A virus worth catching.
It didn’t always take two hundred people to make one lousy game. For instance, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak made the seminal Breakout in four days. Four. Days. We’re talking about one of the most identifiable video games ever conceived, built by one guy in the amount of time it takes most people to do their taxes. Give the dude a few more hours and a bong and I bet he would have churned out Arkanoid.
But my, how the times have a-changed. Blockbuster mergers, brutal monopolies and a furious scramble to flood the market with safe, boring sequels have resulted in a game publishing environment notoriously difficult on small, indie developers, who are often forced to rely on digital distribution and limited marketing to get their products in the right hands, if made at all.
[image3]Every so often, though, an indie cuts through the corporate barricade and makes a name for itself, a feat managed by the tiny team at Introversion Software and their stylish, award-winning hybrid, Darwinia. Originally available as a digital download, this bizarre RTS/action game has only recently been made available as a boxed product here in the States courtesy of newly refurbished Cinemaware Marquee. As indie types ourselves, we figured it was well past time to find out what the best in contemporary bedroom game design offers.
A weird story, to start. Upon installation, you discover yourself embedded in the vector-lined landscape of Darwinia, a virtual world populated by artificial lifeforms called Darwinians. At least that’s the case when Darwinia isn’t overrun with a rampant virus, which, of course, it is. With the help of Darwinia creator Dr. Sepulveda and his balding, bearded head, it’s up to you to restore this digital land to its former glory by eradicating the virus and fixing everything it broke. It’s kinda like Tron, only without the light cycles and gay outfits.
It’s also kinda like Populous, and Lemmings, and an Intellivision on the fritz. In fact, Darwinia is like so many other things that it defies classification, instead existing as a sort of hybrid art project for techno-nerds.
See if you can classify it yourself: you use Squads of pixilated soldiers to kill off the virus, which is portrayed as snaking trails of red arrows, creepy giant spiders, centipedes, bigger centipedes and flying, egg-laying eyeballs. You’ll also need to use Engineers – replicas of Tron’s Recognizer – to reprogram infected buildings and to harvest the ‘souls’ of defeated units, the game’s only resource. Souls are then converted back into fresh, happy new Darwinians. Still with me?
[image2]Hope so, because it gets weirder. In the game’s nod to Lemmings, you cannot directly control the little green men, instead promoting Officers who act as beacons. In this way you can influence where the natives meander, which comes in handy since you’ll need them to get the world back up and running. You'll also need the only other controllable unit, Armor, a transport that can also be deployed as a defense turret. Keeping it all in check is the Task Manager, which only lets you build and maintain a few units at a time. Most everything in the game world can be upgraded, an automated process that includes longer lasers, weapons for Darwinians and an even bigger Task Manager to increase the unit cap (up to a whopping five).
This all might sound pretty complicated, but in practice Darwinia is undeniably easy. Mostly you roam about with a Squad while holding down the right mouse button to fire lasers at the virus, mixing it up with grenades or rockets for the tougher enemies. After clearing out an area, you scoop up the souls with an Engineer and make new Darwinians. Though the objectives are often delivered in confusing techno-babble, this basic gameplay pattern holds true throughout all of the game’s dozen or so levels.
One notable change from the game’s original form is its menu control. When the game was first distributed, you created units using a somewhat awkward gesture system, much like what you’d find in Black & White. That’s still here, but now the default control uses a much quicker and far more intuitive icon system.
As an artistic effort, Darwinia really grows on you. The simplified, vector graphics coupled with the genuinely fascinating story and moody music creates a truly unique world, a sad rarity in PC gaming. A free-roaming camera lets you explore the digital mountains and binary valleys of Darwinia smoothly and efficiently. Despite its low budget and seemingly cheap graphics, the atmosphere is, in its own way, as cool as anything you’d experience out of a triple-A, top-shelf title.
[image1]However, a series of gameplay oversights mar this pixilated playground. For starters, the lack of a resource management system means you have a limitless number of Squads and Engineers – if any unit “dies,” you simply summon in another one, which is sort of painfully ironic in a game all about the value of artificial life. Killing off the virus requires less strategy than determination and patience, as eventually you’ll get the job done. In Darwinia, there is no such thing as Game Over.
But there is such a thing as Game Frustrating. Your Squads get hung up on all sorts of invisible barriers and your Darwinians sometimes refuse to obey the Officers. Guess your units' pathfinding and A.I was destroyed by the virus, too. Overarching control of units (via, say, an overhead map) is entirely lacking and Squads just don't take care of themselves at all, making you micro-manage your way through each level. As an artsy action game it works, but as a strategy game, it pretty much sucks.
It also sucks as a deep, replayable experience. Though the single-player game can keep you occupied for a good eight hours, there’s little left to do afterwards other than toying with a Map Editor for more viral conquest. Pity poor Dr. Sepulveda as you ruin his world all over again.
But don’t pity Introversion, who managed to do what far more powerful developers and publishers routinely don't: create a compelling new world for only 30 bucks. I just about guarantee you’ve not experienced a game like this before, and while it stumbles in its gameplay, it soars in its style and whimsy. The little green men might not be there yet, but we’re looking forward to watching this species evolve.