05/02/2007 at 18:27       Sam       7 COMMENTS. - Score 3/5
I've been wondering how I can introduce a game that is as unusual and magnificent as Darwinia without coming on too strong. This is the kind of game that everyone should at least experience for themselves and that any self-respecting gamer really should have as part of their collection. In a world where the franchise and licensed product reigns supreme and gigantic publishers stride around with an arrogantly regurgatative attitude towards games development that is steadily stripping the gaming of any sense of wonder that it once had, (breathe) it is so utterly refreshing to play a title such as Darwinia. Like all wonderful things it is not without its faults but like all flawed beauties it is the contrast of the deficiencies against the strengths which create something that is even more beguiling then the sum of its parts would suggest. And like anything you can fall in love with, it will infuriate and annoy, as no matter how aware we humans are of the flawed nature of the universe it still exasperates us to see perfection spoiled by seemingly surmountable things.

Before I descend even deeper into a world of superlatives I really should get on with describing the game to you, so let's hove away from the hagiography and move onto the review proper. The actual gameplay in Darwinia is a hybrid of a handful of old 8 and 16 bit classics with plenty of inspiration taken from more modern titles. Every review has tried to link Darwinia to a selection of games, so here's my choice: Cannon Fodder, Sentinel, C&C, Virus and Centipede. When you first plunge into the game you have a very limited number of units and weapons at your disposal. The two basic units are the troops, which do all the killing and most of the dying, and the engineers, which interface with buildings and collect the souls of the dead and bear a striking resemblance to the Recognisers from TRON. The world of Darwinia is an artificial construct inside a mainframe, populated by the Darwinians. Due to an oversight by its creator the world has become infested with a massive viral outbreak which threatens to ruin his artificial life project and spell doom for the world of Darwinia. It is down to the player to clear out the infestation and restore the world to its rightful order. You must use your troops to clear out the virii, zapping them with the right mouse button while the left deals with movement. Every time you kill a foe they will leave behind a glowing red diamond, which you should try to pick up with the engineers so they can be returned to the incubator and reborn as Darwinians. Darwinia uses a very forgiving gesture recognition system for unit creation which although somewhat unnecessary is an attempt to do something different. The lack of squad hotkeys is, however, an innovation I could have done without.

The engineers are a fundamental unit in the game. Without them you cannot take over the radar stations which link the various islands, nor the control towers, portals or incubators. Later on in the game you must use your Darwinians to take over the range of buildings and structures which carry out the core tasks of the Darwinian world, so re-birthing the souls of the dead in incubators becomes a crucial task This is also where the story really begins to develop. The player learns that they must use the little green people to purge Darwinia of the virii by taking back the system factories and facilities that give birth to the Darwinians in the first place. In keeping with the minimal unit numbers you cannot control the Darwinians directly. Instead you must rely on Officers; Darwinians converted into commanders that can order the hordes around. Generally speaking, the Officers are used to set up a travel network, with one officer pointing to the next in the chain, a path which the Darwinians float along in their characteristically ghost-like manner. Officers also have other functions such as follow me and group, but I never used them, partly because I missed the instructions on how to use them and partly because the one function I did know was enough to see me through the entire game.

Darwinia does more then encourage different attitudes towards your troops, it positively requires it. The standard in RTS games is that you must shepherd your troops, doing your best to keep the units alive for as long as possible, maybe even being rewarded for your diligence with an increase in their rank and abilities. Not so in Darwinia where you have to dispose of your own troops on a regular basis. At the start of the game you can only control three units at a time. While this can be adjusted upwards with research, even at its upper limit the number of units under your control at one time in tiny. So if you have conjured up three troops units and need an engineer, one of that loyal gang of soldiers is going to have to bite the dust. As the game evolves, diligent management of your units becomes something you have to focus even more of your energies on. By playing against a gamer's learned behaviour Darwinia manages to alter the very core of that person's gaming persona, a process which invigorates the jaded gamer while making for a wealth of interesting tactical decisions.

You can research improved versions of these units and weapons and as the game progresses you will happen upon glowing blue cubes, which contain new items to play with. Of course, these can also be researched to increase their range and potency. Of note is the air raid weapon, which allows your troops to lob beacons into the enemy. These beacons attract the bombers which are lifted straight from Space Invaders and quickly sterilise the area. As there are no resources to speak of research is little more then a waiting game. Supposedly capturing more radar dishes will speed things up, but as I'd pretty much maxed out all the units and weapons I was making use of by the end of the game there's little incentive to capture every building on every map. The maps themselves are rich in their diversity and texturing. The starter levels are basic and somewhat bland but by the time you reach the final stages of the infestation there is some grand architecture and swooping landscapes to admire. The gameworld is always a joy to behold, evoking as it does so many good old memories while managing to forge a distinct identity all of its own. So it's fortunate that the engine is a very smooth and well constructed beast. The camera controls hardly take any time to fall under the category of 'mastered' and it's only under extreme loads that the engine shows any sign of stress. As mentioned later on, things can get a little disorderly during the more frantic battles but for the vast majority of the time the gameworld and the engine that creates it are marvellous.

Darwinia has yet another ace up its sleeve in the shape of that story. For a game with such unashamedly retro gameplay there's a surprisingly detailed plot which is superbly woven into the fabric of the gameplay. To be honest, I think this is one of the best examples of integrating a story into a game that I have ever encountered, blowing the likes of Half-Life 2 clean out of the water. Not only does the plot develop according to your actions but it ties up very nicely at the end, giving the player a sense of achievement and accomplishment that certain FPS titles from last year, with their multi-million dollar budgets, spectacularly failed to do. I certainly hope I will revisit the world of Darwinia to see how the little chaps have gotten on in the meantime. To increase the already strong sense of immersion I would have liked to have seen a more involving login process as the setup of the game - the player jacks into a mainframe hosting the world of Darwinia just as things go wrong - cries out for an even greater blurring of the lines between reality and the gameworld. Saying that, the variety of retro-tinged intro screens are a joy for any old-school gamers.

In a world where ten man sound teams are not unheard of to have a game of such dazzling inventiveness and cheeky brilliance come out of a studio composed of three principles is nothing short of amazing. Some titles have more people working on manual design. However, while this tiny team have produced an amazing game the lack of numbers means there are a number of problems that a larger team could have dealt with. Darwinia is unfortunately plagued by bugs. During my time in the game I was booted out to the desktop far too often. The game would also freeze on occasion and sometimes the frame rate would drop down to single figures for no discernable reason. I also experienced problems with the gesture recognition system. While the system worked flawlessly for the most part during the final battle, when I needed my control to be at its finest, it wouldn't take in any commands, leaving my Darwinians to face an undignified slaughter without any backup from troopers extremely hesitant to make an appearance on the battlefield. Unit selection could also become very ropey when a lot was going. One mission in particular, which saw me create an armada of tanks, became a lesson in temper control rather then an enjoyable gaming experience.

So it's only to the game's credits that these many glitches and failures are still outgunned by the superior gameplay. Darwinia is just too enjoyable to let these bugs bring play to a halt, even if some of them threaten to bring unhealthy player's lives to a halt as their blood pressure pass beyond safe levels. Like its retro forebears Darwinia will always remain a rich gaming experience, no matter how far along time's arrow it travels. And like the classics from the halcyon period of gaming, the opulence of its gameplay will defy the words that writers of my limited capabilities can employ. So I may as well come to the end of this review and close it out with these final words. Darwinia is the most refreshing, beautiful, frustrating, compelling and dare I say it original game I've had the pleasure of playing in many a year. Considering the number of games I play each year I hope that statement, the words above and the score below, is enough to convince you of your need to buy and play Darwinia.
User Comments:

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repairmanjack - on 05/02/2007 at 19:59 wrote:
Isn't this coming to XBLA?

Crom - on 05/02/2007 at 20:14 wrote:
It's coming to that vista games thing and supports the 360 pad. I will eat my hat if the makers wouldn't do a port.

How hard could it be?

peej - on 05/02/2007 at 22:10 wrote:
Awesome stuff...! Really should pick this up

as I voraciously consumed and enjoyed the

Good review, and sounds essential even
despite the few bugs.


HairyArse - on 05/02/2007 at 22:13 wrote:
That would be ace if true.

Chemicalbuoy - on 05/02/2007 at 22:15 wrote:

Rhythm - on 05/02/2007 at 22:45 wrote:
Tis indeed a stunning game. I got it as part of the $20 Steam package with Uplink (also trés awesome)

Salaman - on 08/02/2007 at 13:37 wrote:
As stunning and beautiful and blah blah as it may be to look at. It's shit to play.
It feel broken in many ways. Whilst I can see why people like the idea of Darwinia, I fail to understand why people like playing Darwinia.

I tried. It was just a bit frustrating in the end. If they do a sequel which fixes the problems I'll give it a go though.

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Better late than never, eh Ror?
Khanivor - In response to: Battle Chasers: Nightwar Review - 246day(s) ago.
Enjoyed this, cheers!
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Looks who's back. Shady's back.
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Micro Machines was my favourite!
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i agree chris, the Aliens table makes the others look bad.. because its so goood!! but they arent that bad.. haha! ...
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