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Some levels of "Life" are hard to get to - yet some hardcore gamers have managed to roam the moon-maps.

Being a one man firm, "Heavenly Studios" has always been something very special. Rumors have it that chief programmer, chief artist and chief level designer "God" (he’s also known by other nicknames) is currently working on a new public beta of "Life", a much anticipated and highly realistic three-dimensional game with its own proprietary 3D-engine. Others claim that "Life" and its engine "Reality" will be canceled by the end of this year due to certain cosmic reasons.

While researching for this article, I found it quite hard to get an interview, since the only way "God" uses to communicate with the world is his own chat-system "Prayer", which currently only supports one-way communication. So instead of whining about the lack of information about the future, I decided to write this article as it is now to have an in-depth look at the current beta-version of "Life" and how its engine competes with the other 3D-engines out there.

Rocky cliff in the "Lanzarote Island" level ("Life")
Two Porsches; the above was rendered by a GeForce, the other one by the "Reality"-engine. (notice the motion-blur !)

"Life" has been on the market for quite some time now and is highly popular – there are even sayings about the game all over the planet in all sorts of languages, e.g. "That’s life !", "Life’s a bitch !" or "C’est la vie !". Statistics say that almost everybody on earth plays "Life" every day. The reason for this amazing following is easy to find: There are almost no hardware-requirements for "Life" – you don’t need any computer, screen or joystick to play it; the "Reality"-engine does not support any 3D-accelerator-cards or 3D-glasses as all the eyecandy is accomplished in software. You already come with all the necessary equipment as you’re born. Though recommended, eyes or ears are not required to play – it’s even said that people playing without either one or both of them are the real masters of "Life". You must, however, have a brain to play – but if you made it this far in this article I can assure you that you meet the requirements.

The fact that there’s no need for additional hardware makes it even more remarkable that it still manages to bring you a whole new dimension of ultra-realism – in fact, it redefines the word ! Let’s take a look at the Force Feedback support in "Life" for example: It is so real that NPCs (Non Player Characters) could really knock you out with their punches – given the fact they don’t like you. That’s why I hope that no Quake-style game will ever make use of the "Reality"-engine.

One of the most interesting things about "Life" is that – despite the fact that the current version could be called quite old – it still competes very well with todays game-engines. But it doesn’t stop there – "Reality"s software-renderer even challenges todays hardware-solutions. To test this, I decided to come up with a head to head comparison of the "Reality"-engine and a PC with an nVidia GeForce 256-based graphics-board, which is the leading consumer-level graphics-solution at the time of this article (12/99). However, it turned out to be almost impossible to get exact numbers since the "Reality"-engine can’t run any of the common benchmarks – that’s why this comparison is a bit vague.

nVidias Tree-demo - lots of polygons here.


Experts are unsure about how the "Reality"-engine can handle the large amounts of polygons that are evident in every single screenshot... Some people tend to think that "Reality" uses a whole new approach; such as constructing larger objects out of billions and billions of small ones - but nobody can say for sure yet... This would've been one of the major questions for the interview I didn't get...

Insane polygon-counts ("Life")
The KICK-engine features some really large textures


While todays software-engines (e.g. the KICK-engine) use texture compression or similar techniques to finally be able to use high-resultion textures, "Life" has been in the "High-Res"-league for a long time. Although not all of the details seen on the screenshots are textures (most of them are actual polygons), be assured that we could use microscopes in any level of "Life" and we'd still not be able to see the pixels.

Super-High-res textures ("Life")
Calm sea on the GeForce

Environment mapping:

In this discipline, todays hardware isn't that far away from the quality the "Reality"-engine delivers; yet using high quality Environment mapping still means a lot of stress for the graphics-cards - so we won't see a perfect quality sea in a map of decent complexity for some time. But, as you know, time flies in the computer industry and such things could be less than two years away.

Environment-mapping in the "Reality"-engine.
The typical use of Particle Effects in other games of today (above) and in "Life" (below)


The "Reality"-engine has no way of determining the frame-rate; yet some tests have shown that it must be well above 1000fps, perhaps even eternal... This naturally implies that the whole concept of frames doesn't work for "Life" - I guess we just need a couple of specialized, new benchmark-programs to test this...


"Life" makes heavy use of particle effects. In other games of today, this technique is used for explosions most of the time; In "Life", you won't believe your eyes: Particle effects everywhere - just look at the screenshots and you'll understand what I mean. 

Beautitul plants: They actually grow in realtime ! ("Life")

The world of "Life" seems to really be alive; hence the name I guess. Bees are flying around, plants are growing and lots of NPCs roam the land. Each one of them is different and appears to live his life realistically – they’ll die if they don’t get enough food and they even have to go to the toilet from time to time. By the way, be sure to stay away when this happens, since Force Feedback is not the only feedback the "Reality"-engine supports...

An annoying fact is that an alarming percentage of the NPCs seem to be a little bit stupid to downright dumb. Furthermore, a subsystem of the AI which simulates different moods seems to have a slight tendency to the bad side. Fans of "Life" are quick to point out that this has been done on purpose and believe it to be "damn realistic".

Riding a dromedary ("Life")

Even though "Life" is freeware, you can't start playing right away - you first need to apply for a "Life"-account. If you're lucky, one female and one male NPC will decide to grant access to you, which involves a certain ritual. Still, it will take about nine months before you're allowed to start.

While using the typical perspective of ego-shooters, "Life" isn’t about carrying a weapon all the time and shooting everything that moves. The game is divided in chapters – the first one being "Youth", in which you’ll most probably get the chance to take part in some tutorials and training missions. It starts out with you being "born" and raised by your "parents", which in most cases are the first NPCs you will be able to speak with. Be sure to do so, since they can teach you some basic rules. After a while, other NPCs will try to teach you some advanced lessons which could be helpful in the later levels. Just like the standard character generation does in Role Playing Games, "Youth" helps defining the talents and attributes of your "avatar".

Theoretically, you are free to do whatever you want from this moment on. But that’s theory. Many gamers complained that "Life’s" difficulty-level is extremely high for some people, making it impossible to compete with other players. Unknown sources report that, asked about this problem, "God" answered with what has now become legendary: "Hey, it’s a beta ! You should be happy. Remember the dinosaurs ? They were the alpha-testers !".

While testing "Life", it occurred to me that it can involve quite a lot of sex, crime and violence (even Rock’n’Roll), which made me wonder why children are allowed to play such a game right after birth; "Life" should’ve been X-rated a long time ago...thank "God" it wasn’t.

"Life" has too many highlights to name; a few of the more important ones follow:

    Extremely Massive Multiplayer ("Life")
  • A highlight of "Life" is its built-in level editor. Far away from what we’re used to, this level editor is integrated into the game itself, allowing you to change your surroundings as you walk through them. You can paint walls, build houses or even worse – all the modifications are done in realtime !

  • As you’ve seen before, the graphics of "Life" are spectacular; what the screenshots can’t capture is the stunning resolution of the images and their format: Super-duper-widescreen.

  • Technologies like EAX and A3D demonstrated the possibilities of 3D-sound; but they can't touch the quality and realistic feeling of the software-soundengine of "Life". The sound of this game will blow you away !

  • One thing that makes "Life" a funny game to play is its support for EMM (Extremely Massive Multiplayer). As of now, "Life" has been tested to be able to accommodate up to 8 billion players at one time. While it’s unsure how many more gamers "Life" could take, it’s also impossible to test it; there are simply not enough players.

  • The maps of "Life" are endless. You could walk for days without causing the game to load a new map, yet the landscapes have unbelievable detail and variety.

A firetruck done with a GeForce (above) and one in "Life" (below)

By now, you are most probably really excited about the possibilities of the "Reality"-engine and "Life". But there are certain drawbacks – and I will name a few now:

  • There is absolutely no way to choose the visual appearance of your "avatar" or the difficulty level you want to play at – these things are randomly chosen at startup. While some people think that this adds to the challenging nature of the game, others believe it to be unfair. Rumors have it that this will be fixed in an upcoming version.

  • "Life" can only be played one single time. You won’t get a second chance to finish the game and there are also no such things as savegames. Especially the latter would be quite helpful, since the difficulty-level is extremely hard.

  • There is no way to tell for sure what the end of "Life" is like, since – strangely - nobody who went "Game Over" could ever tell anyone...

Curved surfaces at their best ("Life")

While the "Reality"-engine delivers unbelievable graphics and breathtaking sound, the unsatisfying artificial intelligence of the NPCs sometimes destroys the overall experience. If "God" manages to increase the intelligence a bit, "Life" could be the perfect game for mankind.

Final Rating:

Still, "Life" gets the full 5-star-rating and an additional GU Special Archievement star because of the nice female models in the game..."God" must be an angelic modeller ! ;-)

"Heavenly Studios" & all the cited statements of God are purely fictional. Never got around to talk to him so far, really. ;-) One more thing: Don’t take this too seriously, it is just fun – and it’s my way to applaud nature.

Comments are welcome !

Life From a Gamer's Perspective

Added:  Sunday, December 19, 1999
Reviewer:  Torsten Daeges


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