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Thursday, March 28, 2024

This strategy game about photorealistic ants will have you bugging out

This strategy game about photorealistic ants will have you bugging out
A colony of ants wanders in Empire of the Ants.
Microids

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

As a long day of meetings at last week’s Game Developers Conference came to an end, I walked into a conference room to play one last game. I didn’t know much about it beyond its title, Empire of the Ants, and the fact that it featured “photorealistic ants.” It was the exact kind of curiosity-inducing sales pitch that I seek out at video game events like this, though I wasn’t expecting much more than an oddball curiosity. When I finally sat down at a PC and saw hundreds of intricately detailed ants milling around, my eyes bugged out.

Welcome to the colony

Empire of the Ants sports a truly unique premise. It’s a real-time strategy game based on a French science fiction novel of the same name. Players take control of one ant marching through the woods, though they command an entire colony with some clever controls. Some quick story setup introduced me to a bit of the insect conflict: I’m tasked with protecting the colony from the elements and invading bugs.

So much stands out at first glance that it’s hard to know where to start in explaining it all. For one, the ants are indeed photorealistic to a degree that’s sure to be sickening for those who find bugs creepy. Since the camera is placed at a close third-person perspective behind my ant, I get to see every intricate detail as it trots around. The developers at Tower Five stress that they’ve gone for realism in almost every respect — even ones that seem invented for a video game. When I jump, launching my ant across a patch of leaves, the developers on hand note that the motion is fairly close to how ants actually leap.

An ant crawls up a tree in Empire of the Ants.
Microids

Another technical magic trick comes when I crawl onto a log and quickly realize that I’m not bound to flat surfaces. I’m able to walk up and around any surface, just as a real insect can. I test that out by snaking my way around an intricately detailed piece of wood, even twirling around a twig. Later, I climb up onto a leafy sprout and find myself twisting all the way around a small green leaf. That traversal immediately makes Empire of the Ants feel unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before; it’s like grounding Super Mario Odyssey’s core gimmick in natural realism.

After taking some time to marvel at the beautifully detailed world, I quickly get introduced to the strategic elements. It starts when I stumble on a nest. A piece of UI pops up around it, allowing me to decide what breed of ants I want to spawn. I can choose warriors that attack at close range, spitters that shoot acid from afar, worker ants that focus on carrying objects, and more. I start by selecting some warriors and dozens of red ants spew from the ground. (I can’t stress enough how much this is not for people who have a fear of bugs.)

Tower Five says that one of its main goals here was to make a strategy game that felt natural on a controller. Impressively, the studio seems to have pulled that off. I’m easily able to command my warriors by selecting the crew with one button and tapping another to place a marker that they’ll follow. I direct them to a close-by nest, where they immediately go to war with some termites. A surprisingly brutal battle unfolds around me in passive fashion, but my crew comes out victorious.

A spider towers before an ant in Empire of the Ants.
Microids

When I grab two more breeds of ants, I find that I can easily flip between which pack I want to control at any given time. It reminds me a bit of how Pikmin 4 handles its controls, letting players select a specific Pikmin type that they want to command. Late in the demo, I sent my warriors to clear out one nest while my workers collected materials from a pinecone and brought it back to another nest. More advanced (but still easy to grasp) controls let me pair ant types up or split them into separate crews, allowing me to more efficiently multitask and manage up to seven packs at once.

What I’ve yet to see here is where the story goes or how engaging the core strategy game will be over the long term. By the end of my demo, it felt like all I had really done was take over some nests, collect a few resources, and watch my ants passively go to war with some small foes. I’m hoping that there’s a little more to do and manage outside of the small area I demoed, and I’m especially hoping I get to see my ants take on some larger foes (bring on the rodents, I say).

Seeing — and playing — is believing here. Empire of the Ants is a pure design flex in every respect. It’s a visual spectacle that makes the most of Unreal Engine 5 and its shaping up to be a surprisingly approachable strategy game that fixes the genre’s gamepad struggles. It’s the exact kind of game that people will need to show their friends to confirm to them that it’s as jaw-dropping as they think. If you can stomach seeing hundreds of creepy crawlers up close, this is one you likely won’t want to miss.

Empire of the Ants is set to launch on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC later this year.

Digital Trend, New tech, tech news, wikiHow

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