Reviewed: September 8, 2005
Released: March 4, 2005
If none of you ever saw Uplink then this game may be coming out of left field for you all. Introversion Softwareís debut title was something of a hacker simulator. With minimalist graphics, addictive game play, and loads of unique style Uplink was proof that you didnít have to have explosions and realistic lighting effects to create a great gaming experience.
Darwinia is Introversionís newest title and, true to form, they combine a unique sense of style and game play with beautiful but non-traditional graphics to come up with one of a kind gaming experience. Keeping to the kind of totally immersive environment that made Uplink so effective, Darwinia propels you into the roll of an accidental visitor to the artificial environment created by Dr. Sepulveda. This ecosystem is facing the onslaught of deadly virus, and itís your job to help rescue the Darwinians and train them to fight back.
Looking at this game and reading some of the promotional literature they sent along with it, I really wanted this game to deliver, and on some levels it does. Unfortunately, for all itís innovation Introversion forgot one thing: the game just isnít that much fun. Admittedly it is much more intimate than most RTS titles, in that whether or not you destroy the viruses depends on your skill (though a better word would be patience) in aiming rather than getting a cool graphical result while the computer rolls the dice behind the DM screen.
Also, the lack of an on screen HUD, while being immersive, is not really that useful, because all of the information that would normally be around the borders has just been moved onto a sub-screen that must be pulled up when you want to create units, or check on objectives or current upgrades. So having no HUD just means you have to take an additional step rather than having all of the information readily available. Itís not a bad decision necessarily, especially considering the sort of immersion Introversion wants to include in their games, but it turns out to not be as innovative as intended, at least in execution.
The gesture recognition interface for creating units is a great idea that gets you involved with the process of the game rather than just clicking buttons. Itís a little difficult to get a hang of because drawing straight lines isnít something Iím in the habit of doing with a mouse, but it is fairly forgiving and once you get it down you can create what you need with little fuss.
Now, so far all Iíve addressed are basically issues of taste. I wasnít as impressed with the execution of these features as I thought I would be, but thatís me. This game wasnít fun for two reasons. One is the pacing. While the training mission is just involved enough to be enjoyable, everything after that is just a huge repetitive fight. Walk your squad over to the nearest group of enemies, shoot them all, collect the little bits that drop, repeat. There are different types of enemies, each of which requires a little bit of tweaking, but for the most part, itís just park the squad and hold down the right mouse button until everything stops moving.
The second reason for my overall lack of enjoyment is that Iím not a sheep dog. I donít enjoy herding a large group of wandering Darwinians (sheep) across uneven terrain where any particular bump could send them off in a random direction.
These problems are the most pronounced in the first actual mission where you have to rescue 200 Darwinians. This is accomplished by collecting the bits that viruses turn into when they die, and then delivering them to incubators. These then spit out Darwinians which will roam around the incubator until directed to move by an officer.
Oh, and by the time you have all the tools necessary to accomplish this task youíve killed most of the viruses on the level. No, the bits donít stick around that long. So after spending about 2 hours grinding your way around the map, and another half an hour getting the Darwinians you do have to a safe zone, you have to start the whole process again from the beginning because you donít have enough of them.
Weird, but none the less beautiful is perhaps the best description for the graphics in Darwinia. The maps are simple three dimensional grids. Mountains and hills rise out of the water surrounding the islands that make up most of the land mass. Blocky clouds fill a blue sky as the sun shines down.
Meanwhile the little 2D Darwinians roam, while virus vectors ricochet around from point to point. The sprite characters mixed with a 3D environment work exceedingly well together, mostly because they have been designed to. What really impressed me were the lighting effects and the trees.
The light in Darwinia is mostly from one source, the ďsunĒ, and it is very consistent. Mountains block light on one side and intensify it on another. Is it really that technologically advanced? No, but it is a nice effect, and particularly so since they are relying on only one light source and representing it well instead of using half a dozen to add pizzazz. The trees are just gorgeous, itís like someone took a perfectly symmetrical rendering of a tree and rendered it in light.
The sprites are also kind of fun, in that Introversion didnít just make some simple figures and slap them on the screen. If you remember TRON you might recognize the Engineer units.
The return of midi makes a perfect back drop to Drawiniaís low-res graphics and retro styling. However, the lack of any significant music and a propensity for annoying repetitive sound effects donít much to endear their sound designer to you. The sound that is present is a pleasant little techno sample, but I like a little something going on in the background while Iím working my way through a map.
This game promises plenty of game time, Iím just not sure itís worth the work. As mentioned above, at about 2 hours per level, and not an action packed 2 hours, but a relentless, horrible crawl across the screen, Darwinia is only slightly more entertaining than reading the newspaper. If you happen to like repetitive games that may make you backtrack unnecessarily more than once, then you may feel differently about this. For me though, if Iím going to spend three hours mindlessly shooting things, itís going to be online so I can finally get that next level, not here.
Fortunately I donít have to worry about save games in Darwinina, as it just keeps whatever is currently on the map in place. Since the viruses donít attack unless you get near them you can clear one island and exit the game, coming back later to pick up where you left off. Though again Introversion sacrifices some convenience for the sake of innovation; you either get the mission done right the first time, or you do it all over again.
Innovation isnít always a good thing, but Introversion has a good handle on the kind of product they want to make. Darwinia is immersive, with a quality mix between unique game play and off-the-wall graphics. This title isnít particularly successful, but I wouldnít be surprised to see some of the elements that Introversion has brought to the table appear in future RTS titles.
I wouldnít call this perfect, or even necessarily a step in the right direction for RTS games, but it is unique and worth a look, though not a very long one. You can download a playable demo and check it out for yourself.