Developed by the U.K.'s Introversion Software and initially available in the U.S. only by download through Valve Software's online Steam service, Darwinia is a real-time strategy game with action-puzzle elements, set in an abstract, computer-generated world. "Darwinia" is a virtual theme park that is home to little computer people known as "Darwinians." The virtual world has been infected with a computer virus and players are tasked with eliminating it, by commanding squads of little Darwinians across the angular 3D landscapes. Players direct the Darwinians' laser and grenade attacks by holding down the right mouse button while the cursor over the intended target. Other challenges require players to guide Darwinians safely to remote locations on the map, or get them to operate strange machinery.
Darwinia is different. Forgetting the fact that it comes from a talented independent developer. Forgetting the fact that isn't backed by a multi-million pound marketing programme designed more to indoctrinate than genuinely promote. Forgetting the fact that it's actually getting a Linux release (though so did Doom 3 eventually). Darwinia stands out because it's completely unique; a project whose approach has not only never been done before, but is unlikely to be repeated again.
For a start, Darwinia doesn't even fit into any genre out there. Is it a real-time strategy game? Probably not; you're limited to creating three units at a time at the start, with the ability to expand this through what is arguably more RPG-like; research. Ultimately, it's the Cannon Fodder-style gameplay that defines the game as an action title; surely there's no argument in the action of holding down the right mouse button and blasting away at a collection of virii or throwing grenades (or other weapons you can obtain, again by research) into a collection of spiders or other more dangerous enemies. There's no denying the action element or, indeed, the sheer fun of it; it's amazing how the seemingly simple process is so fulfilling and so very addictive. It's been a while since a game I've reviewed has hooked me in so much that I've had to manage my time around it in order to stop it ruining my life! I simply won't play Darwinia unless I have at least an hour to spare.
So, what is Darwina all about? Well, the story is set in the world of Darwinia - the world's first virtual themepark which is run inside a computer network built out of old games consoles that were on sale in the 1980s, but went unsold following the discovery of a minor fault which was overblown by the media. The console's creator, Dr Sepulveda, then used the recalled machine to build a giant network that could run his vision of a digital world, complete with sentient life; the Darwinians. However, Darwinia has been overrun by a red virus (everything you see which is red is associated with this virus, from the basic 'arrow'-type virus to the Soul Destroyers), which has multiplied out of control and is threatening to wipe out the Darwinians. So, naturally, it's your task to save the world.
You begin with the creation of squads; a 3 man hit-team, armed with lasers, and ready to fight the viral infection. But destroying the virus isn't your only job; released from each kill is a digital soul, which is collected by another important unit, the engineer. The engineer then takes the souls to a captured building called an incubator which then converts them into Darwinians - the inhabitants of the land which need Officers to guide them. It's from here that the research that I've already mentioned twice becomes important, because part of the progress you make in the game is through the updated abilities of the units you can create. From the initial three unit squad, you are able to make it grow to six units. You can also improve the range or your weapons, research new ones after obtaining research items, or as mentioned before, even improve the Task Manager to allow the creation of more units.
The Task Manager itself plays such an important roles in the game that it deserves a paragraph to itself. The method of controlling the flow of the game relies entirely on your actions in the Task Manager and the Research Panel. In what would seem to be another Introversion move against convention, Darwinia does not feature any buttons to allow you to select what unit will be created or some of the abilities they carry. Instead it contains a gesture-based system where you hold Alt to bring up the Task Manager, and then use your mouse to draw the desired patten for a certain action. For example, a simple equilateral triangle from the top creates a squad, while a shield shape (this time from the top-left) creates Armour. It takes some getting used to, but it's there to be different, and an ordinary button-based menu wouldn't provide the extra challenge in the heat of the moment that the gestures do. Another thing to note is the particular PC-based theme in the Task Manager; Alt and Tab are used in tandem to switch between tasks as you would on your operating system, which Ctrl and C also mirrors functionality used by many systems including DOS and Bash by allowing you to terminate the task.
The visual style of Darwinia is certainly something that has caught most people's attention. Most games today have been progressing towards ever-more photo-realistic graphics; Gran Turismo 4 being one of the recent examples. Darwinia, on the other hand, takes this approach, kicks it in the teeth, and lets the Darwinians fire their lasers at it repeatedly. That's not to say that the graphics are simplistic, or even in 'child-friendly' cartoonish style. No; Darwinia features a completely unique visual style that not only suits the nature of the game, but was also a way for the limited manpower of the Introversion team to achieve something remarkable. Aside from it's beauty and uniqueness, there's not much more to be said; as they say, a picture says a thousand words.
Of course, there's one part about the game the pictures really can't relay to you, and that's the audio. Darwinia again makes itself stand out from the mainstream crowd by the way it uses the audio not just as a background necessity, but to provide a living, breathing world for the digital creatures. The words of Crhis Delay, lead developer of Darwinia couldn't state it any better; "the ambience of the levels and the "feel" of the world really blows people away". Through my own experience, I would highly recommend playing the game with headphones or with a good surround sound system in order to enjoy it to its full potential; the way the game is able to draw you in and make you feel as much a part of the world as the Darwinians itself owes itself in a huge part to the special audio engine created by Introversion. The sound alone uses about 10-20% of the game's CPU usage, which is far above the usual crop of titles, and is essential for the situations where hundreds of 'voices' of the Darwinians are being played at the same time, let alone the echoes this creates. It simply is as much an audio masterpiece as a visual one.
Darwinia is certainly a game which I had both been following closely, yet in terms of gameplay, knew very little about. Upon first play it blew me away, and I was instantly hooked on it's simple basic gameplay, but kept playing due to just how much fun it is. It's a game every PC gamer should own, no matter what genre interests you; the masterpiece from the independent developer will be one to remember in the era of many mediocre mainstream games from the big publishers.
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