The lines drawn between old school and new school PC gaming just became even blurrier with the release Darwinia by the Introversion Software. The sights and sounds of the title are a purposeful throwback to the by gone days of the golden age of computer gaming. That doesn't mean Darwinia is just your run of the mill nostalgia title that lacks any real substance. What players will find at the core of this game is an intuitive RTS gameplay system that will challenge even the most fervent of strategy gamers.
Anyone that has ever had the chance to read over my plethora of video game reviews here at The Laser has probably figured out my dark little secret. For those that aren't that adept at reading in-between the lines, I'll come out and say it: I've got a soft spot for the smaller game makers. That's right. The underdogs, the pee-wee's on the block, the last kid picked for a kickball match, the underlings, the poverty stricken, the homeless, etc. Whatever you want to call them, I've always been drawn to those that the vast majority of people tend to ignore, or at least give very little credence to. And that same philosophy tends to run true when it comes to PC game makers. While the majority of the game writing industry is pushing through the waves of PR sent out by the bigger, more substantive dev's and publishing houses, I've found it that much more exhilarating to find that unexpected PC title that has come with little hype, fanfare, or huge press release packets. So with that in mind, you could probably understand the complete joy I felt after finding a copy of Introversion Software's latest release Darwinia on my work desk a few weeks back. I had absolutely no clue as to what to expect from this release, and had to load up the game and give it a go in order to find out the simplest answers to my questions. In the end, I wasn't even close to being disappointed.
What I found at the first inspection of Darwinia was what looked to be your standard 3-D RTS gaming model that been reproduced on hundreds of games over the past few years. A simple point-n-click control scheme allows players to quickly jump into the action from the get go, while a built in tutorial system helps guide the player through the various management aspects of the game. These include the objectives and goals of the particular level, various tech upgrades and research capabilities, and even a few gameplay hints and notes. However, it didn't take all that long to realize how different Darwinia was in comparison to the army of RTS clones that have gone through my PC gaming rig.
For starters, visually the game is stunning. The fractal generated landscapes that make-up the computer generated worlds of Darwina are a throw back to the days when such films as Tron ruled the imaginations of a generation of children and sci-fi fans alike. The overt polygon structures found throughout the game mixed with the 2-D denizens of the game (called the Darwinians) adds a sense of retro-nostalgia to anyone that lived during the heyday of the arcade gaming world, some 20 years ago. This is definitely seen when such 'guest-stars' as the alien ships from Space Invaders and Defender make appearances during the course of the gameplay. Adding to the visual aspects of Darwinia a specially designed and created soundtrack and effects package that mimics the 8 bit sounds found in the classic arcade games of days past. If the graphics package wasn't enough to evoke the memories of your now dusty Atari 2600, the sounds of this game will definitely drudge up those thoughts of your old school gaming adventures.
As far as the gameplay elements go, Darwinia reigns with the top-contenders in the RTS genre. The standard 'point-n-click' interface that controls the various unit placements of the game should be familiar to any that halve delved into the gaming genre before. Players can control up to three different 'Units' during the course of a map/mission, both combat and non-combat in nature. The combat aspects of the game range from digital troopers, to combat platforms, assault craft, and the like. Each variation of the combatants can be upgraded with the help of a research menu within the main interface of Darwinia. Players can choose to upgrade the number of troopers in a specific unit, increase their firepower, or even give them specialized weaponry (such as grenade launchers). How the players decided to upgrade his combat units can greatly effect the overall outcome and strategy aspects of the specific mission he or she is engaged in. This is especially true when attempting to access the best vantage point for an attack run on the various forms of Viruses that have overrun the different sections of Darwinia's computer-scape.
One interesting aspect of the gameplay in Darwinia is the unit generation system. Unlike more familiar forms of RTS gaming, the game's developers have created a very unique 'gesture' based system for the creation of in-game units. By copying a specific pattern with a mouse stroke, players can create troops, engineers, or any other playable unit within the game. You can then 'drop' these units at specific safe zones that are found or conquered during the course of the mission. Certain 'back-up' units (like Engineer's for example) can be generated close to combat units in order to facilitate capture of key buildings/facilities integral to the overall mission goal (portal used to jump to over areas of Dawinia, transport beacons, etc.).
Speaking of the Engineers, these specific units are also needed for another key feature of the gameplay in Darwinia: the capturing and re-integrating of digital souls. This key part of the game fell to the wayside for me on several occasions, making me analyze my combat strategy against the Virii on several occasions. In order to actually win a level, players must actually repopulate the world of Darwinia with new Darwinians, the little guys that originally lived in relative peace in this realm before the virus invasion. For every kill that your assault team makes, a digital soul is released. However, they do not last long in a free environment. Therefore, players must harvest them before the time runs out and safely take them back a hatchery type facility (that in turn must first be acquired and activated). With the three unit maximum of the game, this can create a definite challenging strategic situation for any gamer. You need the Engineers to quickly gather up the souls. However, you also need assault squads to keep the Virus infestation at bay. But therein lies another interesting aspect of the gameplay found in Darwinia: the game-save aspect.
Unlike other games, the one doesn't rely on the standard and sometimes cumbersome 'save-game' system. Players can restart any particular level at anytime, and find that key liberated building and transport conduit will still be controlled by the player. This comes in handy since the tactical advantage will be yours…in a way. Instead of starting from the initial transit point into a particular map, players can drop units into any captured building/zone. Not only that, but previously researched material that was performed during any previously failed mission attempt will still be available to the player, giving another healthy advantage. In the end, this form of progressive save system can help players learn more effectively the tactical ins and outs of Darwinina's unique system structure.
Overall, I found Darwinia to be quite a refreshing PC gaming experience. The creatively designed levels and missions, intriguing backstory, and vibrant graphic design really came together well to form a highly entertaining game. The early 80's gaming throwback also really adding an unique dimension to the gameplay, giving us old time gamers a nice bit of nostalgia. All of this mixed with modern 3-D RTS gaming attributes made Darwinia one of the best titles I've had a chance to play this year.