Genesis Rising is a frustrating game to review, because in a field of RTS games that are pretty much all the same with only very minor variations on the theme, GR is genuinely different. It also suffers from some of the most glaring missteps that I’ve seen in memory, a few of which can maybe be patched away, but many of which are in the very foundation of how they designed this thing. Some portions of the game are pretty good, some are brain-achingly awful, and in a strange kind of way GR could have almost tasted greatness, but will instead have to settle for much, much less.
The ground-breakingness of this game is easily summarized in one concept: genes. All combat ships in the game are completely generic when they are first built – they in fact come out of the factory without any weapons at all. In the gene lab you splice gene segments into the ship (they’re sort of organic that way) to give it weapons, special defenses, and special abilities depending on the role you ultimately envision for the ship. The whole thing takes place through a simple drag and drop interface. There is even more flexibility than that, because if you decide you want to change the role of that ship, or if you run across an enemy against which that ship configuration is a poor choice, you can take it back into the lab, drag out those genes, and drop in new ones. The only limitation is the number of gene splice points each ship possesses, and what gene templates you have available in your lab. New gene templates can be gained either from harvesting them from derelict ships or through trading with other species. This splicing takes effect essentially immediately, though I’d recommend against doing it in combat because the game does not pause while you’re busy in the lab.
I can’t stress enough how cool I found this whole concept to be. Come across an alien with a really great technology? Just attack one of his ships, steal the template, and the technology is yours. Find an enemy base station with really good point defense? Just modify all your ships for long range attacks and plink it to death at your leisure. And for the most part I found the AI to be capable of dealing with all of these variations effectively, though perhaps the computer does fixate on destroying your gene lab ship a little too much, a weakness that is rather easy to exploit. My only complaint that I have here, and it is a very small one, is that each gene splice mutates the ship ever so slightly – just a tiny engine adjustment here, or a little gun turret grows out there – and I would have liked to see greater mutations if only to allow me to more easily identify the different craft modifications in combat.
The second really unique thing about this game is that blood is the sole resource harvested in the game. Ships are built out of blood, ships are healed with blood, and blood is used to manufacture gene segments from templates in the lab. During combat a damaged ship can be self-destructed to shower allied ships in its blood and provide some healing to them. Your harvester sidles up to a blood source, say a derelict ship, extends a little straw, and just sucks up the blood. I could have done without the little slurping straw sucking sound effect that goes with it. Apparently in this all the game’s species are the same – you can harvest blood from any derelict ship and use it. The comparison between ships and ticks or leeches is almost unavoidable, and they do look a little like metallic insects. Thankfully ships that are manufactured just slide out of a bay door in the factory ship, while the designers could have opted for something far grosser in keeping with the insect theme.
So given these two super groovy cool ideas, where did they go wrong? If I had to pick one thing that annoyed me most about this game, I’d really be stuck in a three-way tie. Two of them are plot related, and one is deep in the game mechanics.
The plot, not to put too fine a point on it, stinks. It’s not just that it’s rehashed, which it is and has been, but the quest for some monstrously powerful mysterious universal doohickey, in this case called the universal heart (more of the blood theme), is both boring and uninspiring. Furthermore, the infighting triumvirate of church/military/judiciary has been done absolutely to death (Warhammer 40K anyone?). This annoyance is further exacerbated by movies that are just barely tolerable both in dialog and voice work. There are also these little interactive bits, where you get to choose between “good” and “evil” responses to other characters in the plot that are marred by even worse voice acting, if that’s even possible, and you can’t skip them. I’m not sure if the game outcome changes in the slightest given your responses – I hardly had the patience to go through them once let alone more than once to try and figure them out. Sometimes it seemed to me that the “good” response was pretty harsh while the “evil” response was fairly benign. Regardless, they seem to serve nothing more than to break up the action of the game while advancing the meager plot only in miniscule steps. Literally scrolling pages of text would have been no worse.
And while that may seem like at least three or four plot related complaints, when I said I had but two, I have another one: branching. The single player mission tree is branching in that, at points in the campaign, you open up a star map and choose the place you want to travel to next from among some number of choices. You’re frequently not given any significant information about which choice means what, and you might as well end up flipping a coin. Additionally, going down one branch doesn’t really close off the other one, and you can, when you open the star map again, simply choose the other one, only now what happens in that choice doesn’t make any sense in the light of what you gained/lost/learned from your first choice. For example, pick choice A, run into some new race, form some kind of diplomatic agreement with them, then pick choice B, run into that same new race, they act like they never met you, and you can form a completely different pact with them. So both choices A and B were two ways of running into this new race, but it clearly doesn’t make any sense to do both, and yet the game allows you to.
My third complaint, or perhaps my fifth or sixth if you’ve been keeping count, is all about timing. The game only runs along at a sort of moderate speed and you can’t change it. Stuff like gathering blood and building forces or traveling a long, featureless distance takes a very long time without the ability to speed it up. Combat situations, where you might like to rearrange your forces or issue commands to use special weapons (which is done through a frankly too-difficult interface given a combat situation), you’re still stuck at this same speed which is now too fast. The game at one point in the manual mentions dodging unguided missiles with your ships, but given the speed of the game and the sort of wallowy navigational capabilities of the ships is truly laughable. Perhaps to balance off this speed problem, the game limits you to a fairly small fleet (through maintenance caps), maybe as few as a dozen ships in all. I’m not sure I see that as an equitable trade, but it does bring the twitch clicking down to a more manageable level.
The graphics are among the best I’ve seen for a space combat RTS. I suppose I should note here that, although the game looks sort of 3D, the playing field is actually flat. The weapons effect are good, and there are many different ones created by different gene splices. Sounds, beyond the voice acting, are OK.
Multiplayer (through Gamespy) seems to allow PvP with up to 6 on each team. In the half dozen times I logged on I never saw another human being there to play with, and so can’t say a single thing about it, except that it’s not very popular. There’s regrettably no skirmish mode in the game, so I can’t even see what the multiplayer is like, nor can you practice before diving in.
Genesis Rising could have really been something. If they can work in way of adjusting the game speed, and maybe just remove the plot entirely, that might make it significantly better. As a framework, the gene modification concept and the blood gathering concept both work really well and result in an RTS that really plays differently from anything else out there. Squinch your eyes shut during the movies and click blindly through the dialog segments as quickly as possible, learn to micromanage combat at a high rate of speed, and there is a game mixed in there that is both unique and enjoyable.
NOTE: When I first began playing Genesis Rising the game warned me that my graphics drivers were out of date. I ignored that warning, and found myself repeatedly crashing the game, several times dumped back to the desktop. I updated the drivers, and all the problems disappeared. What my graphics drivers have to do with the game crashing I have no idea, but if you decide to play GR, I’d have to recommend updating your graphics drivers as necessary.