It's a rare game that brings a smile to your face as you watch the opening credits. For nearly any gamer Darwinia inevitably will, with either its Spectrum style loading sequence or beautiful Matrix homage. This is a geeky game and this opening moment perfectly defines what Darwinia is all about: a game that's heavily steeped in PC tradition. Yet, at the same time it's trying to do something completely new, unfettered from any sort of genre restraints. So, just what the hell is going on?
I'll take a deep breath. Tying down this game in traditional review terms is as challenging as the game itself. It's an incredible achievement visually, yet not in any conventional sense. It proves that providing gamers with a visually arresting experience shouldn't require another graphics card upgrade. Creative direction and good art design - these are the things that other mediums use so successfully in producing compelling low budget pieces of work. It's clear that the same mentality is at work here and Darwinia is one of the best examples of this work ethic.
Enough gushing, though. Darwinia is an important game, no question about it. It is also, sadly, a flawed game. The basic concept here is that a scientist by the name of Dr Sepulveda has created the titular Darwinia as a virtual theme park. He populated this world with Darwinians, an evolving form of AI and the result of decades of research work. Stumbling across this world, you find it under attack by a particularly ruthless form of virus. Within minutes you've been recruited by the good doctor and tasked with fighting the virus and helping the Darwinians.
You see, rather than destruction of the enemy, the main goal in Darwinia is to get this virtual world up and running again. The Darwinians can't do this as they aren't directly controllable. So, in order to do this, you need a couple of helpful programs. Enter the Squad and Engineer; the two main programs that will help you put Darwinia back together. The Engineer repairs and reclaims the world for you while the Squad is your muscle, used for clearing a path. The option of only two units may seem limited, but in fact makes perfect sense in the game world and forces you to play the game in very interesting ways. With a set allowance of available programs, it's never an option to send troops en-masse to destroy a foe. It's about subtle annihilation with a small fighting force. Considerably more satisfying than a tank rush, I think you'll agree.
As the game starts we discover that these programs are still in beta form and have little in the way of AI, so they need to be guided by hand. Combat is therefore much more "hands on", and is not just a case of pointing some troops at an enemy and telling them to fire. A good comparison would be the classic Cannon Fodder, chucking grenades and shooting your rifle. It makes things much more enjoyable and makes you feel like you've earned those little electronic souls that enemies drop as they die. You see, the Darwinians have been almost completely wiped out by the virus, but their soul's have survived and are the key to rebuilding Darwinia - only they can control the machines necessary for the ultimate defeat of the virus. If anything, Darwinians are the closest thing the game has to resources, and despite their erratic AI, you can't help worrying about the little guys. Collecting and protecting them is vital.
As we've already said, this game is full to the brim of computer lore and quirks. The entire menu system has essentially been replaced by a set of all too familiar desktop shortcuts. Ctrl-C to cancel a program and Alt-Tab to change between programs will be easily recognised by people who have spent far too long in front of a keyboard. However this can be extremely awkward for those of us not used to keyboard shortcuts and could be seen as deliberately alienating. The lack of an option to change these controls doesn't help either. The game is full of these esoteric design decisions, with the gesture system being another key issue. A gesture is assigned to each program, and needs to be drawn in order to create your engineer, squad etc. By and large, this is a great concept, but falls apart when more complex gestures are needed in a hurry, and frustrates the player. This seems to be a theme throughout the game, excellent for the most part but with a few frustrating quirks.
One aspect shines through though - the visuals. It's hard to describe how beautiful the game actually is. Only the screenshots (or playing the game) can really do it justice. Moving through the game world is a magical experience, particularly after you've completed a stage. In one particular instance, when the level was complete and the generator was completely powered up, some superb music kicked in as blue glowing pulses arched around the power lines. It was extremely satisfying. This music and the sound effects, as minimal as they are, still have a powerful effect, in particular the screams of the Virii. It all adds up to create a world with a very unique identity. Yes, it wears its influences on it sleeve, but is compelling in its own right.
The biggest problem is that many people may not even get this far. Darwinia seems to be almost determined to shoot itself in the foot with a 2nd level that can be enormously frustrating. By setting a number of Darwinians to capture and then only providing a limited number of enemies from which to reap this number, things can easily go wrong. Indeed, it was necessary to replay the level several times in order to get the 200 required. It's also the level that first requires you to get to grips with the officer program, an upgraded Darwinian that can herd large groups of them. Controlling these erratic Darwinians (and 200 no less) is another huge learning curve that can be strongly off-putting. These elements are enough to stop people from playing further and it's unfortunate, as this is a game worth persevering with. It's just that no game should make you persevere for anything, no matter how good things will get later on.
It's difficult to say much else about Darwinia. It's a game that begs to be discovered, and once its subtleties are revealed, it's an absolute joy to play. It's the journey to this stage that may prove problematic. It truly is a flawed masterpiece, which is a real shame. So many aspects of the game are genuine breakthroughs and will undoubtedly be copied by many developers in the future, but a large number of people will never get to see what is so special about Darwinia. This is a game that deserves your attention, and despite its flaws, is one of the most refreshing titles to hit the PC in years.