The four student game-making teams competing for this year's Make Something Unreal Live prize have shown T3 their work-in-progress ahead of their Gadget Show Live showdown in April.
Presenting at the impressive HQ of London research charity Wellcome Trust, the fledgling developers from the universities of Abertay, Staffordshire, Bournemouth and Blekinge demoed their plans to a team of gaming and scientific experts – and us, the official media partner of the event.
The likes of Ninja Theory, Splash Damage, Lucid Games and Climax Studios are helping the second- and third-year game design students craft their ideas, while an array of doctors and professors from the Sanger Institute ensure the high-brow theme of "Mendelian Inheritance" gets the appropriate consideration.
The topic of recessive genes is certainly a more tricky inclusion than last year's Fighting Fantasy swords-and-sorcery romp. The four games in the final – Beings, Polymorph, Mendel's Farm and Epigenesis – are all being made using Unreal's free UDK kit. The winner will be decided on the final day of the Gadget Show Live event at Birmingham's NEC, after some fairly nerve-wracking tweaks on the show floor following public feedback (get involved, T3 readers).
While the victor will bag a commercial Unreal Engine 4 licence for digital distribution in the process, Epic's european territory manager Mike Gamble is confident all games will get a release of some kind. "There's no IP ownership involved – these games are their games, and if they can make a commercial release that's successful, all power to them," says Gamble.
"People have already asked if they can do a Kickstarter after this. They're building completely viable products and getting a real taste of games development." For more information on the event, head to www.unrealengine.com/msul/, but here's our take on the finalists ahead of the big showdown, with full video footage and screenshots above.
By Team Summit, University of Abertay
"We want to be up with all the big names: Nintendo, Blizzard, 2K Games," they say, and the four-strong Dundee team's cutesie tale of sex and death for kids certainly isn't short on confidence. Like a DayGlo cross between Tokyo Jungle and Pokémon (they've nailed the candy-cane visuals), there's a strong, if not always scientifically accurate, premise to Beings, which sees you progressing through a shifting landscape by mating animals with specific genes to create offspring superpowers. Molten lava level, meet my fire-retardant daughter! Despite being the early favourite for the prize, it took a bit of a bashing for its unfocused presentation, yet there's still real potential here.
By Kairos Games, Staffordshire University
A third-person platformer that resembles Ratchet & Clank on a weekend break to Avatar's Pandora, Polymorph's tribal tale of Oggs and Eldings is having to change its science on the fly a fair bit. In fact, we'd hazard a guess that it was already in development before the theme was set, so professional is the stage it's at, and how hazy the Mendelian Inheritance inclusion. That said, it was hard not to be wowed by the size of the game world, which has you evolving parts of your body through 'Morphs' (horns equal well 'ard), gaining temporary powers through 'Elementals' and soaring through the air in three-dimensional space, and similarly impressed by a team that clearly can produce games to a high standard.
By Static Games, Bournemouth University
The most zeitgesty, instantly saleable and yet un-Unreal Engine of all the finalists, Mendel's Farm is Farmville Plus, a chicken-rearing sim that takes Theme Hospital's task-management template and gives it an app store lick of paint. Some 60 egg colours and patterns signify their probable benefits, as the player goes about their business of buying, selling and breeding – just be careful with those random mutations. "It sticks very closely to the kind of Mendelian genetics you learn in high school," says mentor Dr Carl Anderson (you're playing as Mendel's dad, no less), who clearly thinks he's on to the winner. He might be right – Static's collective are already planning micro-transactions, so confident are they in their product. Us? We could see this on iTunes tomorrow.
By Dead Shark Triplepunch, Blekinge Institute of Technology
"I want it," whispers one of Static Games under his breath as the wonderfully named Swedish outfit Dead Shark Triplepunch unveil their uncategorisable effort. The feeling appears mutual, as hushed tones greet the dark horse of the tournament, like the whole room is having a secret LAN party in their heads. The most familiarly Unreal Engine effort, yet exploring a scientific theory even more complex than the one actually set ("This is hardcore," admit their mentors), it's part futuristic basketball, first-person combat, part real-time strategy.
Players must evolve the environments on floating platforms to suit their skill sets, aiding them in their quest to get more balls in the rather distant goal. Talk of a need for difficulty balance is met with a simple "If a team is better, they should win" dismissal, while plans for a "five-player live demo" (it's multiplayer only, obvs) at Gadget Show Live sound audacious. Whether DST will win this we're not sure, but they undoubtedly have the whiff of future stars.