Darwinia+ is a combination of two titles. Darwinia, released for the PC back in 2005 and the deserved winner of 3 Independent Games Festival awards, and Multiwinia, a multi-player follow-up from 2008. This is the first Xbox Live Arcade title from Introversion, and indeed the first non-PC title they have released.
The world of Darwinia exists inside a network of computers, a place created by Dr Sepulveda; a man on the borderline between madness and genius who just happens to look an awful lot like Sir Clive Sinclair. Unfortunately for the Doctor, his silicon has been invaded by a number of Viruses. You take on the role of an unnamed individual who stumbles across Darwinia, and upon arrival the Doc soon tasks you with helping him rid the network of the Virus and ultimately save the Darwinians from extinction.
Visually, Darwinia+ is glorious in its ability to capture the retro-futuristic aesthetic of 80s Sci-Fi computer graphics – Tron and Wargames instantly sprang to mind when I first played the game on the PC. The game relies on highly stylised and simple visuals; everything is very clearly made of a limited polygons with wireframe outlines that look fantastic. From the Engineer unit, who resembles the Recognizer from Tron, to the Centipede-like enemies evoking memories of a certain Atari classic, the style works. Even the levels are surrounded by a digital sea and covered by pixelated clouds.
Another nice touch, are the bootloaders which are randomly displayed when you start the game, these brought to mind the the demo scene of my Amiga days.
Darwinia superficially resembles a RTS game, though in reality it fuses a number of genres, taking in elements of action games, puzzlers and God sims. Each level has a different goal, completed through the use of the various units in addition to the Darwinians themselves. It’s not always simply a case of rescuing a certain number of Darwinians, latterly you will have more complicated goals that span several levels.
Gameplay takes the retro parallels even further with unit management, which you can create and destroy at will. These units exist within the Task Manager, and there are three to chose from.
Darwinians, the 2D stick people who inhabit this world, are simple beings with very basic abilities. You can order them to move around the level by promoting one of them to the rank of Officer, a larger Darwinian with a flag. Later you can upgrade their abilities, enabling them to wield weapons, though they are also able to operate various bits of machinery, buildings and units required to complete certain tasks.
The Squad is the mainstay of the game, and your go-to unit for completing most levels. For the majority of the time you will take direct control of the Squad, which operates a bit like a twin stick shooter: left stick to traverse the level, right stick to direct the laser fire or aim the secondary weapons.
This unit is where I found most of my frustration with this game; at times their slow pace became annoying, especially if you had far to travel. Another headache comes in the form of the chase camera that takes over when you control a Squad. It’s automatic and for the most part it works perfectly, but sometimes level objects obscure the view or the camera decides to stay in front of your units as you walk towards it, making it difficult to aim at or even see the enemies you’re trying to attack.
The Engineer is a non-armoured unit capable of picking up research items or reprogramming certain equipment to work in your favour. They can also collecting the souls of dead Darwinia so that they may be reborn. Later in the game you develop a unit called Armour. This is a vehicle capable of ferrying Darwinians around at high speed that can also be deployed as a gun turret. A nice touch is that by selecting a manned turret you are able to take direct control of it, shooting at the Viruses yourself.
Dr Sepulveda is also waiting to aid you in the real world, coding upgrades for these units; on request he can increase you squad size, improve the range and damage of your squad lasers, and much more. Within the game world you will come across various research upgrades, and picking these up allows for technological advances such as grenades and other ordinance.
The first couple of levels are designed to get you used to the controls and concepts. Though it’s important to read the on screen text as it can take a fair bit of trial and error working out the controls if you don’t. While these first levels can seem slow paced as you get used to how everything works, the game really opens up after the initial tutorials and you are soon wrapped up in the storyline and a choice of levels to tackle.
Multiwinia takes elements of Darwinia and transposes them into a multiplayer environment; fusing elements of the original with multiplayer RTS and a bit of Worms/Artillery thrown in for good measure Set in the same world, the Viruses have changed the Darwinians, and the now ‘Multiwinians’ form factions and fight one another. Game modes include Capture the Statue (read, Capture the Flag), Domination, and King of the Hill.
Most of the fighting is done by your Multiwinians, who now wield lasers and grenades by default and when transformed into an officer can now organise well coordinated formations who march across the level. The Armour unit also makes an appearance, as do a number of weapon crate power-ups which descend from above onto the level in a style similar to the Worms series of games. These give you powerful weapons such as the gun turret or temporary upgrades, like the ability for your Mutliwinians to move much faster. Also lurking in some crates are less desirable items such as infectious Viruses.
During my first effort in Capture the Statue, my competitor managed to wipe out all my Multiwinians, however the game gave me what it called Retribution, which, amongst other options, enabled me to rain down burning meteors onto my enemy in payback for destroying me. Obviously it didn’t stop them winning, but it was a nice touch and kept me engaged while the other two players continued their battle.
It’s also worth mentioning the sound design for both games is great. The soundtrack was composed by Trash80 (Timothy Lamb), who, amongst other equipment, uses Gameboys to create a unique yet familiar retro sound. It’s also great fun to swoop the camera around and amongst your Darwinians as they battle, to experience the use of surround sound and atmospherics.
I think Introversion have done a great job of adapting the controls to suit the gamepad, and the game is perfectly suited to the Xbox Live Arcade format. It is far more accessible than the PC version and offers a great pick-up-and-play experience once you know the basics. I got at least 10 hours of game play out of Darwinia, and it was one of those games that I just kept having to go back to until I had finished it. Meanwhile, no other games got a look in. The Multiwinia element is also great, and something I think will be even more fun when played with friends. While this game is not going to please everyone, the initial learning curve and slow moving squad unit may put off some initially, give it a chance; I think you will be rewarded by what is one of the year’s best Arcade releases so far.
For an alternative take, StevieB’s impressions are over here.