Darwinia is a game I would not have heard of thanks to Valve and Steam, and it's a great game.
But until 2006, Steam was a dark program indeed. Crashes, bugs, rumors of being spyware... Ah well, not everything is perfect from the get-go. Steam was also made to show off games from independent developers, which were sold for about $20 or less. The first game to be released this way was Rag Doll Kung Fu, a complex fighting game developed by former Lionhead Studios lackey Mark Healey.
The other was a strategy action hybrid game called Darwinia. This was developer Introversion Software's second game effort (their first being Uplink, a game about a hacker's lifestyle), and like their first game, it's a fantastic game that blends genres together into a fun and enjoyable experience.
Like Uplink, The story about Darwinia is related to computers in some way: Darwinia itself is a massive network system that has been running on 1980's computers for about a decade. Dr. Sepulveda was working on Darwinia all this time until he found out that a virus had infected the system. Lucky enough, you pop in at just the right time to remove the virus and save Darwinia. Darwinia itself revolves around one-dimensional green characters called "Darwinians". They're small, sentient lifeforms that roam around the various lands of Darwinia.
Darwinia blends the real time strategy genre with a small pinch of action for extra flavor. The objective of each level is to eliminate the viral threat and find/activate other vital items to complete the level. When you begin the game for the first time, you're given a limited amount of help: a squad (or "squaddies" as the game's fans affectionately call them), which is primarily for assault purposes; and an engineer, which is used for gathering souls, researching items to improve characters and reprogramming things like trunk ports and satellite dishes. Also as you progress, you can also make a Darwinian an Officer to guide other Darwinians, and even receive an Armour tank for defense. These helpers are needed to complete the level's objectives, and you activate these helpers by running them in the task manager like a program. You're given a maximum of three programs to run when you begin the game, but you can upgrade this to 5 as the game progresses.
Speaking of upgrades, you can upgrade the majority of every aspect of the characters. From upgrading your squad (more members) to your engineer (increasing carrying capacity) to the weapons Squaddies and Darwinians can hold. Squaddies can receive three explosive weapons: a grenade, a rocket, and an airstrike marker (and the airstrikes themselves, amusingly, look like characters from Space Invaders). It's all up to the player to decide how they wish to upgrade each aspect, but all of them are important in some way.
Darwinia makes controlling units simple: You choose a program in the task manager, left-click to move them around, right click to fire weapons (if you're moving a squad). Despite the task manager being relatively easy to use, it can cause problems where programs in the task manager are erroneously told to go somewhere when pressing TAB. For instance, I want to click on task 3, which contains an engineer, to make him go to a satellite dish. I accidentally click on terrain and I had task 2, a bunch of squaddies on another island; selected. So instead of sending my engineer to where I wanted it to go, the squaddies start bumping around the island they're on because I told them to go somewhere they cannot normally reach. This, however, can be partially averted by using the number keys to choose tasks, with this; it's also faster to do as opposed to quickly holding Tab and clicking on the task, which can lead to mistakes like these.
When a character of any sort is killed, they leave a diamond-shaped item called a soul. Eventually the souls will go up into the sky, leading to them being placed in a suppository, which can be recycled into new characters in a later level. Souls are one of the major aspects of an engineer as they can acquire them, take them to an incubator, and spawn more Darwinians. Of course, the more Darwinians you have, the better your chances at completing the level. There's a little quirk you can see with Darwinians and souls: If they grab one before it floats away, they can cradle it, put it in a box and give it a more proper send-off. It's a cute little touch.
All ten levels take place on very complex terrain that resembles vector graphics from the late 1980s and early 1990s. These levels' geometries are very abstract, leading to problems where characters can get stuck on the level while climbing up areas, or on the edges of islands near water. Speaking of other strange abnormalities, I've seen occurrences where officers keep walking around the edges of islands because they apparently were misled on where to go, where engineers would be gathering souls, see something to reprogram and go to that instead of doing what they're told (and sometimes these are in territories where viruses are, so they tend to die quickly), even times where Darwinians would emit cries of fear, but to find that there's nothing dangerous around them. These are very minor quirks, and don't destroy the game immensely, But with engineers, you can't specifically tell them what to do and where to go, which can lead to having you make multiple engineers to do the same task, and even then you could still have the same problem.
When this game came out in 2005, it wasn't really going to push next generation graphics or anything like that. But Darwinia is not a game that requires a powerful computer either. The recommended specifications (1.6GHZ processor, 256 MB of RAM, and a GeForce 4 or higher) are enough for even low-end PCs to run everything at maximum settings. And trust me, this game really goes for the nostalgia 80s vector graphics look, complete with pixelated characters and bloom-like effects, so having everything on is a must. For a game of this style, it's perfect enough and you wouldn't want to see anything that's going for realism in Darwinia.
Darwinia uses a strange myriad of sounds to represent characters. Sounds from a cat represent the voice of Darwinians, while sounds from a freight train are used when you kill snake-like enemies. You can even hear computer noises from Squaddies. It's a strange eclectic group of sounds, and it works for the most part. However, problems arose where certain sounds would be very loud, leading to popping noises on my computer. Darwinia also features music from Timothy "Trash80" Lamb, which is used during certain parts of the game. This music varies from upbeat techno music to somber piano music, and every time it's used, it fits perfectly.
Oh yeah, I need to mention this. When you boot up the game every time, you'll see an interesting introduction screen that appears before the game begins. Most of them are references to computer culture in the 1980s, such as a mock bootup screen from the ZX Spectrum, to a fake demo screen from old cracked software, to an homage to Cannon Fodder with a message saying "This game is not in any way endorsed by Sensible Software".
Each of the levels in Darwinia can take up to an hour and a half, which depends on your efficiency, and how you approach each level. Every level can be beaten by using rush tactics, a commonplace strategy in many real-time strategy games; but it's not always that easy, as some levels can get relatively heavy on causalities, leaving souls everywhere and possibly bogging the game down a small tad. This is especially true if there are items in the levels where the Darwinians can respawn. This game will require your time and dedication to beat each and every level, but if you have to stop partway, you can end the game and resume where you left off at any time, which is a nice convenience. And you don't even have to use save systems or anything like that.
Darwinia is one of those awesome cult underground games. It's a game that's very good, and I wouldn't have heard of it thanks to Valve and Steam for giving it loads of publicity when it came out. If you're not on the online purchasing bandwagon, the game is available in the United States in boxed form. And since Darwinia takes up little space (about 30MB, about 140MB when you factor in the 110MB 15 second video file publisher Cinemaware Marquee tacked in that you never see), isn't a powerhouse technology-wise, and it's relatively easy to play, you can't go wrong with this. One thing to note is that Darwinia is singleplayer only; there is no multiplayer element as of this writing, yet a "Multiwinia" is supposedly in the works.
(Note: Copies published by Cinemaware Marquee boxed the original v1.0 of Darwinia. The differences between that version and later versions, including the version reviewed here; is that originally you had to draw shapes to create tasks. This was later removed in a patch. I recommend that you patch the game before playing it.)
Pros: Great art style, creative hybrid of strategy and action, exceptional music, nice references to computers and other pop culture references.
Cons: The user interface for the task manager is a little clunky, units such as squaddies and engineers can't really think for themselves.