The road to the Xbox LIVE Arcade has not been an easy one for Introversion’s widely respected Darwinia franchise, but now that is has arrived it’s almost certain to develop a robust community on console as it has on PC. Originally intended as a quick port of the PC version, Darwinia+’s extended time in development has allowed Introversion to add the multiplayer release Multiwinia to the package, as well as a number of more subtle improvements.
Darwinia+ tells the tale of the peaceful Darwinians, artificial life that has evolved within a digital world. Peaceful for thousands of generations, a computer virus has hit their world and devastated the population. In steps the player, working within the computer network to save the digital civilisation. However, the Darwinians aren’t necessarily aware of your good intentions, and don’t take too kindly to being ordered about.
Darwinia+ is best defined as a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game, though it prescribes a number of additional mechanics that, on paper at least, would normally seem at odds with the player in the role of grand commander. The player can call in Squads and Engineers, Squads being able to eliminate enemies and Engineers capable of tackling environmental objectives such as capturing bases and reviving Darwinians, while the Darwinians themselves are less responsive to the player – only taking movement orders from the player-elected Officers. The player takes direct control over Squads, moving with the Left Analogue Stick while aiming and firing with the right, though only an in-direct command over Engineers. Squads can also be controlled with a point-and-click interface, but will often find their plans brought to an unhappy end thanks to enemies, rock faces or other environmental hazards.
With the grander objective of the game being to guide a set number of Darwinians to their salvation, players will be tasked with creating clear paths for them to traverse. This isn’t as simple as it sounds however, as players will have to secure a number of different landmasses within each level, completing unique objectives before being given the opportunity of reaching a safe haven. This formula allows for some impressive challenges of your logistical method and precautionary measures, tasking the player with progressing to the next point of interest without losing control of their previously cleared ground, and all without the aid of any increase in numbers.
The control system, while adapted incredibly well, isn’t the easiest to grasp. The Left Analogue Stick moves the camera (or your currently selected Squad) while the Right Analogue Stick pivots your viewpoint. The Left Trigger zooms-in and the Right Trigger pans-out, and either the A or X Button will issue commands, depending on the type of instruction being given. While it may appear a fairly logical system on paper, there are occasional problems with the camera when handling delicate objectives or when involved in a heavy fire fight while on the side of one of the game’s many steep inclines. The artificial intelligence (AI) – although almost apologised for within the storyline – can often infuriate, as while your highlighted path was free from hazard and was allowed to be issued as a command, more than a few Darwinians will likely find a problem somewhere along the way.
The single-player campaign is a tidy package, but isn’t particularly extensive. Thankfully however, Introversion’s included conversion of Multiwinia is just as rewarding. Featuring both an offline skirmish mode and online battle for up to four players, Darwinia+’s Multiwinia is possibly the best example of the game yet seen. Featuring a wealth of customisation options for multiplayer – from basics such as maps and time limit, to handicap and the frequency of crates – and an almost endless barometer for the player’s self-imposed challenges, Darwinia+’s lack of scripted longevity is more than made-up for by the inclusion of Multiwinia.
Many may view Darwinia+’s visuals as a weak link, but the unique aesthetic is perhaps the most striking aspect of the game. Not so much original as admirable; Darwinia+ is stylish within the modern retro gamut; less 8-bit than a high-definition interpretation of what 8-bit could have been like. The simplistic visuals are well devised to be representational of environmental objects: players will never become confused between ground that can be traversed and that which cannot.
Darwinia+ is, quite simply, one of the most stylish, addictive and progressive titles yet released on Xbox LIVE Arcade. Far more than a simple port and more unique than many full price retail releases on the current-generation, Darwinia+ continues the series’ reputation of being both contemporary in design and compulsive in play. The road to release may have been a long one, but with Darwinia+ Introversion have taken every corner beautifully.