an eye on what your opponents are doing. There's never a dull moment in GeneWars.
The other interesting aspect of this game is that you can't get away with everything. The Ethereals stop by on an annoyingly regular basis to see how you're doing on their assignments, and to make sure you're not killing each other. Provided you're not directly duking it out with a member of the opposing team, they pretty much leave you alone. If you please them, they'll send obelisks that, if touched by one of your creatures, will upgrade its abilities, and let it do special attacks. Dinosaurs will breathe fire if upgraded, just for example.
Be warned, though. If the Ethereals catch you being bad -- blowing up your opponents' equipment, or using your Ranger to exterminate their creatures -- they'll come over and firebomb your base and your specialists. Big Brother really is watching you in this game.
Visually, this is a very attractive game. GeneWars' roots in the classic Populous, also a Bullfrog product, are obvious in the landscaping. The terrain is smooth and varied, with different climates and soil conditions, and almost no obvious polygonalization (Polygonalization: A word I just made up to describe what it looks like when you can see all the little triangles that make up the terrain's graphical surface).
The characters are as big as they could effectively make them, and still allow for the large game fields on each level. Bullfrog handles the challenge of making each crossbreed distinct and believable quite nicely by not only having exquisitely detailed animals on the playing screen, but also by showing them in slightly more detail on a side screen, conveniently labeled, whenever you select a creature.
The spaceships are straight out of those cheesy Flash Gordon movies from the '50s: silver cigars with fins and windows, hovering pie plates for the Ethereals, both beautifully rendered. When the Ethereals leave their ship to survey your handiwork, they sputter around on little "George Jetson-mobiles," bestowing points on you for your good deeds. The humorous details that Bullfrog has sprinkled throughout GeneWars make it a real gem.
There aren't too many cutscenes. Mostly just your big metal stogie rocketing through space to the next planet or solar system on the Ethereals' list. One nice graphical addition is the intermediate mission screens. You enter the briefing, which is superimposed over a 3D representation of the solar system, rotating and swirling past your viewpoint. I can't truly do justice to it here; suffice it to say that I would buy this game just to use this sequence as a screen saver. It's so seemingly useless, yet Bullfrog put a lot of time and energy into creating it, to enhance the overall "space-y" feel of GeneWars. It's a real pleasure to find this kind of commitment to excellence in a PC game these days.
The sound is as good as the look, although fairly strange. The characters talk to you, acknowledging your commands with smart-ass comments, screaming when under attack, gurgling out their dying breaths as they're chopped up by an angry crustacean. The kind of things that really appeal to us peaceful humans.
The music is not "music" in the traditional sense. It's this weird, ethereal stuff that twangs and skews around in the background, keeping the off-balance feel of the game going. When the Ethereals show up, a booming voice-over that sounds suspiciously like Don Pardo comes on saying alarmedly "The Ethereals Have Arrived!", or when they putter off, "The Ethereals Have Left Now." Makes me smile every time. Overall, the audio in this game is a cut above.
Computer AI/ Difficulty
If there are any drawbacks to GeneWars, they are here. This game is immensely difficult. It's fun to play, but after you take on the first few preliminary levels, you'll be hard-pressed to win any more. The enemy animals are aggressive and head right for your specialists and equipment almost immediately, and it always seems to take forever to get rid of them. Your own animals are fairly intelligent, but you have to keep on them to make sure they're doing what you assign them to do. On top of that, with four different specialists and 25 different creatures, there's a lot to manage, and a great number of tasks to divide your time between. Once your specialists get spread out over the map, it's easy to get confused about where you are. But experienced strategy gamers will probably appreciate the challenge.
Of course, the rest of us will need some help to get to the later levels, which is why GameFabrique has provided you with the cheats for this game. After you see how hard this game is, you won't think twice about punching in the magic phrase and pumping out some Bird-o-Frogs to go open up a can of whup-ass on those annoying opponents of yours.
Recommended: Intel DX2 66 MHz (or better) 8 MB RAM, 42 MB free hard drive space (110 for full load), and a 2X CD-ROM drive
Reviewed on: P-133 with 2 MB Diamond Stealth, 8X CD-ROM drive
I also tried GeneWars out on a minimum system, and might I just say it is so nice to see that some companies are still producing for the older machines. GeneWars runs very well on a 486/DX2 with 16 MB RAM
Straight up, the bottom line on GeneWars is that it is a well-thought-out, well-designed game. Maybe it's not the most original premise, but Bullfrog did a lot to warm up an old theme. Just as they did with Populous, Bullfrog has given you the chance to play God, and have a lot of fun in the process. Because it is a very difficult game, I would not recommend it to those who are new to the strategy scene. But for those of you who can defeat Stalin with your eyes closed, and are fed up with Blizzard's orcs and ogres, take GeneWars for a spin and see if you can't wreak some ecologically friendly havoc in your own little corner of the universe.
One other thing: If you do manage to finish the game, there's a little Secret Toy Surprise waiting for you after the 26th level. Good Luck!