Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
I think the funniest thing about this game is that I haven’t seen a single person yet come across what I have noticed; this ‘evolution’ game really touts creationism more than anything else. Now don’t get me wrong, I am a scientific mind and think anyone that believes in that sort of rubbish has just had their heads in the sand too long around Broken Hill (think strip mining and bad chemicals, Australian in-joke) but if you really get to thinking, you are choosing what parts go on the creature and where, how it looks, how it sounds, how it behaves, well you get the picture. There may be evolution involved but it is commanded by an all powerful being/player. Not really relevant but I thought it was a bit of a larf.
I have been waiting a little while to vent some thoughts on this game, and just in case you don't want to read this all, I will say this: It is a great game and I would recommend anyone buy it.
And here comes the but... It is not really as good as it could have been. They fell into the familiar trap of trying to do too much by working less on all the parts involved when they made this, but seriously what could you expect when you try to make a game about billions of years of evolution fit into a few hours.
Firstly though I would like to talk about the game itself, starting off at the beginning, the cell stage you pretty much swim around and eat and grow and eat and grow and so on until the game tells you it is time to increase in size a few good hundred million fold, the first little ire I had with this game is that there is no real transition. Sure you are swimming around in water somewhere and you do get eaten by a huge......thing if stray too far off land but there is no real ‘fish’ element. It is just a little jarring to go from microscopic organism to fully functioning land creature is all.
But enough of that, the cell stage was never meant to be long (in fact an achievement is to finish it in 8 minutes) which brings us onto the creature stage, which I have to admit is just plain stupid fun. You can’t deny leading a pack of vicious (insert creature here) to attack a few stray (insert another creature here) is a common theme in games most days, but the kicker is that you aren’t just leading ‘some creature’ you are leading something you made yourself, and if you don’t like something about it then go back to your nest and change it (provided you have the ‘points’). Not that any section of this game can be considered hard either, it would have really been nice if the hard difficulty was a bit ramped up for serious gamers, in fact on easy once you get a big enough following you really don’t have to do any fighting at all, just run into the middle of a bunch of carnivores with friends and watch the slaughter. And there is no penalty for dying which I actually consider annoying because if you are a long way from the nest it is sometimes quicker to actually KILL YOURSELF rather than just walking back.
When all is sung or killed we appear thousands if not millions of years in the future with a fledgling tribe. Now this is where the long sung creativity aspect of the game really runs dry as all you can really change aesthetically is putting clothes on your villagers to increase stats a few points more which when compared to changing the genetic structure of your animal is a bit of a downer, but for what it loses in creativity it makes up...well no it doesn’t make up for it in anything really. The RTS elements are very shallow with only a handful of possible weapons/tools you can arm your villagers with and only 2 ways of finishing. Getting through this stage isn’t too difficult, but then again it isn’t all that fun really unless you like seeing your pet bird/cow/things being abducted by aliens. Though I did find it odd both carnivores and herbivores could eat eggs.
Allright, gotten rid of or appeased everyone? Then it is time for the ‘Civilisation’ phase, if you can call it that. Personally I think giving this level that name is an affront to the line of games of the same name, but whichever. You start out with a city, build vehicles to mine spice (equivalent to money), attack other nations with said vehicles to capture them and you win when all of the cities on the planet are yours. Sounds ok on paper I suppose, but when you realise you can only build 3 types of vehicles, 4 types of buildings, the anthem creator is practically useless, you can’t found new cities and the military and religious routes are EXACTLY THE SAME (seriously, you shoot music for craps sake) than really all you have left is the creation part again. You can outfit your citizens a little better I suppose but most of the time you are too far back to see them anyway. You can also design the 4 types of buildings and 3 vehicles (land, sea, air) in a similar fashion too creating a creature which is probably the only redeeming quality of the level.
When you finally get past this you reach the space stage which is by far the longest and most detailed part of the game. You can easily spend more time playing this stage then the entire rest of the game, and probably a few times over too if you really like it. You start off designing a ship in the usual way and then blast off and do pretty much whatever the hell you feel like. Sure it could have had a better mission structure, or a way to better defend your colonies but the scope of this stage is quite huge. Yes the gaping hole in this stage is that you get attacked EVERY FIVE FRIGGING SECONDS if you are at war with no way to stop or defend it other than ending the war, but if you are able to get past that you will find a great game of exploration, terraforming and geocide.
Now onto the creators which are pretty much the entire reason for the first four levels.
As a side note, a little problem I found in the first three stages (which isn’t found in the later ones) is that part effects don’t stack; they just take the value of the greatest part. For instance if you have a head full of nasty looking horns, your creature won’t do the same amount of damage as if it just had one horn of a high value. Another thing is placement doesn’t affect anything so you can put that pair of wings on your feet for all the game cares, you can still fly just as well. Clipping is a bit of a problem too but it is forgivable as the creators let you make things look like....well whatever the parts allow pretty much. Sizing, rotating, placing, colouring. The system is so simple you can sit and create things for a surprisingly long time if you have an active imagination. And the creators are accessible from the main screen so you don’t have to do a lot of work if all you want to do is make a bird that looks like a tree, or a tank that looks like a boat, or really whatever you feel like at the time. It is a good idea. It could use a few more parts though to play with.
My main problem with the game is that, being from companies like Maxis and EA, I now EXPECT expansion packs and sequals. That is not inherently a bad thing but it starts you wondering, 3 units in the civ stage? No fish stage? Only a few pages worth of parts to play with in the creators? Are these really natural shortcomings or are they just setting themselves up for going the Sims route and just releasing expansion pack after expansion pack? You feel like they could have done better and that is the worst part of the game, humungous size or not.
A few other things that didn’t seem to fit anywhere: the superpowers were a good touch but in the civ stage they were either useless (heal, diplomacy), overpowered (anything that goes boom really) or exactly the same (all final powers cost a bit and you need 6 cities to use them but they all mean you win if you use them). Other stages don’t seem to have this problem for some reason.
Interface is clean and concise, very effective.
Controls are simple, easy to learn and all you need, though the option to change them would have been nice.
Music is effective in that it isn’t intrusive and isn’t non-existent, it is at that level right where you don’t know it’s there, but it isn’t silent.
Graphics are somewhat cartoony, but that fits as the game as a whole has a light-hearted tone.
True multiplayer would have been an interesting addition, but you can’t blame them for not putting it in.
You may have noticed that I have said nothing of the DRM fiasco, and I will not be, it has no effect on the game itself whatsoever.
Like I said I would still recommend it, it is a GREAT game. It just feels like it could have been a GR A+ if it had wanted to be. It takes a great game to have this many flaws and come out the other end with the sort of objective (read not from Amazon.com) reviews.