With such hits as Echelon and Echelon: Wind Warriors under their belt, Russian game studio MADia Entertainment is no stranger to the field of outlandish sci-fi titles. Their latest project, Operation: Matriarchy, sees them departing from their niche space flight-sim category and foraying into the supersaturated genre of first-person shooters, albeit with a twist. The development team has chosen to incorporate many plot elements from their previous titles into Operation: Matriarchy; fans of the Echelon series can thus expect to see continued battles between the Galactic Federation and the alien world of Velian. This time, however, the gamer will be immersed in the elaborate and oftentimes bizarre environments of Velian itself.

The basic plotline is admittedly a bit cliched. The planet of Velian has become infested with an alien virus that transformed all females into Borg-style drones complete with machine guns and flamethrowers in place of arms. Intelligence reports point to these mutant mommies as the culprits in the destruction of several Galactic Federation transports. A first wave expeditionary force was deployed in response to the attacks but was annihilated shortly after landing on the Velian moon. Gamers will play the role of Galactic Federation troop belonging to the second wave of elite corps sent to eliminate the growing threat.

Several game elements struck me as unique and innovative. First, Operation: Matriarchy contains a wide variety of interesting environments that span from the cramped hallways of a control facility to the expansive landscape of a Tatooine-like desert. The artistry on many of the alien elements - a fusion of technology and organics reminiscent of the Matrix - is highly impressive. Since the enemies are mostly Velian females, it would have also been easy to fall into the trap of making the models similar with little variation. Instead, the artists and designers have created a veritable zoo of enemies that include huge mechanical monsters with Velian females fused into their belly (a la Krang from Ninja Turtles), floor-crawling squids, and lithe feminine sentries. A handful of security robots also make an appearance in certain levels.

From the looks of it, the build I received from MADia is an early beta. That said, the graphics engine is quite crude and obviously still very much in development. One thing I must laud them for, though, is not simply licensing an existing 3D engine and making a few cosmetic tweaks. MADia has built this engine from the ground up, so the possibilities for improvement are virtually endless. As it stands, however, the game sports a pretty generic looking FPS environment. Special enhancements - such as particle effects - are virtually absent at this point. The lighting effects are also in need of significant improvement. Most of the environments are way too dark, and the in-game night vision is useless for distinguishing enemies from the background. In general, I received fairly good performance - between 40 and 60 frames per second on a Geforce4 Ti4600 at 800x600 resolution. I fully expect this figure will steadily improve as the game nears completion. One notable performance exception is the flamethrowing effect from some of the aliens, which dragged my performance down to the single digits. As well, performance would spontaneously become sluggish at certain points in the game, but I'm certain this will be worked out in the final release.

The physics engine incorporates many of the modern elements seen in today's cutting-edge games. MADia boasts the use of "rag-doll technology" for all of their models so that downed enemies react and fall realistically. It appears this technology has yet to be perfected since enemies often remained standing even after I'd killed them. One cool thing though was that the bodies continued to twitch afterwards. As well, weapons in Operation: Matriarchy have been programmed to deal "true damage," meaning that a shot to the leg won't do the same harm as a shot to the head. In terms of enemy AI, I couldn't really discern any intelligent programming in this version of the game. The aliens were stationary at times even though I was in plain view, and they seemed to react only when I came within a certain distance. In other instances, a swarm of robots would randomly find me and start whooping me big time.

Overall, Operation: Matriarchy appears to be a promising addition to the FPS genre. In the final version, players will be able to use several armoured space-suits with many available attachments. They will have 16 unique weapons at their disposal to navigate the over 20 action-packed levels in the final release. As well, there will be a multiplayer element via LAN and the Internet. The only issue I can foresee with the release of Operation: Matriarchy in the North American markets is MADia's description of enemies as "mutated representatives of the weaker sex." Game designer Nickolai Lezhniev didn't express much worry in a recent interview, however, and rationalised it by quipping: "it is more than sexism; it's an attempt to show that a woman can be a fine alien too!"