Innovation is a tough thing to sell in the gaming world. Take Darwinia, for example, an independent game created by small UK development team Introversion Software. It was granted a limited release early in 2005 and received some of the best reviews of the year, yet chances are you’ve never even heard of it.
Thank god, then, for Valve. The creators of Half Life 2 at some point stumbled across Darwinia and decided to take a chance, releasing it recently to the world via their online distribution system ‘Steam’.
If you’ve glanced at screenshots, you may already be wondering what all the fuss is about. Where are the photo-realistic textures? Where is the dynamic lighting, physics-propelled barrels and bump-mapped monsters? Fact is, Introversion has no interest in the endless and desperate clutching at realism with which most developers are obsessed (Valve included!).
Instead, Darwinia opts for a more considered, nostalgic visual world, one which compliments the game’s story and, when seen in motion, is really quite stunning. The result is a cohesive and powerful artistic achievement, but one which is constantly rallying against the prejudices of gamers that have been brain-nulled to only expect a certain type of gaming experience.
Breaking the rules
So, to the game itself. Taking inspiration from TRON (amongst others), you find yourself inside a computer system which is currently infested by a particularly nasty virus. The local inhabitants, an experimental AI creation called ‘Darwinians’, are under siege and desperately need some help to retake their digital world.
Initial appearances indicate Real-Time Strategy gameplay, with an aerial view offering control of multiple units in heated battles while resources are used to create new soldiers. Those concepts are only used in the loosest of senses, however, with the main game experience being more similar to the old classics Cannon Fodder and Syndicate.
There are two core flaws with traditional RTS games, of the Age of Empires and Warcraft ilk. First, there seems to be precious little strategy, despite the genre label, with the outcome of battles relying more on strength of numbers than anything resembling tactics. The Total War games have, of course, remedied this to a large extent. The second problem lies in the ‘hands-off’ approach, which simplifies movement and combat to ‘click and forget’, with the computer doing all the fun stuff such as finding your way, firing weapons etc.
Darwinia neatly sidesteps both of these potential traps.
By mixing the control concepts of Syndicate with the epic gameplay of an RTS, Darwinia has managed to find a perfect mix of the two. Squads are controlled directly, meaning you have to manually guide them around mountains, shorelines and other obstructions. When you encounter enemies, it’s down to you to specifically aim and fire, resulting in some thrilling and involving conflict.
The little green Darwinians, on the other hand, have minds of their own and can only be influenced. Officers can point them in the right direction, but if they encounter trouble they’ll soon be squealing and running for the hills in all directions (unless they’ve learnt how to use weapons of course, in which case they might try to fight back). Safely shepherding hundreds of Darwinians across enemy territory is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in a game for a long time.
As you would expect from the RTS genre, your units become gradually upgraded over the course of the game and you also gain access to new weaponry and vehicles, which for once have a major impact on your strategies and the outcome of battles. As the war heats up, so the battle lines move backwards and forwards, requiring fast thinking and careful deployment of your resources.
Establishing a connection
Story is rarely an integral part of the RTS genre, yet Darwinia also takes the time to craft a unique and touching tale around all the fighting and abstract concepts. It doesn’t take long to feel very protective of your little Darwinians as they exhibit touches of character, such as leaping for joy when things are going well, or gathering around a fallen officer to mourn the loss.
The narrative is backed up by some fantastic music and sound design, again drawing on the retro feel without solely relying on nostalgia. Veterans of the 80s and 90s gaming scenes will notice countless sly references to the classics of yore, not least in the cheeky and frequently hilarious loading sequences.
With the major retail publishers too frightened to venture outside their precious World War 2, sports and movie tie-in genres, perhaps it is the responsibility of online distribution such as Steam to bring such unique games to the market.
While the drive for everyday realism is a vital part of gaming’s ongoing development, it is important to never overlook the flipside – that of stylistic expression. In that respect, Darwinia joins the likes of Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts as an unqualified success.
Verdict: Those who can see the beauty beneath the deceptively simple graphics will find a rich and rewarding world that offers the kind of innovation and sheer fun that hasn’t been seen for years. 90%
Review by Simon 'Tarn' Jones