We got an exclusive first play of Darwinia+, the Xbox Live Arcade version of the cult-hit PC strategy game.
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Although Introversion Software still proclaims to be the "last of the bedroom coders," Microsoft is about to propel the studio into the mainstream. The publisher has signed a deal to bring its PC hits Darwinia and Multiwinia to Xbox Live Arcade, under a new package called Darwinia+. Xbox Live Arcade has been lacking real-time strategy games, and Introversion reckons that Microsoft is preparing a Braid-level push for the game once it launches in September. We were lucky enough to be invited to Introversion's offices, not five minutes away from those of GameSpot UK, to play the game firsthand.
The story of Darwinia+'s route to the Xbox 360 takes place over a number of years. When Introversion approached Microsoft to bring the game to Live Arcade, it was faced with the same request as most developers: "Can we have a multiplayer mode?" The team went away and came up with Multiwinia, an entirely new game that took the core concept of Darwinia and let four players compete against each other. The result was released on the PC last year, and the two games are being formed as part of a package called Darwinia +.
The good news is that both Darwinia and Multiwinia will be coming to Xbox Live pretty much intact. There are some minor tweaks to the interface, mainly because of the control pad, and the Assault game mode has been lost in Multiwinia because of hardware constraints. Everything else has either been ported intact or improved slightly, such as the graphical interface, which has benefitted from work by an employee who worked on Gears of War 2 at Microsoft.
The two games meld many genres, but they are ostensibly a mix of real-time strategy and god games, wrapped in an alluring wire-frame polygonal universe. You control an army of tiny Darwinians in both games. The left analogue stick moves the cursor around, and you can click individual Darwinian units with the "A" button and then send them to a spot on the map. However, it's more efficient to press "X" to create officer units who will then guide other units in a general direction. The camera automatically tracks to follow, the right analogue stick turns the camera around, and the trigger buttons zoom in and out.
The team admits that the Xbox 360 controller isn't perfect for its game, but the control system that they've implemented worked well enough for us. Jumping into Multiwinia, we were pleased with how quickly we were ordering our troops and navigating the camera. The game also runs really well on the Xbox 360, specifically the explosions and the water, which are more detailed and reflective than before. The game has a very distinct visual style, clearly inspired by movies from the '80s such as Tron and WarGames, and thanks to this classic visual design, it's a game that has aged well.
The new front menu on Darwinia+ presents the two games as equal halves of a spinning world, with Darwinia all light and peaceful, and Multiwinia a scorched, war-torn terrain. In Darwinia, you must protect Dr. Sepulveda's computer from a virus, using the peaceful Darwinians to stave off the attack. It turns out that the virus affected the Darwinians and caused them to split into tribes for Multiwinia, with up to four players joining to control various factions. On the Xbox 360, every mode apart from Assault has been ported, including Domination, King of the Hill, and Capture the Statue. The team confirmed that the original statues, which included the Companion Cube from Valve's Portal, will also make it.
Although Introversion has clearly faced some stresses in bringing the pack to the Xbox 360, the company acknowledges that most of Microsoft's suggestions have been for the good of the game. It's easy to see the importance of Darwinia+ for both companies; Microsoft wants an RTS showcase for the console's online service, whereas Introversion wants to see its biggest games played by a larger audience. The good news is that it's coming together incredibly well at this stage, which is encouraging, given that the release isn't even scheduled until September. That said, expect the package to hit the upper end of the online price bracket--at least 1,200 Microsoft Points, and maybe even 1,600. Make sure you check out our exclusive interview with the team above, and come back to see more of Darwinia+ in the run-up to its release.