The original Darwin Project tried a lot of new things. This was a small-scale battle royale at a time when that was still fresh and new. It had survival elements, a combat system without firearms, and a “director” role calling the shots. It also had too many currencies to keep track of, loot drops that no one wanted to go after, and a slow power ramp that rewarded only the most skilled players.
After just under two years in Early Access, the developers at Scavengers Studios have taken a long hard look at everything, reworking a lot of the existing game into a new model that’s vastly different. This is a refreshed battle royale, but it does retain the core aspects that made it unique in the first place. From my point of view, every change is for the better, creating a game with a real shot at success.
Darwin Project Review | Setting the stage
In case you need a reason why you’re going up against up to nine others in lethal combat, Darwin Project casts you as a prisoner on a Running Man-esque reality program. This “fighting for your freedom” narrative made a bit more sense in the original game, as the release version lends your inmate one of three technological marvels. You can either have a Bionic Commando grappling arm, a jetpack, or a robotic eagle that can gather resources and open chests from a distance. The default clothes have also changed from orange jumpsuits to neon-tinted body armor. My first instinct is to complain about such narrative consistencies, but this is a multiplayer game, and these changes are all in service of getting the gameplay where it needs to be.
Once you teleport onto the field of battle, you have an ax, a bow, your technological advantage, and your wits. The early game involves looting trees and radioactive chemicals dubbed Darwinium, both currencies in Darwin Project‘s crafting system. You have to avoid territories blocked out by the show director, track down clues on other players’ whereabouts, and avoid freezing to death. It seems like a lot to take in at first, but it’s very intuitive after a few rounds, even for someone dropping in without much genre experience.
Darwin Project Review | Sticks and stones work just fine
After a few rounds, you tune into a desired “build order” and crafting becomes second nature. This is especially true once you find a set of abilities you love. The tech power works like an Overwatch ultimate, although the cooldown timers come with the two side abilities you earn via crafting. These can range from various shields to a deployable turret to an invisibility cloak. Each tech has four abilities to choose from, giving you some creative freedom while still keeping each “class” unique. You can easily see room for free expansion with new tech abilities, although it was surprising how long it takes to level things up. You’ll be putting in some serious time to unlock the final ability for each gadget.
Something missing from the equation is guns, and I feel like that’s one of Darwin Project‘s greatest advantages. I’m certainly not against shooters, but it is a little peculiar that the colorful kid-friendly king of the genre heavily features AK-47s and shotguns. The unique weapons here lead to a completely different style of play, forcing you to get in close or aim true from afar. Bow shots are satisfying to hit, but ultimately unreliable, especially since you have to craft each arrow individually. If you get into a bow duel, you can pluck missed shots out of the ground, and it was quite thrilling to scramble for ammo while my opponent did the same a mile away.
Darwin Project Review | Special guest commentator
I found myself sticking to the turret and melee as my primary weapons. I’d bounce up to a high spot (you gotta love a game with jump pads), lay a turret down and a fire to keep warm. Only moving once I could go invisible, I used the flashy turret as a distraction to sneak up and take out would-be assailants. This works even as the circle draws in towards the end, especially since you’ll have all manner of smoke bombs, bear traps, and medkits to facilitate a wild strategy. Like in the best twitch shooters, I was often performing the same tasks over and over, with the fun coming in reacting to other players and trying to shut their plans down.
If you tire of constant combat, you can also spawn in as the Show Director. As the “host” of the show, you’re the one closing off areas of the map, spawning in hazards, and taunting inmates with a megaphone. It’s clearly a role for streamers and other content creators, and it does that job well. You can play games where the computer takes charge, but then you don’t get late-game areas filling with lava or storms of low gravity mixing things up. With some focus and a few more tricks added in, the role could really be something. As it stands, it seems like it didn’t get the attention the rest of the game did in the Early Access transition.
Darwin Project Review | Light the fuse, bring the boom
It’s clear that Darwin Project learns from the successes and failures of its peers. All its gimmicks, the cold temperature, the Show Director, the traps and hunting aspects, they all work to facilitate interesting combat scenarios. There’s no building system that overrides other strategies, it feels like a balanced set of abilities that complement each other. Well, mostly balanced. The falcon can gather resources and scout areas from such a range that I can see skilled players taking major advantage. I’d love to see it stay this powerful, but it seems destined for a quick debuff.
Speed is also a key factor in what makes combat engaging. Even in Apex Legends, a game where rounds run faster than average, there are moments of drag as you get to the final few teams. There’s nothing like that in Darwin Project, which has you performing and working towards the end from the first moment you spawn. The game accomplishes the same tense atmosphere of the best of battle royale while still trying something new, learning from Fortnite and the rest without outright cloning them. Darwin Project isn’t an also-ran, it’s a trendsetter, and anyone still interesting in dropping in hot should take notice.
Game Revolution reviewed Darwin Project on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.