Ants seem to be one of the preferred insects of the gaming community. It all started way back with Sim Ant, stopped along the way with games like Zool and is now upon us in the form of Empire of the Ants, recently been released by Microids. But this one may be the defining ant game - the complete ant hill and its inhabitants are at your complete control. And before you ask, yes this games is an RTS style affair, to add to the bulge already on offer. But wait there is more to it than that as simulation is raises its ugly head. Its not just a case of pitting your ants in war against other insects, but nurturing your ant hill as a system. You must feed the ants, keep them all happy, maintain the anthill, choose which areas of ground to forage and look after just about everything else.
Yes its sounds complex and yes it is rather complex, but to help you out the developers have added two very detailed tutorials for you to work through. One for outside the anthill and one for the inside (these constitute two different levels of play, similar to Metal Fatigue). There is also an encyclopaedia for your perusal with hints, tips, explanations and even some snippets of philosophy to help you on your way.
Anyway forget all that, this game is a looker! The environments, both inside and out are beautifully realised, in full 3D style. The play area can be zoomed, rotated and basically viewed to your every whim. Inside ants scurry through tunnels, and rooms with a real sense of purpose. Outside leaves drop from the trees, the sun rises and falls and the foliage reaches to the sky past the camera. Such depth and perspective create a real 'honey I shrunk the kids' garden environment with an impressive frame rate. Also changes in environment are key; and when winter falls make sure there are no ants fighting the cold outside the hill, and the food stocks are near bursting. Bird song, ants chittering and soothing orchestral music rise from your speakers heightening the ant's world and perfectly fit in with the environment. Also, when you select different groups of ants to do your bidding, they utter their own individual and sometimes quite strange noises.
Navigating this immersive world could not be easier, with the usual RTS mouse and arrow keys formula. And to keep track of all your units that are not on screen, their icons are attached to the edge of the viewing area. Right click and the view shifts to that unit. As for the more complex decisions these are all done through a clean interface with pop-up windows and boxes.
On the simulation side you have to choose which ants to produce and therefore indirectly choose which tasks need more ant-power. The following units are available: basic workers which can to an task, nurses to care for the eggs, carpenters to construct and maintain rooms, farmers to grow mycelium and honey dew, princess who can replace the queen, basic soldiers, jaw-busters, gunner, janitor, tank, forager and queen's guard. A bit of artistic license has been taken with these units but they basically split up into workers and warriors. The workers control the inside where new ants are born and food is stored. These rooms must be constructed and then maintained. Additionally other domesticated insects can be housed in the hill, e.g. a beetle for multiple ant transport. On the strategy side the warriors you create protect the nest and workers from enemies like spiders, red ants and the deadly praying mantis with a variety of charging and firing attacks.
But creating a living breathing ant hill is not the main aim. You are given specific missions at the start of each level which can vary from 'collect 1000 food units' to 'kill a specific enemy'. And there is, of course, the multiplayer skirmish section which now comes as standard with every RTS game. There are a wealth of options and play styles, from allowing predators into the game area or selecting to bring your Queen into play, who you must then defend.
But does this work .... the merging of complex simulation into the RTS style game? I did not think so. They seemed to get in the way of each other and limit the gameplay. There is not the wealth of units and tactics associated with modern RTS's nor does the simulation side feel complete. Microids have created a scientific-ish game that while seemingly accurate does not contain enough excitement and gameply for the mainstream player. The game is definitely aimed at the more aged end of the demographic and whilst fulfilling in some ways will not appeal to everyone. Perhaps if you have a beard and where sandals? :)