Impossible Creatures is a straightforward real-time strategy game that breaks from the pack by calling on players to custom design their units. In an easy-to-use Army Builder mode, removed from the immediate pressures of the battlefield, players combine the fins and feathers and bites and stings of 50 familiar animals to create new combatant creature designs. These blueprints are then used to produce units in the real-time combat mode of play. Pairing the strategy of unit design with the tactics of real-time battle is an innovative combination itself, and it's hard to find fault with any of the individual elements of Impossible Creatures. The combat is fast-paced and aggressive, but balanced. The creature-combining mode is deep and involved, but accessible. Even the peculiar 1930s single-player storyline is entertaining and nicely presented. Furthermore, these different elements are tied to one another in many purposeful, well-planned ways. Yet the gameplay in Impossible Creatures has an awkward flow. Perhaps this is because the game's different modes are best enjoyed in very different mindsets. They remain intuitively separate, in spite of the ways they are intellectually associated.
Impossible Creatures' real-time combat mode and its timer-less Army Builder activity are interwoven on many levels. Designing a powerful army with a good mix of combined creatures is a demanding and rewarding process, with the demands and rewards made right on the real-time battlefield. It takes skill and practice to plan a balanced army that will hold up in the game's ruthless real-time combat. There is much to consider. An army must be able to guard against an early rush (if not launch one itself), with some cheap-but-tough low-level units. Different battle maps may call for swimming or flying units, so there should be a few of those designs on hand. One will also want to include blueprints for a couple of high-level, end game creatures. The relationship between design and execution is complex in Impossible Creatures. Each new 3D map encourages players to reconsider the strengths and weaknesses of the units they've designed, while the abilities of the combined creatures themselves often suggest unforeseen tactics on the battlefield.
Yet such thorough and thoughtfully implemented reciprocity notwithstanding, the combination of the two modes of play is often only technically, and not aesthetically, appealing. In practice, many players will find that learning to build a successful army involves a good deal of trial and error, accomplished by going back and forth between heated battle and studious unit design. The real-time combat is direct and fast-paced, but creature combining is an abstract, thoughtful process. Like the "Impossible Creatures" themselves, the game's odd mixture of different elements is not always easy to appreciate as a whole. Just as the head of a Killer Whale looks unsettling on the body of a Gorilla, this combination of conceptual strategy and real-time tactics sometimes challenges conventional sensibilities. On the drawing board, the "Goriller Whale" design might represent the most effective mix of parts to get the job done, but something about the actual combination feels disturbingly unnatural.
Since the two main aspects of play don't seamlessly blend into a single experience, the game's innovative method of unit design becomes secondary to its remarkably traditional RTS gameplay. For some, blueprinting an army may eventually feel auxiliary, almost like equipping a character from a choice of weapons and armor in a role-playing game. The stat-maxing interaction and sense of control are engaging, but it's all just preparation for the true heart gameplay: the battle itself. A decent army is a basic requirement for success in Impossible Creatures, but a superior army is seldom enough to decide victory. As long as a given army is equipped to perform (and defend against) the basic attacks, on land, air, and sea, at all research levels, it should be worthy of a win if guided by a skilled RTS gamer. Any subtle benefits of designing a truly great army are lost in familiar, minute-to-minute duties, such as resource gathering and base development. Overall, this is probably for the best, as it keeps the real-time warfare important and balanced. As it is though, creature design can seem to be more about thrifty management and less about creative problem solving.
Of course, even as a secondary feature, the Army Builder does offer an unprecedented opportunity for creativity in an RTS. It's fun to experiment, choosing the different parts of two animals that will make up a hybrid combat unit. In the thick of the fight though, an army is best judged as a whole, and the specifics of any single unit are never as important as the way that the different creatures work together. This game must also be judged as a whole. To the designers' credit, Impossible Creatures is sturdily assembled from a good choice of components. Both the real-time combat and creature-combining aspects of the game are solid. Both are important to the player's success and enjoyment, and each is critical to the other. Yet they remain two separate experiences, with little natural flow between them. Perhaps some combinations that seem ideal in concept prove impossible to properly create. Impossible Creatures is a good game, but it's less than the sum of its parts.
Graphics: Comparable to state-of-the-art contemporaries such as WarCraft III and Age of Mythology. The true-3D battlegrounds are rich in detail and serve their purpose well, with suitable impact on both combat and scouting. There are good water effects and lots of fine animations. The hero characters, buildings, and combined creature units look good from any perspective.
Sound: Creature noises are varied and appropriate. Sound effects are believable and voice acting is decent, but some phrases ("The critters are being attacked!") become annoyingly repetitive.
Enjoyment: While the real-time battle is rousing and the creature combining is engaging, these two main elements of play often fail to present a unified experience. Real-time combat is traditional and unit design is secondary.
Replay Value: The Army Builder brings an opportunity for creativity and experimentation to the otherwise standard RTS gameplay, adding lots of value for players who learn to appreciate its abstract, subtle influence on the fast-paced combat.
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