DOS - 1996
Description of Genewars
Undoubtedly the worst game Bullfrog ever released, Gene Wars is a prime example of a great concept botched by poor implementation.
The concept, as with all Bullfrog's games, is very intriguing: in this mission-based real-time game, your task is to find various animals, sample them, breed them and then attack your opponent with them. You can breed two different kinds of animals to create hybrids (flying mules, for instance), strengthen your animals by sampling others, and other lab tricks.
Unfortunately, once you get into the game and the novelty wears off, it becomes a very tedious affair. In a rare event, GameSpot' review by Ron Dulin echoes my thoughts almost exactly on what is wrong with the game, so I'd like to quote most of his excellent review here: "What's most disheartening is that it is almost impossible to judge the game itself because the process of accomplishing the various tasks assigned to you is just so aggravating. This is primarily because events happen so damn fast - you're trying to move your guys, gals, and beasts all over the map to perform their duties, all the while beset upon by your enemies' forces and the local creatures. On more than one occasion one of my specialists was dead before I could even scroll over to a problem area and remedy a situation.
Other unfortunate traits add to the frustration, such as the fact that it is inexcusably difficult to select an animal unit (you must click exactly on its little physique, which more often than not is moving about at rapid-fire pace), and the fact that sometimes your units just don't respond to your commands. There are solutions to these problems, but learning them is just as time-consuming as trying to do things intuitively. Even more strange is that this comes from the makers of Populous, which had one of the most ingenious and oft-imitated interfaces of all time.
The game is also unrelentingly unforgiving. Any major guffaw results in having to restart a scenario, which in itself is not inexcusable. What is inexcusable is that there is no built-in-manner of restarting said scenario. More than once I realized that I was in a losing position, and had to restore a game several missions previous and work my way back. Sure, maybe that's a lack of foresight on my part, but is it too much to ask to simply be able to restart a mission? Or how about the ability to slow the game down a bit to get a handle on what's happening? The real heavy-hitters in the strategy game department (WarCraft II, SimCity, Bullfrog's own Populous) have always had one thing in common: they give you time to appreciate your accomplishments. There's the feeling of looking out over your creation and saying "it is good." But Gene Wars never even gives you a chance.
Bullfrog had a similar problem with Theme Park, albeit to a lesser degree. There's not a great level of detail to worry about in Gene Wars, but once a scenario gets cooking, you never have time to stop and smell the crabomules. The result is that the game is never enjoyable, simply frustrating. So much care was put into the atmosphere of the game, that it is a shame to see it go to waste.
The graphics are wonderful and the retro sci-fi sound effects, from the ambient sounds to your specialists' shouts, are hilarious. But until Bullfrog releases a patch which addresses the problematic issues, we'll never get a chance to play the wonderful game that undoubtedly exists within."
There you go-- a very fair, in my opinion, post mortem analysis of a game that should have been so much more. And Ron didn't even touch on my biggest gripe of the game: the seeming lack of artificial intelligence of any kind. Apparently the game was received so poorly (and deservedly so) that Bullfrog never released a patch. Oh well-- no big loss.
Overall, Gene Wars is a huge disappointment, especially to Bullfrog fans who are accustomed to their hallmark classics. It's saved from Real Dog tag only by the virtue of intriguing concepts behind the game.
Note: If you want to try a good game about genetic engineering, don't despair: a better game in this vein exists, and it is leaps and bounds better than Gene Wars despite getting much less hype. That game is Maxis' Unnatural Selection, a resident in our Hall of Belated Fame, and in our opinion the best game ever made about genetic engineering (at least until Mindscape's Creatures, but that one is a more of a toy than strategy game).
Review By HOTUD
Another Review from GamesDomain
Life's a bitch. There you and the rest of your race were, happily waging a galaxy wide planet popping war against three other like minded species when, like a rabbit out of a magician's hat, up popped a race of hyper intelligent beings from the alternative dimension where they had been holed up for the last few millenia and they weren't best pleased by the mess the war had made of the universe.
Quick as a flash, these brainy bods, Ethereals by name, confiscated all the really great weapons of destruction with which the war had been waged and announced their intention of subjecting the few remaining members of the four warring species to a process which reduced their brains to porridge and rendered them incapable of stringing all but the simplest of thoughts together, an idea they obviously got from AOL who seem to apply the same process to most of their subscribers.
There is one way of avoiding this fate though. The Ethereals want the universe restored to its pre war state before the brain melting starts and have formed the survivors into multi racial terraforming teams. The team which pleases the Ethereals most with its ecological efforts will get to keep its cerebral matter between its ears. The other teams will be in the running for the prized post of mayor of Donkeytown. As leader of one of these teams, you the players must use the full selection of sneaky moves and dirty tricks at your disposal to hang onto your marbles.
So runs the background to the latest god sim from Bullfrog, Gene Wars thought it would probably be more accurate to describe the game as a jobbing gardener come animal midwife sim, a fairly unique classification. Using a team of up to five, the player must build structures and gather material in a style familiar to anyone who has ever played Command & Conquer or any similar "build the buildings, collect the stuff and annihilate the foe" type games. Nothing new so far but Gene Wars has a twist. C&C; and its brethren all rely heavily on the big gun when the time comes to put the boot into the foe but this does not agree with the Ethereal's pacifist tendencies. Nope, if you want to put the boot in, the only way to do it in Gene Wars is to breed a creature with extremely large feet and point it in the right direction. These Ethereals really are spoil sports.
A lot of effort has obviously been put into Gene Wars' look and feel. The graphics are bright and colourful and are presented in crisp SVGA. They might possibly be a bit small for the more vision impaired amongst us but those people can always go off and buy themselves a 20 inch monitor. The creatures on the screen are also superbly and humorously animated ( the first time I saw a couple of mules mating, I sprayed coffee all over my monitor in my efforts to control my laughter). The cut screens between missions are also well done if a trifle repetitive since there only seems to be two of them, one if the mission is won and one if it is lost.
Just to put the icing on the cake, the sound effects are superb. A series of B Movie exclamations herald certain events such as the arrival of the Ethereals to keep an eye on how you are doing and each race has its own unique style of conversation ranging from a British accent of such stiff upper lipness, you wonder how the owner can talk at all to a Transylvanian cry of "Massssteeerrrr" which would secure the owner a position in any mad scientist's lab. Each breed of animal also has its own squeak honk or bray.
For some reason, I could only get the game's music to work when I ran it under windows 95. Having listened to the unearthly variety of tinkles pings and twangs this produced, I decided to stick to DOS.
So Gene Wars talks a good game but does it play as well as it looks? At heart, Gene Wars is a spiritual brother to such classics as Dune II and Command & Conquer in that gameplay consists of building a base, exploring the surrounding terrain and then (optionally in Gene War's case) sallying forth to smite the foe. Building one kind of building will allow you to build other types and you must always have enough of a certain material before you can build the building, spice in Dune II, Tiberium in C&C; and GOOP in Gene Wars
Gene Wars has a couple of kinks to it though. You can't get GOOP simply by digging it out of the ground (well actually you can but not in anything like the amounts you'll need). No, GOOP grows on trees. Well, to be strictly accurate, you build up your GOOP supplies by recycling plant life.
What if there aren't any plants nearby? Ah well then you have to get your botanist to create a plantation near to your base. Oh and by the way, you can't recycle everything you plant because you'll need to gather seeds from some of the plants for the next harvest and your animals will need feeding. Animals? Yup, you'll need herds of animals to help with the recycling, protect your base from attack and to repopulate any areas the Ethereals may see fit to define. Oh and you'll need a geneticist to study the native animal life and a ranger to look after the flocks. Those buildings won't build themselves of course so you also need an engineer to construct things.
This I think is really the difference between Gene Wars and the other games of this ilk. When I said you were in charge of a team I meant it. You can have up to five people in your team, selected before the mission starts though you can ring the changes during the mission if you build a spaceport, with any combination of trades and that's that. If your engineer gets eaten by a maddened crab during a mission (quite a likely eventuality) and you haven't built a space port yet, tough. You'll have to manage the rest of the mission without an engineer, bad news when a mule starts kicking the crap out of your gene pod.
Mention of the gene pod brings me to another of Gene War's unusual features, the need to breed large amounts of animal life. As mentioned above, you'll need a menagerie to carry out recycling, assist with the upgrading of buildings and lastly but certainly not least defend your team and base from the attentions of the wildlife which roams the planet and the creatures created by rival teams with the specific intention of trashing your base. The Ethereals have kindly given you the technology to recreate any creature which your geneticists have studied and if you have two or more critters, they can also be induced to breed in a more natural way. Even better, creatures of different breeds can be persuaded to join together to produce hybrids so that (unlikely as it may seem) a mule can breed with a crab to produce a crabomule, a creature which possesses attributes of both a crab and a mule.
Gene Wars is split into a number of missions, each on a different planet. Missions have differing aims such as producing a certain amount of GOOP or repopulating an area with animals or plants.
Don't Panic! Don't Panic!
The user interface to Gene Wars is by and large easy to use and nearly everything is done using the mouse. A row of buttons allows the user to select the various members of their team and selecting a team member will bring up another menu with a list of actions that person can perform. A team member can also be selected by clicking on them in the main display area of the screen which in the tradition of this type of game is an isometric view of the planet surface. Similarly, clicking on a building will bring up details on it and allow the user to perform any functions that building is capable of. In general, the interface is easy to use though clicking on the desired object when the screen gets busy can sometimes be a test of manual dexterity.
It's just as well that the interface doesn't get in the way of gameplay because Gene Wars is tough enough to play as it is. I give the reader fair warning here and now. Gene Wars has a learning curve that goes practically straight up. For me at any rate, the missions got very tough very quickly. There are several elements to this trickyness. One is the problem of keeping track of what's going on. It's difficult to remain cool, calm and collected when three different members of your team are complaining that they're being attacked by rogue creatures, your own herds of wildlife have wandered off to somewhere free of vegetation and are as a consequence starving to death and an enemy crab is engaged in reducing your power converter to a pile of scrap iron.
Another is that it is sometimes not clear just what needs to be done to complete a mission successfully. Sometimes I lost a mission without knowing why and even more worrying, sometimes I won a mission without knowing what I had done to deserve success.
The most common problem in Gene Wars though is that of simply not knowing what is going on. "Why have all my mules stopped hauling vegetation to my recycling plant?" you ask yourself. The answer is easy, your GOOP storage tanks are full and your mules being smarter than you are realise that hauling up any more stuff is a waste of time. To be fair, the game will try and help you out ("You need more GOOP storage!" a voice of doom will ring out though not always at the most appropriate time) but it can still be hard going until you get into the swing of things.
Add to this the pain of having an enemy animal reduce your base to rubble when there's nothing you can do about it and you can see that sometimes playing Gene Wars can be a frustrating business. If you simply must blow off steam, your rangers can be ordered to kill attacking creatures but woe betide you if the Ethereals find out. Forgetting their peaceful nature, they'll reduce your carefully constructed base to rubble in a trice.
Gene Wars comes with 24 missions of which I have completed the first 10. Ok, that doesn't sound too impressive but I have sweated blood getting this far. Some missions are a doddle, easily completed at the first attempt. Others bring this heady progress to a halt with a shattering crash. I have taken weeks to get past one or two of the more difficult missions.
Ah, but there's the rub. It may have taken me weeks but something kept me coming back to the game when I could have been more profitably engaged in sorting out my collection of early Egyptian cat flaps. Yes, Gene Wars has grip and I at least was firmly enmeshed by its attractions. Part of that I think is the flexibility it offers. There are always new strategies to follow or a new combination of specialists to try out. Some of the mission designs are a treat as well. Normally as I have said, the way through a mission is to get an engineer to build a base which includes a gene pod, then use the pod to produce your animal needs. In one mission though, you start off with no, count 'em, no engineers available. What can you do?
I'll tell you what you do. You give yourself a quick course in natural animal husbandry and produce all the animals you need the way nature intended. This teaches you very quickly about the desirability of having suitable foodstuffs to hand.
I'll end this section with another moan and a warning. Gene Wars has a very unforgiving game structure. Fail a mission and its right back to the start of the game again. I implore you, save and save often (you can save at any time during a mission). In particular, I urge you to train yourself to automatically save as soon as the glorious words "Level complete, press return" appear. That means you've completed the current mission and only by saving now will you have the chance to replay the next mission right from the team selection screen on the very slight chance that you'll muck it up. You have been warned.
Gene Wars comes with what is sadly becoming the norm in the computer game scene, namely a slim (32 pages) manual containing just enough information to get by with. The manual is nicely presented though even if it does get the position of the badometer in the main playing screen wrong. Gene Wars also comes with a rudimentary form of online help whereby right clicking on a part of the screen will bring up a window explaining what it is. This will probably be enough to get the player started but a bit more would have been nice.
Bugs and Moans
Gene Wars is supposed to work under Windows 95 in a DOS box but when I tried it, I was treated to a fine display of screen glitches and mouse trails. In addition, the music started working so it was back to real DOS mode pretty sharpish for me.
Even without the delights of Windows 95, all was not rosy in the garden at first. The game would hang at regular intervals for no apparent reason. Doing the full 76M install rather than the 41M version solved this problem though the fault may have been caused by my CD-ROM drive which sometimes seems to take an extraordinarily long time to spin up, rather than the game itself.
So in the final analysis, is Gene Wars any good? The presentation of the game is excellent and a great deal of thought has obviously been put into it but all the presentation in the world will not help a game if it lacks gameplay.
That's where I have a problem with Gene Wars. At times it can have you hitting your head against the table in frustration, such is its difficulty level but at the same time there was something about it which kept making me have "one more go". Perhaps more than most, Gene Wars is a game which you should buy from somewhere that will let you return games you don't like. Gene Wars has an awful lot to offer but the effort of extracting it may be too much for some people.
Review By GamesDomain
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