You remember Creatures, right? You don't? It's OK, neither do we! The venerable Artificial Life Program began life in 1996, the creation of computer scientist Steve Grand who'd been working on a virtual desktop pet before expanding the concept into a fully-fledged title with Millennium Interactive. The objective in Creatures is to rear Norns, fuzzy little ewok ripoffs who - at the time - featured unprecedented artificial intelligence. You created your very own Norn, and can breed it with others, sharing characteristics and genetic traits.
Well, it's back, with Creatures 4 rebooting the series for a brand new audience. Best of all, it's free-to-play, launching on PCs, Macs and iOS devices early next year. "Before Sims and Nintendogs, there was Creatures," developers Fishing Cactus declared before their presentation, before dubbing their game a "hardcore pet simulator".
Suffice to say, eyebrows were raised.
Creatures 4 is a sandbox game, wherein you pick from 5 unique Norn species who you can heavily customize, from the patterning of their fur to their inherent behavioral traits, whether they're aggressive or lazy. Your Norn will hatch as a child and grow up to be an adult, before eventually dying, be it from natural causes or your own incompetence as an owner.
But its the complex AI system that sets Creatures 4 apart from fellow pet-simulators. Each and every Norn has a complex array of organs, nervous system and a fully functioning brain. It'll respond to sight, sound and stimuli such as pain. Tickle your Norn's belly with the mouse and watch them giggle with glee; or, alternatively, swipe them with the cursor and watch them stagger away in pain, cowering from another blow.
It's impressive stuff, especially when the Fishing Cactus rep showed off various behavioral examples, such as an angry Norn calmed down by being fed, a lost Norn shivering in fear, its brain telling it its too far away from home. The AI is complex, adaptable and, above all, intuitive, especially for a game that we'll all be able to play for free come 2012.
Fishing Cactus is obviously very proud of their AI work, and rightfully so; it's mighty impressive. That said, it's not the AI that will guarantee Creatures 4 long-lasting success, but its complex breeding system. When you create your Norn, it stores a unique genetic code dependent on the aesthetic and behavioral traits you picked. Your Norn can have children with other players' Norns, who'll be an amalgamation of their parent's genetic traits.
For instance, if you made a fuzzy pink Norn with an irritable disposition who then mated with a bright blue Norn with narcolepsy, your offspring would probably have a pink-blue coat and get very angry if woken up. Considering the sheer amount of customization options at your disposal and the potentially massive audience Fishing Cactus could attract, there are "literally millions of combinations possible".
To begin with, you're restricted to the tree-dwelling Norns you live on wooden platforms nestled in leafy canopies. You'll make a home, make friends, guard them from roving bands of chameleons and other malicious creatures, before eventually spawning an entire family to carry on your legacy. The tree-dwelling Norns and their environment will soon make way for others, with the Fishing Cactus rep teasing that an aquatic excursion might be on the cards.
The AAA Free-To-Play?
Fishing Cactus isn't particularly modest or self-effacing; the rep on hand told us they want Creatures 4 to be a "triple A free to play game". The sort of game you tell your friends about; the sort of game that defines a genre. Now the free-to-play market is very competitive, especially when you stack up the social networking competition. Creatures 4 might have a rich legacy, but that will mean nothing if the final product isn't up to scratch.
But as it stands, we're quietly confident in Creatures 4's success. The AI is quite astounding, the breeding mechanic a potential joy for pet-simulation fans, the visuals are colorful and pleasing to the eye, and the game could go on for ever and ever if you're smart and, let's say, efficient enough! It remains to be seen how Fishing Cactus will handle premium content, but their alluding to other environments and species of Norns might be pointing in the right direction.
Creatures 4 is set for release in early 2012 on PC, Mac and iOS devices