Darwinia Review

Developer: Introversion Software Publisher: Introversion Software
Release Date: March 4, 2005 Also On: None

My gaming career more or less started in 1999. That was the first time my family got a PC that was up to date. The first thing I did was get a magazine with lots of game demos to find out which games I liked. One of my favorite genres became RTS. I loved building cities and armies and of course what I liked best was to defeat the enemy by flooding him with lots of units. I loved Age of Empires; it became one of my favorite games. I bought Age of Empires 2 as soon as it came out but I felt as if my 90 German Marks were wasted. It was the same game, too few things had changed. I did not care for the historic background, I cared for the gameplay. AoE2 did not give me what I wanted. From then on I have not played many RTS games anymore because I feel that they are always the same, there is nothing in them anymore that interests me. That is, until now.

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Darwinia is a RTS (Real-Time Strategy). Well, the term “Action Strategy” fits better. It was not developed by Microsoft or another one of the big boys. It was made by Introversion Software whose first game, Uplink, was already an underground success. They call themselves “the last of the bedroom programmers”. I am quite sure that they are not really the last but they might very well be the best. They managed to use their limited resources (Introversion is 4 people) to create a revolutionary game. Darwinia gives us an impression just how much is really wrong with mainstream games. If four people can make a game like this then why do teams consisting of dozens of people develop the same crap every year? I hope that games like Darwinia will one day make publishers and developers realize that taking risks results in better games.

So what is Darwinia like? That is not easy to describe because it is the first game of its kind. Darwinia is a strategy game. You have to fight enemies with your units and strategic behavior is very important, but a lot of things are different. There are no resources in the traditional sense. You can not save the game and on most levels you can not even lose. That makes it almost impossible to get frustrated.

How does a game like this work though? There are two types of units in the beginning, the squad and the engineer. You can always create one of them if you need them by holding down Alt to access the Task Manager and performing the right mouse gesture. They cost you nothing, the only limit is that you can only run a fixed number of them at the same time. That is not a problem most of the time because you can only steer one squad at once and squads are not useful on their own. Engineers on the other hand do everything on their own; you can only tell them where to go to do stuff. Engineers are used to conquer buildings and to collect souls. More about that later.

Let’s take a detailed look at the squad first. The squad is used to fight your enemy and you steer it directly. Holding down the right mouse button makes the squad shoot their lasers into the direction of the cursor. Clicking the left mouse button while shooting lasers triggers the secondary weapon which can be a grenade, rocket or air strike (dropped by Space Invaders).

At this point, it is time to take a look at the story of the game. Darwinia is not realistic and it does not want to be. The whole game takes place in a virtual world created by a mad scientist by connecting old malfunctioning computers from the 80’s and by luck causing quantum resonance which then caused the virtual world, Darwinia, to come into existence. Unfortunately a virus managed to get into the system and took over almost all of Darwinia. Your task is to help its inhabitants, the friendly, intelligent green Darwinians to regain control over all the important systems. This crazy story opens the path for a lot of fresh design and nerdy inside humor (the Space Invaders).

The Squad’s task is to clean the levels of those nasty viruses and it is done by your direct control like in an action game, thus the term Action Strategy. Since you can always create a new squad if you need it and attack again there is no way to lose in most levels. If you are not that good of a player, you will only need more time. Of course the viruses have ways to replicate slowly too and there are levels that cannot be won with the squad alone.

Later you will need Darwinians at your side but they cannot be created by a simple mouse gesture. They are not programs but sentient, almost human-like beings. They need a soul. Souls are the only resource in Darwinia. They are left if you destroy viruses. You have to collect them quickly with engineers before they start to go up into heaven. They then have to be brought to an incubator building you conquered which transforms them to Darwinians. Engineers will automatically start collecting souls that are near their position, bring them to the next incubator and then come back to get more. You can create them near your conquered buildings but also near a squad which is very handy because you have to be quick when collecting those souls. Engineers can move over water and the highest hills pretty fast but they are stupid and defenseless. They will run into an enemy or other obstacle without thinking so always check that the path to the nearest incubator is free or you will have to navigate them directly.

What do you need the Darwinians for? In the beginning they are defenseless little guys and not very useful. You need them to complete missions because they are used to operate buildings like mines and factories. Those buildings are only important for the story, though, they do not really directly produce something. You cannot control Darwinians directly. You have to promote one of them to an officer (by a mouse gesture) to order them around. Darwinians near the officer will then automatically follow the direction the officer gives them. If not ordered by an officer Darwinians walk around more or less freely. They do not move too much but if you do not look, they might walk into virus territory so always keep them somewhere safe. The Darwinians do not remain defenseless for the whole game. Later you will be able to create tanks that drive them around and can transform into a stationary battle tower shooting at everything near it and being operated by Darwinians. This is the only building you will be able to create in Darwinia. Every other building you need has to be conquered.

An important thing in the game that I have not yet mentioned is upgrading. In the task manager you can choose which thing Dr. Sepulveda (the mad scientist) should be working on. You can upgrade your squad so that it consists of more than three guys. You can improve the task manager so that you can run more programs, you can upgrade weapons to be more powerful or have a better range and – probably most important – you can upgrade the Darwinians to carry their own weapons. Later in the game you will fight with huge armies of Darwinians. If something is upgraded does not depend on time but on the buildings you conquer.

I have talked so much about the game and not even mentioned the presentation. It is just as outstanding as the gameplay. The guys at Introversion obviously knew that four people could not make a realistic looking game so they did not even try. Darwinia takes place in a computer so it is quite logic to go with a Tron-like look. Darwinia is made of lots of little triangles and it does not only admit it, it is proud of it! There are fractal trees; buildings have no texture but only a color and units have a pixelation effect. The Darwinians are cute little 2D sprites with very subtle differences in size and color. All this together looks simply awesome; every screenshot is a piece of art.

All things in Darwinia have their own characteristic sound. Many of them sound very retro but due to the great 3D engine it adds up to a fantastic, complex soundscape. Especially awesome is the Doppler effect when flying around with the camera. On the one hand it is a little sad that there is no music during gameplay but on the other hand it would probably destroy the great atmosphere created by the sound alone.

I have not yet mentioned the controls much simply because they are no problem. Moving the camera with mouse and direction buttons is very intuitive; you all know it from Ego Shooters. Changing height is done with the mouse wheel. To move your unit somewhere you left click there, to shoot or do a special order you right click. The gesture systems also works very well, simply hold down alt and perform the gesture of your choice while holding the left mouse button. You can then place units with a left click. Selecting units is done by clicking them or, even better, by using alt+tab which is a way to switch between programs familiar from Windows. Space deselects the current unit which is very useful so that you do not give orders accidentally and ctrl+c deletes the current program if you do not need it anymore.

Darwinia’s main campaign will take you about 20 hours to complete which is not that much but a level editor is included in the game and there are already add-on missions available online. You might even want to play the original campaign again because it is so much fun and you know how to do so much things better now. It manages to motivate you a lot even without the possibility of losing. The game often lets you choose which level to do next and levels will even influence each other. A level is always saved in the state you leave it so you can go back later and start where you left. You can also reset a level if you have not yet completed it but all buildings you conquered will remain yours making replaying it easier. A multiplayer mode is rumored to be in development and that is something that would certainly be nice to have. It would make the game complete.

I cannot end this review without having talked about the beginning of the game. Every time you start up Darwinia you are greeted by an awesome intro. There are a number of very different things you will see, a raycaster, a matrix-style intro and more. Lots of funny nerdy humor that is what the whole game is in a way. I do not mean that in a bad way at all and Darwinia is also much more than that: an awesome experience and a really fresh game with gameplay never seen before that still fits together. I hope this will give other independent game developers an impression how they can make a difference without a big budget behind them. This is what games should be like. You can try the demo and order the full game at Darwinia.co.uk.

Graphics: 10
Sound: 9.5
Gameplay: 9.5
Creativity: 10
Replay Value/Game Length: 9.5
Final: 9.7
Written by Ortwin Review Guide

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