Friday, April 06, 2007

Genesis Rising: The Universal Crusade Review

Genesis Rising: The Universal Crusade, developed by Metamorf Studios and published by DreamCatcher Games.
The Good: Very intriguing ship design, health, and upgrade system that allows for varied customization of your forces, branching campaign based on player choices, manageable battle sizes, detailed graphics, decent enemy AI, fun multiplayer
The Not So Good: Executing special abilities could be easier and should be automated, missions are impossibly difficult and you can’t save mid-mission, annoyingly frequent cut scenes, poor voice acting
What say you? An mostly enjoyable strategy game where the unique features generally outweigh the aggravations: 6/8

After World War II, I think space is the most popular setting for games. It certainly gives the developers a large degree of freedom, as they don’t need to be tied to reality. Of course, what they do with this freedom determines whether we have a quality game on our hands. Going to real time strategy route is Genesis Rising: The Universal Crusade, a crusade through the universe about the rising of the band Genesis (it’s about time Phil Collins got his own game). Genesis Rising takes an organic (meaning no pesticides) approach to space ships, letting you mutate their structure on the fly.

Genesis Rising has pretty good graphics that compare favorably with other space games that have been published recently like DarkStar One. The organic ships in the game are highly detailed and they look good zoomed in or out. The space environments are also well-done: nicely detailed planets (including Earth in an introductory mission) with nebulae, stars, and asteroids. The space of Genesis Rising is believable and the game doesn’t go overboard with crazy amounts of background colors. Certainly a lot of effort was put into the graphics and it has paid off: Genesis Rising looks great. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the sound in the game. While the basic effects and background music are average enough for the genre, the voice acting is very stereotypical (for space aliens) and hackneyed. It’s obvious that the trend in PC gaming is slanting more towards the graphics end of the presentation, since nice screenshots are more easily displayed than great voice acting. But quality voice acting is not an area that can be ignored, as it’s required to promote a believable game environment. While the graphics hold up their end of the bargain, the sound lags behind in terms of quality.

Genesis Rising is a fairly typical real time strategy game set in space, where three similar main races (and a number of minor races) shoot at each other. Getting in to the game is simple, as Genesis Rising features good tutorials and a lengthy and informative manual. The main crux of the game is the single player campaign, which has branching missions that are based on player choices. During dialogue with enemy races, you can choose to play nice or be mean with them, which changes the next available missions. This increases the replay value of the campaign, along with ships carrying over from mission to mission. It’s too bad, then, that Genesis Rising tries hard to make the campaign missions tedious, uninspired, and frustrating. The campaign missions in Genesis Rising are really, really, really difficult. I got beat by the first “real” (non-tutorial) mission in the main campaign. Seven times. Now, I’m no slouch at real time strategy games (I play enough of them), so if I’m having that much trouble with the second mission in the game, then I can’t imagine how many problems less experienced players will have. The difficulty really results from something I truly hate: being severely outnumbered. In the second mission, for example, it’s three on ten (and not in your favor). The sad thing is that the game doesn’t need to stack the deck against you, as the AI is pretty good. You’ll also not want to play the campaign because of the annoying cut scenes that interrupt the gameplay and occur about every two minutes or so. You’ll be pressing the mouse button or escape quite often to skip past these. It’s far more irritating than it should be to play through the campaign; the poor mission design and bothersome cut scenes offset the branching campaign structure. Luckily, the multiplayer aspects of Genesis Rising, through Gamespy matching or against the AI (by setting up a LAN server, are much better and this is where the unique aspects of the gameplay shine. There are only a handful of maps and no alternate victory conditions other than outright annihilation, but there are some bright spots. Much like Rise of Legends, improved weapons can be purchased, traded, or captured from independent nations that reside around each of the maps. You are given a set of basic “genes” for your ships at the beginning of each map, and more advanced genes must be acquired through those methods as there is no outright research in the game. This, as you’ll see, gives multiple paths to victory in the skirmish and multiplayer battles.

So what’s so unique about Genesis Rising? All of the player-controlled ships in the game are organic and use blood as health and genes for weapons and upgrades. Blood is the only resource in the game, and it’s used to make new ships and purchase additional genes for your fleet. Blood can be collected from a main base or disabled ships (friendly, neutral, or enemy); the second source rewards more aggressive players. Each ship is a blank slate when it’s built, and can be filled with a number of weapons and special abilities that can tailor your ships to specific roles. This is a really neat aspect to the gameplay and it’s easily the highlight of Genesis Rising. These genes can be added as the ships are constructed or added in real-time. The gene laboratory interface is intuitive, but it can distract you from the main game. There are a number of genes that can be applied to the ships: short and long-range weapons, cripplers, boosters, armor, and special abilities. There are some really cool genes in the game, and mixing and matching them to produce a powerful combination is a lot of fun. New genes are not researched, rather purchased or “acquired” (through military means) from other races. Periodic shipments to third parties bring new ships and genes for purchase, as long as you have the blood. One gene allows you to invade enemy ships and stations; attacking a station takes an extremely long time.

The gameplay is Genesis Rising is solid, as long as you’re talking about the range of strategic options available to you. There are numerous ways of approaching a game: deciding how to divide your blood resources between ship production, research, gene production, and trade is just one of the decisions you must make during a game. You can “tech up” in a variety of ways: resource-heavy blood collection, military-focused invasion and collection of enemy ships, and diplomatic trade with third parties. This amount of freedom in viable strategies is rare in strategy games, and it’s one of the best aspects of Genesis Rising. I think the simplified ship types will make the game appeal to a larger audience and let the player feel like they are directing their overall strategy, rather than being restricted by the ship designs imposed by the developers. However, I don’t like the emphasis on the special weapons that must be fired manually: if the AI can fire theirs, why can’t this tedious process be automated? This amount of micromanagement almost ruins the game, as you have to worry about upgrading ships with new genes and ordering troops around on top of firing weapons. I would hope that the individual ship captains would be smart enough to know to fire their own weapons in an appropriate fashion. If Genesis Rising let you control more ships at a time, then the game would be hopelessly sunk, but thankfully the glass ceiling imposed by the developers compensates for the insanity of manual weapons, once you learn to press “X” to show weapon icons above all of your ships (there are a number of other “hidden” keys the tutorials don’t mention but the manual does). Overall, the strong points of Genesis Rising overshadow the shortcomings in the campaign and special weapon aspects of the game.

I like a lot of the things that Genesis Rising accomplishes with its unique gameplay features. The genes open up a world of customization that is frankly not present in a lot of real time strategy games. Every gene has a good counter to it: with some really neat weapons and systems as your disposal, the possibilities are endless. While some might complain about the limited ship count in the game, I actually enjoy it. The low cap makes finding each ship easy, and the game just wouldn’t work with large fleets and manual weapons. The game also allows for multiple ways to achieve victory, at least in the multiplayer matches. The AI is good; although they seem to use the same strategy each time, they are sufficient at repairing their vessels using destroyed ships and seem to counter your offensive weaponry nicely. If the designers were to automate the special weapons in the game, or at least give the option, then there would be hardly any problems with Genesis Rising. This is the kind of change that could be made in a patch, I would think, since “regular” weapons are automatically targeted. I’m willing to look past the shortcomings involving the special weapons and the tedious campaign and focus in the good aspects of Genesis Rising. There is some solid, distinctive gameplay here, and a couple of tweaks would result in a notable strategy title.