Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Cinemaware Marquee
Developer: Introversion Software
Release Date: June 12, 2006
Darwinia is quite the plucky little project. Coming from Introversion Software, the tiny independent team behind the highly enjoyable, if extremely unpolished, Uplink: Hacker Elite, Darwinia could initially only be purchased from the company's web page. Now it's available on Valve's Steam service and retail shelves in most territories, which is clearly a huge coup for its creators. It's only just made it to retail, though, and since the first final version hit its first online store well over a year ago, you'd think the game might be showing a little age, independent darling or not.
Of course it hasn't, not one iota. This is the case for many reasons, all of which are also strengths of the game, all of which it give it a sense of timelessness. Firstly, Darwinia's plot is a fascinating and strange bit of fluff; a guy named Dr. Sepulveda tried to create a computing platform in the '80s, failed, and had all of this hardware left over. Much like any self-respecting nerd with a bunch of old computers and nothing to do with them, he built an elaborate AI simulator, the subject of which is the Darwinians, which evolved from basically nothing into charming little green men. A virus has evaded their peaceful servers, and you, from the computer you are looking at right now, have jacked into this server. Guess it's up to you to do what 10,000 generations of evolving AI can't do for themselves.
Such a plot deftly dodges such questions as to why the game doesn't look bleeding edge (the simulation is running on circa-'80s hardware) while also locking it well into the history of computing culture, which Introversion embraces with both arms. One of the most endearing parts of the title is that every time it starts up, it displays a demo from some aspect of computing, most of it extremely hardcore – an Amiga piracy "greets" screen, a software ray tracer, the game of life – if you're into tech at all, all of this stuff is lovely gravy.
If you're not, don't worry about it. You'll still certainly enjoy the game's stark, abstract but wonderfully evocative graphical style; every polygon is clearly defined, the larger objects in the game have a pixelated look, and in the context of the digital world, it all works extremely well. This is the kind of eye candy that bucks realism for art style, so it looks great while at the same time avoiding the issue that it is a rather low-budget game. The audio complements the look perfectly, moving between the digital bleeping of old computer tunes and dreamy, airy mood music without any trouble whatsoever. The sound effects sound appropriately digitized and fake.
You're probably getting the idea by now that Darwinia was made by some kind of wizard who managed to take every aspect of gaming that reviewers would normally dock points for and making them plusses. Regardless of how well you present and contextualize a game, it's still about gameplay, and while Darwinia delivers here in several respects, it fares less well in others. Darwinia is, at its heart, a real-time strategy game of the simplest order – you will never control more than a half-dozen units at once. Darwinians will act both as a swarming army and a resource to control devices within the world, and are typically plentiful and never controlled directly. Getting through even the hardest levels in the game will only require the lightest of tactical thinking; because you can create as many units as you need, a brute force method can get through most obstacles, albeit slowly. Add even the slightest amount of thought, and you'll punch through an enemy line extremely quickly.
It's at this point that the title feels like it's suffering at the hands of aborted ambition. Earlier versions of the game allowed you to summon units and use their abilities via a gesture system. A space is brought up for you to draw in, and the symbol you draw dictates what would be created. This system is actually still in the game, and while it adds flavor, it also hurts the pacing of combat and forces the player to do a great deal of symbol memorization. The version of the game on shelves disables that mode by default, favoring a more standard button-clicking method instead, thereby increasing the game's fast-paced enjoyment but also making it much easier.
While the game's plot of "virus-infested computer world" makes bugs harder to spot (indeed, it's possible that some of the "glitches" in the game were programmed in on purpose), some things about it still don't feel right. The squad unit doesn't feel like it can go underwater, for example, and often can't, but sometimes, if you position them just right, they can make a submerged trek to another island. It almost feels like a secret path you're supposed to find, but it also completely negates some aspects of strategy. If you can just sneak a squad behind enemy lines to take out the virus-spawning enemies, you've eliminated the need for tactics in that battle. Could that be purposeful?
The game remains quite fun in spite of this, so the final complaint must surely be regarding longevity. It's hard to squeeze more than 10 hours out of the story campaign. There's no multiplayer, and Darwinia is really too simple to warrant further playthroughs; the only toy you get at the end is a map editor. Even that issue is disarmed by the game's budget price, though not completely, as some replayability would be nice in a game like this. It's enjoyable enough that even for 20 bucks, you might feel dissatisfied and want more. Is that a compliment or an issue?
Darwinia is, all told, wonderful. It's the kind of game that would show impressionable young kids the breadth and scope of the medium without overwhelming them with mechanics, and I highly encourage most everyone, especially young people with designs on video gaming as a lifestyle, to put down the money for it. It's not for real-time strategy buffs, who should avoid it if all they want is another RTS. It's nice that there's a place in the industry for games like Darwinia, and a place for it on shelves. It's just a pity that it took over a year to get there.
More articles about Darwinia