A Whole New Ballgame
Epigenesis presents a promising take on the next few hundred years: no grim future centered entirely on war, no post-apocalyptic earth where Darwinian human instinct has taken over; instead, humanity created the most popular sport in history, some strange hybrid of Basketball, Soccer, and Unreal Tournament. It’s also an interesting case for why “e-sports” doesn’t necessarily have to conjure up images of multiplayer battle arenas and first-person shooters, but that more traditional (albeit fictional) sports can exist in that space alongside the likes of Dota 2 and Counter-Strike. I really like what Epigenesis represents: it’s an innovative take on traditional sports that still provides the adrenaline rush of something like Quake or Unreal Tournament, in a well-produced package that you rarely see in games fresh out of Steam’s Early Access.
In Epigenesis, two teams face off in an attempt to plant a ball inside an enemy’s goal more times in ten minutes than the opposition across a platformed ravine. The arenas aesthetically resemble something out of Tron but play like something out of Quake. Each player is given a non-lethal laser with two modes: rail (an instant, focused beam which pushes enemies back a small amount) and shot (a mode which fires a missile-like projectile which travels slowly but produces an explosion that pushes back enemies a lot). The gun is a key part of both offense and defense — pushing an enemy back and causing them to fall off a ledge or preventing them from landing on one in the first place spells instant death, producing a 5-second respawn timer. In addition, hitting an enemy who’s in the air with your melee attack sends them straight downward, and if they fail to land on a platform? Splat.
In order to score a goal, a player has to pick up the ball from the middle of the arena, take it to the enemy goal, and toss it in. It’s simple, but when presented with power-ups like “smokescreen” (which creates a cloud of smoke over a large area for a few seconds), along with arena-based hazards (like the desert maps’ Twister, which pulls players it catches high up into the air), it gets complex and interesting. Upon scoring, a player is given a seed, which they can plant on one of the unoccupied platforms, which in turn spawns a plant, a kind of “turret” which produces effects ranging from firing projectiles which slow enemies, to creating a shield in which players can hide. In addition, each plant provides the entire team with a buff to either jump height or speed. Each player also has a gauntlet called a “meth-glove,” whose use is two-fold: the first, called “methylation,” allows a player to power up a plant; the other, called “demethylation,” allows them to cause an enemy’s plant to wither and eventually become inactive. It’s here where the strategy of Epigenesis starts to shine: its rules are deceptively easy to learn, but when other humans are thrown into the mix, their collective strategies coalesce into something truly spectacular.
At least, that’s what I assume happens.
You see, Epigenesis’ community is dead. And when I say “dead,” I don’t mean “there are a few full servers,” I mean there are two or three people playing the multiplayer at any given time. It’s disheartening, because playing against the AI only provides a challenge until you’re out-thinking and out-pacing them, and with a complete lack of single-player campaign, its appeal only lasts for so long before you’re wanting something richer. I only got to play a single match against real people, and it wasn’t even a full house — there were four people (two on each team) with the other six slots filled by AI. I’m sure that if I’d gotten to play more of the multiplayer component I would have enjoyed Epigenesis way more, but unfortunately, that’s what often happens with Early Access titles: people play them obsessively for a few weeks or months and move on, and then when the game comes out nobody is still playing it.
Epigenesis is a strong case for why e-sports doesn’t necessarily have to be entirely composed of the likes of League of Legends and Unreal Tournament. It is, unfortunately, a product of the all-too-common disease I have taken to calling “Early Access Syndrome,” in which a game’s community is essentially non-existent on official release. I’d stay away unless you’re buying the four-pack with the intention to play with other people you know, or are content playing against bots — not because it’s a bad game, but because the community just does not exist.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Dead Shark Triplepunch; Developer: Dead Shark Triplepunch; Players: 1-10; Released: August 1st, 2014; MSRP: $9.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Epigenesis provided by the game’s publisher.