Darwinia Review

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Darwinia is wonderfully beyond description. It is a strategy game and a puzzle game in equal parts, with a dash of Black & White added in. It has everything good a computer game should have: immersive environments, a simple control scheme yet complex gameplay, and a strangely addictive quality.

(reviewed using a Pentium 4m, with 1GB of RAM 600MHz, 256MB ATI Radeon Mobility 9600, 2-Channel sound).

It is probably easiest to begin explaining Darwinia's concept in broad strokes. The backstory begins with “one of the great pioneers of the home computing scene,” named Dr. Sepulveda, creating a digital world with the leftover inventory from his failed computer gaming company. He built a virtual world of several interconnected islands, and used several thousand of his machines running in parallel to begin to create digital life. He began with ten thousand spirits--one for each of his machines--and sent down these souls to this collection of islands to populate his digital world named Darwinia. Throughout many generations, the digital life forms, known as Darwinians, began to evolve, explore and work with the structures Dr. Sepulveda created for them.

Eventually a small error crept into one of the machines running the grid, and the digital DNA was altered. This formed a virus that began to expand and infect the other inhabitants until the entire project was on the verge of collapse. Right at this point is when the game begins.

Having this level of background to a game premise demonstrates the care the authors and developers went to creating a meaningful experience. This is followed up with gameplay that is as near perfect as can be found.

“...with gameplay that is as near perfect as can be found.”

GAMEPLAY: 10
Darwinia fulfils the promise of late-80's and early-90's cyberpunk novels such as Neuromancer and Hardwired. The digital world you operate in is not unlike how cyberspace was meant to be according to those novels. Adding to the overall 80's theme, the Darwinians themselves are iconic representations of people in the Pong mold. The Darwinians look like hundreds of Pitfall Harry s with outstretched arms and no third dimension. The islands themselves are beautiful, but fractal. The land itself polygonal, and colored to look almost like slope fields. The clouds are heavily pixellated. The representation of the world of Darwinia itself reminds me of the “conquer the world” game James Bond played in Never Say Never Again.

This all adds flavor and gives the gameworld something strangely real about it. Darwinia will constantly impress you with its combination of uniqueness yet quiet familiarity. In a time where a lot of games look like cookie-cutter clones of one another and have difficult control schemes (Driv3r, are you listening?) it is a breath of fresh air to have a game that is definitely like nothing else, yet has a control system so streamlined it feels immediately familiar. Action games usually require a learning curve to remember the layout of all the functions. Even with remapping, the first few levels can be trial-and-error until you memorize the whether the use- or the item-key opens a door. Strategy games can be overly complex, requiring the memorization of several hotkey combinations to effectively wage battle. Included with this is an interface that hogs several acres of screen real-estate. Darwinia is none of that. You play with the left-and-right mouse buttons, the mouse wheel, the WSAD keys, the ALT key and the space bar. That's it, and that's it for everything. You build units using the left mouse button and Black-and-White -like gestures. The left mouse button does everything from select to shoot, and the right mouse button launches grenades or rockets.

The gestures can be a bit tricky at first, but are pretty simple compared to some of the complicated ones found in Black and White. The most difficult one to execute is the air-strike gesture which is a three-pointed star. Creating your squads, officers, engineers, and the like require simple, easily mastered gestures.

Darwinia starts out with basically nothing. The player is traveling though a virtual-reality cyberspace, looking to connect with Darwinia when an error in the datastream occurs. (Author's note: the game's cut-scene error messages can be very convincing. I was worried the game had corrupted files--talk about atmosphere!) You are able to login to Darwinia at the last moment, but the world looks somehow threatening. Soon you are contacted by Dr. Sepulveda through chat, and although he is initially a little ticked you are trespassing on his server, quickly enlists your assistance to help battle the virus while he works to stop the infection from its source. He quickly codes some applets for you--the soldier and the engineer--and gives you space to run your programs. You initially can only run three apps at a time--three squads, three engineers, or any combination of the two entities that sums up to three--but you will eventually expand your capacity as you combat the virus' infection on Darwinia.

The first level is basically a tutorial, but doesn't feel like it. Rather than the usual follow-meaningless-control-orders present in tutorials of other strategy games, Dr. Sepulveda explains the use of the ALT key and the ins-and-outs of creating units. It is then up to you to figure out how best to beat back the parts of the virus that have infected this first island of your adventure. As you combat the virus using your squads, you uncover research and structures that the engineers can repair and interpret to help Dr. Sepulveda expand your arsenal and also allow you to travel to other parts of the game.

The gameplay remains essentially the same, save for the occasional unit upgrade. The best aspect of Darwinia is how it takes common elements from each level and throws them at the player in new and incredibly challenging ways. The game can be overwhelming and frenetic, but it is never unfair: you always are left with a foothold to mount another attack. In that way, victory is almost inevitable, but never easy. That is how the game shifts from being a strategy to a puzzle game--the virus won't beat you, but you very well may beat yourself.

This challenging aspect makes Darwinia incredibly addictive. Discovering the next island, the next challenge, the next structure, becomes a gaming obsession. The game never really explains anything, as in the real world, and observing what happens and figuring out the cause is how the player learns--not by reading some manual. You will soon learn to keep your squads out of the water and your engineers off the force fields. As the second outing from the Introversion team--following up their previous title: Uplink --Darwinia proves they know how to create atmosphere and addictive fun from a stream of ones-and-zeroes.

Writing a review for Darwinia is almost unfair--the atmosphere is so rich and detailed, with great surprises and little touches, that to not mention them makes the review feel incomplete, but to mention them would be to spoil the experience of discovery for the player. It's that spirit of discovery that really makes Darwinia hum.

“...the atmosphere is so rich and detailed, with great surprises and little touches...”

GRAPHICS: 9
Darwinia is beautiful. It is not beautiful in the way Half-Life 2 or Splinter Cell 3 is beautiful, but it is beautiful in its own right. Its world is fully realized, and every item, creature, structure, and landmass is well designed and fits into the game's concept flawlessly. That being said, there is nothing revolutionary from a technical perspective here, but in a way, anything more advanced would make the game feel less real. Because you need to imagine you are in a virtual computer world, and everything looks so cyberpunk, the graphics really make the game work. Also, the colors are bright and vibrant. The graphics may not be earth-shattering, but as in Half-Life 2 or as in Far Cry , sometimes you have to take a few seconds to stop playing and just look around in wonder.

“The graphics may not be earth-shattering, but as in Half-Life 2 or as in Far Cry , sometimes you have to take a few seconds to stop playing and just look around in wonder.”

As any old-school hacker who came of age in the 1200-baud days will attest, Darwinia represents exactly what we imagined what the world inside a computer could look like.

SOUND: 8
The sound is very appropriate for the atmosphere Darwinia builds. Resampled 8-bit video game sound effects and a piano-based sound track add to the atmosphere. For example, having Robotron-like laser sounds is completely appropriate for your sprite-based squads.

The piano soundtrack lends a touch of tranquility, giving the player the feel of what Darwinia was like before the virus. It is a great mood-setter, but is absent for most of the gameplay.

REPLAY: 8
There isn't a multiplayer component to Darwinia, and to include one may well ruin the experience. There is, however, an in-game map editor, and mods and new maps and campaigns are appearing on fansites for Darwinia such as www.thenextgame.co.uk .

MULTIPLAYER: NA

CONCLUSION:
Darwinia is revolutionary and groundbreaking. The words most used in this review are “atmosphere” and “experience,” both apt descriptors. The Darwinia website claims that “Darwinia represents a fusion of the spirit and soul of the vintage years of gaming, brought bang up to date with the power and scope that modern gaming technology has to offer.” I couldn't have put it better myself.

“Darwinia is revolutionary and groundbreaking.”


HIGHLIGHTS:
-Completely unique
-Streamlined gameplay
-Fully realized gameworld

LOWLIGHTS:
- Mouse gestures can be challenging at first
- Game is a bit linear in play


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