Make Something Unreal Live is Epic Games' yearly talent competition, challenging European students to cobble together a prototype using the free Unreal Development Kit. Victorious entrants get more than a pat on the head: this year, they scoop an Unreal Engine 4 licence, among other prizes yet to be announced. Needless to say, competition is fierce. I popped along to the final heat of the competition yesterday at the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre, in which four student teams are currently ensconced, scrabbling to put the finishing touches to their games before judging begins on Sunday.
The Wellcome Trust have provided this year's theme of Mendelian inheritance - the process by which genes are passed on between successive generations. Communicating that idea through game mechanics is an intimidating challenge, but the teams have had help, both from science advisors courtesy of the Sanger Institute and from game industry veterans at Splash Damage, Climax Studios, Ninja Theory and Lucid Games. The four finalists have gone in very different directions: shooters, platformers and sims, each with their own distinct take on the idea of genetic inheritance.
by Kairos Games, Staffordshire University
Polymorph's cutesy protagonist can merge his DNA with that of the wildlife around him, growing new adaptations that allow him to traverse the floating rockscapes in different ways. The art team has done a sterling job crafting a vibrant, cheerful world, with obstacles that offer a well-considered dexterity challenge. If there's one clear area for improvement, it's in the protagonist's sense of movement and connection with the environment - both vital things for a platformer. The current animations don't quite sell the required sense of weight or precision, but if the team's efforts are focussed on making this most basic action joyous, they could well sweep the top gong.
by Dead Shark Triplepunch, Blekinge Institute of Technology
Perhaps the most complete and instantly gratifying of all the games in the competition, Epigenesis is a twitchy team shooter partly inspired by the Bombing Run gametype first introduced in Unreal Tournament 2003. Teams vie for dominance on a series of floating platforms, scrapping over a single ball and hurling it through the hoop at their opponent's end. Scoring gives you the chance to claim territory by planting a seed on a platform of your choice. Link a chain of platforms to your competitor's endzone and it's game over. Further complications come in the form of power-ups commuted by the plants grown on each platform - which definitely have something to do with genomics, honest. This feature wasn't in the build I played, and the way it was explained to me didn't sound entirely convincing - but luckily the game is a good deal of fun without it. It would certainly benefit from some sort of hook, but the basics are there: from the unusual but quickly intuitive way you charge up jumps, to the aerobatic movement and the acutely balanced projectile weaponry.
by Static Games, Bournemouth University
Definitely the most direct and thorough evocation of the theme, Mendel's Farm is a sim game in which you breed chickens, and eventually other animals, cultivating startling and lucrative mutations to build your farm's cash. It certainly has a fair bit in common with casual games like FarmVille, but the way it allows you to play directly with ideas of genetics is a thoughtful and enticing addition. It could certainly be a success with a certain crowd, but it's also the entrant with the furthest to go visually.
by Team Summit, University of Abertay, Dundee
Geared towards an extremely young audience, Beings hopes to sow the seeds of scientific understanding through its extremely light puzzle-platforming. I may not be the target audience, but it's certainly a delight to behold - a world of rainbow colours and lush grass, populated by adorable floppy-eared creatures with wobbling jellies on their backs. Collect all the stars in one area and you may become attractive enough to breed with a female floppy-eared-jelly-backed-thing. You can then switch control to one of your offspring, who may have inherited traits, like fire-resistance, from their mother. The obstacles didn't seem particularly interesting, but then I'm not a four year old. But then again, an intentionally simplistic game may not be the best showcase for the team's design talents either. All the same, it's a cute and surprisingly witty endeavour.
I wouldn't like to call a winner at this stage. Epigenesis is certainly the most immediately thrilling, but its relationship to the competition's theme seems shaky. Polymorph meanwhile could come out swinging if its fundamentals get the attention they deserve over the remaining days of coding. We'll be following the competition closely, with its winner announced on Sunday.