Multiwinia is a multiplayer take on indie outfit Introversion's break-out hit Darwinia. It's a real-time strategy game in which you command armies of flat, 2D characters across a range of isometric environments. Like its predecessor, Multiwinia has a retro graphical style and simple game mechanics, but its low-fi environment and accessible gameplay are the key to its appeal. The game's cute and addictive nature will appeal to newcomers and casual strategy fans alike, although more seasoned strategists may find it too shallow.
The story of Multiwinia follows on directly from Darwinia. For generations, the Darwinians inhabited their isometric, Tron-like digital world, existing solely on a server hosted by a computer scientist. However, when a virus breaks out, the inhabitants of Darwinia became infected, plunging the digital landscape into a battleground for limited resources. The populace are left fighting it out and become known as the Multiwinians thereafter. The story actually isn't that important though--there are no cutscenes or in-game dialogue in the single-player mode--because all of the game's maps and modes are unlocked from the beginning. This means that there are no incentives for playing through the game by yourself, and each map essentially becomes a stand-alone mission.
You control an army of microscopic Multiwinians through a variety of game modes, including Domination, King of the Hill, Capture the Statue, Assault, Rocket Riot, and Blitzkrieg. Capture the Statue puts a nice spin on the classic Capture the Flag, where your ant-sized minions need to carry a bulky figure back to your base. Effigies include dumbbells, the maoi of Easter Island, a billboard marked "place your ad here," and even the Companion Cube from Portal. There are six game modes and 44 maps in total available in single and multiplayer. Thus, you'll be kept busy for some time with the variety and amount on offer.
The overall objective in each game mode is to advance ground while controlling various strategic points. In Rocket Riot, you gain points that are solar panels for fuelling your spaceship, and in Assault, you have to defend a weapon of mass destruction. As long as you control at least one Multiwinian reproductive centre, you get a steady supply of reinforcements, although you need to be on top of commanding or they'll just mill around your spawn point. You can use the mouse to control Multiwinians as individuals or as a group, but the easiest way to command them is to create an officer who can then direct them to coordinates or command a formation. These organised squads have stronger firepower than randomly scattered troops, but they're also more vulnerable to attack from the rear. There's no resource management or building of bases in Multiwinia--it's all about defending your own structures, capturing new ones, and attacking the opposing forces to increase your rank in the game. The accessible style is quite refreshing; it's nice to not have to worry about complex objectives and be able to launch an attack within seconds of starting your session.
Two tutorials introduce you to the basic and advanced aspects of gameplay, but it doesn't take long to become a pro. One of the criticisms of Darwinina was that the controls took some getting used to, but the new control system eradicates submenus and definitely makes things less frustrating. In addition to directing Multiwinians via proxy through officers, certain levels allow you to teleport them through transmitter dishes or place up to 100 at a time in an armoured carrier to ferry across land and water. Multiwinians take care of combat automatically, but you occasionally find them floating around by themselves or running away from the frontlines. Usually, a simple instruction is enough to get them back into the action, but sometimes they'll refuse to cooperate, which can be frustrating in the heat of battle.
In addition to sending your units to attack and capture, you can use them to collect crate drops for bonus items. These include air strikes, meteor showers, armoured carriers, monsters, vicious ant nests, gun turrets, and even mininukes. There's also a chance that you'll open a bad crate, unleashing a virus outbreak that will infect all of the troops in the vicinity. By default, crates tend to appear closer to the losing teams, and the power they unleash can often turn the tide of battle. Thankfully, there's an option to change between weighted and random crate placement in the advanced options. While the AI isn't bad, the single-player mode's story is disappointing, and if you have an Internet connection or LAN, there's little reason to carry on playing alone.
As the name suggests, Multiwinia is at its best when enjoyed as a multiplayer experience. You can play against a mix of up to three human or AI opponents across all the same maps and modes as in single-player. Each mode has about a dozen maps that vary in size, but all are suitable for between two and four opponents. Naturally, a head-to head mission is easier, but things become more chaotic and challenging when there's three or four people vying for the same prize. More divergent strategies make playing against humans more rewarding than taking on AI opponents. You can also customise each match to turn off crate drops and other settings the same way you can in single-player. We didn't experience any problem hosting or joining games, although the lack of in-game voice support means you have to use text to communicate. There are also no online leaderboards or any kind of ranking system, which is unfortunate. Another downside of multiplayer is that there's no option to create your own levels or customise the options to a great extent. For example, you don’t even have the option to change the number or location of spawn points. While a maximum of four players might sound a bit limited, the quick-paced gameplay and map sizes in Multiwinia are tailored to keeping things intense throughout.
Multiwinia's graphical style may be simplistic, but it's definitely one of the most charming aspects of the game. The retro visuals and the eerie soundtrack combine to give the game a haunted feeling. The sound of lasers, bombs, and screaming Multiwinians will also stick in your mind long after playing. You might experience an occasional glitch or dropped frames when there are a multitude of Multiwinians running around on screen, but nothing so bad that it's detrimental to gameplay. Despite the game's retro look, you'll still need a 2.0GHz CPU and 512MB of RAM, although this won't be a problem for anyone with a moderately powerful, midpriced PC.
Multiwinia is a unique strategy game and one that most strategy fans are bound to enjoy. While some may feel the game's almost nonexistent story is a downfall, the game makes up for this with plenty of maps and game modes to keep you occupied beyond the single-player experience. What's more, the budget download price of £15 in the UK and $19.99 in North America makes this a high-value package. Ultimately, Multiwinia's visual style and pick-up-and-play multiplayer mean that it's a unique game in an overcrowded genre and one that most strategy fans should enjoy.