Life and death in a computer program.
What is it about the fine mix of Lemmings and real-time strategy in Darwinia+ that creates a perfect storm of anxiety and anticipation in me? I'm sure there are much braver arm-chair commanders who don't suffer the crushing fits of worry or sweaty palms that I do, but these players are probably much less obsessive than I.
[image1]Darwinia+ is the Xbox Live Arcade port of the PC gaming cult classic that involves the player helping Dr. Sepulveda (or Professor Baldy, as I like to call him) clearing his virtual world of a killer virus. As Prof. Baldy's assistant, you'll take direct control of virus-killing Squads, programming and developing Engineers, and the Darwinians themselves as they take their battlestations and undo the damage of the Virii. As you play, you'll learn how the Darwinians themselves are a virtual model of evolution.
While the story is about as compelling as Programming for Dummies, the art style and gameplay are the real draws. With XBLA titles, gameplay is king and Darwinia+ really packs it in: a long campaign mode, with leaderboards of course, and a varied and deep multiplayer component titled Multiwinia. I was tempted to try Multiwinia first, but the campaign serves as a thorough tutorial for the multiplayer, helping players get a feel for the multitasking and combat needed before taking on online opponents.
As for the art style, Tron be damned!, Darwinia+ takes a large helping of inspiration from the computer-culture classic, even down to the Engineer units who look strikingly like Guardians, but Darwinia+ has a foreboding and ominous look on the virtual landscape. Lots of dark hues and burned colors lend an eerie tone to each map.
While the obsessive gamer will want to eliminate all enemies before his or her Darwinians get on the move, the player is forced to multitask because of how new Darwinians are born. Every level gives the player a starting point where they can spawn squads, engineers, and eventually armor. Squads will generally operate on the front line, blazing a path through enemy units so that engineers can convert enemy-controlled satellites or incubators for the player's use, turning enemy souls into Darwinians. Satellites allow passage from one island to the next, and each level has structures that the Darwinians must operate, so you have to save enough of the little guys to fill all the positions. How many of the little guys you can save determines your Leaderboard standing as well.
[image2]The balance of directly controlling combat and real-time strategies makes the gameplay sing. As the taskbar allows for more units and as armor and gun turrets are introduced, fighting a campaign on two fronts turns out to be both possible and extremely satisfying. The control scheme allows you to take direct control of squads, moving them with the left stick and targetting with the right. This also opens the player to use some of the combat upgrades, like grenades and air strikes.
The camera controls let you look at the action in every possible way. Large groups of enemy units blend together to create a buzzing white pool, and more powerful enemy units have a Nintendo 64-era geometrical shapliness to them. As a side note to the visual stylings, I loved every piece of the soundtrack. At times I thought it too sparse and wanted it to play over gameplay as well, but that's probably why I was left wanting more.
Darwinia+ is the wine and cheese of video gaming. The palatable mix of genres might turn off some players and delight others, and the art style probably won't fly for gamers who need next-gen graphics. Despite that, Darwinia+ offers a ton of gameplay for the moderate price of 1200 Microsoft Points (or $15 in non-funny-money). That might spell the death of many XBLA games, but Darwinia+ is a real gamer's game that won't disappoint the core looking for something new and fresh.