Not too long ago I started getting fascinated with the old classical movies. Matinees are often very different from today’s special effects showcases. As we can see in movies like Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy (the one from 1932), they had “special effects” back then as well, but they definitely invented some outrageously weird monsters.
Impossible Creatures uses that old black and white-ish theme, which is clearly evident in the title music, the logo, the cut-scenes, and most importantly: the concept. Impossible Creatures isn’t an incredibly innovative game, but it introduces a nice new strategy element by allowing you to combine body parts from various animals, but more about that later.
The story takes place in 1937, after a depression that has taken a heavy toll on many countries. Meanwhile, on an island in the Pacific Ocean sits Dr. Erik Chanikov, a professor who invented something he secretly likes to call the Sigma Technology. Which is basically something he could use to combine genetic material on a molecular level, in a way where you could get the benefits from two animals, leaving all weaknesses behind. Upton Julius, a wealthy American industrialist has supported Dr. Chanikov’s work both with financial and moral support over the years that the Sigma Technology has been in development. However, in the recent time Upton’s goals have changed. He’s no longer as kind as earlier, because he has begun to realize the kind of power the Sigma Technology could bring. Upton starts gathering men, because he’s certain Dr. Chanikov won’t hand over control just like that.
Upton’s bad dealings haven’t gone unnoticed. Dr Chanikov’s assistant, Dr Lucy Willing has heard whispers and rumors, and doesn’t like it at all. In case of emergency she builds a mobile base, which can be used to travel from island to island. It isn’t incredibly safe, but it should work if things go really bad.
One day Rex Chance, freelance war correspondent and adventurer receives a mysterious letter, where his father, Dr Chanikov explains where he is. Rex quickly jumps on a plane and heads over to the island. Once there he does discover the building containing the Sigma Technology, but not his father! After annoying some already combined, and definitely ruthless animals, he discovers their new maker; Upton Julius. If Upton had his will, then Rex would’ve certainly been used for experiments, but out of nowhere a certain lady enters the scene. By desperate measures they escape in the somewhat damaged mobile base, and head out.
Rex and Lucy need to figure out what has happened, hopefully Rex's father, and stop the villainous Upton and his nasty helpers.
The engine used in Impossible Creatures works really well. It serves a whole lot of purposes, but the rendering part of it is called SPOOGE. It supports neat things like pixel and vertex shaders, Bezier curves, frustum culling, etc etc. It doesn’t require the very latest and most powerful hardware, but what’s great is how the visually very attractive graphics flow. To really enjoy the game you should preferably have a graphics card that supports vertex and pixel shaders (like Geforce 3+ / Radeon 8500+), and since they’re starting to get very affordable there’s no reason (except the wallet perhaps) not to get one. The creatures look mostly very nice, but even though most have distinct features that make it easy to separate them from each other, a few can be more difficult to identify. One of the things that amused me the most about the game, is that while making creatures the game suggests a name. Combining an electrical eel and a monkey would give you an electrical monkey, while a killer whale and a frog would essentially give you a killer frog. The monsters really do look peculiar, and I can assure you that when you're playing the game people around you will ask what it is you’re playing.
Sounds / Music:
Impossible Creatures doesn’t have a whole lot of music. To set the appropriate theme Relic hired Jeremy Soule (Neverwinter Nights, Morrowind, Dungeon Siege ++), who happens to be my favorite music composer in the gaming industry. The theme music is top-notch, but my complaint is, like with many recent games, that the selection should’ve been larger. The cast of voice talents isn’t huge either, but Lee Tokar and Kathleen Barr (from King Arthur and the Knights of Justice (1992) to Stargate: Infinity (2002)) do a great job of making the two main characters come to life. The rest of the cast also does a superb job, by making the henchmen seem even less intelligent, and the villains seem even nastier. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Impossible Creatures has a long list of sound effects. This way it never feels like you’re listening to the same thing over and over. BUT, there are two snags that do get annoying. For starters, it seems like your henchmen always need to remind you that “your critters are being attacked!” even when you’re busy managing the fight. Secondly, the creatures have only one response to orders, which is fine in some cases, but I’m sure you can think of several reasonably annoying animal sounds, so you can probably understand that hearing them repeatedly can make you somewhat annoyed.
Impossible Creatures works in most cases like any other real-time strategy game. You start with a base, some resources, Rex, and Dr Lucy Willing. Rex has a vital ability that you’ll use a lot, because he’s the only one who can collect DNS samples from animals that wander about. Lucy on the other hand builds structures and can harvest coal. There are only two resources in Impossible Creatures, being coal and electricity, so you’re in luck if you dislike micro-managing the resources. Throughout the game you can also hire henchmen, who are for instance the WarCraft equivalent of peons. These guys can do most of what Lucy can, so having some is essential when you need a lot of resources in a hurry.
Actually making a customized army of customized creatures is a simple, yet fun process. As I described earlier, Rex needs to get DNS samples with his rifle. Then, when you have two or more samples, you can enter the creature chamber. This structure is essentially what makes Impossible Creatures different from other real-time strategy games. To create a new creature here you select two animals you’d like to try out. Early in the game you can for instance combine a mountain lion with a skunk. Both of these have statistics about their head, feet, tails, stomach etc. Getting the best combination is done by taking the strongest abilities from both and trying to leave out all weaknesses. Also, some of the animals have abilities of sorts, but these require the combined animal to use a certain body part of the original animal. In our example with a mountain lion and a skunk you could choose the skunk’s tail, which gives you the poison cloud ability, but since a skunk’s physics aren’t very impressive the mountain lion's got to keep the rest of his body. The resulting animal? A “mountain lunk”.
Also, once in a while you’ll want to upgrade a thing or two. At the main base you can upgrade up to five levels, which basically gives you access to more of everything, and most importantly; cooler creatures.
To actually “manufacture” these special units you simply build a structure that’s very similar to barracks, and queue up as many as you need.
The battles in Impossible Creatures are like in most other games, easy to understand, and reasonably fun. They do however lack complexity. The levels you play on are usually rather small and with few open spaces, so you can basically forget about warfare like in Medieval: Total War. Those who like to manage formation, terrain, timing etc will be disappointed, but that one feature Impossible Creatures includes adds nicely to the overall strategy element. There is a total of 42000 different creature combinations, so if you sent out a scout to find out what kind of units your opponent has, you would need to figure out what kind of creatures and abilities will be most efficient against them. That specific element adds more complexity than what I’ve seen in other recent strategy games.
When fighting you basically send in one big gang of creatures, using whatever abilities they posses, and hope your gang gets the upper hand. Ranged units aren’t always as ranged as you’d hope, so in many cases a battle is just a big chunk of blood, guts, and weird animal noises.
It’s not often that I comment on the menu in a game. However, Impossible Creatures’ menu implementation is exceptionally good, which is evident for instance when hosting and joining a multiplayer game. You can choose between four ways of hosting / joining. LAN TCP/IP, LAN IPX, Internet TCP (connecting directly to an IP) and IC Online. The latter is especially nice, because after creating an account you’re put into a userfriendly lobby, where hosting and joining games is obscenely easy. There are several chatrooms to choose from, but at this point there aren’t exactly a myriad of people in them. If you give it some time I’m sure there’ll be plenty of challenging opponents for players of all skill level to play with.
When hosting, there are several interesting options. By default there are three modes to choose from, being Destroy Enemy Lab, Destroy Enemy Base and Hunt Rex. It should be reasonably easy to guess what these are about, so if I mention that 21 maps are included it should be obvious that there is much fun to be had.
Impossible Creatures is in every sense of the word a solid game. Graphically it’s above par. Its audio is just as good, even if the selection could’ve been bigger. But, if you’re considering buying the game you’ll have to make the decision based on the gameplay. If you do think that being able to create creatures sounds great, then you’ll probably like this game a lot. I like the concept, and the reasonably cool campaign levels, but it just might get a bit boring after some time. The level of replayability may not be as high as that of Sim City 4, but those who are in search of a fast paced, good looking, and even amusing real-time strategy game should keep Impossible Creatures high on their want-list.
And finally, those who like modding and making add-ons should keep their eyes pealed. Impossible Creatures was made to some extent with modders in mind, and as a result Relic included a very nice mission editor, which I’m sure enthusiasts will find robust and good enough to make high-quality extensions to an already well-made game.