Review: Survival of the... flattest?
Darwinia+ is Introversion Software's first foray into the console world but PC gamers have enjoyed the fiercely independent UK developer's quirky but critically acclaimed strategy games for years. Introversion spent three solid years porting over their signature game Darwinia to the Xbox Live Arcade ? well, ?porting? is a poor word since they also totally reworked the user interface and menu system, added tutorials, and created a brand new multiplayer mode (released independently on the PC as Multiwinia), all resulting in Darwinia+.
The game takes place inside a virtual world where the inhabitants, basic human-like programs called Darwinians, thrive in their own digital ecosystem. Unfortunately, their world is invaded by nasty viruses and it's up to you to clean up the system before they are wiped out. You are assisted by their creator, Dr. Sepulveda, who provides objectives and helpful hints.
Visually, the game is striking for its cool ?half-finished? basic polygon vector design, taking cues from Tron and other classic virtual worlds. There are some very nice lighting, shadow, fire and explosion effects all rendered in HD, so while it looks simplistic on the surface, it's actually quite detailed. Even the basic stick figure Darwinians look geeky cool.
Also impressive are the audio effects, from the grenade explosions to the agonized death screams of the viruses to the soothing electronic music, the game is a treat for both the ears and the eyes. Another nice touch is a different 1980s style bootloading screen each time you start the game, accompanied by the great music. Very cool!
Darwinia+ is actually two games in one, with the single player Darwinia campaign paired with the multiplayer Multiwinia.
Darwinia has you fighting the insect-like viruses by building three different ?programs? or units: Squads, Engineers and Officers. Officers are converted Darwinians that are basically sign posts that tell the otherwise mindless stickmen where to go. Engineers perform tasks like reprogramming key points on the map (like spawn points, trunk lines and teleporters) but most of your time will be spent with the Squad. These guys are armed with lasers and grenade launchers and are your primary means of wiping out the viruses.
Squads are controlled in dual-stick fashion similar to Geometry Wars and add a very heavy shooter element to this strategy game. You can directly control one Squad or Engineer at a time, but can provide basic movement instructions to the other units.
Darwinia was originally released in 2005 and unfortunately hasn't aged well. For example, the AI controlled units have little AI. Among their other tasks, Engineers collect the ?souls? of dead Darwinians and enemies and carry them back to respawn points where they are regenerated into new Darwinians. However, Engineers will often dumbly float right into a mass of viruses to grab a soul even if there are many others safely out of harm's way. Needless to say, when this happens your Engineer is toast. Similarly, Squads left on their own can only survive if there are very few viruses around since they are slow to react and only fire one shot at a time.
Another problem is the pathfinding. The maps include valleys, mountains and water, and every unit except the Engineer (which floats in the air) will get stuck on these features. It doesn't happen all the time, but it is often enough to be quite annoying. Even manually moving your Squad over what appears to be a passable mountainside can be very frustrating.
The free-floating camera gives you an excellent view of the map, from up high all the way down to individual Darwinians. However, camera control is taken out of your hands when you control a Squad, and can be very frustrating when you can't see anything because the angle is too high, too low, facing the wrong direction or is stuck behind a mountain.
The gameplay is also a bit of a mixed bag. The pace is extremely slow, so much so that many people will be turned off before they give the game a fair chance. You need several hours and lots of patience to ?get it,? and once you do, it can be quite fun (though a little repetitive). But with the console gamer craving instant gratification, it makes you wonder how many are willing to invest the necessary time when there are so many other games fighting for their attention.
There is also not a lot of hand-holding so you are often left wondering what to do. Some sections are very challenging to the point of frustration, especially when the AI controlled Squads do nothing but die and the nearest spawn point is an agonizingly slow 30 second walk away from the action.
Multiwinia, on the other hand, is much more enjoyable. Pegged as a sequel, it takes place several years after the events of Darwinia where the Darwinians are engaged in civil war. Sporting both a single player and multiplayer component, Multiwinia is more in line with a traditional RTS than the shooter-heavy Darwinia, since you primarily build and direct groups of Darwinians and Officers (though you can take control over some special units like gun turrets and Squads). It is much more strategic, faster paced and has more action than Darwinia. This is where you will spend most of your time.
There are five gametypes: Domination (capture and hold map points), King of the Hill, Capture the Statue (like capture the flag, except you need dozens of Darwinians to carry giant statues to your home base), Rocket Race (refuel and launch your rocket before your opponents) and Blitzkrieg (similar to Domination). You can play against the computer or up to four players over Xbox Live. Games can get pretty intense with literally hundreds of Darwinians screaming and battling it out while special crates drop out of the sky containing crazy powerups like life-sucking trees, zombie Darwinians that kill everything in their path, flamethrowers, missile bombardments and more.
Multiwinia is easily the star of this package. Although it is best played with your friends online, even battling solo against the AI is quite fun. But at 1200 points ($15), the price seems a bit steep to play essentially half a game since you'll try Darwinia once but will go back to Multiwinia many times.