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News video games 11 June 2024, 03:21

author: Jacob Blazewicz

21 Years Ago, This Strategy Stunned With Its Number of Units; Impossible Creatures is a Unique Game of CoH Creators

Impossible Creatures is definitely not the biggest hit of the Relic Entertainment studio, but to this day the unusual RTS from the devs of Company of Heroes and the original Homeworld has its fans.

Source: Relic Entertainment / THQ Nordic.

Customizing characters, customizing armies, customizing narratives - in recent years, devs have been discussing the ability to tailor game content to individual preferences in various ways. However, even now it's difficult to find a strategy in which we could send an orc ox to a wolf lion, supported by an ant with an elephant's head. And that's what the forgotten game from Relic Entertainment offered: Impossible Creatures.

Steampunk revenge in the style of B-movie cinema

Impossible Creatures never gained the fame of Homeworld, Dawn of War, or Company of Heroes. It never received an official sequel, let alone two, as was the case with all the series mentioned.

In fact, it may be surprising because the title stood out significantly compared to the competition. Instead of a historical war, cosmic spaces, or a fantasy land, we have an alternative reality set in the 1930s. As Rex Chance, we tried to discover what happened to our father - a scientist working on a mysterious project. Soon we have to fight for survival - and revenge, because it quickly turns out that Rex has scores to settle with the unscrupulous entrepreneur Upton Julius.

The story, although rather predictable, had its charm. Primarily because the devs took a lighthearted approach to the plot, the overall feel was reminiscent of an old, low-quality action film.

However, let's face it - story wasn't the greatest strength of IC.

Strategic zoo

The main attraction were the titular Impossible Creatures. The game allows you to combine two of the 51 species available in the base game (76 with DLC), and also to choose individual body parts of the creature.

This isn't pure aesthetics either. Every animal has unique features that it passes on to the beast created by the player. Health, speed, method of movement (on land, in the air, swimming), size, production cost - all of these depend on the species we choose, as well as their "parts" that our created creature ultimately possesses.

Moreover, animals also have unique abilities, related to specific parts of their bodies. They can have passive skills, such as ranged area attack and camouflage, or active ones, like a deadly frenzy and a sonar revealing part of the map.

21 Years Ago, This Strategy Stunned With Its Number of Units; Impossible Creatures is a Unique Game of CoH Creators - picture #1

There are also such giraffes. Source: Relic Entertainment / THQ Nordic.

Hours of fun in the unit creator

All of this provides enormous possibilities for army customization, unseen in most strategies. You can find RTS games that offer a lot of freedom, for instance, the Earth series and Warzone 2100, and newer titles - From the Depths and Uncrewed (both from 2020). But let's be honest - designing your own futuristic tank or pirate ship is cool, but it can't compare to the joy of creating a terrifying tiger scorpion or an owl shark. And sending him into battle with equally absurd hybrids.

The whole thing also offers a great progression system in the mentioned campaign. In it, we first need to obtain the creature's DNA in order to use it for creating units. Of course, at the very beginning, we have access to quite inconspicuous creatures: coyotes, skunks, lemmings, etc. Only later can we strengthen our army with more powerful beasts - from a bear and a lobster (believe it or not: it's a really powerful "component"), to an elephant and a sperm whale.

Furthermore, certain hybrids appear more comical than frightening, especially in the unit creation preview, not to mention when in motion (in fact, the player can also preview this in the creator and take a "photo" to serve as the unit's portrait). If you spend long hours in RPGs changing your character's appearance, in Impossible Creatures you can spend a good deal of time in the beast creator itself.

In the shadow of Age of Empires and other RTSs

Unfortunately, despite this intriguing idea, IC never gained as much fame as other strategies of Relic studio. This was partly due to the reception of the game. The title undoubtedly gained sympathy from reviewers, but it received much worse reviews than the first installments of Homeworld, Dawn of War, and Company of Heroes.

Partly, the debut of another RTS, Age of Mythology, could be responsible for this. Ensemble Studios' game was released a few months before, but there's still a short time difference. No one had any illusions that Impossible Creatures would engage in a fight with the grand spin-off that was (and is) the Age of Empires series. Even Relic's reputation as the creators of Homeworld turned out to be insufficient. Especially since, AoM was truly an excellent real-time strategy, not just "decent."

If anyone has any doubts about the validity of this thesis: Even in the best of times, the number of users playing simultaneously IC on Steam didn't come close to five hundred players at the same time. In comparison, Age of Mythology: Extended Edition, which was released over a year earlier, continues to effortlessly draw in thousands of players simultaneously, with the game typically hosting 2-3.5 thousand users at once.

Anticipating questions: no, it's not just a matter of competing with a well-known brand. Few people remember the slightly younger Rise of Nations today, yet the refreshed edition of this game from 2014 also performs better than Impossible Creatures (via SteamDB).

Impossible strategy without a strategy

There was one more important problem: gameplay balance. The basic edition included 51 animal species, resulting in over 2,000 combinations. Let's keep in mind that every animal is made up of multiple body parts, which could be combined almost arbitrarily and affect not only the unit's statistics and cost but also its abilities. How to balance gameplay for multiplayer in such a situation?

It must be admitted that Relic clearly tried to do this. However, there is a reason why many people competing online use the ever-developing Tellurian mod. The modification adds more units and also significantly alters the game balance (including campaigns) to make "as many stock creatures as useful as possible," as the creators put it. (Of course, as is often the case, this mod has its opponents, preferring the original IC).

21 Years Ago, This Strategy Stunned With Its Number of Units; Impossible Creatures is a Unique Game of CoH Creators - picture #2

Killer homaropotamuses demolish enemy base. Source: Relic Entertainment / THQ Nordic.

Furthermore, looking at reviews from 20 years ago reveals that critics were critical of the simplistic gameplay, despite the apparent depth provided by the vast array of unit combinations. The quote from the review in Entertainment Weekly magazine (via Metacritic) is worth mentioning:

If most real-time strategy titles are elaborate versions of rock, paper, scissors, Impossible Creatures is the world's most sophisticated game of rock.

Nothing more to add. Apart from a fair mention, the whole animal pairing system definitely demanded more effort from the devs than a typical RTS. Balancing thousands of combinations must have been an overwhelming challenge for many designers of Impossible Creatures, given the animations of a vast number of often clumsy units.

How to play Impossible Creatures today?

Fortunately, this time the answer to this question is very simple. Since 2015, the title has been available for purchase on Steam (in a sort of special edition) and on GOG. By default, you will pay $9.99 for the game. Note that the Valve platform version has certain issues, such as a glitch in one of the campaign missions.

Of course, the game is no longer actively developed... at least not by the publisher. The last official update (from 2016; via Steam) added support for the Steam Workshop. In theory, this enables fans to expand the game on their own, adding new maps and units to enrich it. The most popular such project is the previously mentioned Tellurian, but this mod was developed even before the premiere of the new IC edition (more precisely: since 2011) and some of the changes were even included in the official release available on Valve's platform.

Unfortunately, it seems that this intriguing title, despite having its loyal fans, still hasn't gained much popularity. It's a shame because, after 20 years, no similar strategy has appeared. Even many critics of Impossible Creatures saw the potential of this game and would be happy to see its sequels. Even if the RTS genre's best times are long behind it.

Jacob Blazewicz

Jacob Blazewicz

Graduated with a master's degree in Polish Studies from the University of Warsaw with a thesis dedicated to this very subject. Started his adventure with in 2015, writing in the Newsroom and later also in the film and technology sections (also contributed to the Encyclopedia). Interested in video games (and not only video games) for years. He began with platform games and, to this day, remains a big fan of them (including Metroidvania). Also shows interest in card games (including paper), fighting games, soulslikes, and basically everything about games as such. Marvels at pixelated characters from games dating back to the time of the Game Boy (if not older).


Impossible Creatures

Impossible Creatures