Quietly brilliant, Darwinia feels right at home on the Xbox 360.
Unapologetically retro, Darwinia was released to critical acclaim back in 2005, exclusively for the PC. In the following year, Introversion’s game brought home three out of five awards at IGF (Independent Game Festival), setting a record for the most wins at IGF which remains untouched to this day. Within that year, a straight port was announced for Xbox Live Arcade, with plans to release the downloadable title relatively quickly.
Four years have passed and we’ve only just received the console translation, in the form of Darwinia+, although it’s undoubtedly been well worth the wait. The well-received 2008 sequel Multiwinia: Survival of the Flattest has been included, as well. If you’re unfamiliar with either game, it may take a while to overcome their relatively high learning curves, although if you can tough it out, you’ll be in for two highly rewarding experiences.
Darwinia consists of a single-player campaign stretching across connected levels, each one a component of the computer network from which the game takes its name. Inhabited by an endangered species of pixilated Darwinians, the world they exist in mirrors the style of design of many Amiga computer games throughout the mid-’80s, and early-’90s. As an American, I’ll admit that many of the games references there are probably lost on me, although I can still appreciate the game’s manufactured retro style and willingness to set itself apart with distinctive visual styling that’s largely derivative of the Tron era which largely inspired its design. There are also hints of amusing British humor spread throughout. For example: the revelation toward the end of the campaign that all this time, when the Darwinians have been praying by sending gifts on to the heavens, they were actually worshipping the mad scientist whom programmed them, an unlikely bald man named Dr. Sepulvada.
In order to save the Darwinians from extinction, you must eradicate their homeland of its infection, as the Darwinia network has taken on a slew of red viruses, many which the Darwinians are quite helpless against, without the upgrades they’ll acquire, if you have Dr. Sepulvada focus on them. But there are other things which need improving, as well, such as the three other programs you’ll be relying on to save Darwinia.
The gameplay is unique. Introversion presents a fresh blend of real-time strategy mixed with surprisingly strong elements of twin-stick, arcade shooter games. Switching between the two, the real-time strategy interface is simplified, lacking many of the defining characteristics from the genre, such as harvesting resources and the emphasis on multi-tasking and working your way up structured tech trees. The game does present a form of these concepts, where you’ll harvest the dead souls of Darwinians and enemy viruses with engineer units, returning them to controlled spawn points called incubators, where they’ll be reincarnated as Darwinians.
There are some problems with the game design which prevent its nostalgic throwback ideal from fully meeting its target. As evidenced by the Darwinians, as well as your the squad units, the game has some fairly dated path finding problems. While they’re only apparent when giving the squad an automatic direction command, there’s sadly no way of directly controlling the Darwinians, so there are going to be frustrating instances in which whole groups are left behind, entangled in a mess of jagged pixel at the crest of a hill, or have taken to wandering off from the heard to take a dip in the deceptively calm water textures where they’ll drown to death. In regards to their free will, while it’s neat that they exist as only the most subtle of microcosms of our own species, the fact that they can’t follow the simple directive of moving in a straight line leaves me dumbfounded.
Since the squad units are typically controlled directly with the thumb sticks, however, you’ll usually want to move them manually, as they’ll allow themselves to be molested by the teeth of oversized spider viruses otherwise, only firing the occasional laser - even though it’s the only command the squad has which the spiders are invulnerable to and even fully upgraded Darwinians will chuck grenades independent of command. Plus, the squad have the awesome ability of calling in air-strikes from “invaders“, bombing planes identical to the Space Invaders aliens in design, so there’s really no excuse for not doing so automatically. Their dim nature is counterbalanced, however, by the fact that their a lot of fun to play as, efficiently replicating the action of twin-stick arcade shooters. I even found that I preferred using the 360 pad over the original keyboard and mouse control style, for maneuvering the squad.
On the flipside, the armor (or, “armour”) amphibious transport units have a couple convoluted commands in this port. It wasn’t until several hours after the game tried vaguely explaining the process that I understood how to deploy the turrets. It requires far too many steps, which go as follows: tap armor icon to collect at least two surrounding Darwinians; select area you’d like to place the turret for that armor’s movement command; then, tap Y over the newly created movement icon three times to display a turret. While it looks easy enough to figure out in writing, it’s one of the aspects I wish were covered in the game’s brief tutorial, along with more thorough explanations of Darwinian movement commands. Then again, by that point you haven’t taken back control of the armor generator, so it may be a moot point, but there are a number of ways around that potential plot hole, as well. The saving grace here is the fact that the turrets can be controlled and the relief that comes with blasting away at the early insect viruses or the eventual emergence of evil red Darwinians. Killing the red doppelgangers at ground level as the turret visibly heats up, as the turret’s kill counter continues ticking upwards just feels good.
Thankfully the world of Multiwinia, and its natural extension of the Darwinians, the Multiwinians, have been designed with Xbox Live Arcade in mind. As the second entry in the franchise, the multiplayer focused Multiwinia provides 5 gameplay modes that build on the first game’s best strengths, while at the same time, making sure to mix things up just enough to keep players interested. The multiplayer acts as a good indicator of momentum for the franchise.
Most important of all the changes are the movement commands. Like other Xbox 360 real-time strategy ports from the PC, large groups of nearby units are selectable with an expanding circle over their area on the map (see: Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars). Sure, the creatures can be appointed as leaders and issue formation movement commands along with defining a path by pointing on a location, but the option to select Multiwinians traditionally gives it the feeling of a game designed around Xbox Live Arcade’s strengths, rather than the PC’s.
It’s readily apparent that this portion of Darwinia+ is the newer, better half, even though the visual style hasn’t lost any of its faux-retro charm. Sound effects still sound like they’re emanating from a cabinet in an arcade from the 80’s, as the evolved creatures are equipped with laser guns, meaning when you zoom in on battles with the shoulder buttons, the warfare comes to life with digitized laser sounds that are satisfyingly retro, and bad. Drawing away into the constantly shifting cloud patterns for an overview of the action will bring some much needed peace and quite as you deliberate over the next troop movements. Accessing the pause menu makes for a neat sound effect, which is in Darwinia as well, where everything slowly grinds to a halt.
I found the Blitzkrieg gameplay mode to be the most entertaining, as it created the feeling of a proper RTS with established spawn points that must be captured to eliminate players, although there are intermittent zones which have to be captured in order, leading you to the opponent’s base. On the majority of these maps, you’ll begin each match with a series of placed gun turrets, leaving you to worry about the offensive side of the battle, whereas in the 4 other modes it’s plausible to build up similar defenses, although they must be unlocked in an homage to Team17’s Wormsseries, by opening crates that fall from the sky at fixed intervals.
Beyond gun or flame turrets, crates also provide offensive/defensive programs for the player to run, including friendly versions of all those viruses you invested so many hours in exterminating back on Darwinia. While running squad programs may not be the focus of Multiwinia, it’s a lot of fun utilizing the units for the minute or so you’re given to control them. Even when your color of Multiwinians are wiped off the face of the map, there’s still fun to be had with “retribution”, which doles out crate abilities, so you can continue racking up kills. Once I even found myself able to maintain a lead after being knocked out in Capture the Statue, albeit only with a one-point advantage. In this scenario, I had ant hills directing endless armies of ants towards anything that moved, dark forests sucking the souls out of any Multiwinians who came near the remaining statues and meteor showers eventually catching fire to the dark forest, and then the troop of orange Multiwinians that had nearly made their narrow escape with the “Your Ad Here” statue.
These are the times where Darwinia+ justifies its considerable 1,200 point cost, which isn’t so bad when you consider the PC versions are being sold together at the same price point over Steam, in spite of both games being out for a while on the PC. My main concern with recommending Darwinia+ are the Xbox Live matches. I’ve only played a handful and the ones I have tried have been fun, but took forever to find. Even with all the replay value that comes with Multiwinia, I still have reservations recommending Darwinia+, which I admittedly found to be inaccessible to the point of frustration, playing Darwinia’s campaign. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a fair value and a unique take on two stagnant genres, you can’t do much better than Darwinia+.