Ultimately, Darwinia is a game whose major flaw and greatest triumph is its dependence on the user.
The basic premise is that of a virtual theme park populated by innocent AI beings known as Darwinians. A virus has infected this world of visualised code and it is now up to you (the player – there is no character or name) to clear it away by retro-fitting programs originally intended for harmless minigames visitors might play.
These include the Squad, which starts out as a group of three polygonal floating tin soldiers wielding lasers and a selectable explosive weapon each. They are controlled in a similar manner to your men from Cannon Fodder, the first of many feature cameos, but with several important differences down both to the story and the game’s development team totalling two: they have next to no AI or pathfinding, cost nothing to produce instantly, and haven’t got to worry about ammunition, morale, fatigue, or any other such weaknesses of the flesh.
And by and large this works, but – and it’s a big but – only if you are able to shake off the cliché of controlling little men and adapt to the new idea of your units being not sentient beings but tools. They, like computers, can only do what you tell them to do. But when you order your squads a short distance and they then plunge down a steep ravine instead of taking the easy-but-slightly-curved route avoiding it, and must then spend two minutes climbing out, you will find yourself tearing hairs out.
Darwinians, who you can only control indirectly by promoting one to a General and issuing orders with him, follow the same pattern. As well as suffering from the same pathfinding issues as Squads (making herding them around extra irritating), once you have issued them an order they will ignore all others until they are at their destination. When your tiny charges get stuck in an endless loop of running into water and retreating only to run into it again trying to get to a location, your only choice is to leave the game running for half and hour as they edge along the shore or reset the location. Twenty-thousand generations my arse.
It is also ironic that in a game where almost every slope is climbable (albeit slowly), the slightest bump in the landscape can spell death. If there is any form of rise before one of your squads and you fire an explosive it will usually hit it and travel in an unpredictable path or, in the case of rockets, explode there and then and turn your Squad into polygon fragments. This isn’t so bad in the earlier stages but by the time you get to the penultimate island you simply don’t have the time to angle the camera around and check.
What you actually do with the Squads would in a mortal game be the core of the gameplay. In Darwinia they are used to blast Viral infection. Yes, that’s it. There is very little strategy involved besides basic positioning . It’s because Darwinia is not a strategy game. It is an action game that you just so happen to control with an RTS-like interface and a scattering of RTS-like ideas, ideas like a Ground Control-esque camera, C&C-like controls, and Black and White-styled interface.
Darwinia is all about the action. And what action.
Simply laying down laser fire at tens of virus ‘worms’ bearing down on a squad is a hypnotic experience. Add the gloriously stylised explosions and it’s almost overwhelming. Don’t even get me started on the audio. ‘Smoke’, in fact a stream of polygons, gushes from the rear of your rockets before they impact, sending up a shower of translucent squares and the squeals of dying viruses. The flare from an airstrike marker sends red-tinged diamonds, again translucent, drifting across the fractal landscape until a swarm of invaders arrives at it to deposit high explosives to blinding, deafening, and deadly effect. The game’s visual design makes an interesting contrast to Doom 3: one offered astonishing technology with quite frankly crap art, whereas the other has a ridiculously basic partly sprite-based programmatic engine serving up crisp, bold and unforgettable vistas.
The more attentive of you will have noticed a very swift digression from gameplay to graphics over the last few paragraphs. Let me assure you, it is not in error. A large part of Darwinia’s fun is found in its visual power and the way you interact with it. You can’t use realistic graphics alone to entertain – why not go out and see the real thing? – but Darwinia’s unique style is truly mesmerising. You’ll sometimes catch yourself simply staring at the islands with their milling infection and beautifully haunting fractal trees. The ability to then go and blow it all up in a similarly trippy style feels like a bonus on a bonus.
Yet another blasphemous departure from the standard game template in Darwinia is the fact that you can’t lose. You could theoretically run out of souls to convert into Darwinians needed to complete an objective, true, but other than that rare event there isn’t any way to fail. When you play Darwinia it isn’t a question of IF you can complete it, but HOW you do so. And when you realise that you realise that the challenge hasn’t gone: it has moved. It has moved into the real world. The penalty for ‘losing’ Darwinia isn’t having to stare at a loading screen, but to miss out on nearly everything the game offers. It is a bold step and one that will lose the game any last vestige of mass-market appeal it may once have had but pays of dividends for those who overcome it.
Darwinia has a story to it but as you might by now be weary of hearing, it doesn’t take an orthodox form. There’s Dr. Sepulveda with the trials and tribulations of his virtual universe but that’s a token for people who can’t see what the story is really about: Darwinia, the Darwinians, and the way their world and society works. The plot is merely an excuse to tell you the story and let you experience the game. A weak excuse, it must be said, for the plot is boring and predictable, but an excuse nonetheless. The story itself will likely draw you in to the game world and leave you interested to hear more until it ends. Which is as much as you can ask for from such a title.
Ultimately, Darwinia is a game whose major flaw and greatest triumph is its dependence on the user. Darwinia is a sandbox with direction, and artist’s palette of entertainment with the hand of a master guiding you. There is some pleasure to be had barrelling through to get to the end but to really get the most out of Darwinia you’ve got to give a little too. Be generous today.