When you think of the iconic games spawned from the minds of Bullfrog, chances are you'd list off a number of all-time favourites. Legendary god-games like Populous, Theme Park, Syndicate or Dungeon Keeper solidified their name in history. However, very few are likely to put forth GeneWars in that memorable list of classics, but does this black sheep deserve to be overlooked?
After much hype, GeneWars hit store shelves in 1996. I'm sure it sold well enough, but it wasn't a game I was desperate to play unlike the titles immediately before (Magic Carpet 2) and after (Syndicate Wars). Even the delayed Dungeon Keeper was probably getting more magazine pages devoted to it, despite the aggressive marketing campaign. This was probably down to its perceived lack of originality which, as we'll discuss later, is somewhat undeserved.
The Etherials will issue objectives before each level. They can range from
researching fauna, hoarding GOOP or planting a lush field of alien plants.
You see, in 1996 Command & Conquer was king. It defined the real-time-strategy genre and all others were compared to it. GeneWars looked like it was copying it, from the resource gathering to building but it has one unique idea that went almost unnoticed and separated it from the rest. This was about rebuilding after war, not tearing down during it.
The story is a strange one. After humans have developed interstellar travel, they waged war will three other alien species; the Bohemians, the Saurians and the Schnozzoids. It was such a devastating conflict that many planets lost most of their lifeforms. It could have been much worse had an errant Bohemian named Jean-Luc Pontiac not tried to blow up a mysterious black monolith. These 2001-style structures were created by the benevolent and powerful Etherials who put a stop to the war and made everyone clean up the mess they made like an angry school teacher after a food fight. And so it is up to you to recolonise the 24 war-torn planets by cloning, mating, splicing and planting flora and fauna.
There are four necessary roles to make this happen. Engineers are the builders of the team. They construct the many different structures necessary for research and repopulation. Geneticists are animal researchers. Without them, you cannot clone the animals who will act as your army and workforce. They can also heal which is nice. Botanists take care of the plant side of life. They can collect new seeds and farm them for energy known as GOOP (the game's monetary system). Rangers are the zookeepers of the bunch. They encourage creatures to mate, feed and fight but can also stun or kill them if needs be. Just don't expect them to be useful during full-scale battles.
Each machine requires energy to function and these two contraptions will provide it.
While it's possible to complete the game by solely promoting creation, the ultimate aim is something more selfish. Other teams have been given the same task as you, with the winner to be given back their agency by removing the "Adami Process" (the removal of negative traits) which was forced upon them by the Etherials. If that's not a prize then some advanced Etherial knowledge on top of that certainly is. So, the ultimate goal is to satisfy the Etherials while at the same time bringing down your opponents. Apparently, the game can be completed by just doing the former, but that's not as fun and also rather difficult to the point I have reservations that it's actually possible.
While your team can be a mish-mash of intelligent lifeforms, they each have their own pros and cons. For example, Saurons are strong but slow at building. They also attract the ire of the local animals. Bohemians, on the other hand, are pretty much ignored by them and are blessed with faster healing. They're not very strong though, even when touched with a Monolith upgrade - an Etherial gift for teams doing well.
Later on in the game, if you build the right equipment and research the right information, you can splice up animals to make different creatures. Out of the five natural species - mules, crabs, frogs, birds and dinos - you can cross any two to make another. This is imperative if you encounter the hostile forces of an opposing team because your team can only have a maximum of five bodies and weak ones at that. While this mechanic is referred to directly in the game's title, it doesn't feel as deep as it could be. There is a disappointingly small number of animals to discover and mixing them up doesn't really add much to the gameplay. That being said, the idea itself is a fascinating one. It's just a smaller part of the overall experience than I thought it would have been.
If the Etherials like what you're doing when they randomly show up,
they may drop a monolith that will upgrade your team if they touch it.
While other Bullfrog games of this era do well in teaching you the mechanics of the game, GeneWars can be quite baffling for the uninitiated. There's no omnipresent guide that you'll find in Theme Park or Dungeon Keeper, with a tad inadequate 'help' function instead. When you turn this on, it will describe what each part of the interface does when you click on them. It may be my mindset when playing, but I found these snippets to be unhelpful with the small text being quite hard to read. I only got an idea of the tactics by reading the manual and reading reviews. The first few levels are designed to teach you the basics, but they don't do well when it comes to the more complex nuances such as optimal farming terrain or defensive tactics.
Periodically, the Etherial will check on your progress by popping in on their flying saucer complete with a bravado B-movie style announcer. Even when you've completed your objectives, an Etherial will have to witness them before you can move on. Sometimes you'll have to herd a number of creatures under their light beam to prove their increasing numbers. A big difference from the 'destroy everything' of Command & Conquer or WarCraft.
In many ways, GeneWars fits right into the company's catalogue. It is humorous, original and addictive but it is also short and a little undercooked. Many of its ideas aren't as fleshed out as I'd like them to be and the controls aren't as intuitive either. That puts it towards the bottom of Bullfrog's back catalogue (pre-EA buyout anyway) but being at the bottom of such a stellar output is nothing to sniff at. It's still an excellent RTS.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox to bring the game to modern systems. Manual Included. Tested on Windows 10.
File Size: 231 Mb. Install Size: 322 Mb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
GeneWars is © Bullfrog Interactive
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me