Darwinia creators Introversion Software clearly have a soft spot for their accessible RTS. The game gave the company a foothold in the game development industry and allowed them to go on to create the insanely tense and addictive DEFCON. Not wanting to leave it in the past, and with an eye on pleasing the fans, Introversion has returned to their Darwinians in Multiwinia, the multiplayer follow-up. Although the almost overly simplistic gameplay makes it less essential than the best RTS games on the market, it's always fun and just as stylish as it ever was.
If you played Darwinia you'll know the ins and outs of the RTS-lite gameplay, but if not here's a brief run-down. You are in command of stickmen-like soldiers called Darwinians. These are generated from spawn points, which you can take control of by sending some of your army to, eventually giving you numerous spawn points all running simultaneously. You can also capture control points, allowing you to teleport your Darwinians across sea to other islands. Essentially, it pays to build up large armies, seeing as numerous game modes rely on capturing and holding zones and simply defeating the enemy armies.
All of this is handled via a simple, if somewhat odd control scheme. Instead of dragging out a selection box using the left mouse button you simply hold it down, drawing an ever increasing circle. We're not sure this is better than a drawn box, but it does the job. Once selected you command your troops using the right mouse button. Some depth comes from the use of Officers. By singling out individual units you can set up attack groups or point Darwinians to a certain location without having to do so yourself all the time.
Multiwinia ships with six game types (Domination, King of the Hill, Capture the Statue, Rocket Riot, Blitzkrieg and Assault), each with seven to nine maps a piece. Although it sounds like a fair amount, in practice each game type doesn't feel all that different to the last, with the core gameplay and tactics required rarely changing. With a group of new players games often descend into chaos extremely quickly, with everyone going on the attack before the game's really started. It's fun watching your Darwinians duke it out on the stylised battlefield, but it gets old quite quickly.
More experienced players will quickly set up command posts with Officers sending new troops to certain locations, allowing you to oversee things without getting bogged down with too much troop management. It's not exactly rocket science, but an advanced technique all the same.
Something that's likely to split opinion is the use of item crates, dropped onto the battlefield throughout matches. The best items often completely change the result of a game, causing much anger if you've been completely dominating up to that point. You can choose to play with them off or with basic items only, so it'll probably only be a problem during your first few games, but we enjoyed the ebb and flow of games that allowed the use of item crates, knowing that at any time a nuke could be dropped into our hands to be dropped less kindly elsewhere.
Although we had fun with Multiwinia it's certainly got a few flaws and unfortunate bugs. Getting a multiplayer game at all required us (and our opponent who was elsewhere in the country using a completely different router setup) to forward ports on our router. Once in the game we suffered from numerous crashes (something that seems like more than an isolated incident judging by forum posts) and the online setup seems too simplistic - there's not even an option for a rematch. Even little things like not being able to chat in the pre-game lobby are disappointing given that this is a game designed around multiplayer gaming.
Complaints aside Multiwinia is a fun game. It's sadly not as polished or as essential as either Darwinia or DEFCON, but it's worth a look, especially if you've already sunk an excessive amount of time into the former. As a game to please fans Introversion probably has another hit on its hands, but Multiwinia is unlikely to broaden its fanbase too considerably.