Beginning with an introductory quotation taken from Charles Darwin's Origin Of Species, ECO will take you on a unique and mind opening journey through life itself.
As the game begins, you acknowledge yourself as a being immersed in a world. Through the light of dawn, you see huge plants silhouetted against the sky, and crawling on the ground before you see others of this realm - other beings immersed in this world.
After a short while you realise that this is no haven. No social gathering or spiritual retreat. Oh no. All activity in this world is characterised by perpetual struggle. Through the torment of hunger and sexual urge, you feel your mortal coil like flames roasting your neck, and pacified only by your submission to the pursuit of nourishment and procreation.
These torments, as potent as they are, persuade you to slaughter the lifeforms smaller than yourself as a means to an end, and so in life, you risk becoming that which causes suffering for others. You risk becoming that which plagues this world, and ultimately, the cause of that which you yourself will suffer. Your life is therefore, the pain of being, weighed against death.
And so, as the Sun rises across the horizon, you will find youself in your form, as a bug or a fly, with no meaning or purpose. You may or may not feel compelled to play the game of life, finding nourishment, finding a mate, and so on. But evolution is granted only to those who do. Who will be predator, who will be prey?
THE FOOD CHAIN
The food chain more or less follows the heirarchy...
Plant -> Worm -> Bug/Fly -> Bird -> 4Ped -> 2Ped -> Scorpion
...where any creature can digest anything lower down. However, there are a couple of exceptions to this rule:
(1) The lifeforms from bird upwards cannot digest plant.
(2) The 2Ped will not recognise worm as a food.
(3) The scorpion's only predator is the bird.
NB: The bug and fly are at an equal position in the hierarchy and are mutually neutral.
Plants: Of course do not need to eat as they get their food from the sun.
Worms/Snakes/Slugs: These creatures are slow to move, are food for almost everything else, and can themselves only consume plant matter. On the positive side, once fed, their metabolism is extremely low and they have one of the highest life expectancies. Don't underestimate them.
Bugs: Have a moderately long life expectancy and are present in all ecosystems. They are relatively abundant which is good for procreation, but on the downside, they are a favourite food for many creatures, and rely upon plant matter for their own survival. They are quite agile.
Flies: These are similar to bugs, but are able to take to the safety of the air when predators loom. Their life expectancy is slightly lower than bugs because of the energy they expend in flight. But on the other hand, flight provides rapid and efficient transportation. These are also highly agile.
Birds: Have relatively few predators, and can escape to the safety of the air, but they are awkward fliers which need a running start. Because they are slow on the ground they can struggle to catch the insects and worms which they feed upon. I have never had much success with them.
4Ped: This category covers what could be horse, tiger, dog, or buffalo. Whatever it is, it feeds upon insects/worms/birds and has only the biped and scorpion as predators. Its large mass requires time to accelerate upto running speeds, and similarly to slow down. So it moves best in open spaces like what is found in the Arid climate. Crashing into things at speed causes injury, and this not only brings it to a stop, but shortens its life expectancy which is the greatest bane. Most lower lifeforms have ways of avoiding being caught, but the running speed of the 4Ped counteracts these defence mechanism to a large extent.
2Ped: This is top of the food chain in most climates, but cannot run as fast as 4Peds to make catching them easy. It also needs time to accelerate and plenty of space to move around safely. But this slightly lower speed also has a dramatic effect on the 2Ped's ability to catch any lifeform - they all seem to have developed quirky ways of avoiding being caught. For example, it has little hope against the flies' quick reflexes, and bugs have a tendency to dart off to the side. Hunting can be difficult business!
Scorpions: These are top of the food chain, but they are slow and really struggle to catch food. Scorpions are likely to die of starvation. Do watch out for birds who can fly in and swoop down unexpectedly. Scorpions also have difficulty mating. Life at the top is hard.
The genetics of this world are based around 8 key genes, one of which can be unlocked once per generation. Each gene takes one of eight values, represented by special symbols, and manipulating these allows you to adapt your form, or mutate into other forms, slowly working your way through creatures like: slugs, worms, snakes, bugs, flies, butterflies, birds, scorpions, 4-footed mammals, bipeds, and numerous varieties of plants.
The general form is set by genes 2,4,6 and 8. Gene 8 alone controls whether you are plant or animal. For all animals, your form depends on whether these three other genes take a (L)oW value (1-4) or a (H)IGH value (5-8 ):
2 4 6 - Animal Form
L L L - Worm/Snake/Slug
L L H - Scorpion
L H H - Bird
L H L - Fly/Butterfly/Moth
H H L - Fly/Butterfly/Moth
H L L - Bug
H L H - 4Ped
H H H - 2Ped
Other minor changes can occur by manipulating the genes. These variations characterise species such as is detected with the wing span of birds and flies, and the leg length of bugs and bipeds. These variations affect not only one's speed of motion, but how cumbersome/useful your body is also. For example a tall creature can run faster, which can be useful for catching prey or escaping from a predator, but the higher metabolism will make the life expectancy shorter. Plus, a tall creature cannot move beneath trees as easily. It is up to you to decide which factors to use, and natural selection to decide whether your choice was worthy.
gene 1 controls the broadness of the head end of most creatures.
gene 2 also controls leg length of flies, body length of bugs, fatness of worms, leg length of 2peds.
gene 3 controls a multitude of things: the head size of insects, the height of worms, the waist of birds, the leg length of 4peds, and the build/posture of 2peds.
gene 4 also controls the muzzle length of 4peds, the flatness of worms, and the wing shape of flies.
gene 5 controls the broadness of the tail end of most animals, but instead controls the leg length of birds, the arm length of 2peds, and the antennae length of worms.
gene 6 also controls neck length of birds and 4peds, and the face length of 2peds.
gene 7 controls the muscular build of flies and bugs, and the tail size of birds.
gene 8 has no effect on animal forms.
In the game, a plant form is considered to be a death, which I find disappointing. Nevertheless, the genes have the following effects on plant forms:
gene 1 controls the complexity of the leaves
gene 2 controls the shape and support of the leaves, making them sit upright or hang down.
gene 3 controls the broadness of the leaves.
gene 4 controls whether the higher branches are projected upward or outward.
gene 5 controls the branching on the upper part of the plant
gene 6 controls the branching on the lower part of the plant
gene 7 controls the rigidity of the branches between stiff spiky things or drooping. This has less effect on plants with complex branching patterns.
gene 8 controls the axial rotation of the upper plant stem, determining whether the upper leaves occlude the lower ones.
To complicate matters a little further, the ecosystem you are immersed in is native to a particular climate, and so part of your survival strategy must be to adapt to suit this environment. For example, the baking sun of the desert climate makes life as a bug rather difficult, whereas the biting frozen climate is no home for scorpions.
There are 5 climates supported in ECO:
1. Tropical - This climate is characterised by a red/blue sky with limited cloud cover over green land. The ecosystem here has an abundance of plants, flies and birds, slightly less bugs, 2peds and 4peds, and no worms/snakes or scorpions. With upto 10 creatures initially within visible range, predators are quite common, but despite this high number, survival here as an insect is relatively easy compared to some of the other climates due partly to the shelter you recieve (and should take advantage of) from the plants, and partly due to the fact that most of these other creatures are also non-threatening insects. But flies are perhaps the best distributed, and with the air being safer than the ground, I consider this to be the most adapted form.
2. Arid - This arid environemnt is characterised by clear blue skies over dry brown land that is strewn with small rocks. The ecosystem here has relatively few plants, so survival as a smaller lifeform can be difficult: bugs, snakes and flies will struggle most here. The animal which seems to dominate this land is the 4ped, followed by 2ped, and birds. Snakes have a fairly large presence also. Initially, there are around 4 animals within visible range. To live long and prosper in this arena, I would recommend trying to mutate into a 4ped.
3. Frozen - The ice world is characterised by snowy purple skies over grey land that is strewn with small rocks. Like the Arid landscape, the ecosystem here also has relatively few plants, but the reduced number of mammals and birds makes life as a bug or fly much safer. Indeed, there is often a larger population of bugs making mating very easy. On the downside, competition for food is tough, and starvation is a likely post-mortem. Around 3 creatures will be within visible range initially. The best survival strategy here is to be a bug.
4. Desert - The red/brown colouration of the dusty sky and sun baked ground, together with the huge boulders that litter the place are the characterising features of this environment. Plants here are very rare. The population density is moderate with 4 creatures within visible range initially. The balance of life is with a majority of birds and mammals. Scorpions also make an appearance, and these can kill most other lifeforms in this land. With the combination of few plants for food, and the high number of predators, this is possibly the hardest environment to survive as an insect. For hunting potential, it can be beneficial to mutate into the form of a scorpion, but the birds seem to be the best allrounders.
5. Temperate - From the overcast blue skies, the olive coloured land, the abundance of plants, insects and mammals, this could be considered to be the most clement of the environments. Around 6 creatures will be within visible range initially, but these are mostly higher life forms and this makes survival as an insect more difficult. Plants can provide valuable shelter for insects, but the 2ped seems to be the best adapted to this environment. Worms/snakes also make a good appearance here, and you may consider this form for mating potential, although they do have a reputation of being at the bottom of the food chain. On the other hand, their metabolism is very low, so once fed you can live for a long while.
The controls are via the mouse or joystick. Navigation is through an 8 way pad (that is forwards, backwards, and three different modes of turning left/right). Birds and flies have an additional altitude control. There is also an auto pilot control for food scavenging and mate seeking, although these are primitive and should be avoided for the best game playing experience. With the autopilots, there is no skill in the game at all. You just hold down the buttons, watch and wait. The autopilots have no provision for defence or future planning - such as hiding beneath the plants when predators are looming, avoiding trouble in the first place, and not straying far from potential mates when looking for your food. It is these features which make the game most enjoyable to play, and are most reminiscent of real life concerns. Even so, for what is supposed to be a strategy game, something is lacking.
The controls are one of the worst parts of the game - they just feel sluggish somehow, and the novel control panel on screen could have been simplified and have some additional features, like a numerical display of my age, and my natural life expectancy. I would have liked to see a need for creatures to sexually mature by age rather than by eating, an energy bar suggesting the need to eat (possibly several times), and depleting faster as I move around more. With a little more planning, Ocean could have really gone to town on such a promising concept.
Furthermore, I dislike the idea that a bird can be born from snakes, or a tree seed falling out of the womb of a biped, so I would like to see the ability to make more subtle mutations into intermediate forms possibly utilising more genes, and where only one simple altertation is made in each generation.
The game has difficulty, possibly too much, making some games only 5 seconds long before being squashed by something. This is a nuisance and it happens all too often.
Graphics & Sound
The graphics used in this game are 3D wireframe vector graphics. Usually with 3D games on the ST, like in flight sims, the redraw time is slow and frustrating, but wireframe is usually a lot quicker and is an excellent medium to work in. In ECO, the wireframes are coloured and fully animated, and redraw time is reasonable - slower than what you might expect - but well within acceptability. It is also a very suitable rendering method for bugs' legs, etc! The detail in the wireframes is fairly good because we don't have simple stick men either. The creatures have joints in all the right places, and bodies have area/volume where it matters most. Overall, this is a little short of stunning. And remember that the animation was done before those limb tracking systems came into being, like what are used in film/game development so often these days.
The player also has the ability to move the camera. Normally it sits behind the creature facing forward, but it can be swung upwards/downwards, zoom in/out, and swung/panned left/right so that you can look all around without changing your physical orientation. It can complicate navigation to be looking a different way than you're walking, and I personally find it best to leave it alone, although I must admit that I do find panning useful in some circumstances.
Sound is used to good effect in ECO. The theme tune is a very organic sounding chip tune, and you have the option of in-game music or sound effects: The music conveying the sense of survival and uncertainty very effectively, and the sound effects being strange and alien which create a surrealism that facilitates one's imagination of what it might be like to be an insect. Besides the chip generated stuff, the game can also power your midi synth. The sound effects could have been better though. I know that bugs can listen to vibrations through their feet, so this could have been a feature that as a bug you could hear things thumping towards you from a long way away. Birds could hear other bird calls and have that audible guide to meeting one another, etc.
Unique and brilliant, although a little lacking in gameplay. What I like most about ECO is this fact that it gives us the chance to experience an insect's perspective of the world which is so unlike anything I've seen in any other game, and I really enjoy ECO for its originality and ability to open the mind. In fact, if I added up all of the hours I've spent crawling around these lands as a bug, it is probably longer than most real bugs live!
Graphics : 9
Sound : 9
Gameplay : 5
Overall : 8