Preview: Photorealistic ‘Empire of Ants’ turns a classic sci-fi novel into a real-time strategy game


The 'Empire of the Ants' follows the exploits of Ant No. 103,683, and it brings the vision of Bernard Werber to life using photorealistic graphics and surprisingly accessible gameplay. — Photos: Microids

Tower Five Studio game director Renaud Charpentier first read Empire of the Ants when he was 15 years old. The unusual sci-fi novel dramatises a story about an ant colony in a park near Paris. It’s filled with politics and conspiracy as the six-legged protagonist helps its species survive after a surprising assault. The author Bernard Werber created a whole civilisation around the ant world that’s as elaborate as it is fascinating.

Thirty years later, Charpentier found himself making a real-time strategy game based on the novel. The Empire of the Ants follows the exploits of Ant No. 103,683, and it brings the vision of Werber to life using photorealistic graphics and surprisingly accessible gameplay.

Lessons for an ant

The first thing I learned as an ant is that water is lava. It would get the minions I led killed. The second thing about Empire of Ants is that the main character sticks to anything. He can climb under branches or over leaves. When No. 103,863 sprints or jumps, he loses that stickiness, so it’s best to sprint in familiar areas.

Exploring the world, there’s a sense of busyness as ants go back and forth and players follow the flow of creatures.Exploring the world, there’s a sense of busyness as ants go back and forth and players follow the flow of creatures.

Exploring the world, there’s a sense of busyness as ants go back and forth and players follow the flow of creatures. In the short demo I played, the ant from Bel-o-kan was visiting another colony to help its queen, Ta-yu-ni. I was tasked with getting her ants to the other side of the park, and this was an opportunity to show off the Empire of Ants RTS chops.

Ant No. 103,863 is the leader and orders troops around. The goal is to attack nests, take them over and use them to produce a unit to build a larger army. Initially, Soldiers are a good choice because they can easily take out firebugs and take over nests.

Once under control, nests can produce one unit and one upgrade. After capturing one nest, I chose to make Gunner ants, which spit acid and act as ranged attackers. Being an RTS, players can choose all of one unit it or send the whole group to take over nests. With a bigger army and two ways to attack, the next nest put up little resistance and with that I added Aphids, which play a support role healing damaged units.

One nest after another

I also had enough resources to upgrade Ant No 103,863 with a Pheromone perk, which increased my troops’ attack power. Essentially, it was bloodlust from Warcraft. I kept hopscotching from one nest to another adding to the army and personnel.

Empire of Ants has two resources: Food and Wood.Empire of Ants has two resources: Food and Wood.

Workers were next on the list. They can gather resources found in the field so that players can build more powerful units or set up defenses around a nest to protect from a counterattack. In my run, I found a pinecone and I sent the workers to harvest it. Empire of Ants has two resources: Food and Wood. Food determines how quickly players can build troops and determines the size of the army. Wood is used for defenses and plays a role in creating other perks and units. Interestingly enough, workers can also take down rival nest’s defenses.

The last unit was the DorBeetle, which is the heavy-duty shock troops that are immune to Gunners and can power through adversaries.

An RTS with console controls

Being an RTS for console and PC, Empire of Ants is streamlined well, so that it feels natural on the controller. Players can easily form combat groups for attack and defense while setting a third for harvesting materials. With a few presses, they can move troops where they need to be.

Empire of Ants has some depth to its strategy even if the systems are fairly simple for an RTS.Empire of Ants has some depth to its strategy even if the systems are fairly simple for an RTS.

My big test was attacking a termite nest. I overwhelmed the adversary with superior numbers but lost track of the Aphids. I didn’t realise they were in the front lines instead of the back and paid the price losing a ton of troops but narrowly accomplishing my goal. I should have taken the opportunity to level up my Soldiers to Tier 2, but doing so, eliminates them from the field and would leave my army vulnerable while the replacement units were made.

That shows Empire of Ants has some depth to its strategy even if the systems are fairly simple for an RTS.

What’s truly notable about the game are the visuals, which look so good that I felt that David Attenborough should have been narrating what was going on.What’s truly notable about the game are the visuals, which look so good that I felt that David Attenborough should have been narrating what was going on.

What’s truly notable about the game are the visuals, which look so good that I felt that David Attenborough should have been narrating what was going on. Everything from the forest lighting to the stream of ants feels real. Part of the reason that the game has a concreteness to the world is that Charpentier went to the park mentioned in the books to do firsthand research.

The team even talked with the author, Werber, who is an avid gamer. He offered direction on how the characters should look like. That’s one of the reasons why Ant No. 103,683 looks more distinct than the rest of a cast of thousands on the screen.

Empire of Ants is scheduled to launch later this year on PC and consoles. – The Mercury News/Tribune News Service

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