Published by: Dreamcatcher (publishers of “Painkiller”)

Created by: Metamorf Studios

Genre: RT(CCG)S

Tagline: (Genetically) Re-engineering the RTS

Summary:With Genesis Rising, Metamorf has gene-spliced the mechanics of Collectible Card Games (CCG) into the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) genre. Hopefully market-darwinism will favor this new mutant genre, because its playstyle is deeply compelling. It would be a mistake to write this game off because of what it isn't (the next Homeworld or Starcraft), without ever appreciating what it is: new blood for the inbred RTS genre.

Review


Bio-organic
mutant vampire motherships
swap genetic code


No, it's not refrigerator-magnet haiku (although I'd love a set with words like that), and it's not a craigslist personal ad either (although I bet it would get a good response). It's simply how I'd describe the core game mechanic of Genesis Rising. This game revolves around living spaceships that suck blood from each other and swap DNA to mutate new weaponry. Really.

The official game description doesn't really do the game justice: “Genesis Rising is a space RTS that incorporates the best elements of role-playing games; immersing the player in a rich back story and drawing them into an epic crusade that they won’t soon forget.”

You don't have to see more than a few screenshots to know that Genesis Rising is not your standard space RTS. The humans' mothership, for example, looks like one of the baddies from the “Aliens” series found its way into a Brooklyn butcher's shop, covered itself in organs and entrails and then grew to the size of a small asteroid. Accordingly, when these spaceships die they often explode in a massive nova of blood and guts.

On the surface, this game appears to be similar to the Homeworld series of games. It has a similar “3D space opera” feel with stunning backdrops and appears to be very RTSish. As a result, my initial expectation was “Homeworld 3”. For this reason, the first hour or so of gameplay left me confused and disappointed. There appeared to be very little in terms of a build tree, motion was constrained to two dimensions, there were no tactics or formations, and the unit cap seemed absurdly low. It was only after playing for a few hours (and getting repeatedly whomped in early level campaign missions) that I began to understand what the game really was, and how to play it.

Genesis Rising plays very differently from the typical RTS. There are only a few practical offensive ships to build, and they only really differ in unit cap contribution, hitpoints, weapon slots, build time and cost. There are a few other support ships: the mothership which builds all the other ships, the Lab, which allows the building of “genes” (weapons, armor, shields and special abilities), and the reservoir (resource collector/healer ship). There are also “stations” which are just big resource piles that can defend themselves with gene abilities.

There is only one resource, and that's blood (also referred to as Blood Air). Blood is mainly harvested from stations, which effectively act like a home base. It can also be harvested from the corpses of destroyed organic vessels, and from living friendly vessels. Blood is used to purchase ships and genes (weapons). It can be used as currency when trading among players (you can also trade ships, genes and alliances), and it is used to repair your ships (when they take damage they lose blood).

So far, the game sounds garish, but boring. But all that is really just the framework upon which the real game is built. Where the game gets interesting is in the way in which the ships get customized. Each ship has a number of “gene slots” available (e.g. the light fighter has three slots, the mothership has eight). Into each slot you can put a gene from your gene lab. Genes let you grow/mutate abilities onto your ship. There are over 50 different types of genes. Some of the genes create weapons. Others create armor or shields. Yet others give special abilities like forcing an enemy ship to hibernate, or increasing the damage it receives. Genes can “level-up”; higher level versions of genes have a more powerful effect, but cost more. There are regular genes and “special” genes, which need to be manually activated and have cooldown timers.

Your lab ship (one of the support vessels you will build) initially only knows how to build a few types of genes. You must either trade for additional genes or harvest them from destroyed enemy vessels. When a ship harvests a gene from a destroyed ship, that gene is immediately transferred to the gene lab. Once you've obtained a gene you can produce as many as you can afford in your lab. In a multiplayer match, each team will have different genes available, instantly creating trade and alliance opportunities for obtaining (and preventing access to) new genes. This is one of the ways in which a 12 person game (the multiplayer max) can become strategically interesting.

When you add a gene to a ship, it takes a few seconds to “install”, taking longer based on the level of the gene. At any time, you can uninstall the gene and put something else in its place. The ship can be anywhere on the map to do this – it doesn't need to be in proximity to the gene lab or any other ship. You can also install multiple copies of a gene on a ship; two level 1 genes will have the same effect as a level 2 gene (but will take two slots instead of one).

There also appear to be few or no restrictions on the types of gene each ship class can use, e.g. a fighter can use the same powerful weapons as the mothership. There is a caveat, however. Some of the more powerful genes generate “heat” when used. If they're used too often the ship will overheat. This will effectively take the ship out of combat until it has cooled back down. Higher level genes generate more heat.

Swappable genes mean that you can reconfigure a fleet on the fly. This is useful in many ways. You can send an invasion force that looks “underpowered” to an enemy and switch to more powerful weapons right before battle. You can remove valuable genes from ships right before they are destroyed, preventing them from falling into enemy hands. It may help when coming up with invasion strategies. For example, conquering an enemy base requires equipping the “invasion” gene on a fighter and telling the fighter to invade the base. The problem is that all enemies will often immediately target the invasion-equipped fighter. To avoid this, the fighters might start out with weapons equipped. Then, during the confusion of battle the fighter can change its genes and begin invading while the enemy is distracted.

Battles tend to play out based on who has the dominant set of genes. True, there's some twitch ability here (missiles can be dodged, there's a question of timing for many of the special abilities since they must be activated manually). There's also a limited amount of strategic planning on where to have the battles – particularly in the single player campaign where the environment can be a factor (ice clouds, asteroids, barriers).

The gameplay is like a chess match between various gene combinations, and this is why the low resource cap makes sense. There is a limit to the number of genes/special weapons a person can manage. That said, multiplayer matches can involve 12 players, which means that the playing field will have well over a hundred ships. Teaming inevitably will happen, which means that battles could easily involve 30+ ships on a side. In large multiplayer events, there will be plenty of action.

An interesting design decision was to only use two dimensions – all of the ships move on a fixed planar grid. This makes the game play a lot more like a naval warfare RTS. This isn't actually all that bad, it makes the game more accessible (although Homeworld had a brilliant interface for managing 3D space). It also opens up the possibility for game elements that are much more difficult to do effectively in 3D -- patrols, barriers, obstacles, etc. The single player campaign uses these game elements to make some of the missions more interesting than simply “destroy all the enemies in the sector”. For example, there are missions where you have to sneak past enemy ships and force fields in order to rescue stranded vessels. A two-ship patrol becomes a much more effective obstacle if you can't go over, under or around the path. It will be interesting to see if some of these campaign game elements end up in multiplayer scenarios.

There are, of course, problems with the game at the time of this preview. The biggest problem is that there's too much mouse work required, and not enough hotkey mapping ability. You can group ships, but you need to use special weapons individually (this can be difficult to do effectively in a hectic battle). I'd like to see the ability to hotkey special weapons (the selected units with that special weapon available fire on target when the key is pressed). Hotkeys for camera positions would also be nice. According to the developers, the ability to set keybindings will come out in a patch.

There are a few other useful RTS features that are missing, but would likely enhance the gameplay:

  • Tactics: while you can tell ships to guard another ship, more control would help, such as the ability to set individual ships or groupings to aggressively attack any enemies in range, only attack when attacked, or avoid battle all together.

  • Formations: basic formations would be particularly useful since ships can block slow missiles with their bodies or with energy shields. Placing heavily armored ships in front of weaker ships, and ensuring that the ships in front don't get in the way of missiles fired from behind (friendly fire hurts).

  • Waypoints: would make coordinated attacks and patrols easier

  • Auto-activation of special weapons based on situation: e.g., activate energy shield if available when a missile is approaching.


Much of this can be addressed in the form of patches. It will be interesting to see how Metamorf Studios distinguishes itself in this regard. Will they continue to enhance the game after release with new features and content, or will there just be bugfixes and balancing patches?

All that said, the core concept and mechanics that exist today are interesting and make for an unusual, and fun, game experience. There are things promised in the final release that could make the game even more exciting: true co-op play in multiplayer (two people controlling a single fleet) and a non-linear story line based on actions taken during battle as well as choice made during interactive cut-scene dialog. This is a game with a lot of potential; not just for this release but in paving the way for future RTS games with similar mechanics. I'm looking forward to seeing the final release, and the evolution of this unique game.


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